September 2008

One Swing Of The Bat

ThomeClincher.jpgWhen your favorite baseball team is done playing for the year, there are many conflicting emotions/memories that accompany that harsh finality.  I will get to that tomorrow, when my head is a little clearer and I’m not so disappointed.  Tonight, I would just like to talk about game #163:

In the early innings, it became clear that barring a bullpen collapse, this would be a pitcher’s duel right down to the end.  While Blackburn dominated the Sox, the Twins could only eek out a few walks against John Danks, and those walks never amounted to any sort of threat.  Perhaps an early turning point in the game occurred when, after Denard Span drew a leadoff walk in the top of the first, Alexi Casilla could not get down a sacrifice bunt and ended up hitting into a line-drive double play because of that failure (the hit-and-run was on).

The next seminal moment came in the top of the fifth, when Michael Cuddyer doubled and moved over to third on a sacrifice fly.  Brendan Harris then lifted a pop to short centerfield, and Cuddyer tagged up, only to be gunned down at the plate by Ken Griffey Jr’s throw and A.J. Pierzynski holding on to the ball after a collision.  To be honest, I don’t think I would have sent Cuddy in that situation.  I attended all three Chicago-Twins contests at the Dome last week, and about the ONLY thing that impressed me about the Sox during that time was the arm strength of Griffey.  He may have lost a step or two range-wise, but he still has a gun.  Add to that the fact that Cuddyer isn’t the fleetest of foot, and only a single would have been needed (Punto was on deck) to score him, and I would have given him the stop sign.  However, I do not fault the Twins a whole lot for taking the risk, as they play an aggressive game of baseball tailored to press the defense.  It took a good throw and good catch to make the play, and the Sox turned in both.

From that point, the Twins’ bats were completely shut down by John Danks.  I would like to tip my hat to Danks, as he pitched remarkably on three-days rest and after the Twins had hammered him all season long to that point.  Nick Blackburn also pitched the game of his life, and I want to make sure to give him his due.  With Blackburn during the season, it was either feast (ground balls off sinker) or famine (flat pitches = home runs/gappers).  Tonight, Blackburn was “on” to nearly every batter.  What ended up getting him, though, was exactly what the White Sox use to win games…the long ball.  Only so many times (I don’t care if you’re Nick Blackburn or Johan Santana) can a pitcher go through the Dye-Thome-Konerko-Griffey gauntlet successfully.  So, in the seventh inning tonight, Blackburn got tagged by Thome, which proved to be the margin of victory.

The tail-end of the contest saw good pitching by the Twins (from Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan out of the pen), but still silent bats.  It amazes me how one week earlier Bobby Jenks (CHW closer) couldn’t get any outs against us, but tonight he can completely shut us down.

Overall, tonight’s contest was a taut, well-fought game that the Twins can come out of with their heads held high.  We held the most powerful lineup in baseball to one run (and hardly any threats), but were just shut down by masterful pitching.  So many times during the season I have commented that you can sometimes tell that the Twins are going to go down meekly, but I honestly didn’t feel that way tonight…Danks was just on his game.

Notes:

-I am going to comment on this further in later posts, but the Twins really missed the bat of Justin Morneau the last few weeks.  Yes, he’s been in the lineup every day, but he has been completely ineffective (as much as it pains me to say that).  In the local papers over the past month, I have read again and again how Morneau was getting worn down by playing every game of the season, and perhaps that just caught up to him.  It’s a touchy situation (resting Justin), as he is the anchor of the lineup.  But, this could just be a learning experience for Gardy, that next year at this time Morneau may NEED a little rest in order to remain effective.  Over the past season, Morneau had hammered (7-9 I believe) John Danks, but tonight he looked absolutely overmatched.

-Finally, I would like to congratulate Jim Thome on his exciting moment.  Over the last few years, I have generally not liked the many complainers/whiners/jerks/ that the White Sox have featured.  However, I have all the respect in the world for Jim Thome.  Just by watching his post-game interviews I can tell that he is a good man, good teammate, and just a good figure to root for.  When I look back on the 1990s and 2000s, I considered Thome to be one of the best (factoring in steroids) power hitters of the era, right next to Manny Ramirez.

After a night of sleep, I will be back tomorrow with a more over-arching view of the 2008 Minnesota Twins season, as well as a preview of the two ALDS contests.

NLDS Predictions

NL_logo.jpgWith the Tigers losing to the White Sox today, the Pale Hose will now host “my” Twins tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. CT on TBS.  Nick Blackburn (11-10, 4.14) will oppose John Danks (11-9, 3.47).  On the season, Blackie is 2-2 with a 5.67 ERA against Chicago, while surprisingly the Twins have gone 1-1 (7.91) against Danks on the year in four of his starts.  With that huge game still not solidifying the AL playoffs, I would first like to comment on the matchups in the National League’s Division Series:

Brewers over Phillies in 5: Although Philly has the definite edge in pitching (what with Hamels, Myers, and Moyer) and probably the bullpen, Milwaukee has the great equalizer: C.C. Sabathia.  I think that the Brewer’s pitching will be good enough to win at least one game where C.C. isn’t on the mound, as their hitters are a resilient bunch.  Plus, I can see Brad Lidge again folding in postseason play.  That combined with two wins from Sabathia will push the Brew Crew into the NLCS.

Cubs over Dodgers in 3: The Cubs have Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Rich Harden scheduled to pitch the first three games of the series.  Game Over.  The Dodgers may win in Derek Lowe’s start, but I don’t think Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda (as good as they have been in September) can wade through the deep Cubs’ lineup.  A Dodger victory in this series would be one of the bigger ALDS upsets in recent memory.

Tomorrow, once the AL playoff matchups are set, I will preview them.  Go Twins!!

One Last Shot

Shef.jpgAt the beginning of this 2008, the Detroit Tigers were many people’s consensus pick to win the AL Central division going away.  With a lineup that featured Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Edgar Rentaria, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, and Gary Sheffield (pictured above), people wondered how opposing pitchers would get through an inning against those guys, much less an entire season.  Plus, young pitchers like Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson would likely take the next step in their development, while old hand Kenny Rogers and newcomer Dontrelle Willis would anchor the top of the rotation.  Add in fireballing relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, and the Tigers would surely win at least 100 games, right?!  Well, then the season started…

The Tigers got off to a 2-10 start in the regular season, and never really recovered from that shock.  In late July, Detroit was 5.0 games behind the AL Central division leader, but never got any closer than that the rest of the way.  The bats (as most power-laden lineups are) went through tremendous hot and cold spells, while the starting pitching was atrocious from the get-go and didn’t improve much from there.  Then, because of starters not going deep into games, the relievers were overworked, overstressed, and ultimately burnt out.  Yesterday, the end of the MLB season for most clubs, the Tigers finished 74-87, locking in perhaps the most disappointing season in baseball history.

Yet, the Tigers aren’t quite done yet…due to a rainout in Chicago earlier this month, a final game between the two clubs (being delayed by rain, fittingly, as I write this blog post) will (hopefully!) take place today, with the outcome determining the fate of the AL Central.  A Tiger win will put the (my) Twins in the postseason, while a Tiger loss will set up a one-game playoff between the Twins and White Sox.

Now, one would think that the Tigers, beat up and dejected from a terrible season, would just as well want to roll over and play dead today (especially in the rainy weather).  However, two factors contribute to the contest that (hopefully, being a Twins fan!) will cause the Tigers to play with a bit of passion: First, old Sock Freddy Garcia will be pitching against his former club, which always gets the juices flowing.  Second, a win will move the Tigers out of last place in the division (hopping Kansas City) and, while not a huge victory, will at least not allow the pundits to call the club a last-place team.

So, I say to all you Tigers now: Get those bats going, find some pitching for just one day, and knock off a team at the top of the division that is fighting to get where you wanted to go.  Go Tigers!!

Wanted: AL Central Champion (Go Tigers!)

WANTED.jpg

Does anybody want to win the AL Central?!  As has been the case for practically the entire season, this weekend both the Twins and White Sox had opportunities to put the division in their respective back pockets, but again all that was achieved was the status quo.

Today, while Mark Buerhle turned in a much-needed good start for the Sox against Cleveland, Scott Baker pitched the Twins to a 6-0 victory over the somewhat spoiler KC Royals (who had won the first two games of the series).  It was another one of those games where the Twins could not get the offense going until the later innings, and thus relied on a quality start from the starting pitcher to get the victory.

So, the next step to determining a postseason candidate from the AL Central comes tomorrow, when the Detroit Tigers and the White Sox make up a game that was rained out earlier in the month.  The game time is set for 1:00 p.m. at U.S. Cellular Field.  Gavin Floyd (16-8, 3.91) will start for the Sox against former ChiSock Freddy Garcia (1-1, 4.50) of Detroit.  A win would set up a one-game playoff in Chicago on Tuesday, while a Pale Hose loss would give the Twins the division outright.  Go Tigers!

A few notes:

-If a one-game playoff were to occur, the Twins would send Nick Blackburn (11-10, 4.14) to the mound, while the White Sox will rely on John Danks (11-9, 3.47).

-Whoever makes the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Rays will be the opponent, with the first two games scheduled for Thursday and Friday at Tropicana Field.

-In the batting champion race, Joe Mauer currently sits at .330, while nearest competitor Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox is at .326.  Essentially, Mauer would have to go 0-7 in a possible Tuesday tiebreaker to lose the title.

Being There

PuntoLittle.jpgFor all Twins fans reading this blog post, you don’t need to be told the events that made the last three days so incredible for the entire Twin Cities area.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend all three games, and would just like to comment on the experience of being in the Dome when everything was going down:

For the past few years, I have always been the first to say that if I don’t have good tickets to a Twins game, I would rather stay home and watch it on TV.  I didn’t like the idea of shelling out good money to go sit in the nosebleed seats somewhere and not even be able to see where the pitches are located.  However, that entire viewpoint changed beginning last Tuesday, as the energy I felt pulsing through every rivet of the Dome was enough to convince me that just being there (even if it is row 27 of 31 in the upper deck) is well worth the sacrifice of not being keen to every pitch location.

On Tuesday night, it was the excitement of the Twins swinging for the fences, as well as the first introduction of Pierzynski (“BOOOOOOOOO”) and the great pitching of Scott Baker.

On Wednesday, it was watching Nick Blackburn get key outs at opportune moments, then rely on a usually sieve-like bullpen to be rock solid and hold the lead for Joe Nathan in the ninth, where Carlos Gomez may have turned in the catch of the year with his all-out sprint-and-lunge for a ball in the gap.

The climax of the entire experience, however, came on Thursday, when the Twins were handed an early 6-1 deficit.  Thanks to the electric small-ball of guys like Punto, Gomez, Span, and Casilla, the Twins clawed their way back into the game.  In the eighth inning, while Gomez on first and Span up to bat with the Twins trailing 6-5, Denard’s triple down the left field line created a visual I will likely never forget…Gomez streaking around the bases (did he actually leave the ground at one point?!) to score the tying run.  When Span and Gomez are mere footnotes in the history of Twins baseball (or, if they are lucky, get together at the old-timers tributes), I will still remember that combination.

Equally memorable was the game-winning hit from Alexi Casilla, which sent the Metrodome crowd into a frenzy the likes of which has not been seen in quite a while.  It takes a good deal of excitement to get me really vocal about a game (I’m usually more of a silent, nervous observer), but I was literally jumping up and up when I saw Casilla’s hit drop into center field.

The matchup between the Twins and White Sox was likely the biggest single series in Metrodome history since the Oakland/MN matchups in 1991.  Much like as a six year-old boy I remember Chili Davis tripling off Dennis Eckersley and seeing a fan throw a row of toilet paper in the general vicinity of A’s right-fielder Jose Canseco (I was at that game with my Dad and Grandpa), I now have a comparable experience.

So, as I settled in to watch tonight’s opening tilt against the Kansas City Royals, I finally realized how much I was missing by not attending.  Sure, I was privy to the location of every pitch and the analysis of the broadcasters, but at the same time I lacked that outlet for all my energy, as well as seeing the uninterrupted flight of the baseball as it sails to its ultimate destination.

Sure, the Twins had a big letdown with their big loss to KC tonight (Liriano never really gave us a chance), but the White Sox also lost to Cleveland, so everything gets rebooted and starts again tomorrow.  I, for one, cannot wait!

Preview (87-73, 1st, 0.5 GA CWS): Glen Perkins (12-4, 4.50) vs. Gil Meche (13-11, 4.05).  The key to this game will likely be how Perkins reacts to the extra rest he was given after being skipped in the rotation before the series with Chicago.

The Stage Is Set

StageSet.jpgAlthough the Twins’ bats could only get going for one inning this afternoon (scoring on hits from Redmond, Everett, and Gomez, as well as a costly TB throwing error), the strong outing from Francisco Liriano (7 IP, 1 ER, 7K) was a much-needed respite for the bullpen and a huge lift for the starting rotation.

With the victory (in splitting the Rays), the Twins will now have an off day on Monday before opening the much-anticipated 3-game matchup with the Chicago White Sox.  Realistically, a sweep of the ChiSox would give the Twins a good chance of winning the division, while taking two of three would at least keep them alive and kicking in the race.

Despite a horrendous stretch of baseball, the Twins have often looked like a completely different team at the Dome than they are on the road.  Plus, the White Sox have always had trouble winning late-season games in Minnesota, and Tuesday’s starter Javier Vazquez views the Metrodome as his own personal house of horrors.

Finally, the Twins always just seem to have a knack for coming through in a pennant race.  If you believe in the concept of “intangibles”, then the Twins should be favored to win this series.  As always, it will come down to the starting pitching and bullpens…most importantly keeping the “Sox Bombers” inside the park.

Preview (84-72, 2nd, 2.5 GB CWS): Scott Baker (9-4, 3.69) vs. Javier Vazquez (12-14, 4.32). Vazquez has a 1-4 career ledger at the Dome, while Baker also has struggled mightily against the Sox.  Both are power-style pitchers (Vazquez more so) who can rack up strikeouts but also give up the long ball. 

Saved By (De)Jesus

Rays.jpgPut simple, the Twins stunk again tonight…in nearly aspect of the game.  Kevin Slowey was roughed up for 5 earned runs over four innings, while Reyes and Guerrier also had their own struggles in relief.  The bats were held in check (even after loading the bases with no outs in the fourth inning) until they produced two garbage-time runs in the ninth, shortly before the raucous celebration above began.

Of course, in the division (AL Central) that nobody wants to win, the White Sox gave the Twins another reprieve when they lost in Kansas City, partly due to an inside-the-park homer from David DeJesus.

I am so disgusted by the Twins’ play of late that this is all I have to say tonight.  I’m not giving up until the Twins are a mathimatical impossibility to win the division, but it has been tough to watch as of late.

Preview (83-72, 2.5 GB CWS): Francisco Liriano (5-3, 3.62) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (13-7, 4.33).  With Cisco on the mound, the Twins should be given a decent chance to win…if they can take advantage.

Coming Out Flat (Again)

replay.jpgLooking at the above picture, taken when the umpires used baseball’s new instant replay system to (correctly) change a Carlos Pena double into a home run, I wonder if some of the Twins players/coaches/fans didn’t feel like taking an early exit as well.

After the exhilarating late-inning win on Thursday night, one would think that the Twins would come out fired up and ready to rock.  Unfortunately, no one relayed that sentiment to starter Nick Blackburn, who got pounded for six runs over the first inning and one third before being removed.  Faced with that large deficit, the Twins’ bats could not muster any of last night’s magic, only scoring in the sixth inning on a Joe Mauer sacrifice fly.

Any more technical details about the game would just be depressing.

Notes:

-Just when I thought that the Twins finally had their bullpen sorted out, now the starting pitchers stink.  Maddening.  Blackburn and Perkins have been horrible as of late, and I read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today that Perkins’ spot will likely be skipped due to Monday’s off-day.

Preview (83-71, 2.5 GB CWS): Kevin Slowey (12-10, 3.66) vs. Scott Kazmir (11-7, 3.50).  Slowey has been my favorite guy to watch all season (because he reminds me so much of old stalwart Brad Radke), so I am looking forward to seeing him try to pick up a crucial late-season win tomorrow.

The Little Everett Who Could

Engine.jpgComing off a terrible sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, the Twins needed to play well in this series in order to stay within striking distance of the division-leading White Sox.  Although not all aspects of the Twins’ game clicked tonight, they did manage to escape with one of the craziest wins of the season.  Both the Twins and Rays A1 and A2 in home runs given up, and that proved to be a key theme in this game:

Right away in the top of the first inning, Jason Kubel clubbed a three-run dinger to give the Twins the lead and a bit of excitement.  However, Perkins didn’t even make it out of his half of the first, surrendering two two-run home runs (to Longoria and Navarro) as well as a Gabe Gross run scoring double as the Rays took a 5-3 lead.

Joe Mauer singled in Alexi Casilla (more on him later) to move the Twins to within one, but both Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria (#2 on the night for him) homered in the fourth to pull out in front 7-4.

Another Mauer singled (scoring Gomez and Span) moved the Twins to within a run once again, but Longoria’s third homer of the contest made the score 8-6 in favor of the home team.  Remarkably, however, this was only the beginning of the game’s craziness.

After being shut down by Troy Percival in the eighth, the Twins began to build a rally off Rays closer Dan Wheeler in the top of the ninth when Span hacked a seeing-eye single to short.  The next batter, Casilla, proceed to take Wheeler deep (and out!) to right to tie the game.  Immediately following that, Mauer doubled to deep center field and Morneau was intentionally walked, bringing Trevor Miller into the game to presumably pitch to Jason Kubel.  In a very strategic move, although one that could have severely backfired, Gardy sent in Adam Everett to pinch-bunt.  With everyone in the stadium knowing the Everett would be dropping one down, he did exactly that…and saw it barely roll foul.  Then, after milking a 2-1 count, Everett squared around early to sacrifice…and promptly pulled back, put a mighty swing on the ball, and launched it deep off the left field wall to score Mauer and give the Twins a 9-8 lead!

By the time the dust settled on that remarkable ninth inning, Delmon Young and Matt Tolbert had driven in two more runs, giving Joe Nathan a 11-8 lead that he protected 1-2-3 in the ninth.  What a game!!

Notes:

-On one hand, the Twins have to be extremely disappointed with Perkins’ “start” (if you can even call it that) tonight as well as his performance as of late.  On the other hand, a comeback win is something the Twins have not enjoyed for awhile, so that has to help the clubhouse morale.

-I had a vision tonight of Alexi Casilla (with that long, looping swing of his) hitting a two-run jack in that ninth inning…I really did see it in my mind before it happened!!

-As the AL Central stands right now, I still have to give the division title to our boys.  I think we will at least split with Tampa Bay, but the only thing that could throw a wrench in my prediction is if the White Sox go to Kansas City and unpack their brooms or something like that.  I still stand by my word that if the Twins can take the division lead by winning two of three from the White Sox next week, we will do so.  I will be attending the Tuesday night ChiSox confrontation, and I’m starting to get pumped up about it already!

Preview (83-70, 2nd, 1.5 GB CWS): Nick Blackburn (10-9, 3,89) vs. Edwin Jackson (11-11, 4.33).  Who would have thought during Spring Training 2008 that the Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays would be fighting for division titles on two consecutive nationally televised games (Fri: ESPN, Sat: FOX)?!

Muscled Out Of The Jake

Pronk.jpgWith the Minnesota Twins fighting for a playoff berth in the final few weeks of this season, a visit to Cleveland to face the lowly Indians seemed to be a blessing.  Three days later, it has turned into a curse.

Last night (Tuesday), the Twins fell behind 8-1 when the Indians uncharacteristically pounded Francisco Liriano.  However, thanks to the great pitching of Boof Bonser (quite a phrase there, eh?!), the Twins mounted a furious comeback and eventually took the lead 9-8.  Of course, in typical Twins fashion of late, reliever Eddie Guardado gave up a dinger to Grady Sizemore to tie the contest, then Joe Nathan surrendered a three-run bomb to Victor Martinez for the walk-off Indian victory.

Tonight, the Indians again out-muscled the Twins.  After Minnesota took a 2-0 lead in the early innings (partially due to a homer of our own, from Carlos Gomez), both Jhonny Peralta and Travis “Pronk” Hafner homered off Baker in the fourth inning to tie the score.

The Tribe took a brief lead in the fifth when Shin-Soo Choo doubled in a run, but Morneau’s sacrifice out tied things up in the seventh.

In the bottom of the seventh, with a runner on third and two outs, Ron Gardenhire removed Jose Mijares from the game and summoned the beleaguered Matt Guerrier, whose ERA is now hovering dangerously close to the 5.00 mark.  Guerrier promptly gave up one double, then another, to give the Indians a 6-4 that they would not relinquish.

Thus, the brooms came out in Cleveland.

Notes:

-The most pertinent comment coming out of this game is why in the world did Gardy take Jose Mijares out of the game in favor of the seemingly lost Guerrier?!  Mijares had been setting down the Cleveland batters pretty easily, and the only reason a runner was on third was because of mistake from Joe Mauer (throw to second) and Denard Span (ball trickled by him).  Add to that Guerrier’s terrible second half and it really makes me scratch my head.

-Does anyone really want to win the AL Central?!  Over the past month, each team (Twins and White Sox) in contention for the crown have played terribly spotty baseball, with chances to bury the competitor nearly ever week.  Unfortunately, the Twins have been a bit worse and thus are still in second place.

Preview (82-70, 2nd, 2.5 GB CWS): Glen Perkins (12-4, 4.40) vs. James Shields (13-8, 3.50).  In years past, a trip to Tropicana Field (is that still even what it is called?!) was a vacation.  This year, with the Rays fighting tooth and nail with the Red Sox for the AL East title, it will be anything but.  The Twins’ job over this four-game series is to absolutely not lose any ground on the White Sox, while realistically they need to gain a game on the Pale Hose to give themselves more than a prayer.  The good news: Scott Kazmir is the only lefty the Twins’ bats will have to face in the series.  Also, playing in their dumpy dome might recollect some of our own home field advantage!

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