Thursday, August 21, 2008

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.

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