Thursday, July 10, 2008

Back from the Brink

Twins 7, Tigers 6 (11 innings)

Baby's still not sleeping through the night (therefore, Daddy's not sleeping through the night), but that's not going to stop me from giving this game its due.

Remember this one. This afternoon's tilt was an epic, 11-inning siege. In the course of its nearly 4 hour duration, the Twins displayed most of their weaknesses and strengths, used most of the players on their bench and bullpen, and overcame a huge, late-inning deficit despite having one of their worst games hitting with RISP. Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Nick Punto and a beleaguered 'pen combined to turn a potentially dispiriting, 0-4 start to the last trip before the break into an inspiring, full-team win that should relax everybody for the remaining 3 games this weekend. We won't know for many weeks whether this game turns out to be a turning point, but it will at least give the Twins something to show for the efforts they've made on the road this week.

For most of the afternoon, it wasn't working. Kevin Slowey made no effort to pitch inside to the Tigers, so they leaned out over the plate and drove his pitches into the gaps. His line was hurt by a marginal walk to Ramon Santiago in the 3rd (a 3-2 pitch that looked better than many of the called strikes Kenny Rogers was getting) - Santiago came home on an opposite-field double by Curtis Granderson. The would-be second out of the 4th, a diving stop by Punto on a sharp grounder in the hole off the bat of Marcus Thames, was thrown away when Punto rushed his throw just a bit. The official scorer gave Thames credit for a hit, even though an on-target throw would have clearly gotten him by a step. Still, Slowey was not effective, and will hopefully return to working both sides of the plate after the break.

For the second day in a row, the Twins' starter was knocked out before the end of the 5th inning. Craig Breslow was first out of the 'pen, and worked 1.1 scoreless innings despite allowing 2 H and 2 BB, thanks to a CS. Jesse Crain and Dennys Reyes were next, combining for 3 IP, H, 3 K - just like they're supposed to do. Irritated bloggers finally got their wish when Joe Nathan was brought into a tie game in the 9th. He nearly blew it by walking the first 2 batters and throwing a WP, but he was able to strike out the last 2 batters he faced with the bases loaded to avoid the loss. Matt Guerrier followed with 2 IP, H, K - a nice recovery from his meltdown in Fenway on Tuesday night. Altogether, the Twins bullpen threw 7.1 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 5 BB, 7 K - too many walks, but a redeeming effort for a group that had been demolished in Boston.

Offensively, Justin Morneau, Nick Punto and Denard Span did everything they could to set the table. Unfortunately, they were just far enough apart in the batting order to not be able to work together. In between them were Carlos Gomez (0-4, K), Alexi Casilla (1-5), Mike Redmond (0-4), Craig Monroe (0-3, BB) and Mike Lamb (0-2), Delmon Young (0-6) and Brendan Harris (1-5, 2B). The unsustainable nature of the Twins remarkable success with RISP was on display, as the Twins began inning after inning with men at second or third, but failed to collect the big hit that could bring them back into the game. They ran themselves out of an inning, Punto getting thrown out at the plate and Span at 3rd trying to steal. Overall, the Twins went 1-15 with RISP.

And yet, they scored 7 runs. I've been saying that raising the team's OBP while continuing to fill the lineup with contact hitters would enable the Twins to manufacture some runs even when the base hits dry up. The Twins were pretty slow to get that going today (except for Gomez' RBI ground out in the 3rd), wasting Morneau's leadoff double in the 4th, for example. By the end of the game, though, the productive outs started to plate some runs. Casilla hit a SF with runners at the corners in the 7th. Morneau led off the 8th with another double (ohhhhh so close to being a HR), and this time Monroe and Young did their jobs, hitting ground balls behind him to bring in the 4th run.

Then came the 9th, when Punto and Span, improbably, began yet another inning by both reaching. RF Matt Joyce gave the Twins the break they needed when he overran Span's single, allowing Punto to score and Span to reach third. Then Gardy, whose lineup choices I felt were going to be responsible for the Twins losing the game, made a series of terrific moves. He pinch-hit Joe Mauer for Gomez, and Mauer delivered the game-tying SF. He had Kubel hit for Redmond, and he delivered a single. After Morneau walked, Gardy sent Lamb in to pinch-hit for Monroe, and only a sterling defensive play from 2B Placido Polanco prevented the Twins from taking the lead right there. (Say what you want about the production of Mike Lamb - perhaps his days with the Twins are numbered - he seems to hit into a lot of highlight defensive plays.)

Punto and Span reached again with 2 out in the 10th, but Span stole second when they stopped holding him on, opening up first base and taking the bat out of Joe Mauer's hands. Casilla grounded out to end the threat. That left it for Justin Morneau to cap his career day, lining an 0-1 pitch over the wall in RF for his 14th HR and the win.

There was so much to process about this game, but I think the important thing is this: the 2008 Twins can find a way to win, even on the road, even when they aren't at their best. There is a mental/psychological component to baseball that can enhance or diminish a player's performance on the field - in most cases, the Twins are being enhanced. They may not be the best team in the league, they may not be true contenders, but they're ahead of where we thought they'd be this year, and they're definitely a team a fan can be proud of.

1 comment:

Andrew Kneeland said...

Nice post. Minnesota needs to find a way to get hits across the board. They can't rely on Morneau, Mauer, Span, and...Punto to get all their hits for them.

Somebody's got to knock them in.

Did not enjoy listening to Slowey labor today. That's two bad innings in his last two starts. Let's hope he can rebound during the Break.