Expect Gardenhire to take the fall

It's not his fault, but he's likely Twins' scapegoat for 3 straight poor seasons

I don't own a crystal ball, but I sometimes pretend I do for professional reasons. This is one of those times, if you will indulge me.

Based on the latest vibrations coming my direction, I expect to see the Twins call a news conference sometime in the next six weeks and announce Ron Gardenhire is out after 12 seasons as their manager, including six that ended with American League Central titles.

Someone, probably owner Jim Pohlad and not general manager Terry Ryan, will step to a podium at Target Field and announce that Gardenhire is being replaced because … well, "just because.'' There really won't be a good reason, but fans pay a lot for their seats in the four-year-old ballpark in downtown Minneapolis, and they would like for something to change after the team that had a .550 winning percentage in Gardenhire's first nine seasons has fallen to 190-272 the last three years.

Ryan made the easiest overhaul after 2012, forcing Gardenhire to change every member of his staff except pitching coach Rick Anderson. Now it's time for serious business.

Will Ryan keep Gardenhire, whose two-year contract is expiring, or yield to pressure from Pohlad and the most vocal segment of the Twins fan base to make the change that the Phillies just did — replacing a manager who has been a proven winner with a Hall of Fame player?

Paul Molitor, an adviser and minor league instructor in the Twins' system, is in position to follow Ryne Sandberg into the managerial ranks. He would be a popular choice even if he has spent only a little time in a big-league dugout since 1998, his last season as a player, and never has had a manager's job.

Ryan has said many times this season to blame him rather than Gardenhire for the Twins' slide. The question is whether he will draw a line in the sand to save Gardenhire, possibly even walking away himself rather than fire the guy he picked to replace the iconic Tom Kelly after 2001.

Gardenhire has known for a long time that he will be tough to keep if his team loses 90-plus games for a third season. The Twins were 18-17 on May 13, but the hitters went into hibernation during a 10-game losing streak that applied pressure that really hasn't gone away.

But Gardenhire did what he does best. He gathered the troops, and they went 18-14 to get to 36-41 on June 29. Then came 12 losses in a 13-game span heading into the All-Star break, and that has been tough to erase. The Twins entered the weekend with a respectable 22-24 record in the second half, but the schedule is about to take a wicked turn.

Because they play a makeup game against the Angels on Monday, they will play 24 straight days to finish the season. Seventeen of their last 20 games are against teams still in the playoff mix — seven against the A's, four against the Indians and three apiece against the Tigers and Rays Their visit to the U.S. Cellular Field on Sept. 16-18 is the only soft spot in a stretch that will greatly influence the decision of Pohlad and Ryan.

Pitching, of course, in particular starting pitching, has been their downfall. The Twins were fifth in the AL in rotation ERA in 2010, when they won the division, but were last in 2011-12, and this year's 5.00 is only a small improvement over the stunningly bad 5.40 from last season.

Finding some balance: While the Pirates finally have ended their 20-year streak of losing seasons, they know they will have to score more runs to have a long October run. They entered the weekend 10th in the National League in scoring, but Clint Hurdle is very encouraged by the recent additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd. They played their parts in the Pirates scoring five-plus runs five times in a stretch of seven games recently.

Hurdle is hitting Morneau cleanup against right-handed pitchers and dropping Pedro Alvarez to the No. 6 spot with Byrd between them. With Andrew McCutchen as the No. 3 hitter, it gives the Pirates a right-left-right-left mix three through six.

"You have a guy who absolutely has done it — and a guy growing into it," Hurdle said of Morneau and Alvarez. "This balances it better one through eight. And (Alvarez) has shown the ability to drive in runs from the six spot, so now you have danger there too."

The Pirates have been winning with pitching all season, and that usually plays well in the postseason.

"It'd be disappointing if we'd look back and say the biggest thing we accomplished was having a winning season," right-hander A.J. Burnett said. "We want more. We want a championship."

Risky business: Roy Halladay held the Nationals to one run in six innings Thursday, an impressive outing if those are the only numbers you notice. But beneath the bottom line is the fact his fastball was only 86 to 89 mph and his pitches were all over the place; he walked five and hit two others. That tells you more about the difficult decision the Phillies face with their erstwhile ace.

Halladay is due to make four more starts, and those won't tell them what a full offseason will do for his surgically repaired shoulder. The 202-game winner could be attractive elsewhere, making it tough to put a value on him as he heads toward free agency.

"You're going to have to kind of look into a crystal ball," pitching coach Rich Dubee told MLB.com. "Try to envision what the high side could be. … It's very, very impressive he's pitching already. It's amazingly impressive.''

The decision will belong to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who showed serious intentions for 2014 and '15 when he signed Chase Utley to a contract extension.

"We'll be able to see enough of him to get a pretty good view," Amaro said. "His full strength might not come back until next spring. There still is going to be some risk with him, but we'll be able to get a pretty good read … I hope."

Wide right: The Brewers did well to get reliever Michael Blazek in return from the Cardinals for John Axford, who wore out his welcome as the closer in 2012 but served in Milwaukee as a highly paid middle-relief man this season. Axford was another brick in the wall for the Brewers, who have shuttled closers almost constantly over the last decade, going from Dan Kolb to Derrick Turnbow, Francisco Cordero, Eric Gagne, Salomon Torres, Trevor Hoffman, Axford, Francisco Rodriguez and finally Jim Henderson, the incumbent.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin says closer is the role in baseball that requires the highest degree of success. He says that "anybody can save 30 games'' but that it's the next 15 to 18 that are tough to get.

"It's an unusual role,'' Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I liken it to a placekicker in football. When he misses a kick at the end of the game, everybody says he lost the game. But they go through slumps, too. When a closer goes through a slump, there's no patience. Everybody wants him out of there."

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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