Despite losing two of three to the AL West-leading Angels, the Twins say they feel they played better in those three games than they did during a 5-1 homestand against last place teams Kansas City and Tampa Bay last week.
That's leading to great optimism in closing out the final four games before the all-star break strong, considering they play at Kansas City again against a team they're 7-1 against this year.
"I think we've got to be pleased with the way we played (in the series)," C Mike Redmond said. "When you go up against first-place teams you kind of see where you're at. We're right there, man. We're a break away from winning all three of these games."
The Twins not only hope to use the series as a way to gain ground on first-place Chicago in the AL Central standings but also as a way to continue their improvement offensively after averaging more than 10 hits in the three games (32 total) and scoring seven and six runs in two of them.
And although there's no place for RHP Scott Baker in the Twins' rotation right now, he pitched well enough in his major league starting debut Tuesday against the Angels to suggest they might have the luxury of making room for him via a trade -- possibly of $2.4 million RHP Kyle Lohse.
Baker, who filled in for the ailing RHP Brad Radke on Tuesday in Anaheim, was charged with the 2-1 loss but impressed manager Ron Gardenhire in his five innings of work -- which included holding the Angels' 2 through 5 batters hitless.
"We think we have a quality major leaguer ready to go, ready to pitch in the major leagues, and he kind of proved that theory again tonight."
Baker, whose only big-league experience before Tuesday was one inning of scoreless relief in May, likely is headed back to the minors at the end of next week when 3B Michael Cuddyer returns from the disabled list. He was recalled from Class AAA Rochester over the weekend to fill in for Radke, who had his scheduled start pushed back to Friday because of neck pain.
"We've already been told that (he can help now)," Gardenhire said. "He's a guy who's kind of stuck in AAA right now. Sometimes you can get a little stale down there. He's been throwing the ball good down there. He's one of those guys who probably would do a little better up here. But right now we've got five starters here."
The Twins were 31-21 and 3 1/2 games out of first place when Punto was hurt. They went 13-13 without him and dropped to 9 1/2 games back. They won Sunday in his return.
But as the Twins got stronger in the middle of the diamond -- also getting back SS Juan Castro late in the week after he suffered through 2 1/2 days of dizziness (likely caused by a virus) -- they lost 3B Michael Cuddyer to a badly bruised hand.
Cuddyer, who was hit on the left hand by a pitch Wednesday, was expected to be ready to play by the middle of this week, but the Twins didn't think they could afford to play short-handed in an already injury-ravaged infield as they tried to close the first half strong and close ground on first-place Chicago.Cuddyer became the fifth infielder to go on the DL since June 1.
"There's no chance, no way, no how I want to go on the DL," Cuddyer said. "That's what it comes down to. But at the same time, you don't want to put your team in a bind, either."
BY THE NUMBERS:1 -- Twins elected to the starting lineup for the All-Star game since CF Kirby Puckett's last appearance, in 1995 (CF Torii Hunter in 2002).