Twins hitting rock bottom

MINNEAPOLIS -- Like everyone else in a position of authority with the Minnesota Twins, Tom Brunansky never saw this coming.Now in his fourth season as the team's hitting coach, the former Twins all-star and World Series champion is as stunned as ...

Minnesota Twins designated hitter Brian Dozier (2) looks down after striking out in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Target Field in Minneapolis on Friday. Jesse Johnson / USA Today Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - Like everyone else in a position of authority with the Minnesota Twins, Tom Brunansky never saw this coming.
Now in his fourth season as the team’s hitting coach, the former Twins all-star and World Series champion is as stunned as anyone by a 12-34 start marred by consistently poor production from the lineup.
“I think the biggest shock to me was how we were the offense that we were, and how things were flowing in spring training,” Brunansky said. “I felt really comfortable where we were at.”
As the Twins packed up their bats in early April and made the short trek from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, they never could have imagined the struggles that loomed. Through the season’s first 46 games, their offense ranked in the bottom three of the American League in virtually every meaningful category.
They ranked last in slugging (.374), weighted runs created-plus (17 percent below league average) and runs per game (3.63). The Boston Red Sox, who lead the majors in scoring, were averaging 5.96 runs a game.
On pace to score 588 runs, the Twins haven’t been that feeble in a full season since 1968, the so-called Year of the Pitcher, when they scored 562.
In strikeout rate
(23.3 percent) and walk rate (7.8 percent), Twins batters ranked in the AL’s bottom three. The same goes for batting average (.235) and on-base percentage (.301).
They were 12th out of 15 teams in home runs (44).
What changed between those final two exhibition games at Nationals Park and the season opener on April 4 at Camden Yards?
“The bell goes on,” Brunansky said with a grim smile, “and the few guys that have never really experienced an Opening Day, and those things (that) can have a little bit of an edge to them, just got off to a rough start. From that point, it kind of spiraled downward to where we look for some (veteran) guys: ‘OK, boys, we’ve got to (steady) the ship here and go.’ ”

Brunansky shook his head.
“Again,” he said, “the more that they tried, the worse they got.”
Widespread panic
Two-thirds of the Opening Day outfield (Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario) already has been demoted to Class AAA Rochester. They are joined there by catcher John Ryan Murphy, who went 3 for 40 (.075) in the majors before being shipped out in early May.
This week brought a much-discussed two-game benching for all-star second baseman Brian Dozier, and third baseman Trevor Plouffe had fallen into a prolonged funk of his own.
Joe Mauer had a scorching April, reaching base in his first 28 games, but his fortunes took a downturn just as Twins manager Paul Molitor decided to try him in the leadoff spot. The experiment lasted eight games.
Slugging right fielder Miguel Sano was leading the majors in strikeouts.
Rookie designated hitter Byung Ho Park was 2-for-28 (.071) with 12 strikeouts with runners in scoring position before coming through with a seventh-inning single off Kansas City sidewinder Peter Moylan on Thursday.
Park is hardly alone. After ranking third in the majors last season with a .280 batting average with runners in scoring position, the Twins had plummeted to 27th in such spots with a .220 average.
“A lot of these games, we’ve hung in there but we haven’t gotten big hits,” Molitor said. “It’s not like we haven’t given ourselves opportunities; it’s just that we haven’t been able to finish.”
Indeed, the Twins have been outhit by their opponents 32 times, going 4-28 in those games.
They were shut out three times in their first 18 games and have been held to a maximum of two runs 16 times. Make it three runs or fewer, and the count climbs to 22 games - or nearly half the schedule played so far.
“We talked about our offense over the winter and going through the spring,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “We felt like we were going to have some offense here, and we’ve struggled. In a lot of other areas we’ve struggled, as well, but we really have to hit. That’s putting an awful lot of pressure on a pitching staff.”
Pushing buttons
Molitor can empathize with Brunansky and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez because he has been there.
In 2004, the only time over the past two decades he worked for any club besides the Twins, Molitor served as hitting coach for a Seattle Mariners club that went 63-99 despite a record-setting season from Ichiro Suzuki.
The year before Molitor’s arrival, the Mariners won 93 games in their first season under manager Bob Melvin.
“I do have that experience as a hitting coach,” Molitor said, “and I know the difficulty of it when you’re dealing with 12-13 guys, all different. All require different methods of finding ways to draw out their potential. It’s a challenging thing.”
Molitor sees the how the burden of responsibility weighs on Brunansky each time the Twins’ lineup underwhelms.
Before and after every game, Molitor and Brunansky huddle to discuss the current day’s plan, the next day’s lineup and bigger-picture issues regarding every position player on the Twins’ roster. Molitor sees how the burden of responsibility weighs on Brunansky each time the Twins’ lineup underwhelms.
“Tom’s in here daily,” Molitor said. “He asks for input, tells me what he’s doing, and I try to affirm that I think he’s on the right track with these people. I watch him. I watch him work. I know he’s very mindful about trying to find ways to do those types of things.”
It’s a delicate balance, however, an inexact science that requires Brunansky to be equal parts technician, psychologist and cheerleader.
“It’s not going to be the same for Dozier as it is for Miguel and right on down the line,” Molitor said. “Tom has got to try to find the right buttons for each guy, which is tough. A button that might have worked last September or in spring training might not work today. You’ve got to have more than one plan.”
Having already burned through plans A, B, C and D across the season’s first quarter, the Twins remain optimistic their offense will get rolling soon. A three-homer game on Wednesday, just their third this season, offered some hope, as has a 13-game stretch in which they have averaged 4.31 runs.
“All we can do is keep going out there and competing at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch,” Mauer said. “You’ve got to be patient and try to get something good to hit and don’t miss it.”

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