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Matt Tolbert shows handiwork as a fill-in for Minnesota Twins

Matt Tolbert shows handiwork as a fill-in for Minnesota Twins
Matt Tolbert's diving stop of Miguel Cabrera's hot smash Tuesday, and his shovel pass to Nick Punto to transform the dive into a double play, was described by pitcher Kevin Slowey as "spectacular." By manager Ron Gardenhire as "the play of the game."

And by Tolbert himself as . . .

"Just a standard play. Nothing fancy."

Wow. Tough to please.

But perhaps it's an indication of Tolbert's increasing confidence at second base, once one of the utility player's vast menu of positions but now his sole responsibility. Tolbert was at second base Wednesday for the seventh straight day since being called up from Class AAA Rochester, and Gardenhire has sounded nothing but pleased with the 27-year-old's performance.

No, it's Tolbert who is unsatisfied by Tolbert. Take that .190 batting average he carried into Wednesday night's game. "I've got to get better at the plate. I've got to put the ball in play more," said the relentlessly hard worker. "I'm getting behind in counts a lot. I need to lay off some pitches, have better at-bats."

Well, sometimes. In the third inning Wednesday, Tolbert took a strike, then lashed Dontrelle Willis' second pitch off the baggie in right field, his second double of the season. "It's getting better," Tolbert said. "Everybody else has hits; I should be able to, too."

Not everybody can play six or seven positions as Tolbert can, however. It's not easy preparing for that sort of role in the best of circumstances, with all the practice necessary to stay sharp. "Every one is a little different, all the angles and everything," he said. "You can't just let it go. If you don't play one for a while, it takes a little bit to get comfortable."

Because he is the de facto replacement for Alexi Casilla, however, Tolbert has rearranged his pregame schedule. He focuses on second base first and foremost, then shifts to work on another position.

"It's kind of hard to work in because you've got to take double-play turns from short and third, you've got to work (on throws) from double plays at second, work on backhand, glove hand. And after all that, you've got to save some for the game," he said. "You've got to pick and choose your days so you don't wear yourself out. One day, work some at short, take some throws, one day do the same at third."

In other words, he doesn't consider himself the Twins' second baseman. He's still the utilityman who happens to be handling one certain position at the moment.

"I'll move him around. (Brendan Harris) is going to play there some, too," Gardenhire said. "Whether we use him at third depends upon (Joe) Crede. Right now, (Tolbert) is at second because we need him there."

Especially for those hot-smash double plays. Tolbert knows that diving stop was a great play; his rating of it as "standard," he said, just meant that "I didn't have a glove flip. Nicky (Punto, the shortstop), he can flip with his glove. I don't work on that. I'm just the standard package -- take the ball out of the glove and toss it."

Working the 'pen: Twins starting pitchers have pitched into the seventh inning 13 times in 33 games, entering Wednesday, which means the bullpen is tasked with getting nine outs or more 61 percent of the time.

Gardenhire had expressed hope in spring training that the young rotation could pitch deeper into games this season than last, and thus preserve the bullpen. But so far, the numbers are roughly the same as last season, when the starters took the mound to open the seventh inning 59 percent of the time.

It's still early, Gardenhire said, and the Twins have confidence their starters will extend themselves -- without increasing their pitch counts -- as the season goes along.

"We could leave them out there and go 115, 120 pitches and get into the seventh inning, but I kind of like it when they're still pitching in July and August, and healthy," the manager said. "You have a plan and stick with it as best you can. I think they're doing fine. We're not afraid to let them go 110, 120 pitches -- you just got to be careful. You start doing it now, you won't have them later."

Briefly: Joe Mauer served as designated hitter Wednesday because Gardenhire didn't want to use him behind the plate both Wednesday night and in today's noon game. Better to have Mike Redmond face left-hander Dontrelle Willis, Gardenhire calculated, than right-hander Justin Verlander, who will start today.

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 14, 2009

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