June 2008

Avoiding A Letdown

Slow.jpgI didn’t post anything regarding yesterday’s Twins loss…perhaps I was just too frustrated by the end of the big winning streak (and the inevitable fact that the Fat Man was on the mound when it happened).  However, today the Twins were able to bounce back successfully from yesterday’s near-shutout loss:

In the early goings of today’s afternoon tilt, it looked as if the Twins were completely overmatched by Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets…and they were.  Whether it was the low-90s fastball on the outside corner or the knee-buckling 12-6 curve, Sheets was mowing down the Twins’ batters.  Luckily, Kevin Slowey was doing the same against the Brewer bats.  Without the sharp stuff or velocity of Sheets, Slowey used his pin-point control to attack the weaknesses of the opposing batters.

The tide began turning in the Twins’ favor in the middle innings, when Jason Kubel and Carlos Gomez delivered clutch hits to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.  The Twins never really “got to” Sheets, but just took advantage of every single opportunity they were given.  As Slowey continued to set down the Brew Crew with little trouble, Delmon Young’s second home run of the year gave the Twins a formidable 4-0 lead, while Alexi Casilla’s RBI double put the icing on the cake of a 5-0 victory.

Despite the clutch hitting of many Twins batters, today’s star was undoubtedly Slowey.  Against a lineup that thrives on mashing balls into gaps and seats, Slowey held the Brewers to just one extra base hit and two singles.  Much to TV broadcaster Bert Blyleven’s delight, Slowey lasted all nine innings en route to picking up the complete-game shutout.  During the Twins’ just-ended 10 game winning streak, it was the starting pitching that really carried the team.  After Livan’s hiccup (or normal start?!) last night, Slowey returned to that formula.

Two thoughts after the completion of tonight’s game:

1. I was glad that the Twins did not have a letdown after yesterday’s loss.  Earlier this season, the Twins were a rollercoaster team, filled with highs and lows on a whims notice.  The breaking of the winning streak could have burst a few balloons, but instead the Twins got right back after it with good pitching and clutch hitting.

2. Interleague play is now over (tear).  After going 14-4 against the “Senior Circuit”, the Twins will now have to prove themselves in their own division (most important) and around the rest of the AL.  The Twins’ schedule until the All-Star break looks like this: vs. Detroit, vs. Cleveland, at Boston, at Detroit.  The Red Sox are always tough, the Indians can be difficult if facing their top starting pitchers, and the Tigers are finally playing up to their potential.  If the Twins can survive until the break and still remain in contention, they may just be for real.

Preview (45-37, 2nd, 1.0 GB CWS (will change after tonight’s CWS game)): Glen Perkins (4-2, 4.47) vs. Armando Galarraga (7-2, 3.32).  Galarraga has lost to the Twins twice this season, but Detroit’s bats can tee off on any opposing pitcher unless pitched too with extreme skill. 

Late-Inning Heroics

mauer.jpgBy all accounts, Friday night’s Twins game against the Brewers should have been the end of an incredible winning streak.  Despite home runs from Alexi Casilla and Jason Kubel in the early innings, Nick Blackburn surrendered four Brewer bombs in five innings to put the home team in a 6-3 hole.  With Milwaukee leading by three runs, their bats on fire, and the hit-or-miss Brian Bass coming into the game, this looked to be the conclusion of the big streak.  Perhaps I still don’t have enough faith in the Twins yet…

As Bass and then Matt Guerrier held the Brewers scoreless through three innings, the Twins began battling back.  Joe Mauer started the rally in the fifth inning with a double, eventually scoring on Kubel’s sacrifice fly.  Again, though, with two outs and two on with Delmon Young up, the chances were that the Brewers would get out of the inning.  That was, however, until Young bounced an eight-hopper up the middle to score both runners and move the Twins within one run at 6-5.

In the seventh inning, Michael Cuddyer was gunned down at home plate for the second out, leaving a few runners on for Brian Buscher.  Milwaukee brought in their side-winding lefty to face Buscher, and once again the match-up seemed to favor the Brew Crew.  Of course, Buscher then doinked a hit into the opposite field to tie the game (6-6).  Buscher is now 8-15 with men in scoring position and making Mike Lamb the forgotten man on this team.

Then, in the eighth, another Brewer reliever quickly got the first two outs of the inning.  However, Mauer would not go down easily, fouling pitch after pitch down the left field line.  Jo-Mo finally got his pitch, and cranked it over the left field fence for the 7-6 lead.  The large walk-up crowd at the Dome nearly blew the roof off the place, and I think Twins TV broadcaster nearly lost his voice calling it!

But why should the drama end there?  In the ninth, Joe Nathan allowed two singles and had to face Prince Fielder with the game on the line.  Despite more “horse blows” and facial tics than I think I’ve ever seen from Nathan, he retired Prince and pumped his fist in celebration.  The winning streak is still intact.

Essentially, after a week and a half of tremendous starting pitching, on this night the offense had to pick up the slack, and did in a big way.  Despite the fact that Ron Gardenhire is loathe to talk about this, this team is remarkably following the 2006 “magical” pattern.  Let’s see: Early season struggles–check; mid-season winning streak–check; difficulty gaining games on the division leader–check.  Of course, and this is why Gardy is so cautious, those types of runs happen only once in a great while.  Can the current Twins keep up the pace?  After games like last night, I’ve stopped doubting them.

Preview (44-36, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Livan Hernandez (8-4, 5.23) vs. Manny Parra (7-2, 4.29). In the midst of this winning streak, do the match-ups really matter?!

A New Hero Every Day

Morneau.jpgA few weeks ago, I discovered how to insert pictures into this blog.  Each game-day entry since that point, I put a picture of my MVP of each game in each entry.  Remarkably, I have featured a new hero every single day!

Today, Justin Morneau provided the dramatics in the 4-3 Twins victory.  After the Padres jumped out to another early lead, this time 3-0 against Scott Baker, Morneau blasted a shot to straight-away centerfield (which, in the vast PETCO Park is quite a feat) in the fourth inning for a two-run homer.  Then, the very next inning, Morneau singled in Baker (another unlikely hero…he had just gotten his first major league hit!) to tie the score.  Finally, Buscher singled home Kubel in the sixth inning to give the Twins a lead that would hold up the rest of the way.

As if the game needed any more heroes, just look at the pitching portion of the box score: Baker turned in a quality start (6 IP, 3 ER), while Crain, Reyes, Breslow, and Guerrier all registered holds.  The Nathanator struck out two guys in the ninth for his 21st save.

Three series sweeps in a row?!  What is going on here!  Will the Twins ever lose again?!  More and more, this season is starting to resemble the remarkable 2006 campaign, right down to the long winning streak in the summer months.

Also, this “hero of the day” business is very reminiscent of the 2002-2004 Twins teams, where each win featured an unlikely “power source”.  In reality, though, that is EXACTLY how teams need to play…Mauer, Morneau, or Cuddyer cannot carry the team every night.  The “little guys” need to step up from time to time.

Preview (43-36, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Nick Blackburn (6-4, 3.68) vs. Seth McClung (5-3, 3.79).  Who will be the hero tomorrow night?!

Brendan Harris^2

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Last night, with the score tied at 1-1 in the ninth inning, Brendan Harris hit a home run off Trevor Hoffman (the all-time saves leader) to give the Twins the lead.  Tonight, with the score tied at 3-3 in the fourth inning and the ninth-winningest pitcher of all-time (Greg Maddux, 351 wins) on the mound, Harris hit a two-run bomb to break a 3-3 deadlock, leading to an eventual 9-3 victory.

After struggling mightily to start the season, and nearly being benched altogether due to multiple defensive miscues, Harris has been playing quite well as of late.  Remember, the Twins originally picked up Harris for his offensive skills (ironically enough, to “replace” Alexi Casilla at second place…how plans quickly change!), and he is finally showing that potential.  He has also looked much more comfortable at shortstop than at second base (where he played most of the time earlier in the season).

Some other thoughts after watching tonight’s game:

-Gomez and Casilla continue to be igniters at the top of the order (crucial to Twins victories).  Tonight, Go-Go was 3-4 (2 RBI, 1 R), while Casilla was 1-3 (1 BB, 1 RBI, 1 R).  Those two combined are filling the spot that Shannon Stewart and Luis Castillo once claimed.

-I’m also really starting to warm to the role that Craig Monroe is playing on this ballclub.  He starts about 1-2 games a week, but is always available off the bench to pinch-hit in situations where a few runs need to be scored.  He seems to be the kind of player the Twins thought they were getting with Rondell White the last few years…but Rondell failed in that role.  Monroe actually produces from time to time!  He reminds me a lot of Don Baylor on the 1987 Twins team…didn’t start a whole lot, but provided legitimate punch off the bench (an area in which the Twins are usually vastly overmatched against top-tier teams).

-Finally, isn’t it fun to just watch Greg Maddux pitch?!  The Twins got to him tonight, but even in his advanced years he can still hit his spots and get guys out.  I remember watching him pitch in many playoff series in the mid to late 1990s with the Atlanta Braves, and almost always winning.  Actually, I saw the only previous time that Maddux pitched against the Twins.  It was in 2004 when the Braves came to the Dome.  The game went 15 innings and was won when Cristian Guzman doubled home Tom Prince.

Preview (42-36, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Scott Baker (3-2, 3.47) vs. Josh Banks (2-1, 1.62).  Banks has been filling in aptly for the injured Padre starter Chris Young, but Baker just out-dueled Randy Johnson in his last start.  If Baker has a decent start, the Twins should roll to their third consecutive sweep and ninth consecutive win.

One-Pitch Pony

Reyes.jpgUntil the seventh inning of tonight’s late contest with San Diego, the game was relatively normal.  Michael Cuddyer singled home a lone run in the first inning, and the Twins carried that 1-0 lead on the back of Kevin Slowey (6 IP, 0 ER, 4 H).  In the seventh inning, however, things started to unravel a bit.  Jesse Crain came on in relief of Slowey and allowed a run (although it wasn’t Crain’s “usual” style of collapse…just a few dink hits) to tie the game at 1-1.  Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Matt Guerrier put two Padres on and then got two outs before being relieved by Dennys Reyes.  Reyes proceeded to throw one pitch and retire Brian Giles on a ground out to end the inning.

In the 1-1 tie, San Diego called on future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman.  The all-time leader in saves struck out Cuddyer and Kubel, then only had to set down Brendan Harris to preserve the deadlock.  Harris had been having a terrible game, striking out in two key situations–leaving runners on base–and slamming his helmet and bat down in frustration.  This time, though, Harris launched a deep bomb into the left field seats.  This was quickly followed by a similar result from Brian Buscher…except he launched one out to right field, giving the Twins a 3-1.  Of course, Nathan nailed down the save and the Twins won their seventh in a row.

So, by throwing the final pitch of the eighth inning, Reyes picked up his second win of the season…unbelievable!  Twins TV broadcaster Bert Blyleven joked on the telecast that it took him 5,000 innings to get to 287 wins…and Reyes gets a “W” with one throw!  Essentially, tonight the Twins continued their dominance over the National League.

Note: Just reported today, Juan Rincon signed a minor-league contract with the Cleveland Indians.  So, let’s see here…Rinky wouldn’t accept his demotion to the Twins’ minor leagues, but he will with Cleveland’s Triple-A team.  That’s loyalty for you.

Preview (41-36, 2nd, 1.5 GB CWS): Glen Perkins (3-2, 4.39) vs. Greg Maddux (3-5, 3.17). Maddux has always been one of my favorite pitchers to watch, so I will thoroughly enjoying watching him on Wednesday night.  I’ve always been amazed that in the age of steroid sluggers and beefed-up pitchers, Maddux can still “make a living” with pinpoint control and knowledge of opposing batters, not heat. 

A (Very) Clean Sweep

After finishing off an easy series sweep against the Washington Nationals, this past weekend the Twins also swept another interleague series…this time against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I attended the Friday and Saturday games, thus was unable to post until today.  Here’s a quick recap of how the series panned out:

 

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For the first game, Randy Johnson was matched up against Scott Baker.  Johnson actually pitched a complete game, but one bad inning did him in.  In the Twins half of the third, they put six runs on the scoreboard, beginning with a bleeder up the middle from Matt Macri that scored two runs and a ending with a two-run dinger to left-center from Craig Monroe.  With that big cushion, Baker sailed through six innings, striking out seven while giving up just one earned run.  After Bass pitched the seventh and eighth, Nathan was given the ninth to just get some work in and he struck out the side on 12 pitches…complete domination.

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Yes, the picture is strange, but let me explain in a little bit.  Saturday night’s game was pretty much a clone of Friday.  Despite the D-Backs jumping out to a 1-0 lead, the Twins put together a six-run seventh inning.  Beginning with a Mauer bunt single, the Twins didn’t stop hitting until Mauer was up again in the same inning.  In fact, only Carlos Gomez did not collect a hit for the Twins in the contest.  As with Baker the night before, Blackburn turned in a quality start, going seven innings and just allowing one earned run on three hits.  Perhaps the strangest moment of the night, though, occurred as I was walking outside the Dome following the end of the game.  Down in the Metrodome Plaza area, I walked right past former MN Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura.  He has now shaved off his goofy facial hair and had a baseball cap tucked low over his head, so I had to look twice to make sure it was him.  What was hilarious to me, though, as I looked back at him from time to time, was that not too many people seemed to recognize him or talk to him.  Perhaps this is indicative of the job he did while in office?!

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I wasn’t present at Sunday’s game (I can’t get to them all!), but I really didn’t have to be…it was pretty much the same as the other two.  This time, the Twins fell behind 3-0 (but what do you expect with the Fat Man on the mound?!), and did so when Delmon Young failed to pick up a ball in the outfield and let it roll all the way to the wall (argh!).  However, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Young hit a monstrous pop-fly that the Arizona left fielder lost in the roof.  After that, Arizona could not stop the bleeding and allowed five Twins runs.  Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla each added run-scoring singles.  Then, the Fat Man settled down and turned in seven innings of three-run ball, and Crain and Nathan closed out the rest of the game.

A few notes from the series sweep:

-On Saturday, I saw Rick Aguilera get inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame.  For some reason, he was always a favorite of mine when I was a kid (I think I was fascinated by the bushy beard).  Does he deserve to be in the Twins Hall of Fame?  To me, he is borderline.  His longevity is what gets him the nod, as he never was a dominating pitcher (about halfway between Eddie Guardado and Nathan on the “domination” scale…but perhaps a little closer to Steady Eddie).  However, he is a very nice man and I am glad that he was able to have such an award bestowed upon him.

-For perhaps the first time ever, I’m liking what I see from Crain.  With Neshek gone, Crain needs to keep turning in quality outings, as Matt Guerrier can’t do all the work himself.

-Finally, remember 2006: For the first two months, the Twins flirted with the .500 mark, then caught fire in June and eventually won the division on the last day of the season.  The spark of that fire was interleague play, which the Twins dominated.  Hopefully, this season can elicit much of the same, as the Twins are currently 8-1 against NL teams.

Preview (40-36, 2nd, 1.5 GB CWS): Kevin Slowey (4-6, 4.37) vs. Jake Peavy (5-4, 2.88).  Despite the fact that Peavy can be dominating, the Padres have stunk (32-45) so far this season, so Slowey should be able to stifle them as well.  Heck, Slowey might be able to drive in a few runs of his own!

Slapping the Nats

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The game wasn’t on TV today, but the results were exactly what I expected…a clean sweep of the Washington Nationals.

With the 9-3 afternoon win today, the Twins got great production from the offense.  Cuddyer reached base in every plate appearance, while Mauer, Kubel, Buscher, and Harris each contributed two hits apiece.

Not to be overlooked, though, is the eight strong innings (allowed just three earned runs) from starting pitcher Glen Perkins.  Perkins gave up 10 hits in those innings, but was able to wriggle out of trouble enough times to pick up a victory.

Okay, so the Twins just swept the Nationals and are on top of the world, right?!  WRONG!  That has been a major problem with the Twins this year, as they seem to have emotional letdowns after big series wins.  Sweeping the Nats is great, but they still are the Nats (arguably the worst team in the NL).  A much bigger test is coming this weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Preview (37-36, 2nd, 4.5 GB CWS): Randy Johnson (4-4, 4.76) vs. Scott Baker (2-2, 3.71).  I will be sitting in the upper deck behind home plate in this game…do you think I’ll see a few strikeouts?!  If the Big Unit is on he can still be unhittable, but he isn’t nearly “on” as much as he used to be.  These days, Baker can match him inning for inning.

Quality Starts

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Amazing what a few quality starts can do for a ballclub, huh?!  Sure, the final score (11-2) of Wednesday night’s game seems to indicate an offensive blowout victory for the Twins, but six of those runs were scored in the eighth inning.  Through six innings, the score was 3-1 Minnesota, and very much a tight game.  However, Slowey never let the Nationals get a foot in the door (unlike Boof, who would have had the door blown open!).  Then, Crain had another nice outing, and even shaky Brian Bass pitched a scoreless inning before the game turned into a blowout.  With pitching like that, the Twins will be able to hang in the division race for quite some time, as I believe that the White Sox will falter at some point down the line.  The Twins just have to be ready.

Offensively, a lot of Twins upped their statistical lines tonight, but what really impressed me was Morneau’s continued ability to drive in runs.  If there is a runner in scoring position when Justin comes to the plate, more often than not that runner will be touching home plate in no time.  This is EXACTLY the kind of production the Twins have needed from their cleanup spot for, well, forever!  His continued success is another key to keeping pace with the division leader.

The only negative portion of tonight’s game was the continued struggles of Boof Bonser.  After failing to become a successful starting pitcher, Boof is now even struggling in what essentially is a mop-up role.  With a young kid like Bobby Korecky in the minor leagues, I don’t know how much rope the Twins can continue to give Boof (ala Juan Rincon).  However, this is a pretty minor concern at this point, but it IS something that should be monitored during Boof’s future outings.

Preview (36-36, 2nd, 4.5 GB CWS): Glen Perkins (2-2, 4.57) vs. Shawn Hill (1-3, 4.61).  Perkins and Hill are essentially in the same situation…both young pitchers (although Perkins has more experience) trying to establish themselves in the major leagues.  As bad as the Nats have been playing, if the Twins get decent pitching and don’t shoot themselves in the foot tomorrow, they should be able to complete the sweep.

Some Quick (Like The Game!) Thoughts

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Tonight’s game, besides a bit of an offensive draught, was the exact formula the Twins need in order to seriously contend for the division title: the Fat Man (pitching against his old team, as seen above) quickly and easily dispatched of the Nationals batters (exactly what should happen!) for seven innings, Matt Guerrier got the hold, and Joe Nathan picked up the save.  Though the Twins by and large did not look good against the Nats’ lefty pitcher Lannon, an absolute bomb from Morneau proved enough to push them over the top.

The contest was played at such a tremendous pace tonight that there really isn’t much more to say!  The last thing I have to add is that the Nationals are a really bad team.  Only former Twin Cristian Guzman provides a spark…everyone else seems to just be going through the motions.  It is no wonder they are already out of their division’s race.

Preview (35-36, 2nd, 4.5 GB CWS): Tomorrow night, Kevin Slowey (3-6, 4.70) hooks up with Jason Bergmann (1-4, 5.48).  Slowey is coming off a great start in Milwaukee, while Bergmann was roughed up by the Pirates in his last start.  Advantage: Twins.

The Busch-Man Cometh

For all you die-hard Twins fans out their, has anybody ever noticed that the Twins always seem to get good play from their rookie call-ups right off the bat (even if that production wanes in the future)?  In the recent series with Milwaukee, Brian Buscher came up from Triple-A and essentially got the game-winning hit on Saturday in extra innings.  This got me thinking about some other Twins who have made an immediate impact on the “big club”:

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Lew Ford: Came out of nowhere in 2004 to hit .299 in a full season of at-bats (including a bunch of clutch hits), but then dropped off the map and is now playing in Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Restovich: Was touted as a “blue chip” outfield prospect for many years (because of his power), then came up to the big leagues in ’03 and won a game in a most unusual fashion: By striking out but reaching first base and allowing the winning run to score!  Never lived up to his potential with the Twins and bounced from Colorado to Washington to Japan.

 

 

 

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Mike Ryan: Was a late-season callup in 2003 and almost single-handedly catapulted the Twins past the White Sox in a key series at the Metrodome.  Was last seen with the Twins in 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sears.jpg Todd Sears: Hit an exciting walk-off home run not long after his first call-up in 2003, then faded into oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jason Tyner: Came over from Tampa Bay in mid-summer 2006 and, for likely the first and only time in his career, could not be stopped, as he fit right in with the Piranha attack.  Now plays for Cleveland.

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