August 2008

Sweet Swingin’

Sweet Swing.jpgLooking to salvage a split with the Oakland A’s on the road, the Twins’ bats came out swinging on Sunday and didn’t spot for pretty much the whole game.

When a team wins a game 12-4, it takes too long to review all the individual highlights (!), so suffice it to say that Justin Morneau (2-5, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 R), Nick Punto (2-4, 2 R), Alexi Casilla (2-4, 3 RBI, 2 R), and Brian Buscher (2-4, 1 RBI, 1 R) led the attack, which featured a five-run sixth inning.

On the defensive side, Scott Baker finally picked up his eighth win of the season by going six innings and allowing just one earned run.  Then, despite a large hiccup from Eddie Guardado, Breslow and Bonser turned in nice outings from the pen.

Notes:

-After splitting with the A’s, the Twins could still salvage this road trip if they can take two of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto in a series starting Tuesday night.  However, the Jays have been playing some inspired play these days (they have almost caught the Yankees in the AL East standings), so the games will be tough.

Preview (77-60, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Glen Perkins (12-3, 3.96) vs. David Purcey (2-5, 5.53). The Twins don’t have to face Toronto’s Roy “Doc” Halladay in this series, so count your blessings for that!

Wasting Liriano

Wasted.jpgLast night, with a chance to move into first place in the AL Central division, the Twins got a fantastic start from kid phenom Francisco Liriano (7 IP, 1 ER).  Yet, as has become so typical on the road for the Twins this season, somehow the game slipped away again in the later innings.

Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Twins were up 2-1 thanks to a Denard Span two-run homer in the fifth.  After the wonderful Cisco Kid outing, followed by a perfect inning from Matt Guerrier, I was confident that Joe Nathan (as usual) would be able to close the door.  Yet, something strange happened…Nathan lost control of his pitches.  Bobby Crosby singled to left, Emil Brown was hit by a pitch, and then Ryan Sweeney laid down a sacrifice…which ended up closing the game.

Nathan picked up the sacrifice and, realizing he had no play at first base, wheeled and fired to third, where the ball got by Brendan Harris and rolled all the way down the line, allowing the tying and winning runs to score.  Replay showed that the ball bounced off Harris’s glove, but the throw WAS off line, so the responsibility is shared.  Officially, Nathan was given a throwing error.

Game Over.

Notes:

-Give Nathan a mulligan on this one, as he is normally dominant.

-One thing I can’t understand about the official scoring in that ninth inning: Nathan put both runners on, and they scored on his error, yet he is not charged with any earned runs.  Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd?!

Preview: (76-60, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Scott Baker (7-4, 3.75) vs. Greg Smith (6-13, 3.90). A spilt can still salvage this series and (perhaps) move the Twins into first place!

Getting Their Smiles Back

Smile.jpgAfter getting the series with the Oakland A’s off on the wrong foot on Thursday night, the Twins turned the tables last night to the tune of a 12-2, pounding out 20 hits and knocking Oakland starter Meyer out of the game in the second inning by tagging him for six runs.

Starring offensively for the Twins (although everyone in the starting lineup besides Nick Punto recorded at least one hit) were Joe Mauer (5-6, 4 RBI, 1 R), Justin Morneau (4-5, 1 RBI, 2 R), Jason Kubel (2-4, 2 RBI 1 R), and Alexi Casilla (3-5, 1 RBI, 2 R).  There were no Twins home runs in the contest, but Morneau collected two doubles while Mauer and Kubel had one apiece.

Yet, in the middle of that offensive onslaught, one must not overlook the quality pitching performance of starter Kevin Slowey, who went six innings (and could have gone more if not for a long top of the seventh), allowing two earned runs and striking out ten.  Craig Breslow also didn’t disappoint in his mop-up appearance, picking up a three-inning save (the first of his career).

Notes:

-Slowey sure seems to have found his strikeout groove as of late.  Right now, if I had to pick a “playoff rotation order” (yeah, I know, that’s dangerous to do in August, but what the heck) I would go Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Perkins, and then Blackburn.

-Also, a word to all the “Negative Nancies” out there…settle down!  A few days ago, when the Twins dropped to a “full” two games behind the White Sox, I talked with many people who had written the Twins off, including even the Sportscenter guys judging from the way they talked about Minnesota.  Now, we are 0.5 games behind the Sox and everyone is jumping back on the bandwagon.  If being a Twins fan has taught you anything over the past decade (especially 2003 and 2006), it would have to be to never give up on our boys of summer until they are mathematically eliminated.

Preview (76-59, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Francisco Liriano (4-3, 3.83) vs. Dallas Braden (4-3, 4.13). It’s the same old, same old for Cisco: low walk total + low general pitch count = victory.

Paper Crain

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As the photo in this blog post indicates, there is a lot of head-scratching going on right now on the Twins’ current road trip.  Last night, the Twins (again) could not muster any offense, yet the pitching kept the game within reach until the final inning.

The A’s got on the board first in the fourth inning by grounding into a double play to score a run, but the Twins came back in the sixth with a Justin Morneau sacrifice fly to knot the score at one.

As has been so common throughout this road trip, however, the A’s came right back with a run of their own in the bottom of the sixth.  Fortunately, Nick Punto’s clutch single scored Delmon Young in the seventh for another (2-2) tie.

As the Twins were barely scraping enough runs across the plate to get by, the pitchers were doing an excellent job of styming the A’s.  Starter Blackburn allowed two earned runs in five and two third innings, while both Reyes and Bonser pitching scoreless innings of their own.

In the bottom of the ninth, however, it all came crashing down.  Craig Breslow came in from the pen to begin the inning, promptly gave up a single, then left after a successful sacrifice.  Crain was then brought into the game and, after issuing a walk, threw a meatball to Kurt Suzuki that Ichiro’s namesake hit to deep left center to score the game-winning run.

Notes:

-Basically, everything that COULD go wrong DID go wrong last night.  The offense couldn’t generate any production, the starting pitching didn’t last long enough to give the bullpen a fair shake, and Crain again folded in a pressure situation.  Only the defense was sparkling, with Alexi Casilla turning in a #1 Web Gem with his glove-flip to Nick Punto to start a double play.

-Also, I realize that I have really been ripping on Crain a lot throughout the relatively short life of this blog, so I would like to take a moment to explain exactly why I think he is the most overrated pitcher in the Twins’ bullpen.  There really are two things that I dislike about Crain: First, he often struggles with his control, being unable to hit his spots.  Second, as a result of that shoddy control, he often turns to just throwing the ball right over the plate in order to get strikes.  Now, if he had any movement on his ball whatsoever (like, say, Joe Nathan), he could get away with this, but most of the time the ball comes in on a line and the batters cream it.  Sure, he can throw in the mid-90s velocity, but with that straight ball the higher velocity only means that the ball will be hit harder when the batter connects (which is becoming more and more frequent these days).

-Rant on Crain aside, the offense lost the game last night.  Too many 1-2-3 innings where the Oakland starting pitcher hardly had to work at all, unlike the A’s offense, which battled Blackie tooth and nail seemingly every at-bat.

Preview (75-59, 2nd, 1.5 GB CWS): Kevin Slowey (10-8, 3.74) vs. Dan Meyer (0-2, 5.95). Despite his southpaw status, Meyer should be prone to allowing some runs IF the Twins can capitalize on him.  Slowey, like Perkins, has been giving us quality starts lately.

Getting Out With A Win

tag.jpgThe first (and, until yesterday, only) time the Twins won a game at SAFECO field in Seattle, Denard Span leaped high over the wall to rob a Mariner batter of a home run, effectively preserving the game.  In yesterday’s contest, Span made a similar contribution…

Like nearly ever Twins-Mariners game this season, the lead seesawed back and forth throughout the entire game.  The Twins took an early lead on a Delmon Young sacrifice fly, but Betancourt’s double tied the game at 1-1.

In the top of the fourth, a bases-load double from Span (more on him later, fortunately!) pulled the Twins in front 4-2, but again that margin was erased two batters into the bottom of the inning, when Jose Lopez hit a two-run dinger.

Then, for a short time, the Mariners took the lead, 5-4, when Raul Ibanez launched ANOTHER big home run.  However, a double from Jason Kubel and a single from Brian Buscher made the game 6-4 in favor of the visitors.

Finally, in a closing act fitting of this year’s Twins/Mariners rivalry, Jeff Clement doubled in Kenji Johjima to make the score 6-5 with Eddie Guardado on the mound.  With two outs, Miguel Cairo singled to right and Hulett (running for Clement) barreled towards home.  Span came up with the ball and fired a one-hop bullet to Mike Redmond, who applied the tag (as shown above) and ended the inning.

Joe Nathan then closed out the game with no incident (not a minor feat against these Ms).  Whew!

Notes:

-Where would the Twins be without Denard Span right now?  Currently, he covers the most range in the outfield, has a strong arm, gets all the clutch hits, and runs the bases very well.  Torii Hunter sure did a good job mentoring this guy…plus, Span is a much more disciplined hitter than Hunter will ever be!

-Alright Twins fans, let’s just calm down a little bit here.  We eaked out a win in Seattle, so we didn’t get swept.  The other two teams on the road trip are Oakland and Toronto, who are both very beatable.  Really, if not for Seattle, the Twins would be lauded as the best team in the league since the All-Star break.  Good riddance to them!

Preview (75-58, 2nd, 1.0 GB CWS): Nick Blackburn (9-8, 3.78) vs. Dana Eveland (8-8, 4.30). All those “Moneyball” hitters are the A’s are tough to easily retire, but this year none of them are extremely talented (they just have a knack for working counts).  Thus, strong pitching performances can and will beat them.

Lethargic

Roy.jpgThe look on Seattle relief pitcher Roy Corcoran’s face as he finished off the Twins for a two-inning save the other day pretty much says it all in regards to how the Twins fared against the Mariners.

Right from the get-go, it was apparent that Twins starter Scott Baker did not have any “stuff” last night, as he gave up two runs in the second inning on a Jeff Clement single.  Yet, despite pitching out of jam after jam (and giving up ten hits in the process), Baker held the M’s scoreless through the 3rd, 4th, and 5th innings.

In the top of the sixth, the Twins offense finally showed a spark of life.  However, with runners on the corners and no outs, Justin Morneau grounded into a rally-killing double play, despite a run scoring.  Yet, all was seemingly forgiven when the next batter, Randy Ruiz, cranked his first major league home run to tie the score.

In the bottom of the same inning, though, Baker allowed another single run on a Jose Lopez single (scoring who else but Adrian Beltre).  From that point, the Twins’ bats were absolutely shut down, not managing a single rally for the duration in the 3-2 loss.

Notes:

-This type of game is EXACTLY what Twins fans are terrified of on this long road trip, more specifically the bats falling almost completely silent while the pitchers turn in good performances (this EXACT thing happened down the stretch in 2005 and pushed the Twins out of the playoff picture).

-Boy, do the Twins sure miss Michael Cuddyer right now.  In all honesty, Carlos Gomez (oh he of many misplays and strikeouts) probably does not deserve to be starting on an every day basis for the Twins, as he gives away too many at-bats.

Preview (74-58, 2nd, 2.0 GB CWS): Glen Perkins (11-3, 3.90) vs. Ryan Feirerabend (0-1, 7.88). Perkie has been a losing-streak stopper as of late, and Twins bats hammered Feirerabend the last time we saw him (of course, I also said the same thing about Rowland-Smith last and we all know how that turned out).  A sweep at the hands of the Mariners would be embarrassing, pure and simple.

Deja Vu All Over Again

 
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If you were busy all day yesterday (like I was) and didn’t tune in the game until moments before the first pitch, you were in for quite a surprise.  Early in the day, the Twins released Mike “Out Like A…” Lamb from their roster, and added old fan-favorite Eddie “G-Man” Guardado to the bullpen, trading young Mark Hamburger (greatest last name ever?!) to the Texas Rangers as compensation.  Talk about deja vu!  Before my thoughts on “Everyday’s” return, though, here is a quick summary of the game, which actually produced just as much deja vu as Eddie did…

After a season series that to this point had featured some of the highest scoring games of the year, this contest was as tight as tight can be.  The Twins got a single run on the board in the third inning when Alexi Casilla drove in Denard Span, but a double from Miguel “Dumbo” Cairo (have you seen that guy’s ears?!) tied things up.

Things looked really promising in the eighth inning, when Delmon Young’s single scored Joe Mauer to give the Twins a 2-1.  However, a lead-off double from Adrian Beltre (unfortunately, more on him later) eventually came around to score on Joe Nathan in the ninth (there goes the sub-1.00 ERA), and the game went into extras.

After a scoreless tenth for both teams, Jesse Crain started his second inning of work in the bottom of the eleventh.  While watching the game on television, I suddenly had a terrible case of deja vu, remembering back to June 7 of 2006, when in a game against the Mariners Crain gave up a long home run to Carl Everett (one of those no-doubters) to blow the game.  Sadly, my feeling ended up being correct…after carefully pitching to new Twin killer (didn’t we leave those guys behind in Anaheim?) Raul Ibanez and walking him, Crain’s first pitch to Beltre was absolutely crushed to deep left field for the walk-off dinger.  Game over.

Notes:

-How exciting is it to have Eddie back?!  Based purely on skill, he is better than Craig Breslow, and Reyes only beats him on the Big Sweat’s best outing.  More importantly, though, is the experience and excitement that Eddie brings to the club.  G-Man went through the playoff wars with this club earlier in the decade, and usually would rise to the challenge despite his sub-par repertoire of pitches.  Can you imagine the ovation he will get in his first Metrodome appearance?!  His career really fizzled after two good seasons with the Mariners, after which he bounced around for awhile, so hopefully he can get things back on track as a Twin.

-Need I say more about Jesse Crain?  If the Twins were to release him today, I would not complain a bit.  He throws heat, but that heat all too often has zero movement and ends up being hit hard.  As I have said so many times before, he has never sniffed the success of his awesome 2005 campaign (12-5, 2.71).

-However, I suppose if I do believe that strongly in deja vu, I should actually be happy, as right after Crain blew that Seattle game in 2006, the Twins were suddenly resurrected from the grave, and the rest is history.

Preview (74-57, 2nd, 1.0 GB CWS): Scott Baker (7-3, 3.74) vs. Ryan Rowland-Smith (2-2, 3.84). The Twins jumped all over Smith (three runs in the first inning, I believe) when they faced him a week and a half ago at the Dome, so it would be nice to continue that success.

Closing It Down

K-Rod.jpgToday’s final tilt in the series against the Anaheim Angels reminds me of the annoying klaxan that can be found in nearly every cheesy science fiction movie, just modified a little bit to: “Warning, complete bullpen self destruct after seven innings”.

For most of today’s contest, the Twins held a slim lead.  Heading into the sixth inning, the Twins were up 3-0 thanks to RBIs from Justin Morneau on a single, double, and solo home run.  However, Mark “New Angel Twin Killer” Teixeira put the Angels on the board with a solo shot of his own in the sixth, and the next inning a Chone “Old Angel Twin Killer” Figgins grounded made it a two-run game.

It was in the eighth inning, however, that the bullpen collapsed.  Dennys Reyes gave up a double to Mark “Him Again” Teixeira, then was pulled in favor of Jesse Crain, who did strike out Torii Hunter…but only sandwiched between not one but two triples and a sacrifice fly, giving Anaheim the 5-3 lead that would prove to be the margin of victory.

In the ninth inning, Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez absolutely slammed the door for his 50th save, now just seven behind the major league record set by Bobby Thigpen.

Notes:

-Well, Crain fell into his usual pattern of just when you think it is safe to trust him, he lets you down.  Crain is still the most overrated (due to one statistically overblown season) player on the entire roster.

-If the Twins needed more incentive to win the AL Central division instead of the Wild Card, they have it now, as Anaheim will almost surely have the best record in the AL and thus draw the WC in the first round of the playoffs.  The Angels have solid starting pitching, a fireballing bullpen, and K-Rod finishing things off.  On offense, they can manufacture runs (Chone Figgins, etc.) or hit the long ball (Teixeria, Guerrero, Anderson).  Defensively they have a solid infield and spectacular outfield.  Not a good team to face in any series, much less a playoff.

-Though this series feels like a letdown (because the final two games were lost, not vice versa), splitting on the road with Anaheim is nothing to scoff at.  The Twins also played the Angels very tough, something most AL teams (as evidenced by Anaheim’s record) do not do.

Preview (74-56, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.24) vs. Miguel Batista (4-12, 6.55).  As long as Cisco doesn’t fill the bases with walks, this should be an easy Twins victory.

Can’t Buy Me Glove

Error.jpgWhen playing a team like the Anaheim Angels, a sort of “perfect game” must be executed in order to give your team a chance to win.  Tonight, the Twins got some inspired comeback hitting, but ultimately were doomed by one inning of errors and gaffes.

With no score heading into the bottom of the third inning, a high throw from Brian Buscher pulled Morneau off the first base bag and allowed the crafty Angels to start building a rally.  A few batters latter, with the bases loaded, Vlad the Destroyer cracked a laser beam to center field that went for a “double” (although, as pictured, I would have given Gomez an error).  The very next batter hit a ground ball to Buscher again, who this time fumbled the ball (missing an out at the plate) and making a late throw to first base.  By the time the Twins finally got their gloves back on, the score was 4-0 Angels.

After a solo home run by Casilla, Anaheim got starter Blackburn again for two more runs to make the score 6-1.  Yet, the Twins still had some fight in them, as they put together a four-run fifth to close the gap to one run.

From that point, though, the Angels bullpen (Oliver, Shields, K-Rod) dominated the Twins’ batters, and Mark Teixeira added a solo shot to right for the 7-5 final.

Notes:

-Blackburn (4.2 IP, 3 ER, 6 R) didn’ t pitch as bad as the score indicated, but errors will rattle a young starter probably more than anything in a major league inning.  Without the defensive meltdowns in that third inning, who knows what kind of grove Blackie could have gotten into.

-Despite the tough loss, I was very impressive by the multiple comeback attempts that the Twins made throughout the game.  All too often, some offenses (with the Twins being no exception) will get so frustrated being down by multiple runs to a good team that they will throw away at-bats.  Instead, the Twins kept hitting right to the end, when a few good defensive plays from the Angels robbed us of some baserunners.

Preview (74-55, 1st, 0.5 GA CWS): Kevin Slowey (10-8, 3.78) vs. Ervin Santana (13-5, 3.39). This is like one of those old “Brad Radke vs. Opposing Fireballer” pitching matchups of old.  The Twins batters need to get to the “other Santana” before he can get into one of his patented strikeout grooves, while Slowey needs to work his usual control-driven magic.

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching

Bullpen.jpgAfter managing to take the series from Oakland at the Metrodome, the Twins embarked on the longest road trip (two weeks) in perhaps team history.  The first opponent on the docket was Anaheim, who just happened to have the best record in the American League.  Remarkably, however, two games into the “open road” that Twins have reclaimed first place in the AL Central, due primarily to their dominant pitching.

On Thursday night, both teams scratched out single runs in the early innings, then the pitchers started shutting the door.  For the Twins, Baker went eight innings and allowed the one earned run before being pulled in favor of the lately shaky (yet now at least somewhat rested) bullpen.  Boy, did the ‘pen ever respond!  Matt Guerrier pitched two scoreless innings, while Crain threw perhaps his most impressive inning all season, retiring Mark Texiera, Vlad Guerrero, and Torii Hunter on just six pitches.  Then, after Hunter dropped a ball in center that Nick Punto turned into a triple and eventually scored on, Joe Nathan slammed the door closed (two Ks) and lowered his ERA to 0.98, or Dennis Eckersley-like numbers.

Last night, the mound presence came from starter Glen Perkins, who shut out the powerful Angels through eight innings on just five hits.  As a result of that great pitching, the Twins’ bats were able to get comfortable against lefty Joe Saunders to the tune of nine runs.  Denard Span (3-4, HR, 4 RBI, 1 R) and Delmon Young (2-4, HR, 3 RBI, 2 R) led the charge.

Thus, with those two victories (coupled with a ChiSox loss Friday) the Twins moved into first place in their division by half a game.

Notes:

-At the risk of being redundant, or sounding too much like Bert Blyleven (!), the rest of the Twins’ season WILL be determined by the strength of their starting pitching.  If the starters can regularly pitch deep into games and keep the bullpen fresh, I think the Twins are the favorites to win the division (as good pitching beats good hitting).  However, the concern is that not one Twins starter has ever pitched 200 innings in the major leagues, so they are all big question marks come September.

-Also, the mark of a good offensive team is the ability of different players to step up and produced on any given night.  Right now, Morneau is struggling at the plate, but guys like Span, Young, and Kubel are picking the team up.  Eventually, Morneau will come back around and someone else will struggle.

Preview (74-54, 1st, 0.5 GA CWS): Nick Blackburn (9-7, 3.71) vs. Jon Garland (11-8, 4.33).  A split on the road is great, but an early series win would be heaven!

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