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Casilla and Gomez Energize Twins

Before two gut-wrenching losses to the Boston Red Sox the past couple of evenings (thanks, bullpen!), the Minnesota Twins were the hottest team in baseball, having won 18 of their last 21 games dating back to June 13. The Twins’ offense has been surprisingly good this season despite having only a couple of players (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) whose names would be recognized by more than a few people outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes. One of the keys to their offensive resurgence has been the play of two rookies, Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla. They have added speed on the basepaths and on defense, giving the team a dimension they lacked last year.

When the Minnesota Twins traded Johan Santana to the New York Mets this past February, it was the end of an era. Santana came of age as the Twins became relevant again in the early part of this decade. Along with Torii Hunter – who departed by free agency this past offseason – Santana was the face of a franchise built around young players. The only “major-league ready” prospect that the Twins received in return for Santana was Gomez, a young center fielder who had been rushed through the Mets’ minor league system. He played a full season at Double A in 2006 as a 20-year-old, and split last year between Triple-A and the majors despite being only 21. He held up well at each level of the minors, getting on base at an average rate and stealing tons of bases while showing a little power. However, he was completely overmatched with the big club last year in a 58-game, part-time trial run (.232 average, no power.)

Casilla came over from the Los Angeles Angels in a trade for washed-up reliever J.C. Romero after the 2005 season. Romero had so worn out his welcome with Twins fans that any return greater than a cracked bat was welcome, let alone a speedy middle infield prospect like Casilla. He had a good first year with the Twins’ organization in 2006, hitting .318 with 50 steals between High A and Double A. Then last year, after trading Luis Castillo, the Twins called up Casilla and handed him the second base job. He was horrible, botching routine plays in the field and flailing away at the plate.

This year, though the dynamic duo have given the Twins a new identity at the top of the lineup. Last year at this time, Castillo was still limping around second base and slapping at the ball from his leadoff spot, and Nick Punto was regularly filing oh-for-fours complete with the full weak grounder palette from the number two hole in the batting order. The high-energy shenanigans of the “piranhas” from the year before were a distant memory, and the offense stagnated. Now, Gomez and Casilla are stirring things up, for better and worse. Gomez is a ball of energy and does lots of good things, like bunting for a league-high 20 base hits and showing surprising gap- and home run power. On the other hand, he has a sub-.300 on-base percentage and leads the team in strikeouts (91), far ahead of second-place Brendan Harris. Casilla has rebounded from his miserable major-league audition last year, batting .314 so far while playing fantastic defense and showing some power. He’s probably not as good as he’s shown so far this season, but if this progress is legitimate, the Twins have a budding start on their hands.

Gomez and Casilla are both from the central part of the Dominican Republic – Gomez from Santiago and Casilla from San Cristobal. They hit it off quickly this spring and are clearly buddies. There was one awkward moment in a game last week when both Gomez and Casilla scored on a base hit. Gomez crossed the plate first, and gave Casilla a goofy, spinning half-hug after Casilla came home. Gomez is the loose cannon, bounding around like a pinball on the bases and in the field, while Casilla is the steady straight man, his wary grin always at the ready for Gomez’ nonsense. They’re always sitting next to each other in the dugout and cracking each other up.

The Twins are surprisingly still in contention as the All-Star Break nears. They have a chance to stay in the race, but everyone needs to contribute. If Casilla and Gomez can keep stirring things up, they’ll have a chance to make some noise into September.

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