Results tagged ‘ Rays ’

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.

ALCS Predictions: The New Postseason Kings

PapiTwin.jpgHow quickly have we forgotten 2004 and 2007?  After watching the media coverage of the ALCS that begins on Friday night in Tampa Bay, there has been almost an overwhelming consensus that the upstart Rays will dethrone the defending-champion Red Sox and reach the first World Series in franchise history (of course, every Ray victory has some sort of historical significance these days!).  Not so fast, people…

Let’s look at this series a game at a time.  The series opens in Tropicana Field, where the Rays have been nearly a completely different than they are at home, but who really thinks the Rays will win both of those first two home games against the playoff-savvy Sox?  Game 1 pits Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3, 2.90) against James Shields (14-8, 3.56), while Game 2 is Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03) vs. Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49).  I’d actually favor the Sox in both games, but let’s say (for home-field advantage sake) that the series is even when it moves back into Fenway.

This is where things are sure to get interesting, as it is the classic case of “postseason aura” (which the Red Sox have finally wrestled away from the Yankees) vs. “young team that isn’t intimidated” (the Rays have never experienced this situation before, so how can they be too overwhelmed?).  In that scenario, however, I will take the most experienced team any day of the week.  Although the pitching matchups in Game Three, Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70), and Game Four, Tim Wakefield (10-11, 4.13) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38), perhaps swing a little bit toward the Rays (at least compared to the first two games), I’ll still take the experienced hurlers over the green ones.  Even if the series is 2-2 after four games, the pitching matchups will be who has the best bullpen, and what starters can come back effectively on short rest.  All four Sox starters are battle-tested, while all the Rays are first-timers.  As a Twins fan, I would not feel too confident on a guy like Matt Garza coming back in a game seven facing, say, Tim Wakefield.

Offensively both clubs can score runs.  In fact, I think the only way Tampa Bay can win this series is if they completely outscore the BoSox, and by a large margin at that.  However, the Boston lineup has developed a habit of producing in the clutch, with guys like David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Jason Bay, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, and some guy you would never expect (Jedd Lowrie?!) providing the back-breaking hits to the opposition.  I thought that the departure of Manny Ramirez would really hurt Boston come postseason time, but Manny’s replacement, Jason Bay, has performed admirably after escaping Pittsburgh.

My “official” prediction, then, is for Boston to defeat Tampa Bay in six games.  The Rays have had a great ride, but I think that the playoff experience of nearly every Boston player will be too much for the scrappy Rays to overcome.  However, I would expect to see many close, hard-fought games.  Whereas the Yankees of old developed their “mystic and aura” in the playoffs by crushing opponents, the Red Sox have won in the playoffs by getting the late-inning clutch hits.

ALDS Predictions

AmericanLeagueLogo.jpgNow that the Chicago White Sox are the final entree into the AL playoffs (tear), here are my predictions for the ALDS:

Boston Red Sox vs. Anaheim Angels: I’ll take the Angels in four games for this series.  The Halos have easily been the best AL team the entire season, and have been resting up for October baseball for weeks.  True, the Red Sox have good pitching (Beckett, Daisuke, Lester), but lingering injuries are a big issue for them.  Personally, I’d take Lackey, Santana, and Saunders any day.  Offensively, the Sox know how to score runs, but who knows how they will react to a non-Manny Ramirez postseason (i.e. can Jason Bay or someone else step up in the clutch?).  Besides 2002, when they won the World Series, the Angels’ postseasons have been doomed by an inability to score runs.  That’s why guys like Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter were brought in, to pair with Vlad the Destroyer and a deep lineup that can beat you out of any slot.

Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in four.  No, I don’t like the Rays just because their opponent is the sworn enemy of my Twins.  I just think that Chicago really isn’t that great of a team (I think I would have picked the Twins to lose to TB as well).  Both teams can pitch, but Tampa Bay’s offense is better built to score runs in the pitching-dominated postseason…Chicago’s sluggers will strike out too much.  The big factor in this series, though, is the first two games being played in Tampa, where the Rays have been nearly unbeatable.  This could easily be one of those series where the home team wins every game, but I think TB can pick one off in the Windy City to win earlier than that.

Playoff Notes:

-Philadelphia beat Milwaukee earlier today thanks to the strong pitching of Cole Hammels.  Of course, Mr. Automatic Win (C.C. Sabathia) is on the mound for the Brewers in Game Two, so this series will be even very soon. 

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)?!

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