White Sox 7, Twins 4
I was watching Blackburn struggle along yesterday, not doing too much damage but certainly not looking very good, just hoping he'd somehow get us through 5 IP, which he eventually did. Gardy called on Guerrier, who has been struggling with his command so far this spring. Despite throwing a lot of balls and issuing a 2-out walk, he got through the 6th unscathed.
At that point, I tried to put myself in Gardy's shoes. You want Neshek to pitch the 8th and Nathan the 9th. But the heart of the order is coming up in the 7th, and Guerrier has been dicey so far. Crain pitched yesterday, and Rincon and Bass have had their troubles in the early-goings. Who do you count on to nurse a one-run lead through this crucial inning? I decided that the best idea would be to hope Guerrier could retire Cabrera, bring in Reyes to face Thome, and then have Neshek go after Konerko for a 4-out hold.
Guerrier did get Cabrera, but Gardy stayed with him, and his lack of control finally caught up to him. Thome walked, Konerko singled, and Neshek came in to try for a 5-out hold. Two singles and a granny later, and the game was out of reach for the Twins' still struggling offense.
Though Reyes has given up a couple of hits in his 2.1 innings, he hasn't walked anyone as yet, so I think his chances against Thome were probably better than Guerrier's. This is the first decision of Gardy's this regular season that I've really second-guessed. However, with the type of tight situations Neshek's going to be pitching in, if he's going to give up 2 singles in front of a HR in 0.2 innings, the Twins are probably going to lose no matter what else is going on. Those are the first runs he's allowed in 2008 (including spring training). I wouldn't be surprised if they're the last he gives up until May.
This game was a great illustration of how important it is to work the starting pitcher and get into the opponent's middle relief. By making Blackburn throw 90 pitches in 5 innings, the Sox put the Twins in a very uncomfortable position, where they had to stretch Guerrier a little longer than they'd like, bring in Neshek a little earlier than they'd like. Having long ABs takes the other team out of their comfort zone.
The Twins were well on their way to doing the same thing to the Sox. They had forced Javier Vazquez to throw 72 pitches through the first four innings, scoring 3 runs on 7 hits and a walk. He had 3 straight 19 pitch innings, and the 1st could have gotten there very easily had Delmon Young not followed Morneau's 5-pitch walk with a 1st-pitch GIDP. Keep that up, and he might have trouble finishing the 6th. But, after Span led off the 5th with a line-out on the 5th pitch, the next 8 batters went down in order on 21 pitches. The worst was the 6th inning, when Young flied out on the 1-0 pitch, Kubel popped out on the 1st pitch, and Harris struck out on three pitches. Blecch.
When the Twins did get into the middle relief in the 8th, they got back to business, grinding Scott Linebrink for 25 pitches, 2 hits and a walk. The damage could have been even greater had Jermaine Dye not run down Kubel's drive to the gap in right-center (second game in a row Kubel's been robbed out there).
My question is: why let up at all? Part of the reason they got 3 runs and 8 baserunners off Vazquez was the fact that they were patient and making him throw their pitch. The Sox dugout was antagonistic towards the plate umpire - he was giving the Twins good calls. Why take the pressure off the pitcher by hacking at whatever slop he serves up?
This brings us to the second phase of this post:
Span vs. Gomez
Gomez did his thing leading off the game: bunt single, SB, scored a run, 1-0 Twins. His second AB was his best of the year: 7 pitches, recovering from 1-2 to work the count full before striking out. After that, he did his other thing: 2-pitch flyout, 3-pitch strikeout, 2-pitch GIDP. Through his first 34 PAs, he has 11 hits and a walk, but also 10 K, and is averaging 3.41 pitches/PA. In 13.5% of the Twins' PAs yesterday, he saw 11.4% of the pitches thrown by the Sox.
Span had a fantastic day as the #2 hitter. He took 4 pitches in his first AB waiting for Gomez to steal, then hit behind him to advance him to third. He slapped a leadoff single on the 6th pitch for his first Major League hit in the 3rd, stole a base, but was stranded at 3rd. He led off the 5th with the aforementioned 5th-pitch liner to Crede. He led off again in the 8th, after the Twins had suffered a demoralizing 5-run rally by the Sox, and ground out a 10-pitch walk to start a rally that would eventually bring the tying run to the plate. In his 7 PAs so far, he's 1-5 with 2 BBs, 0 K, and is averaging 5.86 pitches/PA. In 10.8% of the Twins' PAs yesterday, he saw 19.7% of the pitches thrown by the Sox.
These patterns are a continuation of what we saw in spring training. Though I'm sure he won't be in the lineup against the lefty tomorrow night, I hope the Twins will give Span enough PAs to illustrate what should be clear to everyone by now: Span can help the team more right now. Stay tuned.