Results tagged ‘ Justin Morneau ’

17 Drab Innings…Then A Walkabout

Though I was a bit crushed that I had to work at night on the day of the Twins’ home opener against the Seattle Mariners, I taped the game and watched it later in the evening.  Gee, that was worth it.  First, this guy…

Felix.jpg

…”King” Felix Hernandez, completely shuts down our bats.  Even in the sparse situations we scraped together that could have produced runs, Felix would always get out of the jam either via a strike out (usually Michael Cuddyer, who whiffed three times) or a double play (Justin Morneau).  This was especially frustrating due to the fact that it wasted a pretty decent effort from our mound man..

DingerCisco.jpg

Sure, Francisco Liriano gave up three dingers, but one came after a glaring error from Alexi Casilla.  All told, he pitched very well and just didn’t get any offensive support.

So, I went to bed hoping that the next day’s matchup (which I would be watching on TV…or so I thought) would produce a much better result.  The next morning, however, I was informed that my grandparents (who live in the Metro area suberbs…Fridley, to be exact) had received four free tickets from a Target store promotion and were wondering if my brother and I wanted to go with them?!  Stupid question, as we headed out the door right away!

Game #2 of 162 proved to be much more exciting than the previous one…and perhaps the next 160!  Of course, it didn’t start out so great, as our guy…

BlackieSeattle.jpg

…Nick Blackburn found himself down 4-0 after just four innings.  RBI hits from Denard Span and Cuddyer (he was basically either whiffing badly or driving in runs all game) brought the Twins to within one run for the middle innings, but Luis Ayala surrendered another Mariner run in the top of the ninth.  Thus, new Seattle closer Brandon Morrow was summoned to the Dome mound with a 5-3.  That’s when things started to get interesting:

Morrow got two quick outs in Joe Crede and Delmon Young, but Carlos Gomez put together a surprisingly good at-bat (he would have K’d on four pitches last season in that spot) and drew a walk.  Jason Kubel was called on to pinch-hit for Jose Morales (who had struck out in all three previous at-bats), and Kubel used patience to his advantage to coax another base-on-balls.

Then, with the Jumbotron at the Dome flashing the “Walks Will Haunt” graphic, Morrow walked a third straight batter (Brian Buscher) and was pulled in favor of Miguel Batista.  By this time the lineup had turned over again, so Span The Man stepped in and hit a high chopper that Adrian Beltre couldn’t will down into his glove fast enough, making the score 5-4.

This brought Alexi Casilla to the plate, and my flashback started…the last time I was at the Metrodome, Lexi singled to center field with the bases loaded against the Chicago White Sox to complete the late-season sweep.  This time, Casilla again ripped the first pitch he saw into center, plating both the tying and winning runs…

BuscherWin.jpg

 

Though this wasn’t the greatest run-differential the Twins have ever come back from, it still has to go down in team history as one of the great late-inning victories due to the fact that all the action transpired with two outs.  When Buscher slide across the plate and was mobbed by his teammates, what was left of the 23,700 announced crowd was in a bedlam!

Man, I think I need to starting getting to more of these games…whenever I’m there, something crazy seems to happen.

Preview (1-1, 2nd, 0.5 GB CWS): Kevin Slowey (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Carlos Silva (0-0, 0.00).  Though Silva is gone from “Fatboy” to “Slim” over the off-season, he still lives and dies by the sinker.  If “on” he can be maddening.  If not, he WILL get pounded.

3 Up…or 3 Down?

andersoncallingbullpen-739405.jpgI will be very busy in the upcoming days leading up to the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day on April 6th, so I just wanted to post a few season-preview thoughts before the regular season campaign kicks off.

The way I see it, there are three areas in which the Twins need to excel this season in order to win the division crown.  In all honesty, these areas are pretty much the same for all other teams as well, but the Twins have their own unique challenges:

1. First, the starting pitching quintet of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins needs to continue to keep the team in games.  This is the most important cog in the machine, as if the quality starts keep pouring in the Twins will at the very least compete no matter how bad the bullpen or offense stinks.  The old baseball adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” holds as true now as it always has.  I mean, if say Johan Santana faced no one but Ichiro Suzuki all season long, the very best that Ichiro could do is get a hit four times in every ten at-bats.  Thus, the starting rotation is the anchor of every staff, and the Twins’ staff is still a bit of a question mark:

Baker: Has ace-type repertoire but struggles to pitch into the later innings.  Is usually up around 100 pitches by the fifth inning or so, putting a strain on the bullpen.

Cisco: Could dominate, could fall apart due to control issues.

Slowey: This is the guy I think is poised for a huge season.  He is essentially the second coming of Brad Radke, only with a better assortment of pitches.  Just needs to work on limiting damaging situations, as they tend to snow-ball on him pretty quick.

Blackie: As a play-to-contact, ground ball sort of pitcher, Blackburn walks the fine line between Carlos Silva and Jack Morris.  On some days he can be the most frustrating guy in the world to drive the ball off of, while on other days he gets lit up.

Perkins: The great unknown.  Was very up-and-down last season…showed flashes of both excellence and utter failure.

So, the extent to which that rotation comes together is the biggest factor in how the Twins will finish in the standings in 2009.

2. The bullpen, however, isn’t far behind.  Whereas I am confident that the starting five can find a way to hold up their end of the bargain, I’m not nearly as sold on the bullpen, which looks to include:

Joe Nathan: The only sure-bet of the bunch.  Will blow a few (who doesn’t…well, besides Brad Lidge last year), but let’s just say that a “down” year would be an ERA over 2.00.

Jesse Crain: Pretty much the root of all frustration in the world. Was overhyped even when he was good, but does have a glimmer of hope in that now is arm is finally “back” after having surgery a while back.

Matt Guerrier: Will have to prove that last year’s collapse WAS just a fluke (or due to fatigue), not because batters just figured him out.

Craig Breslow: The lefty-lefty specialist.  Will likely do a good job, and is an upgrade over Dennis “Throw One WP And Leave The Game” Reyes.

Luis Ayala: Don’t know much about his guy, only that he came from the Nats (not a good sign) and struggled mightily last year.  Has potential…but so did Mike Fetters.

The final bullpen spot, thought to be filled by Jose Mijares until he came to camp looking like Hideki Irabu, is now up for grabs between newcomer Brian Duensing, Philip Humber (obtained in the Santana trade), and R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer.

All in all, that is not a very impressive bunch.  Like I said, Nathan is solid, but getting to him will be the difficult part.  Someone is going to have to step up and become the eighth inning man that guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Juan Rincon were in the past.

3. Finally, I would like to quickly comment on the Twins’ offense.  Here is a sample lineup that the Twins could trot out on a semi-day basis:

Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Crede, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Nick Punto.

Essentially, it would likely be the best starting lineup the Twins have had in quite some time (plus Carlos Gomez off the bench).  However, I am very wary of predicting a high offensive turnout from this bunch, as it so rarely happens up here in MN.  It seems as if the Twins are much better at developing pitchers than hitters (perhaps due to the small-ball philosophy that reins hitters in instead of turning them loose?), so even a lineup that looks rock-solid can quickly turn gooey.  Actually, I think the biggest positive this season, as opposed to ’06 or ’08, is that no old fogeys are being counted on to produce.  The days of experimenting with guys like Tony Batista, Rondell White, Mike Lamb, and (cringe) even Bret Boone seem to be behind the Twins, with the lineup now given over completely to the young veterans and just youngsters period.

So there you have it…how the Twins perform in those three areas will go very far in determining their division standings come October.  Hopefully before the season begins I will post an article about my divisional predictions for MLB (if it ever stops snowing here to allow the mail through!).

We Are Family (Minus One)

koskie.jpgI was saddened to hear yesterday that former Twin, Blue Jay, and Brewer Corey Koskie announced his retirement from professional baseball.  As Twins fans, how can we not respect the tenacity that Koskie showed for the game of baseball, as he was one of those guys without much raw talent that needed every ounce of skill in his body to hit .280, 20 HR, and play fabulous defense at the hot corner.  Sadly, however, his strange concussion-like malady has now forced him to leave the game he loves.  Though even he admitted he could probably play through the discomfort, he did not want to put himself through another rough year or two, and with young children growing up at home I don’t know how you can blame him for that.

During my time as a writer for the University Register at the University of Minnesota, Morris, I penned an article about Koskie (and other former Twins) that I thought would be appropriate to share on this blog.  Just remember that the article is a wee bit dated (written just in advance of the start of the ’07 season), but the basic principles of the piece still hold true:

Over the last seven seasons, the Minnesota Twins have become a perennial powerhouse in the American League.  Yet, besides a winning product on the field, the Twins have created a family-type atmosphere that makes them so endearing and fun to watch.  While many baseball teams disperse their own separate ways the minute a game is completed (i.e. the New York Yankees), the Twins stick together, evidenced by the roommate pairing of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau last season.  Journeyman players who have wandered the major leagues or young rookies fresh from the bush leagues can be considered “part of the family” once assigned a Twins uniform.  However, in order to stay competitive in baseball’s current economy, many a fine Twins “family member” has needed to be disowned.  In almost all cases, leaving the Twins’ family produced disastrous results…

Christian Guzman–Endeared himself to Twins fans in 2001 with his unusual goatee and that “bionic sound” he made while scampering to third base with another triple.  Since leaving the Twins after 2004, Guzy batted .219 for the Washington Nationals in 2005 and missed the entire ’06 season due to shoulder surgery.

Matt Lawton–Lawton was the most talented Twins outfielder during the doldrums of the late 1990s.  Never sniffed .300 after leaving the Twins via a trade in ’01 and was busted for steroids with the Yankees in 2005.

A.J. Pierzynski–You know the fan who gets a few beers in him and annoys the heck out of his entire section?  A.J. Pierzynski was that guy’s hero.  Pierzynski is still a quality catcher for the Chisox, but his trade brought the Twins Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser.

Luis Rivas–A mainstay (admittedly if only because of a lack of depth) at the second base position from 2001-2004 and often single-handedly defeated the Kansas City Royals.  Could not make the Tampa Bay Devils Rays roster in 2006, one year after the Twins released him.

David Ortiz–The one who got away.  The gregarious “Big Papi” was a fan-favorite in 2001-2002, but also quite injury-prone, leading to his departure.  Ortiz latched on with Boston and is now arguably major league baseball’s biggest superstar.

Doug Mientkiewicz–Led the Twins’ surge to prominence in 2001, but is now best remembered for stealing a baseball, not hitting or catching one.

Eric Milton–A solid, if not spectacular, starting pitcher for the Twins who pitched a no-hitter in 1999.  Now regularly leads the NL in home runs allowed.

Joe Mays–Highly-touted Twins prospect who, after one great season (2001) fizzled out.  Was recently cut from LA Dodgers training camp.

Jacque Jones–Teamed with Torii Hunter to create the “Soul Patrol” outfield but could not be afforded after 2005.  Last year, Jacque was a steady contributor (.285, 27 home runs) for the Chicago Cubs.

LaTroy Hawkins–After first succeeding (then failing miserably) as a closer, “Hawk” became a premier middle reliever before pricing himself out of a Twins uniform.  Hasn’t been nearly as dominant since leaving Minnesota (4.48 ERA in 60 innings for the Orioles last season) and still collapses in pressure situations.

Eddie Guardado–“Everyday Eddie” earned his nickname as a middle reliever, but transformed himself into a reliable (if not spectacular) closer.  Recently, Eddie has become anything but reliable due to chronic left elbow problems.

Yet, there is one player who has fallen on especially hard times after leaving the Twins family.  The name noticeably absent from this nostalgic list is Corey Koskie.  In 2001, Koskie banded together with Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, and Doug Mientkiewicz in order to bring winning baseball back to Minnesota, much like Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Kirby Puckett did in the early 1980s.

Koskie debuted with the Twins organization in 1999 where, at third base and right field, he made an immediate splash (.310 batting average) on a punchless team.  However, Koskie struggled mightily with his third base defense, not exhibiting enough quickness or range to play the position.  Yet, on a team where playoff aspirations were nonexistent, Koskie was given the time necessary to develop his fielding skills, eventually molding himself into a perennial Gold Glove candidate, with his diving stops and on-target throws (even if he did have to occasionally bounce them off the old Metrodome turf) becoming commonplace.

After being a key contributor to the Twins’ playoff teams of 2002-2004, Koskie was courted by a number of teams who coveted the slick-fielding, decent power/average third baseman.  Though pursued by the Twins, Koskie was ultimately signed by the Toronto Blue Jays of his native Canada.  Before leaving Minnesota, in a gesture demonstrating his appreciation of the Twins’ organization and fans, Koskie took out full-page ads in both the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune expressing his gratitude for being allowed to thrive in Minnesota.

After a disappointing and injury-riddled season in Toronto, Koskie again changed teams, this time heading to Milwaukee.  With a fast start to 2006, Koskie seemed to be getting his career back on track until disaster struck on July 5.  While chasing a pop-up at Miller Park, Koskie overran the ball, had to bend backwards, and ended up falling to the ground, his neck whip-lashing before impact.  While the incident did not seem overly violent, Koskie’s next at-bat was like something out of the fifth dimension of the Twilight Zone, complete with images coming in and out of focus and spells of dizziness.

Since that day, Koskie has not played an inning of baseball for the Brewers.  A week after the concussion, Koskie tried returning to the Brewers’ lineup, but was overcome by dizziness, fatigue, and nausea, requiring him to leave the field once again.  After visiting a neuropsychologist, Koskie was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome from his fall.  For the rest of that season, Koskie could only work out in small increments without the symptoms returning.  His head injury even affected his family life, as watching his son’s hockey games became impossible due to the bright lights giving him terrible headaches. 

As for 2007 season begins, Koskie has begun rehabilitating both mind and body at his home in Minnesota, hoping to rejoin his team at the earliest possible date.  Though post-concussion symptoms can last for years, Koskie seems to be on track to the major leagues again, as evidence by rising scores on the reaction-time and cognitive ability tests he regularly undergoes.  According to Koskie himself (in an interview with the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse), “I’m going to play again.  I’m sure of that.  If I wasn’t, I would have a lot more depression to deal with.”

In 1982, a promising young outfielder named Jim Eisenreich debuted with the Minnesota Twins.  After suffering several mystifying seizures at his left field post, Eisenreich was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, putting his major league career in serious jeopardy.  However, after three years of undergoing treatment, Eisenreich returned to the major leagues.  In 1993 he helped the Philadelphia Phillies to the National League Championship by batting .318.  In 1996 he hit .361 with the Phillies, and ’97 brought him a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins.  Hopefully, Corey Koskie can do much of the same.

 

AL MVP and Back To The Division

Peddy.jpgTwo MLB notes I wanted to report today…

1. Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox was named AL MVP.  The Twins’ Justin Morneau was second in the balloting (although not a close second), and Joe Mauer was fourth.  As much as it would have been fun to see a Twin win the award for the second time in three seasons, Pedroia deserved the hardware after having perhaps the best season by a second baseman in the history of modern baseball.  His defense was flawless, and he can hit for power, shoot the gaps, and run extremely well.  He should be a force in the AL for many years to come.  Albert Pujols took home the NL MVP.

2. Just today, it was announced that the Red Sox traded CF Coco Crisp to the Kansas City Royals for relief pitcher Ramon Ramirez.  Just what the Twins needed…another quality player (and one who would single-handedly beat us when he was in Cleveland, at that) joining a division foe.

2B: The Rabbit

LexiSlideReview.jpg

The Twins started the 2008 series with Brendan Harris (acquired from the Rays in the Matt Garza trade) installed at second base.  After a month or two of sluggish fielding from Harris, however, the Twins called up young Alexi Casilla from Triple-A to man the second sack.  Yes, that was the same Casilla whose boneheaded plays were seen night after night as the Twins wallowed into obscurity at the end of 2007.  This time, however, things were much different…

During this season, in 385 at-bats, Casilla netted 108 hits, scored 58 runs, drove in 50, and hit .281 in the process.  More importantly, though, was the stability Casilla brought to the Twins’ lineup once manger Ron Gardenhire planted him in the #2 hole for good.  Sure, Nick Punto is great at bunting leadoff guys around the bases, but Little Nicky often breaks down (either physically or talent-wise) when used for an entire season.  So, Casilla was a perfect fit to bat behind Gomez/Span throughout the later months of the season, as his speed really put the screws to opposing pitchers.

Defensively, Casilla was spectacular.  Whereas at the end of 2007 Alexi played himself back to the minor leagues with one fielding blunder after another, it was obvious this season that all those kinks were worked out, as Casilla now makes every play required of him (and many that are not!).  Essentially, he’s Luis Castillo without the balky knees.

As far as areas of improvement, there are two things that Casilla could work on in order to become a more well-rounded player: First, he still needs to keep his head in the game on the basepaths.  Every once in awhile, he would get thrown out at a base for no apparent reason, or make a bad judgment call.  It was probably just the excitability factor that is inherent in all young players, but it still needs to be tamed just a bit.  Second, Casilla also needs to work on driving the ball more.  He did hit for a decent average in 2008, but most of those hits were singles.  Every once in awhile we saw Alexi’s ability to turn on a pitch and launch it either into the gap or over the right-field fence, but those occurences were much too few and far between.  I’m not saying he should turn into a power hitter, but he could really keep defenses honest (not just playing in all the time) if he could start driving the ball more.

However, those weaknesses (keeping a cool head and driving the ball) are areas that all young players likely need to work on, and are pretty nit-picky at that.  With a full season under his belt, Alexi Casilla will likely continue to give the Twins that dimension of speed that so often powers the offense when the big sluggers aren’t slugging.

Twins Notes:

-I heard the other day that the Twins are going to (and perhaps already did) pick up their $900,000 option on backup catcher Mike Redmond for 2009.  Print the World Series tickets now…(I shouldn’t joke, though, as I wish Justin Morneau had someone to back him up like Joe Mauer has in Red Dog).

Playoff Notes:

-ALCS Game Three Pitching Matchups (Boston 1, Tampa Bay 1): Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70).  It will be interesting to see how the fiery former Twin Garza handles the pressure-cooker of October baseball in Fenway Park.

-NLCS Game Four Pitching Matchups (Philadelphia 2, Los Angeles 1): Joe Blanton (9-12, 4.69) vs. Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24).  Lowe was beaten by the Phillies in Game One of this series, but if anyone can come back on short rest in the postseason it’s the grizzled Lowe.

1B: Everything We Asked For (And Probably A Bit Too Much…)

MornyDerbyReview.jpgWhat did Justin Morneau NOT accomplish during the 2008 season?!  His offensive stats read as follows: 683 AB, 97 R, 187 H, 47 2B (a new team record), 23 HR, 129 RBI, and .300 BA, far and away leading the rest of the team in nearly all of those categories (and likely garnering him at least a few MVP ballots behind probable winner Dustin Pedroia).  Defensively, Morneau has also developed himself into an above-average (and borderline spectacular) defenseman (much like Corey Koskie did years ago).  Oh, and on a personal level, Morneau won the MLB Home Run Derby and scored the winning run in the All-Star Game.  What’s to complain about, right?

While Justin (much like his buddy Joe Mauer) was the team MVP throughout the 2008 season, he also seemed to succumb to a bit of fatigue at certain points (163 games will do that to a player).  Basically, he carried the team when he was hot, but also was abhorrent when he was cold (like the last week of the season).  I hope that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will view this as just another learning experience with his always-potential MVP candidate, as it would be smart to give him a few days off next season whether or not it messes up the lineup.

In order for that to happen, though, the Twins may need to go out a sign a part-time player (much like Mike Redmond does at the catcher position) to play 1B, or give Brian Buscher a bit more work at the position so they at least feel moderately comfortable giving the Big Canuck some rest.

All in all, it was a great season for Morneau and I hope he continues his success in subsequent seasons, as he is the rock that our offensive lineup is built on.

Playoff Notes:

-Talk about some bad blood in Los Angeles…the Dodgers got back into their NLCS with a 7-2 win over Philadelphia.  Besides some early offensive fireworks from the men in Blue (knocking Phillies’ starter Jamie Moyer in the second inning), both benches also emptied when Hiroki Kuroda (the Dodgers’ starting pitcher) threw over the head of Shane Victorino, with Manny Ramirez leading the charge out of the home dugout.  A bunch of other beanballs were exchanged (whether intentional or not) during the contest, setting up a Game Four tomorrow night that was the potential for high drama.

-Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays evened the series with the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, but with the series moving to Fenway Park tomorrow afternoon, does anyone really think the Rays will take two of three on that hallowed ground.  IF this series goes back to The Trop, it WILL be with the Sox holding the advantage.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.