Sunday, June 22, 2008

From Modest Beginnings Come Big Innings

Twins 7, Diamondbacks 2
Twins 6, Diamondbacks 1
Twins 5, Diamondbacks 3

The Diamondbacks' pitchers did a great job of shutting down the Twins' offense in 21 of 24 IP. In the other 3, the Twins enjoyed timely hitting as fine as anything the White Sox did two weeks ago (minus the HRs). This makes 5 straight games in which the Twins have scored 4 or more runs in a single inning, nearly batting around as they do. It's beginning to feel like it's just a matter of time before everything starts dropping in, and that's a very good feeling for a team to take onto the field against pitchers the likes of Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb (and, coming this Tuesday, Jake Peavy). It's brought them all the way back from their atrocious last road trip and positioned them to once again compete for the division.

I didn't think it accurate to see in some of the write-ups that Randy Johnson got "knocked around" on Friday. That one bad inning began with an infield hit from Delmon Young, followed by a drive off the baggy from Brendan Harris for a double. Matt Macri chopped a 2-run single up the middle that seemed to take forever to get into CF. After Carlos Gomez flied out, Alexi Casilla delivered a bunt single, Macri hustling to 3rd on an errant throw from the catcher. Joe Mauer hit a SF to left, Casilla taking second on a close play at the plate. Justin Morneau grounded the next pitch into LF for an RBI single, and moved to 2nd on a close play at the plate. Craig Monroe capped the rally with a 1st-pitch HR just over the wall in left-center. 6 R on 6 H, but only 2 balls really hit hard. A lot of the hits Johnson gave up on Friday were the result of curious defensive placement - SS Stephen Drew played deep in the hole vs. most righties, and several of them took advantage by grounding singles up the middle that would have been routine outs given normal positioning.

Saturday night's big rally began with a well-placed bunt single by Mauer (despite a valiant fielding attempt from brand-new 3B Augie Ojeda). Morneau hooked a 1-2 slider into the RF corner for an RBI double, then moved to third when the short-hop throw from the cutoff man bounced away from the catcher. With the infield in, Michael Cuddyer grounded to short, then Jason Kubel walked on 5 pitches. Delmon Young went with a fastball on the outer half and drove an RBI single to RF, then he and Kubel moved up a base on a wild pitch. Brian Buscher worked ahead in the count, then drove a ball to the base of the wall in LF, scoring 2. Harris immediately grounded a pitch past the diving 1B, driving in Buscher. Gomez struck out on 4 pitches, none of which were in the strike zone. Casilla took the first 3 pitches for balls, then grounded the 3-2 pitch up the middle to drive in the 6th run. It looked to me like the only bad pitch of the inning was the double to Buscher - everything else was nice hitting by the Twins.

The fifth inning today began with a ground-ball single to CF by Kubel. Young followed with a fly to deep left that was blessedly lost in the day-game roof and fell for a double. Buscher took advantage by grounding a 2-RBI single up the middle. Harris grounded the 1st pitch he saw through the left side for a single. Gomez laid down a perfect Sac bunt, setting up Casilla for another 2-RBI grounder up the middle. Mauer reached on an error by the shortstop, sending Casilla to 3rd. He scored on a SF by Morneau - Mauer was nailed at 2nd trying to tag to end the inning.

Besides timely hitting from Harris, Casilla, Macri/Buscher, Morneau and Young, these innings had something else in common - they all had the Twins aggressively flying around the bases, forcing the D-backs into poor throws, and taking advantage by claiming extra bases. (Unfortunately, they all had an out from Gomez in the middle of them as well, though at least on Sunday it was productive.) They were, quite simply, the embodiment of how the Twins have managed to score the 4th-most runs in the AL while being last in HRs and 8th in OPS: put the ball in play, run the bases. This week, it's worked.

The other facet of this is the pitching. Twins pitchers have now delivered 9 consecutive quality starts since Livan Hernandez was last blown to bits in Cleveland. In this series, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Hernandez combined for 20 IP, 3 ER, 19 H, 2 BB, 15 K. The bullpen allowed 0 ER and just 4 base runners in its 7 IP. For the home stand, the starters averaged 6.2 IP, 1.76 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Washington and Arizona are, admittedly, not the hottest teams in the NL right now, but this result has to be a huge confidence boost for a young team. With strong contributions from mid-season call-ups beginning to supplant some of the veterans signed during the off-season, this home sweep vs. the NL is strangely reminiscent of 2 summers ago...

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