Friday, August 29, 2008

Down and Up

Mariners 3, Twins 2
Twins 6, Mariners 5
A's 3, Twins 2
Twins 12, A's 2

I missed most of the last 4 games while burying myself in research on childhood vaccinations (my daughter will be 2 months old next week) and the Democratic National Convention (mostly boring, though I really liked Bill Clinton's speech). Looks like I missed out on a whole bunch of excruciating Twins baseball!

What's most frustrating is this: thanks to tonight's blowout, the Twins actually outscored their opponents 32-29 over the last week, but went just 2-5. Couldn't they have had just one of those 12 runs tonight moved to last night, when Joe Nathan could have pitched the 9th inning instead of the reeling Jesse Crain (who has been on the mound when the winning runs scored in 3 of the 5 losses this week)? How about moving one of them over to Monday, giving Joe Nathan enough cushion to overcome Adrian Beltre's leadoff double? If you've ever wondered how the Indians could be (until very recently) so far under .500 despite having a positive run differential, this past week is your answer. What a drag to have to endure that for 5 months instead of just one week!

Thankfully, Denard Span came up with a big throw to the plate on Wednesday afternoon, or this road trip would already be a total disaster. As it is, the Twins are still running uphill at 4-5. But the A's are a terrible offensive team, and the Twins' starting pitching has been solid (2.78 ERA in 58.1 IP on the trip so far), so it shouldn't take too many runs to get a couple more wins this weekend.

One of the reasons the Twins struggled to score runs earlier in the week was the disappearance of Joe Mauer. Coming into Friday's game he was just 6-28 on the road trip. He busted out with a career-high 5 hits, knocking in 4 runs while he was at it. He's got to be productive for the offense to work. The other key is Justin Morneau, and he appears to breaking out of the slump that bewitched him for most of the month. He's hitting .443 over the last 6 games, with at least one double in each.

One very encouraging sign: despite their troubles over the past week, the Twins remain just 0.5 games behind the White Sox, who have an identical 30-36 road record. That means that, for all the time away from home the Twins have to spend the rest of the season, the White Sox will match them game for game. They also have to play the Angels - baseball's winningest road team - at home. It's been a bad week on the road for the Twins, but it's not a disaster yet.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Extra Tough

Mariner 4, Twins 2 (11 innings)

As I was on my way to logging into MLB.TV last night, I saw the headline that the Twins had acquired our old friend, Eddie Guardado, from Texas in exchange for minor league pitcher Mark Hamburger. Eddie has been solid for the Rangers this season, posting a respectable ERA and BAA in one of the better hitting environments in the league. I hoped he would be able to make it to Seattle in time!

He did, and trotted out to protect a 1-run lead in the 8th inning - the situation the Twins have had so much trouble with since Pat Neshek was lost to injury. Eddie did his job, needing only 11 pitches (9 strikes) to set the top of the Mariners' lineup down in order on 3 pop-ups. At last, the bullpen had held the lead for Joe Nathan in the 9th!

So, of course, Nathan blew the save. After getting Adrian Beltre right where he wanted him at 1-2, he left an outside slider too far up, and Beltre blasted it to the gap in right center for a leadoff double. The Twins needed a strikeout of Jose Lopez, and Nathan gave it everything he had, but Lopez spoiled quality pitches away, up and in before finally hitting a slow roller to short. Beltre boldly headed for 3rd, and I don't think Nick Punto could have thrown him out there even if he'd fielded the ball cleanly. Lopez beat out an IF hit earlier in the game, so I don't know that Punto would have been able to get him at first either. Anyway, Punto bobbled the ball, and Beltre trotted home with the tying run as the next batter hit into a DP.

I don't know why the Mariners should be kryptonite for the Twins' bullpen, but they've done some damage in just about every game this season. Beltre had been 2 for 22 vs. Nathan and 1 for 7 vs. Jesse Crain, but last night he was able to tag them for a double and HR, respectively. Ugh.

Francisco Liriano pitched another solid game, allowing just 1 R on 5 H and 1 BB in 6 IP. He only had 3 K - he didn't seem to have much of a slider working, and the Mariners were able to foul off a ton of pitches. But once again, he kept the Twins in the game. The only run he allowed never should have happened: the Twins had catcher Jamie Burke caught off first in a botched hit and run. A good throw to first from Alexi Casilla would have beaten him easily. Instead, he short-hopped the throw, and it skipped off Morneau's glove and into the stands for a 2-base error. With the corner infielders pulled in, Miguel Cairo's grounder over third scooted past Brian Buscher for an RBI double.

There was not nearly enough from the Twins' offense in this game. Miguel Batista came into the game with an ERA around 6.50, yet was able to hold the Twins to just 1 R in 6 IP. He was abetted by home plate umpire James Hoye's absurdly wide strike zone: none of the 6 pitches in Joe Mauer's 6th inning K was within 3 inches of the outside corner, yet the first 2 were called strikes. Ichiro Suzuki also made a perfect throw to the plate on Brian Buscher's 2-out single in the 5th to cut down Delmon Young trying to score. The three hitters who have been the hottest for the Twins over the past couple of weeks, Denard Span, Punto and Mauer, combined to go 0-13 with 2 BB and 3 K.

It only took the front office 130 games, but the acquisition of Guardado finally addressed the last of the Twins' needs. They have 5 quality starters, a solid back end of the bullpen, and a productive lineup. The team is now, on paper, the best it's been all season. It should be enough to keep them in the running - they've just got to quit making so many mistakes.

This Seattle series is the softest piece of this road trip. It's very difficult to win 3 of 4 away from home, and they can't expect to win 2 of 3 at Toronto the way the Jays have been playing lately. That makes the next 2 games must wins for the Twins.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

That Darned 8th Inning

Angels 5, Twins 3

You know how some old buildings superstitiously avoided putting in a 13th floor? The buttons on the elevator skipped from 12 to 14. Bad luck to do anything on the 13th floor.

Sometimes I wish the Twins could just skip over the 8th inning. You know, have Dennys Reyes come in with a 2-run lead and 2 RISP and get a couple of ground balls, getting out of the 7th with only 1 scoring. And let's go straight to Joe Nathan for the 9th vs. the heart of the Angels' order!

I can't really fault Gardy for any of the moves he made. Mark Teixeira had been tearing up the Twins' staff from the right side all weekend. His HR off Kevin Slowey in the 6th was like a rerun of his HR off Scott Baker on Thursday: decent pitch, low and outside, just muscled out to left of CF. Why not turn him around to the right side? Reyes tends to get ground balls - how bad could it be? Well, Teixeira once again came up with the perfect swing on a well-executed pitch, lining a fastball knee high on the outside corner down the opposite foul line for a leadoff double.

Should Joe Nathan have come in at this point? I can understand why one would want him to, with Vlad Guerrero coming up next as the go-ahead run. But recall that Guerrero and Torii Hunter were 2 of the 3 batters that Jesse Crain dispatched in a matter of 6 pitches to earn the win on Thursday night. He showed then that he was capable of getting those guys out with the game on the line. He nearly retired Vlad on a foul pop on the first pitch, but the ball dropped in the perfect spot (for the Angels) between Justin Morneau, Alexi Casilla and Denard Span for strike one. Crain's next pitch was supposed to be low and inside, but instead it was just low, and Vlad mashed it to CF.

There's something about the way Vlad hits the ball that makes Carlos Gomez, normally the most confident of fielders, suddenly look like Delmon Young. As with Saturday's 2-run "double," Gomez misjudged the ball, beginning to square up too early and winding up a step short when he had to leap. The ball hit the CF wall on the fly and took the worst possible carom, allowing Vlad to just make it into 3rd with an RBI triple.

Crain got a badly needed strikeout of Torii, and worked the count to 2-2 on Gary Matthews, Jr. The sequence went 3 fastballs up and in (the first a swinging strike, the second 2 balls) and one low and away for a called strike. Having shown him an outside strike, Mauer and Crain decided to go back to the location Matthews swung threw on the first pitch. This time he started his swing early enough and lined an RBI triple into the RF corner. He would score the 5th run on a SF.

3 XBH, only one of them coming on a mistake by the Twins' bullpen. Teixeira and Vlad are scary hitters to be facing while trying to protect a 1-run 8th inning lead, especially with Teixeira as hot as he's been. Would Nathan have done better? Or a healthy Pat Neshek? Maybe. But those hitters are definitely good enough to beat good pitchers every now and then.

Anyway, the late inning loss overshadowed another solid pitching performance from Kevin Slowey. He left a few too many pitches up, and I was very disappointed that he allowed the pinch-hit single to light-hitting catcher Mike Napoli that chased him from the game after just 91 pitches. But his overall line was 6.1 IP, 2 ER, 8 H, 0 BB, 5 K. He definitely gave the Twins a chance to win. He's allowed just 5 ER total over his last 4 starts, averaging over 6 IP/start.

Justin Morneau finally had a big game vs. his nemesis. He went 3-4 with a double and a HR, driving in a run with each hit. The out he made was a liner that nearly carried over the head of RF Matthews. These were merely his 7th and 8th XBHs of August - just his 2nd HR. Hopefully the big day will carry over into a good last week vs. the Mariners and A's.

It's easy to be disappointed that the Twins failed to win the last 2 games - one because of poor defense and the other because of an inability once again to hold a late-inning lead. But coming into this series the hope was that they'd be able to split the 4-game set with the AL's winningest team, and they accomplished that. Now they need to focus on winning at least 4 of the next 7 against 2 of the teams that have struggled the most over the past few weeks. The test continues...

8th Split: 12-4

Overall Record: 74-55
1st in AL Central by 0.5 games

Previous splits:

7-9; 10-6; 7-9; 7-9; 13-4; 11-5; 7-9

Anytime your team can rack up 10+ wins out of 16, you know things are going well. But I feel particularly good about this split, mainly because the losses were all so under control. 2 of the 4 losses were the result of unearned runs (the finale in KC and the Angels game last night), another was in 12 innings (but Delmon Young hit Mariano Rivera with his first blown save of the season, so that was almost like a win), and the last was by just 1 run in a well-pitched game.

There were a lot of well-pitched games in this split. Kevin Slowey allowed 3 ER in 18.2 IP in his 3 starts. Francisco Liriano allowed 3 ER in 17.2 IP. Glen Perkins allowed 4 ER in 22 IP - all 4 runs coming in one bad inning vs. the Mariners. Scott Baker allowed 7 ER in 20.1 IP in 3 starts. Nick Blackburn had 2 rough starts to go with 2 quality starts. Every member of the bullpen not named Matt Guerrier performed quite well. The Twins staff finished off the split allowing just 9 ER over the last 6 games.

The Twins have been clicking on the offensive side as well. Over the last 16 games, they've averaged just over 6 runs per game and have failed to score at least 4 runs only 3 times (each against top 5 pitching teams Oakland and LA. The Twins won 2 of those 3 games anyway), all while getting very little production from Justin Morneau (.220/.361/.322, HR, 10 RBI). Obviously, some other guys have picked up the slack, namely Delmon Young (4 HR, 12 RBI), Joe Mauer (.475 OBP), Brian Buscher (.528 SLG), Denard Span (15 RBI), Nick Punto (11 R) and Adam Everett (.303/.395/.394, HR, 10 RBI). That's right, folks - Adam Everett matched Morneau's run production. Talk about a balanced lineup!

Things have regressed to an alarming degree on the defensive side, however. Over the last 16 games, the Twins committed 14 errors, resulting in 8 unearned runs - their worst defensive performance since May. As I mentioned above, some of those errors directly resulted in 2 losses, otherwise this might have been a 14-2 split and the Twins would be building a little cushion in the division and wild card races. They're going to need to recover the defensive efficiency they had in July if they hope to keep winning road games against good pitching teams.

11 of the next 16 are on the road, and 8 of those are against those good pitching teams.

Bold prediction: The starting rotation will average about 7 IP per start over the next 16 games.

No Defense for No Defense

Angels 7, Twins 5

The Twins suffered their first setback of the road trip Saturday night, just their 7th loss in the month of August. As with at least 3 of those other losses, they only have themselves to blame for this one. The offense succeeded in scoring 5 runs and knocked the Angel's starter in the 5th inning. The pitching staff allowed only 4 ER, thanks in part to a solid 1 R in 3.1 IP from the bullpen. But the defense didn't show up, at least in the 3rd inning, and that's where the game was lost.

It began when #9 hitter and catcher Mike Napoli chopped a grounder right to the 3rd base bag. Brian Buscher sailed his throw over Justin Morneau, allowing the leadoff man to reach. Chone Figgins had a terrific night at the plate, simply serving Nick Blackburn's pitches into CF or LF in each AB - his 2nd single of the game put runners at 1st and 2nd with no outs. Erick Aybar sacrificed, setting up 2nd and 3rd with one out. Gardy elected to walk hot-hitting Mark Teixiera (probably a good idea) in order to set up a DP with Vladimir Guerrero. Instead, Guerrero lined the first pitch to deep CF. Gomez misjudged the ball, took a bad route, and let it hit off the top of his glove for a 2-run "double." The next batter, Torii Hunter, smashed a grounder that slipped behind Buscher for another error and run. Garrett Anderson followed with a SF for one more run.

So, basically, the Twins gave the Angels 3 extra outs in that inning, and what do you know? The Angels came away with a 4-0 lead. I feel bad that Blackburn was saddled with even 1 ER in the inning. That came from a double-standard in official scoring that I've had a beef with for a while. Why is it that when a bullet is hit straight at an IF (as with the Hunter ball to Buscher) and he botches it, it's almost always scored an error, but when a bullet is hit at an OF (as with the Guerrero ball to Gomez) and he botches it, it's almost always scored a hit? It should have been obvious to the scorer that, had Gomez taken a clean route to the ball, he easily would have made the catch. Most scorers are too easy on the outfielders.

Anyway, Blackburn's outing wasn't nearly as disappointing as the box score would make it seem. One of his walks was intentional, set up by the first Buscher error. One of the 10 hits he allowed was the "double" to Guerrero; another was a bunt single by Hunter. Give him credit for the 3 extra outs he earned in the 3rd, and he would have had 5.2 IP with no more than 3 ER allowed - just one out away from a quality start. He allowed a bunch of hits, but they were all singles, and the last 3 he gave up were just grounders that found their way through the infield. His only glaring mistakes were walking the #9 hitter with 1 out in the 4th, and the pitch that Aybar lined for an RBI single 2 batters later. Yes, a lot of baserunners, but it wasn't like he was getting slammed all over the field.

Seeing that, and with his pitch count still in good shape (79), I have to question Gardy pulling him in the 5th. He did this in Blackburn's start in NY last month as well - when it was mainly poor defense that had caused Nick to suffer a big inning. The guy has been solid all season long. I'd love to see him get the same confidence from his manager that Livan Hernandez got.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Big Night at the Big A

Twins 9, Angels 0

I had a bad feeling about this one early. The Angels kept giving the Twins gifts, and the Twins kept rudely refusing them:

1st inning: Denard Span led off the game with an infield hit when Angels pitcher Joe Saunders failed to cover first base on a grounder to first. Span moved to second when catcher Jeff Mathis failed to catch a low pitch on which Alexi Casilla bluffed a bunt; it hit Mathis in the foot and rolled away for a wild pitch. RISP, 0 out. Casilla failed to advance Span to 3rd, where he easily would have scored on Joe Mauer's deep fly ball to left. Justin Morneau once again couldn't get the ball out of the infield.

2nd inning: Randy Ruiz reached on an error by shortstop Eric Aybar to lead off the inning. The next three batters flied out, and Ruiz never left first base.

3rd inning: Carlos Gomez led off with a single to right. While stealing second, Mathis airmailed his throw into CF, allowing Gomez to move to 3rd. Runner on 3rd, nobody out, top of the order coming up. Except Gomez overslid the bag and was tagged out, so there was no one to score on Span's subsequent grounder to second.

4th inning: Joe Mauer led off with a HBP. Morneau and Ruiz couldn't advance him. But then, Delmon Young worked himself ahead 2-0 and mashed a low fastball over the high wall in right-center field for a 2-run HR.

Things started to go the Twins' way pretty quickly after that, although they still had a gift to give back to the Angels: after Adam Everett and Gomez started the 5th with a single and double to put runners at second and third, Span lined an RBI single to left. Gomez stopped at third, the throw to the plate was cut off, and Span got himself caught rounding first base too far and was run down for the first out. That made Joe Mauer's sizzling liner to right the 3rd out of the inning instead of the second, which would have brought Gomez home with a SF.

A 3-0 lead is hardly comfortable, especially on the road or with the way Perkins has allowed runs in the 6th/7th inning in some recent starts. So it was great to see the Twins break it open in the 6th. With 1 out, Ruiz singled, Young boomed an RBI double over the head of Garrett Anderson in LF, and Nick Punto grounded an IF single to deep short, chasing Saunders (nice read on that grounder by Young, who advanced to 3rd on the play). Everett greeted reliever Shane Loux with an RBI fielder's choice (thanks to some big-time hustle from Punto, who beat the throw to 2nd). After Gomez had one of his better looking strikeouts of the year (7 pitches, and he fouled off some tough ones, almost checked in time on strike 3), Span put the game out of reach with a 3-run HR over the high wall in RF.

While all this was going on, Glen Perkins was his typical, effective self for 5-6 innings. He allowed only 2 H and 2 BB through the first 5 IP. It was the 8th time in his last 10 starts that Perkins allowed 1 or fewer runs in the first 5 IP. It's the 3rd time through the order that can do him in. But, tonight, Perkins never let up. He scattered 3 singles over his final 3 innings, finishing the night with 8 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 2 BB, 3 K. For the month of August, he's allowed 9 ER on 29 H and 6 BB in 28.1 IP for a 2.86 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. And 8 of those ER have come in 2 bad innings and 4 HR vs. the Mariners. He'll get another chance against them next week.

Since completing that shaky Seattle sweep last weekend, the Twins have gone 4-1. The pitching staff has allowed 5 ER in 48 IP over those 5 games. The starters have completed 7 IP in 4 of the 5. The bullpen hasn't allowed a run in 12 IP. This last trip through the rotation has lowered the Twins' team ERA for the month of August to 3.33, best in the league. No wonder they're 14-6 so far this month.

The defense has come together with 2 errorless games to begin the road trip. Casilla has been disappointing at the plate so far, but I love his glove out there at second base.

I've talked a lot about how important it is to catch teams at the right time. As well as the Twins are playing right now, especially pitching-wise, the Angels are definitely in a slump. Two weeks ago, I doubt the Twins could have gotten away with the sort of blunders they made in the early innings. But now, the Angels are making fielding mistakes, taking bad ABs, and making life as easy on the Twins as it can be (considering the Halos are still a first-place team playing at home). May their funk continue for 2 more games.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Gomez Woulda Had It

Twins 2, Angels 1 (12 innings)

Whew! I don't know about you, but I don't think I could have handled another 12 inning loss. Thank goodness the Angels finally opened the door for a run in the top of that inning, courtesy of our old buddy Torii Hunter. Nick Punto's drive to the wall in right center ticked off his glove for a leadoff triple, setting up Denard Span's game-winning RBI single through a drawn-in infield. Torii actually slightly overran the ball, definitely a play he normally makes - definitely a play that Carlos Gomez makes. Ha!

That gift triple allowed the Twins to redeem a night of magnificent pitching from Scott Baker and the bullpen. For Baker it was the 5th time this season he's allowed 2 or fewer runs in 7 IP without earning a win. As with the Cleveland game in June, his only blemish came in the first inning, when Mark Texeira reached down and practically one-armed a good low, outside fastball over the wall in CF. Not even a mistake by Baker, really. Still, this was the effort the Twins needed to combat Anaheim's ace, John Lackey, and Baker showed himself to be every bit our ace, actually out-doing Lackey's line by one hit in an otherwise almost identical performance. Great way to kick off the road trip.

The bullpen will need to be solid on this trip, and they got off to a good start as well. Matt Guerrier managed to avoid the Oakland series, so he'd had 3 days off to get his game back together. He was asked to pitch the 9th, and escaped allowing only a walk. I considered that to be the positive outing he needed to get his confidence back up, so I was a little alarmed to see him back out there for the 10th. He got himself into immediate trouble, giving up a leadoff single, but the Angels helped him out by popping up their sacrifice attempt. Guerrier still allowed another baserunner in the inning on a walk, but he was able to finish the inning unscathed. Jesse Crain followed with a most expedient 11th inning, needing just 6 pitches to march through the heart of the Angels order. Joe Nathan, as usual, was nails in the 12th.

(By the way, isn't it amazing how much more quickly the game flows along when the plate umpire has a liberal strike zone? Yesterday's 9-inning game took 2:56 to play; tonight the 2 teams needed just 20 minutes more to play 12 innings. Granted, the Angels aren't nearly as patient as the A's, but there were a ton of pitches (namely the first strikes of the 10th to Gomez and Span) that would have been called balls yesterday. Think the games are too long? Tell the umps to call more strikes!)

Torii's gift also absolved the Twins offense of a mostly ineffective night at the plate. John Lackey is among the best pitchers in the league, so scoring on him was never going to be easy. But when you have runners at second and third with nobody out and your 2-4 hitters coming up, you gotta be able to come away with something. If I had to blame one hitter for tonight's low run total, it would have to be Justin Morneau. Three times he came up with RISP with less than 2 outs, and he went K, DP, K (awesome turn by the Angels on the DP in the 8th, though). I'm just so used to seeing him come through in those situations, it was disappointing to see him struggle. If I had to blame 2 hitters, the other would be Alexi Casilla. He came up in the 8th and 10th with first base open and less than two outs and failed to put the ball in play. In the 8th, he flailed at a pitch over his head. Obviously, his rehab assignment wasn't long enough to get his plate discipline back up to the level it had been.

Anyway, it was a very important win for the Twins. They need to at least split this series in order to get this monster road trip off to a good start, and now they only need to win 1 of the next 3 in order to accomplish that. Also, they've moved within 0.5 games of the idle White Sox, and tied the Red Sox for the Wild Card lead. Keep up the good work, fellas!

Stand and Deliver

Athletics 3, Twins 2
Twins 13, Athletics 2
Twins 3, Athletics 1

OK, not too shabby. The Twins won the rubber game with the A's yesterday to finish their 11th straight series win at home. Overall, they were 7-2 on the home stand. They must dominate like that at home if they're to stay close to a playoff spot. And not only are they just 1 game behind the White Sox for the division lead, they're now only a half-game behind Boston for the Wild Card. 2 teams to keep track of over the final 36 games.

Nick Blackburn, as usual, bounced back from a rough start against the Yankees with a very good start against the A's. He completed 8 IP, allowing 3 ER on 6 H and 2 BB. Unfortunately, he got touched for a leadoff HR for the 2nd straight game, and he allowed one hit with RISP. But, mostly, he did his job, and just didn't get the run support he needed. The Twins caught a tremendous break when AL ERA star Justin Duchscherer had to leave the game in the 3rd inning with an injury. But they failed to do any better against recent AAA call-up Kirk Saarloos.

The offense more than made up for it on Tuesday night, launching a 13 R, 16 H, 5 BB onslaught led by Brian Buscher and his career-high 5 RBI. Those RBI came on 3 different hits for Buscher, capping a game in which the 6-9 hitters combined to go 8-15 with 6 R, 2 HR, and 11 RBI. Even Carlos Gomez connected for his first HR in over 2 months (funny, it was the same crazy swing he always takes - the one where he falls down when he misses - but if you throw the ball right into it...).

That was plenty for Kevin Slowey, who delivered his 4th start out of the last 5 of at least 5.2 IP and only 1 ER allowed. What stood out in this start, of course, were the strikeouts, a career-high 12 of them. The A's are terrible, so we probably shouldn't read too much into that - Slowey isn't going to suddenly turn into Johan Santana. However, his season WHIP is down to 1.06, and he's giving the Twins easily as much as Francisco Liriano right now. He'll need to keep it up down the stretch if the Twins are going to hang in there.

Speaking of Liriano, he didn't look all that great on Wednesday. However, as much as he didn't have the command he wanted, I should mention that I thought home plate umpire Brian Knight had a very small strike zone. An ump who calls pitches on the black or at the bottom of the knees balls can turn even a low scoring game into a tedious affair. That's particularly true when one of the offenses involved is full of guys who like to take walks. Anyway, in spite of allowing a baserunner or more in every inning, Liriano left the game without having allowed an ER. That's one of the things that makes him better than, say, Boof Bonser. (The ineptitude of the A's offense undoubtedly helped.)

The bullpen was actually rock solid, for once. In 7 IP over the series, they allowed 0 R on 2 H and 3 BB. That included back-to-back 2 IP scoreless stints from Brian Bass and Boof Bonser (has that ever happened before?). Bass' effort wasn't enough to keep him from being outrighted to AAA, as the Twins finally elected to reduce the staff to 11 pitchers when Alexi Casilla was recalled yesterday afternoon.

Why Bass and not Boof? Well, Boof has allowed just 3 ER in his last 7 appearances (spanning 9.2 IP) with 9 K, despite allowing 10 H and 3 BB. Bass had allowed 3 ER in his last 9 appearances (spanning 10.2 IP) with 7 K, despite allowing 11 H and 3 BB. Basically, Boof's stuff is much more overpowering, so even though he's recently been just about exactly as hittable as Bass, Boof stays with the team. And I'm fine with that - I've been saying for awhile that the Twins could afford to have one or the other in the 'pen, but not both. Only took them 2-3 months to come to the same conclusion.

One thing that was particularly disconcerting in this series was the defense. 5 errors led to 3 unearned R (3 of the 6 total runs!). If the Twins are going to have any hope of coming home from this gigantic road trip in decent shape in the standings, they're going to have to play tighter defense. The Angels will tear them to pieces if they give them extra outs.

A lot's been written about how this 14-game trip will be a defining moment for the Twins, and I can't disagree. The only place they've struggled since the middle of June is against non-divisional opponents on the road. That's what they're going to get in every game of this trip. They're also going to get it in 7 of 10 games on the subsequent trip. 24 of the last 36 games are on the road now, and the Twins have to outplay Chicago and Boston by at least one game over that stretch to make the postseason. I'm hoping they can go at least .500 on this monster trip.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Did We Win?

Twins 9, Mariners 3
Twins 7, Mariners 6
Twins 11, Mariners 8

First, the good news:

The Twins completed a home sweep of the AL's worst team, improving to 17-11 since the All-Star Break, and 12-4 at home. They need to rack up all the home wins they can right now, and so far they're 5-1 on the home stand with Oakland about to come stumbling in to town. Must win that series as well.

The offense scored 7 or more runs on 12 or more hits, including a HR, in each game. Altogether there were 27 runs, 40 hits, 11 doubles, 3 HR and 17 BB against just 7 K. That is a monumentally awesome performance, and they needed every bit of it.

Jason Kubel led the onslaught by going 8-10 with 2 doubles, a HR and 6 RBI. His pinch-hit RBI single in the 8th inning on Saturday night brought the Twins back to even, setting up the winning rally in the 9th. He was so hot Gardy even gave him a start against a LHP on Sunday - and he went 2-2 off the guy!

The series also brought some signs of life to some of the folks in the lineup who'd been slumping recently. Nick Punto went 6-14 with 3 doubles and 2 BB to raise his August OPS up to .675. Justin Morneau went 4-9 with a double, HR and 4 BB to raise his August OPS to .676. You might say, "Those OPS totals aren't that impressive." Yeah, well, you should have seen them three days ago!

Francisco Liriano had his best start of the year so far. He finished 7 innings, allowing 0 ER on just 2 H and 2 BB with 5 K. So far, he hasn't fallen off too far from the sort of performances he was putting up in AAA.

Scott Baker and Glen Perkins were great, too. For 5 innings.

And now, the bad news:

Baseball games last 9 innings, and from the 6th inning on, the Twins allowed 15 of the 17 runs the Mariners got in the series - 14 just on Saturday and Sunday. After cruising through 5 IP, both Baker and Perkins hit the wall hard in the 6th. Baker allowed 3 H and a BB to the first 5 batters of the inning before being replaced by Jesse Crain. Perkins managed to finish the 6th, but not before allowing 3 HR. His location drifted from the corners to the center of the plate, and even the Mariners know what to do with that.

So, bring in the bullpen (gulp!). Crain struck out the first man he faced, then gave up a walk and double to allow the 4th run of the inning. Craig Breslow came in with 2 men in scoring position and allowed the only hit of his otherwise solid relief stint, letting 2 more runs come in. Suddenly, in one trip through the order, a 5-0 lead had turned into a 6-5 deficit.

On Sunday, Boof Bonser was given a 10-4 lead to start the 7th inning. As is all too common with him, he allowed the first 2 batters to reach, and they came around to score, cutting the 6-run lead to 4. After 3 days off to "clear his head," Matt Guerrier was brought in to pitch the 8th. He got one out, but then BB, double, BB and he was off to the showers leaving a mess for Dennys Reyes. I won't criticize Reyes for allowing 2 infield hits (one a bunt single from Ichiro) - at least he didn't throw any wild pitches. Joe Nathan had to come in with the bases loaded and 2 out to finish the 8th (and he had an unusually eventful 9th, allowing a couple of scorching drives to the outfield and a BB to go with a scabby IF hit, loading the bases himself before getting Ichiro to end it).

Here's where I get really concerned: the Mariners are 12th in the league in runs and OPS. Yet they managed to score on the Twins' bullpen in each game, and chase the starters in the 6th in 2 of the 3 games. The starters are, on the whole, much better than the bullpen, so it's critical that they pitch deep into each game in order to minimize the outs needed from the increasingly shaky bullpen. If the 3rd worst offense in the league can do this to the Twins' pitching at the Dome, what's going to happen on the road over the next 2 weeks? I shudder to think. Will the offense be able to offset the damage while facing 3 of the 5 best pitching staffs in the league?

The Twins better rack up a couple more wins at home this week - while the racking is good...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Under Control

Twins 4, Yankees 0
Yankees 9, Twins 6 (12 innings)
Twins 4, Yankees 2

Just like in KC, the Twins came just 1 run short of a series sweep. Winning series should be enough to keep them in the running with the White Sox, but a sweep here and there could help them pull away. Plus, it would have been nice to pay the Yanks back for the sweep they dealt the Twins a couple weeks ago. Still, with as tough a time as the Twins have had with the Yankees over the last several years, it's nice to see them at least hold their own at home: 4-3, and all three losses were by 1 run or in extra innings. That's progress...

Clearly, the Twins were facing the Yankees at the right time. All those bottom-of-the-order guys who were racking up hits in NY were back to their typical selves - Robinson Cano, Ivan Rodriguez, Richie Sexson, Wilson Betemit, Jose Molina and Melky Cabrera combined to go 6 for 36 with 5 BB out of the 6-9 slots. But give credit to Glen Perkins - he held the 1-5 hitters (Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Xavier Nady among them) to 3-17 by giving them an unpredictable mix of fastballs and changeups. Kevin Slowey held the top 5 of the order (including Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi) to 2 hits and 1 BB, using his typical pinpoint control to paint the corners and keep the ball away from the middle of their bats.

Nick Blackburn usually has very good control, but not so on Tuesday. It looked to me like one of those games in which the pitcher's stuff is breaking so much that he can't really locate it. The result was an unusually high number of strikeouts early on (5 in 4.2 IP), but also an unusually high number of walks (3). And the Yankees made him pay for it: 2 of the 3 men Blackburn walked came around to score. The 2-out double he allowed to Nady was a pretty good pitch - knee-high on the outside black - yet Nady pulled it with authority into the left-center field gap. Gotta give credit to the hitter on that one. I guess Carlos Gomez overthrew cutoff man Adam Everett, but Brian Buscher was right behind him to relay the ball to the plate. A good throw would have easily nailed Giambi, but Buscher's throw short-hopped Mike Redmond, allowing a crucial extra run to score.

The bullpen, needing to throw (as it turned out) 7.1 innings, did reasonably well until the 12th. Boof Bonser, as usual, allowed a run - he let the first 2 batters reach in the 6th and 7th innings (I'm amazed he got away with it in the 6th). Craig Breslow threw 1 pitch (I wonder if Gardy wished he'd kept him available once extra innings came along). When it came to the 12th inning, it was down to another inning of Matt Guerrier vs. the heart of the Yankees' lineup, or Brian Bass, so I can't blame Gardy for sticking with Guerrier. Still, that makes 12 runs allowed in Guerrier's last 8 appearances. I hope the rest of the pitching staff can step up and give him a break.

Great job in this series by Joe Nathan and Dennys Reyes. Nathan pitched in all 3 games, accumulating 3.1 IP, 2 saves, and allowing just a BB while striking out 6. Reyes struck out 4 of the 5 men he faced, and his wild pitch that allowed a run to score on Wednesday could have easily been blocked by Joe Mauer. I'm starting to feel good about Reyes pitching (to lefties) in tight spots late in games.

As Justin Morneau's average has dwindled from a peak of .325 down to .303, it's become apparent that he's having yet another slow August. His July was so preposterously awesome that this month had to come down somewhat, but right now his OPS is less than half of what it was last month. You can see it when he fouls off a pitch up on the inner half - the pitches he was drilling only a couple of weeks ago. And he's not the only one - Nick Punto, Joe Mauer and Brian Buscher are all way down from their July productivity.

I would have put Delmon Young in that category before this series, but he's broken out over the last 2 games, going 5 for 9 with a double, 2 HR and 6 RBI. That effort helped to lift his August line to .263/.333/.526 with 3 HR, 9 RBI and a 2/4 K/BB ratio. His dramatic, game-tying HR off Mariano Rivera helped turn a game that looked lost into one that the Twins had every opportunity to win. Can he carry the team until Morneau snaps out of it?

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Twins 4, Royals 1
Twins 7, Royals 3
Royals 5, Twins 4 (12 innings)

I'm beginning to see a pattern emerging. The Twins begin a road trip against a non-divisional opponent, give away a couple of games thanks to poor pitching and defense, then recover to win the next series vs. a division rival. This is how the last 3 road trips have gone over the past month: the sweep at the hands of the Red Sox (2 games lost by the bullpen) followed by a 3-1 series win in Detroit; the sweep at the hands of the Yankees (all-around terrible baseball) followed by a 2-1 series win in Cleveland; and now a series loss at the hands of the Mariners (2 games lost by the bullpen) followed by a 2-1 series win in KC.

If your cup is half full, you might say that it's great to see the Twins able to bounce back from a bad start, and that it's more important to beat their division rivals - which is true. But, if your cup is half empty, you might point out how consistently the bullpen is allowing runs on the road (12 of the last 19 games), and how the next road trip is a 14-gamer, all against non-divisional opponents.

My cup is looking a little on the empty side right now. That's mostly because the Twins threw away first place for the second time this week. The sweep of the Royals was theirs for the taking, the last out of the 8th inning in Adam Everett's hand. All he had to do was make an on-target throw to first and the Twins would have handed their 4-3 lead to Joe Nathan in the ninth. But the inning only got that far because Brian Buscher double-clutched on a slow 2-hopper to third, enabling the relentlessly hustling Mark Teahan to reach with a leadoff "single" (how is Teahan only hitting .250? He's killing the Twins).

But that's not all. In the 6th, also with Teahan at the plate and 1 out, Scott Baker got a chopper to the right of the mound. He prudently chose to get the sure out at 1st base - except no one was covering: Mike Lamb had gone for the batted ball and Nick Punto was late covering. Baker tried to shovel it to Punto at the last second, but it got by him and rolled into foul territory, allowing 1 run to score and moving Teahan to 3rd. That brought the infield in, enabling Jose Guillen's grounder to go through for an RBI single. Even the Royals can beat you when you give them extra outs and bases.

The bullpen lost the game today, but I can't hang it on them. Matt Guerrier faced 3 batters, getting 2 grounders and a strikeout. Dennys Reyes, though he threw a wild pitch, got outs from the 2 men he faced. Craig Breslow did about as much as you can ask of him - he's not good enough to go twice through the order without getting nicked. (Although, you'd like to think he could get Tony Pena, Jr. out at least once, considering that he's, you know, a crappy hitter.) However, the bullpen allowed 2 ER in 11 IP in the series - really pretty good.

The hitting also left a bit to be desired, with the Twins accumulating just 24 hits in 30 innings of batting. Luckily, they drew so many walks (22 in the three games, plus a HBP) that the few hits they got should have been enough to earn the sweep. An extra run or two would have come in handy on Sunday, and I've got to call out Jason Kubel (3 ABs with runners on 3rd, 0-3 with a foul pop and 2 K) and Delmon Young (2 GIDP). With a 4-2 lead heading to the bottom of the 7th, Gardy sensibly inserted Gomez into the defense in place of Kubel. Once the game was tied, I really regretted not having Kubel at the plate, regardless of how bad a day he was having. Oh well.

On a lighter note, Livan Hernandez made his debut for the Rockies this afternoon: 2.2 IP, 7 H, 9 ER, 4 BB, 1 K. Glad we don't have to worry about that crap any more.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Road Trip (and Fall)

Mariners 11, Twins 6
Mariners 8, Twins 7
Twins 7, Mariners 3

Well, that could have gone a lot better, huh? It was funny to look at some of my other favorite blogs and see that most of them, like myself, were in no mood to comment on the disastrous results from Monday and Tuesday night. The Twins put up 6 or more runs in each game of this series, and so with even average pitching should have been able to come away with a sweep.

Before I go into my disappointment with their performance, however, a word about the Mariners. I have said many times that winning baseball games isn't just about who you play, but when you play them. Overall, the Twins are a much better team than the Mariners. But, in this series, the Twins' pitching and defense was not up to its normal level of precision, and the Mariners' entire lineup was absolutely locked in. In other words, we caught Seattle at the wrong time. Hopefully, the results will be different when the Twins face them 6 other times later in the month.

On to the disappointments:

Glen Perkins was giving up his share of hits (9) through 6 IP on Monday, but had kept the damage to just 1 R. Entering the 7th with a 5-run lead and very low pitch count (71), it made sense to send him out for that inning. After quickly retiring the first batter, Perkins allowed an 0-2 single to the #9 hitter, issued his first walk on 5 pitches, fell behind Willie Bloomquist before allowing a single to load the bases, then missed his spot by about 2 feet on the grand slam to Raul Ibanez. Perkins has often gotten stronger as the game goes along, so this sequence was extremely disappointing, especially compared to the solid numbers he put up in July.

And then, the bullpen came in. Starting with the bases empty and 1 out, Brain Bass, Craig Breslow and Matt Guerrier proceeded to allow 6 R on 5 H and 3 BB, combining for 38 pitches (17 strikes). They were abetted in their awfulness by 2 throwing errors and a passed ball from the defense. Even the Mariners can kick your ass if you fall behind everybody and give away tons of extra bases.

I'm not sure the Twins could have scored enough runs to overcome their abysmal 7th inning, but it should not be forgotten that Justin Morneau's 2-run double to put them ahead 6-0 in the 4th occurred with nobody out. That means that they had runners at second and third with nobody out and failed to get them in, thanks to a Mike Lamb strikeout and Brian Buscher GIDP. Granted, those guys were in the lineup to face RHP Miguel Batista, not LHP Jake Woods, but they need to be able to hit the ball out of the infield in that situation.

Scott Baker allowed himself to be lit up on Tuesday night, throwing too many fastballs to an aggressive swinging team. The 6 R and 11 baserunners he allowed in 5.1 IP made it easily his worst game of the season. He ran into a little bad luck in the 6th, when the rally began on a strikeout-wild pitch - even the Mariners can burn you when you give them an extra out - and the scorching hot Ibanez was able to pick up another 2-run single off LHP Breslow.

The offense bailed Baker out, thanks to a couple of HR from Jason Kubel and a big 2-out, 2-run, pinch-hit double from Mike Lamb. In the bottom of the 8th, with 3 straight lefties due up for the Mariners, Gardy brought in Guerrier, who had thrown 31 pitches over the previous 2 games, allowing 4 ER on 5 H and 2 BB in 1.1 IP. LHP Dennys Reyes did not pitch on Monday, and had thrown just 10 pitches in a perfect 9th inning on Sunday. Lefties are hitting .200/.246/.283 vs. Reyes, .253/.344/.361 vs. Guerrier. Ichiro hits about 60 points lower vs. LHP, Jeremy Reed over 100. I realize that Gardy wants Guerrier to be the 8th inning guy, but he's clearly tiring, and there was a better matchup available for this particular situation.

After Guerrier allowed 2 of those 3 lefties to reach, Gardy did something a lot of folks have been clamoring for for months: he brought in Joe Nathan in the 8th inning.He got cleanup hitter Adrian Beltre on a liner to short, then quickly got ahead of Jose Lopez 1-2. Nathan could not induce Lopez to swing at any sliders out of the zone, so on 3-2 he gave him a slider in the zone. Lopez lined it into the gap in left center, and with the runners moving on the full count pitch Ibanez was able to score from first with the winning run.

Nick Blackburn was also knocked around a bit, surrendering 9 H and a BB in just 6 IP, but he was able to limit the damage thanks to a couple of DPs. This time Reyes was allowed to face Ichiro/Reed/Ibanez in the 7th, allowing only a 2-out infield hit to the hotter than the flames of hell Ibanez. Jesse Crain then came on and served up a home run ball to Beltre.

(Now for the good news)

Denard Span to the rescue! Beltre's HR did not land in the seats, but was stolen by Span with a leaping catch over the wall in RF. Span also went 3-5 with a triple, SB, and career-high 4 RBI. Gardy confirmed after the game that Span will remain in the leadoff spot when Cuddyer returns next week. Hallelujah!

Lamb, despite striking out with 2 in scoring position on Monday, made a huge contribution in the series, going 3-6 with 2 doubles and 3 RBI. He's showing that the Twins may have been wise not to give up on him yet.

And how about that line from Adam Everett on Wednesday? 1-1 with a BB, RBI, R and 2 sac bunts. If his defense is back to 100% and he can give the Twins productive ABs like that, I think I'd rather see him at SS than Harris. Seems like there will be room for him in the #9 spot pretty soon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

7th Split: 7-9

Overall Record: 62-51
2nd in AL Central by 1 game

Previous splits:

7-9; 10-6; 7-9; 7-9; 13-4; 11-5

I knew it was going to be tough to finish this split with more wins than losses when the Twins dropped the first 5 games. But they rebounded well enough to have a really good chance of at least going .500 - all they had to do was beat the worst team in the league once out of 2 games.


There were about as many well-pitched games as poorly pitched, about as many strong offensive performances as weak ones. Here's what really got my attention: the Twins went 5-3 at home, 2-6 on the road. They're going to need to do better as visitors if they want to win the division.

The Twins went 7-3 vs. divisional opponents, 0-6 vs. other divisions. It's possible that the Twins can earn a playoff spot by dominating only their own division rivals. But if they do make the playoffs, they'll have to face the cream of the other divisions. So that record is going to have to get a lot better, too.

What really troubles me, though, is the bullpen. They allowed runs in 10 of 15 games in which they appeared in this split, blowing leads in the 7th inning or later 3 times and coming dangerously close in the finale vs. the White Sox. Matt Guerrier has allowed runs in 4 of his last 5 appearances. Jesse Crain allowed 5 ER in 6 IP during this split. If the Twins find themselves just a little short at the end of September, they can look to the loss of Pat Neshek as the main reason. Well, that and the failure to acquire a suitable replacement for him.

10 of the next 16 games are against opponents with losing records. The Twins must punish those teams if they're to stay in step with the White Sox.

Monday, August 4, 2008

July Review

Twins Record: 15-10
Overall Record: 60-48, 2nd in AL Central by 0.5 games

(I'm a few days behind, but let's pretend the Cleveland series hasn't happened yet, and the Twins have just come off their 3-1 series win over the White Sox.)

The Twins finished their 3rd straight month with 15 or more wins, especially impressive since there were only 25 games in July. The only real setbacks came in 2 road series vs. the AL East titans: the Red Sox and Yankees each swept the Twins, accounting for their only series losses of the month. Disappointing, but it's much more important to win the games against your division rivals, and the Twins really delivered there. In 16 games vs. Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, the Twins went 13-3, outplaying the White Sox by 2 games to pull nearly even in the standings.

Offensively, the thing that struck me the most was that the Twins finished 2nd in the league in OBP at .361, just .001 behind Texas. What an incredible turnaround from the team that reached base just over 30% of the time in April. 59 doubles, 5 triples and 19 homers helped the Twins to a 7th place finish in SLG% at .441, their best split of the season in that category. Denard Span was a big help filling in for Michael Cuddyer, and should find himself remaining at the top of the lineup even when Cuddy returns in August.

The pitching staff was in the middle of the pack in runs allowed and ERA. As with June, most of the damage was done in a handful of games on the road: 50 of the 116 runs the Twins allowed in July came in the 6 losses against the Red Sox and Yankees. 66 runs allowed in the remaining 19 games comes out to about 3.5 per game - definitely an amount that the Twins' steadily improving offense can overcome. My greatest concern with the pitching staff (other than Livan Hernandez) is the bullpen bridge between the starters and Joe Nathan. The other relievers allowed 37 ER in 54.2 IP for a 6.09 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. This did not prompt management to make any moves before the deadline, so the Twins will have to hope that someone in the bullpen will step up down the stretch (or that the starters will all go 8 innings).

The defense got back to the standards Twins fans are used to. The team committed just 12 errors over the 25 games, a rate that would have them among the league leaders in team defense had they played that way all season. 4 of the 12 errors came in the awful Yankees series; no errors were committed during the crucial 4-game set vs. the White Sox. Not only did they make the plays they were supposed to - they made a ton of plays they shouldn't have, taking away numerous hits and extra bases. Span was a huge help with his CF instincts in RF. With Alexi Casilla injured and Brendan Harris back at SS, I worry that August will not go as well.

Getting It Done

Joe Nathan - allowed just 8 baserunners and 1 R in his 11 IP, with 12 K. Plus, he threw a perfect inning in the All-Star game. More save situations, please!

Nick Blackburn - despite a low strikeout rate, Blackburn came through with a WHIP just under 1.00 for the month, and allowed only 8 ER in 29.1 IP. He only got 1 W for his trouble, thanks to a shaky bullpen and slow-starting offense in his starts. He'd be a prominent ROY candidate if he were getting more Wins.

Scott Baker - Baker averaged 6.5 IP over his 6 July starts, with a 1.00 WHIP and 3.46 ERA, and nearly a K/IP (37 K in 39 IP). Francisco Liriano may surpass him by season's end, but for now, he's undeniably the ace of the staff.

Glen Perkins - Perkins also averaged over 6 IP/start in July, and kept his ERA under 4.00 with a 1.26 WHIP. Overall, his best month of the season so far, and a terrific contribution from a 4th/5th starter.

Justin Morneau - .360/.473/.708. He got his HR total back up to 6 and racked up 20+ RBI for the 4th straight month while drawing by far his most walks of the year. Plus, he took home the HR derby trophy and scored the winning run in the All-Star game. Once again looking like an MVP.

Denard Span - proving that his performance in Rochester was not a fluke, Span took over for Cuddyer and put up a .912 OPS for the month while making several plays in RF that Cuddy wouldn't have come within 10 feet of. I sure wish Span had been with the team all season.

Delmon Young - Young continues to improve, posting his best month of the season in terms of BA (.330), OBP (.359) and RBI (15). His K/BB rate was the worst of the season, however, so there's still some work to do there.

Joe Mauer - the average slipped a bit in July, but there were plenty of walks (16) and a season-high in RBI (16), so things still look plenty good for the All-Star catcher.

Nick Punto - in his first full month as a starter, Punto partied like it was 2006, batting .319/.359/.458 with a HR and 11 RBI. He also played sensational defense at short (especially compared to Harris).

Brendan Harris - I won't likely stop disparaging Harris' middle infield defense, but an .811 OPS with 13 RBI makes up for a lot. His 13/7 K/BB rate was his best since May. I like him better platooning at 3rd, but it's not a perfect world.

So Far, So Good

Craig Breslow - not great numbers by any means (4.05 ERA, 1.50 WHIP). But from the least used member of the bullpen, I'll take it.

Matt Guerrier - terrific 1.03 WHIP and 16 K in 12.2 IP, but the 6 ER he allowed were in crucial situations, costing the Twins a couple of wins. He just needs to be a little better in order to hold down the 8th inning job.

Jesse Crain - his overall line for July isn't too good (4.66 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7 K in 9.2 IP), but most of the damage was done in the Yankees series. I've been writing that one off as par for the course, so if we throw out that outing (0.1 IP, 3 ER, 2 H, BB), we're left with a pretty nice 1.93 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

Alexi Casilla - the .718 OPS is nothing too special for a second baseman, but I loved his range and speed on the bases. I'll definitely miss what he brings to the lineup while he's out with his thumb injury.

Brain Buscher - the average (.278) and OBP (.316) came down a bunch from June (.360/.370/.440), but the SLG% stayed strong (.444), and he knocked in 12 RBI in platoon duty. His throwing in the infield makes me nervous sometimes, but he's been solid at 3B otherwise.

Mike Redmond - we're used to a little bit better from Redmond than .278/.300/.278. But remember, he's the backup catcher, and most teams have to put up with a lot less.

Need to Pick It Up

Kevin Slowey - Slowey made just 4 starts in July, and he suffered through a bad inning in 3 of them. The other start was a CG shutout. In August, let's have more of the good starts than the bad.

Livan Hernandez - yes, he averaged nearly 6 IP over his 5 starts, but the 6.44 ERA and 1.74 WHIP were hardly worth it. I sure am glad he's gone.

Dennys Reyes - in 9 appearances, Reyes amassed just 4 IP, so any little thing is going to drag him down. He's basically asked to get one or 2 batters, and he failed to do so in 4 of his 9 appearances.

Brian Bass - 10 appearances, 10.2 IP, 8 ER, 16 H, 4 BB, 6 K. That's a 6.75 ERA and 1.87 WHIP. Those numbers remind me of Livan, and that's not a good thing.

Boof Bonser - 12 K in 11 IP - that's good! But then there's the 15 H, the 12 ER, the 3 HR, the 4 BB...

Jason Kubel - .271/.343/.424, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 15/7 K/BB. Not bad, but Kubel can do better.

Mike Lamb - Lamb didn't get a lot of playing time in July, and his .609 OPS for the month didn't make me feel like I was missing much.

Carlos Gomez - .220/.256/.268, 18/3 K/BB, 0/1 SB. Finally, he was taken out of the leadoff spot. He still plays spectacular CF, but I'm not sure that will be enough to keep him in the lineup when Cuddyer comes back.

Craig Monroe - after he hit under .200 for the second straight month, the Twins finally made the sensible decision to cut ties with Monroe. He finished his tenure with the Twins with a .449 OPS vs. LHP.

Liriano Returns

Twins 6, Indians 2

Some quick thoughts on yesterday's game before I catch up on July:

Francisco Liriano!

His debut went... OK. But even while falling behind almost everybody and walking 3, he still gets out of there with 0 R and a 1.00 WHIP for the day. Dick Bremer astutely pointed out that fans should be comparing Liriano's performance down the stretch not to what he did in 2006, but to what the Twins were getting from Livan Hernandez. Livan allowed a WHIP of 1.00 or less in only 4 of his 23 starts, and only twice in the last 21. I'd say it's an improvement so far.

Liriano looked like he was a little too geared up, which is to be expected. But I was impressed by the variation in the speed of his pitches - the fastball anywhere from 88-93, the slider from 83-86. Those little touches help keep the ball away from the fat part of the bat. I wish there were more of a difference between the average fastball (90-91) and changeup (81-82), but that's something he can work on. Very encouraging, and his next opponent (KC) shouldn't be too difficult either.

Denard Span unloaded on his second HR of the home stand. His line through 41 games: .315/.405/.462. He's scored 11 R in 12 games since being moved to the leadoff spot. Keep him there.

Looking at the box scores, you wonder why the Twins only managed 6 H/game during this series. From what I saw on Saturday and Sunday, a lot of it had to do with the Indians' defense. I counted 4 plays on Sunday that could have been hits if not for extraordinary efforts from the Cleveland defenders, including the first 2 plays of the game. I mention this just to reassure people that the Twins still seem to be swinging the bats OK, and will hopefully continue to score at the typical rate on their upcoming road trip.

Lots of road games coming up (20 of the next 29), but Seattle and KC make an excellent opportunity to have a winning trip. Get it done, fellas!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Back from Vacation

Greetings from the shores of "Lake" Delton, where there is neither water nor Wi-Fi. We were reduced to following the Twins via the crawl on ESPN 2. Good thing it was a pretty uneventful week.

(That was a joke.)

But seriously, folks...

Twins 11, Indians 4
Twins 4, Indians 2

Even Livan Hernandez would have won with the kind of run support Scott Baker got last Saturday. It was just as satisfying to blow up Fausto Carmona (who shut down the Twins in two of Santana's starts last year) as it was to cream Paul Byrd earlier this season. Too bad Baker couldn't get through 6 IP, but the bullpen did a decent job backing him up.

The same could not be said on Sunday, when Nick Blackburn was robbed of yet another W by an ineffective 8th inning. His problems were exacerbated by the Twins' offense, which decided not to start hitting until the 6th inning. Ultimately, the Twins made the most of their few opportunities and won the series.

So, at that point, we had series win, annual sweep at Yankee Stadium, series win since the All Star break.

Twins 7, White Sox 0
Twins 6, White Sox 5
White Sox 8, Twins 3
Twins 10, White Sox 6

Kevin Slowey, Major League pitcher. Way to set the tone for a critical series. And congratulations to Denard Span on his first big league HR.

How great was Justin Morneau in this series? He went 5 for 14 with 2 doubles, 2 HR, 10 RBI and 3 BB. Just when we needed him most.

Livan once again failed to give the Twins a chance to win a game against a contending team.

And then there was the 7th inning of the finale, in which Gardy justifiably protested a very unusual call by the 3rd base umpire, over-ruling a HBP on a potential bunt attempt. Perhaps it was less justifiable for Gardy to pitch such a fit. And there was absolutely no justification for the fans to sully themselves by throwing a bunch of crap on the field. Save the 3rd grade behavior for the morons in the Dodger Stadium bleachers, people.

I give Span a ton of credit for returning to his AB after that monumental distraction and working a walk from 1-2 that started a 4-run, lead-changing rally. The bullpen was smacked once again in the 8th, but the Twins tacked on 3 more in their half to put the game away.

Coming in 2.5 games out, it was crucial that the Twins win 3 of the 4 games in this series, and they delivered. I was struck by the fact that the Twins and White Sox were also separated by 2.5 games when they began their previous 4 game series in Chicago. In the 50 games since, the Twins have outplayed the Sox by 2 games. If they can duplicate that feat over the final 52 games, they have an excellent chance of winning the division.

Alexi Casilla

Wtf? One night he's 1-4 with a BB and 2 R, and the next he's out with a torn ligament in his thumb? How'd he pull that off? Clearly, I have more reading to do.

This is a big problem for the Twins for 2 reasons. First, they lose what Casilla does on the field, with his range and glove on defense, with his speed on the bases, and with his pretty consistently productive bat (.313/.351/.414, 39 RBI in 62 games). Second, he must be replaced at second by Nick Punto, forcing the Twins to fill SS with either Brendan Harris (hitting better but very limited range defensively) or Adam Everett (supposedly very good defense but pathetic bat). Neither one of those players has played at Casilla's level this season.

Liriano vs. Livan

Well, that didn't take long.

Livan's outing on Wednesday was pretty typical: 5 ER on 9 H and 2 BB. He was pulled after 4 IP, which hasn't happened that often, but the result was the same. Wednesday was the 9th time in his last 13 starts in which Livan allowed 4 or more runs. That's a serious trend, folks. The Twins didn't do anything vs. Gavin Floyd, so I can't say it's a game they would have won with someone else on the mound, but it certainly could have been closer.

Francisco Liriano finally got nicked for a 3-run HR on the next-to-last batter he faced in his final start at Rochester, allowing more than 1 run in a game for the first time in a month. Even with that mistake, he allowed just 5 ER in his last 41 IP in AAA, walking 6 and striking out 51. Definitely ready for a shot.

With Livan in the rotation, there was always 1 game every 5 days that I expected the Twins to lose. With Liriano in his place, I expect them to have a chance to win every day.

Twins 4, Indians 1

Why do the Twins keep giving Jeremy Sowers 5 free innings? Once again, Blackburn was rock solid, and held the Indians to 1 run in 7 IP until the Twins could break it open. Congratulations to Randy Ruiz on his first MLB hit! May he be much better vs. LHP than Craig Monroe.

I very much appreciated the fact the Matt Guerrier had a 1-2-3, 9-pitch 8th inning. Just like a real setup man.

Indians 5, Twins 1

Finally, a game I actually watched. Not our night.

The 3 runs the Indians scored in the 4th were not at all Slowey's fault. The leadoff blooper between Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez and Brendan Harris should have been caught, probably by Young. That would have made Jhonny Peralta's well-placed liner inside the bag at first (good piece of hitting on a pitcher's pitch) a harmless 2-out double. Kelly Shoppach shouldn't have come up at all. Nor should he have been able to hit a 3-1 pitch that was knee-high on the outside corner over the baggy by about 4 inches. Good pitch - you just have to tip your hat to the hitter on that one.

David Delucci's 2-run HR the next inning was not a good pitch, but also barely cleared the fence.

The Twins' problems can be summarized by the bottom of the 5th. Carlos Gomez ripped the 2nd pitch just foul down the LF line. He then laid down a bunt to the second baseman and was thrown out by about 4 inches on a sterling play by Asdrubal Cabrera. On another night, he might have reached on either one of those plays. Anyway, Span followed with a double that I thought would be a triple, but Grady Sizemore was able to cut it off just before the warning track to hold Span at 2nd. Had he made it to third, he would have easily scored on Nick Punto's subsequent fly ball. A couple inches here or there, and that might have been a big inning.

Morneau hit a drive into the upper deck just foul. Young flied to the wall in right. Joe Mauer flied to the wall in center. Morneau hit a drive straight into the first baseman's glove. Slowey allowed just 6 baserunners in 6 IP with 7 K - really not a bad night.

I'm sure things will go better tomorrow. At this point, playing without the majority of the team that took them deep into the playoffs last year, the Indians' lineup shouldn't be too much more threatening than what Liriano's been facing at AAA. I expect him to give the Twins a chance to win, which would give them their 4th series out of 5 since the break. If they can keep that up, they should be able to get it done.