MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Minnesota Twins were proud of the way their young group of starting pitchers exceeded expectations and brought them to the brink of the playoffs last season.
This year, it's the same rotation that's holding the Twins back in an AL Central race that remains wide open.
"Our starters, it's going to start with them," manager Ron Gardenhire said, looking ahead at the season's last two months. "They have to suck it up and get on a roll for us."
What stings the Twins the most is that deep, steady starting pitching has been their hallmark over eight seasons with Gardenhire in charge -- the primary reason why they've won four division titles during that time. Thanks to Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey, they were one victory from a fifth last year.
Because of injuries to and inconsistency from the same quintet this summer, Minnesota has been unable to sustain any significant winning streaks despite the usual exceptional production from All-Stars Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan and a breakout season by designated hitter Jason Kubel.
Baker is the oldest member of the rotation at 27, but there's a standard of success in place from last year that's not being met.
"We have the guys that are capable of winning," Morneau said. "In the division, nobody's really running away with it. If we can figure out what we need to do, hopefully the hitters can stay hot. If we keep doing what we're doing and the pitching staff gets a little confidence, we should be a tough team. But until we start doing it at the same time, it's going to be tough."
Baker became the ace last season, parlaying an 11-4 record and a 3.45 ERA into a new $15.25 million, four-year contract, but he has regressed in 2009. Thus, the Twins have been without the streak-stopping, momentum-creating pitcher who can consistently throw eight innings or even spin a four-hit shutout when they need it most.
"I'll vote for that," Gardenhire said, after a 13-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday left the Twins three games behind the Detroit Tigers and 1½ back of the Chicago White Sox in the Central. Both the Tigers (Jarrod Washburn) and White Sox (Jake Peavy) made trades last week for front-line starters.
Johan Santana, sent to the Mets, has never been missed by Minnesota as much as he is now.
"We kind of have a lot of guys on the same level right now, as far as experience and that kind of thing," Morneau said. "When we expect a lot out of them, it's tough. It'd be nice to have that one guy that's been there for eight or nine years, but we don't and we just have to make those adjustments."
Blackburn was rolling until recently hitting a big bump. Baker has been faring better, but only after a bad start.
Slowey started 10-2, but he's having season-ending surgery to fix a bone chip in his wrist. Performances by Perkins and Liriano have been all over the place, ending in the fifth inning far too many times. Rookie Anthony Swarzak has filled in capably, but he's also trying to find some consistency.
Early exits by the starters have overworked the relievers and overexposed a lack of depth in the bullpen, too. For the Twins to stay in contention and avoid wasting these exceptional contributions from Mauer and Morneau, the rotation must find some extra mental toughness to go with those fastballs and sliders down the stretch.
Gardenhire seemed to be issuing them such a challenge after Sunday's latest deflating defeat.
"You have to suck it up in this game," the skipper said. "No one's going to feel sorry for you. No one. We have to find a way, and we have to figure out how we can get people out and get the ball where we need to get it."
Mauer can help from behind the plate, but only to a point.
"Those guys want to go out there and do well, and sometimes they try to overthrow and miss their spots," he said.
Perkins, pounded by the Angels for eight earned runs in four-plus innings, maintained a public confidence in his own pitches as well as the ability of his fellow starters to get back on track.
"We do need to get on a roll. There's no doubt about that," Perkins said.