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Nick Blackburn pitched a masterpiece thsi afternoon in Seattle, throwing a 2-hitter at a feeble Seattle lineup. Rookie Danny Valencia scored the game’s only run. Meanwhile, newly acquired Brian Fuentes threw 4 pitches to strike out Russell Branyan to end the game.

With Umpire Ron Kulpa giving the pitchers the benefit of hitting their targets and because they were working quickly, it soon became apparent that this would be a quick game. Blackburn got a bunch of ground ball outs early, which helped him enter the 6th inning with less than 60 pitches.

In his second start since being recalled from the minors, Blackburn was in total control. Chone Figgins’ walk snapped Blackburn’s consecutive hitters retired streak at 21 with 2 out in the 9th, ending Blackburn’s day.

Manager Ron Gardenhire opted for Brian Fuentes in the situation because lefthanded hitters are only hitting .132 against him this year. A quick 4 pitches later and the Twins were celebrating another win. Branyan looked as outmatched as Custer at Little Bighorn.

What’s clear to me is that Danny Valencia will be the Twins’ starting third baseman for the next 5-10 years. He’s improved as a hitter since getting his shot early in the season. More impressive to me is his defense. He simply makes all the plays, day after day, whether they’re the routine plays or whether it’s the play he made on a sharp one-hopper down the line off Ichiro’s bat. After planting & throwing, he got Ichiro by a half-step.

Ichiro has lost a step or two. Later in the game, Ichiro hit a bouncer up the first base line which Cuddyer fielded cleanly. What’s astonishing is that Blackburn had to cover and beating Ichiro to the bag. Five years ago, that isn’t even a close play.

It’s clear to me that Danny Valencia will win a bunch of gold gloves at third. His throwing arm isn’t as powerful as Gary Gaetti’s but he can bring it pretty good. His plant-and-throw plays get there in a hurry. His reactions going right or left are very good. His hand-eye coordination is excellent.

Getting Brian Fuentes for a player to be named later or “other considerations” means that the Twins got a gift for the final month. Like I said earlier, Branyan looked totally mismatched. He started Branyan with a change-up, which produced a feeble half-swing. He followed that up with a fastball that painted the outside corner. After missing with a breaking pitch, Fuentes finished it with another fastball that Branyan couldn’t catch up to.

I’d still feel better if the Twins could acquire another veteran starting pitcher but this is a good baseball team. They’ve played without Justin Morneau, who was having a monster year, since before the All Star game. The Twins have the best post-All Star game record in the majors. Michael Cuddyer has played great since moving to first, too, with Jason Kubel moving from DH to right field. That, in turn, gave Jim Thome more at-bats.

Your lineup is pretty solid when your seventh and eighth hitters, Delmon Young and Danny Valencia are hitting .308 & .325 respectively. The bullpen was good before getting Fuentes, with Matt Capps doing a good job as closer and Jesse Crain pitching light’s out since June. (Since the All Star game, Jesse has allowed only 8 hits in 20.1 innings, an opponents’ batting average of .125. He’s only given up 1 run since the All Star game, too, for a post-All Star game ERA of 0.44.

Factor in the Twins’ stingy defense, with a major league leading 53 errors, and you’ve got a team that could be dangerous in the playoffs if they get their starting pitching to be more consistent.

This afternoon, the Twins took another step towards proving that they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the AL this October. While it’s true that the Twins pitching staff still has to prove that they can put win streaks together with well-pitched games, 2006 phenom Francisco Liriano’s performance today has Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson smiling.

After a bumpy start, Liriano settled into a grove, striking out eight Red Sox hitters in an efficient 7 innings of work. After throwing 37 pitches the first two innings, Liriano used a mere 97 pitches total for his 7 innings. That’s an impressive average for a ground ball pitcher. It’s just short of fantastic for a pitcher with 8 strikeouts.

Once Liriano got command of his fastball, the Red Sox hitters started taking more defensive swings. They weren’t getting around on Liriano’s fastball, which was routinely timed at 93-95 mph. That made them all the more susceptable to Liriano’s slider, considered by some to be among the best in the game.

What the Twins have lacked in pitching consistency has been more than made up for by the Twins’ hitters. Today, the Twins’ backups combined with Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer for a 15 hit attack. included in this year’s Twins’ reserves is Jim Thome. Today’s batting order was Span, followed by Orlando Hudson, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, J.J. Hardy & Nick Punto.

It’s worth asking these questions: When was the last timt the Twins had a 7th hitter as dangerous as Jason Kubel? Or an eighth hitter as dangerous as J.J. Hardy?

Beyond the potent lineup & Liriano’s dominant pitching, one thing hasn’t gotten the recognition that it deserves: the Twins’ defense. This is another stunning fact. Thus far this season, the Twins have played 10 games & committed just 1 error. The Twins are the only AL team that still hasn’t allowed an unearned run this season.

The final mind-blowing stat that Twins fans should smile about is that they’ve won their first 3 series this year against the Angels, White Sox & Red Sox. Last year, those teams had a combined winning percentage of .558. The Twins lost their season opener to the Angels, then reeled off 5 straight wins before losing in Chicago. Now they’ve won the series against the Red Sox in impressive fashion.

People are noticing. Now it’s a matter of sustaining a high level of play for the rest of the season. With this lineup and with the Twins’ defense & pitching, this should be a fun season to be a Twins fan.

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