Spring training games are – just spring training games

FORT MYERS – For the first time this spring Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau were stacked together in the middle of the Minnesota Twins’ lineup.

The Twins were facing the punchless New York Yankees last Friday, a team they had beaten easily the day before in Tampa.

The Yankee lineup included “no names” such as Joseph, Francisco, Stewart, Neal, Mesa and Mustelier – no Jeter, A-Rod, Teixiera, Granderson, Swisher or Gardner.

It should have been a cakewalk, right?

Trouble is, Vance Worley, the former Phillie anointed as Minnesota’s Opening Day pitcher, struggled for the third straight outing, with only one start remaining before next Monday’s date at Target Field against the Tigers’ Justin Verlander.

Not even homers on back-to-back swings by Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit were enough to beat the Bronx Bombers who won the 9-7 game with a four-run outburst against reliever Tyler Robertson.

Throw in a homer by Dan Rohlfing, a sub for the hitless Mauer, and you’d think the Twins would have a win.

A day later, in Port Charlotte, the Twins beat Tampa Bay 6-4 despite the fact that Rays ace David Price was on the mound.

Minnesota got nine hits off Price in 4 1/3 innings and generally made life miserable for him.

Kevin Correia, another of the Twins’ new pitchers from the National League, wasn’t particularly good but managed to keep his team in the game.

Those results pointed out that spring training games are just that – spring training games. But the Twins still had to be worried a bit by Worley’s continued struggles.

Then on Sunday Minnesota raked a collection of no-name Toronto pitchers for 15 hits and 14 runs as Drew Butera (surprise!) homered and Justin Morneau (bigger surprise!) stole a base. That might be the last time for either of those happenings in 2013.

After 30 years of watching spring training games you learn to take what you see with a grain of salt.

Oh, you can get excited about the promise of a rookie like Aaron Hicks, promoted to first-string status Sunday and celebrating it with a four-hit game after a few tough days.

Or you can feel good when you see a guy like Justin Morneau hitting the ball with authority again, and hope he regains the form that made him an MVP.

And you can even hope for a couple of the new pitchers to do well, although they haven’t shown much in Florida.

Then, inevitably, reality sets in.

Sunday night on the MLB channel all three guys picked the Twins to finish last in the Central Division. Former Phillie reliever Mitch Williams, one of the three, said he thinks a lot of manager Ron Gardenhire, and it pained him to say it, but he thought the team would place last.

The Twins have lost 195 games the past two years and if the crystal ball gazers are correct, they’re headed for another season like that.

What could keep that from happening?

Hicks has to deliver as a leadoff hitter and center fielder, and Chris Parmelee has to do the job as the starting right fielder, especially with his bat.

Morneau, Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit have to duplicate, or better, their 2012 stats, and Trevor Plouffe has to supply some power and play better defensively. at third

But it’s the same old story: None of that will make much difference if the pitching isn’t better than last year.

Worley, Correia and Mike Pelfrey, all former starters in the National League who have had some good years, must come through.

And for now Liam Hendriks and Cole De Vries must fill the void as starters until Scott Diamond comes back. Diamond needs to match his 2012 season and at least three of the other five need to come through.

The bullpen was OK in 2012, for the most part, and Glen Perkins has to be a more consistent closer.

There are almost too many ifs involved, especially in the startiing pitching department, for the Twins to get to 75 or 80 wins and stay out of the cellar.

They won only 66 games last year, worst in the American League. Worse yet, they were only 31-50 at home, compared to 35-46 on the road.

Minnesota was 35-37 against division opponents but 11-23 against the East and 11-27 against the West. And against right-handers, despite having some decent left-handed hitting, the Twins were only 44-67.

Kansas City and Cleveland seem to have improved their teams and Detroit and Chicago should be as good or better as in 2012.

It’s a tough road ahead for the Twins.


Spring training notes,

facts and opinions

• Miguel Sano, rated the No. 9 prospect by Baseball America, went 2 for 5 and made a couple nice plays at third against the Yanks last week. Sano, only 19, has grown to 6-4 and weighs 240. He had 28 doubles, 28 homers, 100 RBIs and 8 stolen bases last year at Class A Beloit and also struck out 144 times. He will likely start at Class AA New Britain this year.

• Best bumper sticker: Spotted in the Fort Myers parking lot as the Twins played the Yankees, “Jeter drinks wine coolers.”

• I think Brian Dozier should start at second, not 39-year-old Jamey Carroll. Nothing wrong with Carroll – he’s a real pro. But, on a losing team, youth must be served.

• TV broadcaster Dick Bremer told me at a Rays-Twins game Saturday that he thinks the Twins will carry three catchers. I think two is enough. Other teams have three, however.

• There was a gale blowing out to left Sunday when Dozier, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Drew Butera homered. A 30-year-old not even on the Toronto roster had two homers.

• Trevor Plouffe made two outstanding plays at third against the Yanks but also booted an easy grounder and an unearned run followed. He also had two hits.

• Aaron Hicks made a great running catch against Tampa Bay but didn’t catch a ball he should have, and bobbled a ball that produced an unearned run.

• As I watched J.J. Hardy play  shortstop for Baltimore last week, I was reminded that former GM Bill Smith got rid of Hardy so Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be the shortstop. Nishioka is back in Japan, the Twins are out millions of dollars, and Hardy won a Gold Glove in 2012 and has 52 homers in two years.