Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fit To Be Tied

Despite the best efforts of Jim Leyland and Freddie Garcia, the injury-depleted Tigers lineup couldn't do much against a short-rested Gavin Floyd, and when Garcia had to leave the game with a shoulder strain after 5+ innings, the Tigers showed why they're a last place team. In case you missed it, the sequence went: walk, stolen base, (new pitcher), wild pitch, wild pitch walk tying run scored, (new pitcher) wild pitch, strikeout, intentional walk, unintentional walk, (new pitcher) grand slam. 4 pitchers combined to give up 5 ER on 1 H, 4 BB and 3 WP in 1/3 of an inning. The first White Sox run came from walk, walk, ground-ball single. The last two came from IF hit, stolen base, double, wild pitch, fielding error. All together, the Sox got 8 R on 6 H, 6 BB, 4 WP and an error. 5 of the 6 batters who walked came around to score.

So the Twins and White Sox wind up with identical records through 162 games - fitting, since neither was able to separated from the other by more than a couple games for most of the season - and will meet tonight for 1 game to decide the division. The teams have identical home/road splits as well, which is a bad break for the Twins, since the coin flip determined that this game would be played in Chicago, where the Sox are 53-28. I'll preview the game in a minute, but first I have to take a minute to look back.


That means 1 game would have made tonight unnecessary. Any loss turned into a win. One better AB, one better bounce. I'm sure everyone can think of several games that the Twins should have won this season. My dad is partial to the extra-inning loss in Cleveland 2 weeks ago that I commented on yesterday. Here's my favorite:

August 10th in KC. Scott Baker pitches 7 strong innings, handing a 4-2 lead to the bullpen. In steps Matt Guerrier, in the early stages of his collapse, to allow 2 hits and only one out. In comes Dennys Reyes to face consecutive lefties. He throws a wild pitch to allow one run to score, but induces easy ground balls from each batter he faces. The first advances the tying run to 3rd. The second is a routine two-hopper to short, not too hard, not too soft. Adam Everett fields it cleanly, sets his feet, and throws too high to first base, forcing Mike Lamb (Justin Morneau was the DH that day) to leap off the bag to catch the ball. Safe at first, the tying run scores, and the Twins go on to lose 5-4 in 12 innings.

How about another one? September 3rd in Toronto. The Twins lead 3-2 with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th and a runner on 1st. Joe Nathan is battling Toronto wonder-prospect Travis Snider, who works the count to 3-2 before lining the ball into right-center. There is no outfielder in sight, and with the runner going, a run seems possible. But the Twins have inserted September call-up Jason Pridie into RF, and he is speedy enough to cut the ball off - he even rounds it and points his hips toward the infield. If he just picks the ball up off the Sky Dome field turf, the runner stops at 3rd. Instead, the ball clanged off the heal of his glove, allowing the tying run to score. Nathan struck the next batter out. The Twins went on to lose in 11 innings.

I mention these two games because so many of the little things that cause you to lose baseball games aren't really within your control. If only he'd made a better pitch, if only he'd laid off that slider in the dirt, if only Sizemore's HR off the foul pole had hooked a bit more. Well, those things don't always work out, but sometimes they do. It usually evens out over 162 games. But errors are different. You don't have to wish the ball was pitched or hit any differently. All a MLB fielder had to do was make a routine play, and the tying run would never have scored. I like the KC example better because Pridie was making his MLB debut, and did have to run a long way to cut off the ball. Everett is a veteran of many seasons, and the ball was hit right to him, and he didn't have to rush. He just blew it.

And so, thanks to that (or whatever your favorite missed opportunity happens to be), the Twins play tonight. I guess it's fitting that they need to win on the road to keep their season alive, after so many of their failures happened away from home. All 6 of Nathan's blown saves, most of which were helped along by poor defense. Egregious sweeps by the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and White Sox. That 4-game Sox sweep in early June was probably the low point of the season for the Twins. Coming into the series, they were 2-3 vs. the Sox in Chicago. They'll have to make up for their failure in that series by playing well tonight.

The pitching matchup is about as favorable as it could be. The Twins have terrific career numbers vs. John Danks, and he's going to be working on short rest. Apart from Francisco Liriano (who would be on short rest), Nick Blackburn is the least likely of the Twins' starters to allow a HR, and the most likely to induce grounders. On a night when the wind could be blowing out against the most prolific HR team in the league, that's a good thing.

My Keys to the Game:

1. Keep it in the Yard
The way they've been swinging the bats lately, I seriously doubt that the White Sox will be able to score more than a couple of runs without help from the long ball.

2. No Free Passes
Blackburn is also unlikely to allow a lot of walks, but he gives up a high enough BAA that he'd better not give away any bases. Again, the way the Sox have been swinging lately, I can't see them stringing enough hits together to score more than a couple of runs.

3. Catch the Ball
This game wouldn't be happening if the Twins had played their typical solid defense this year. Just for one night, let's make all the plays - no extra bases, no extra outs. If the Sox have to earn every base, I can't see them scoring more than a couple of runs.

4. Run Like Hell
The Twins have a huge speed advantage over the Sox. This will hopefully help them cut off balls in the gaps. But they also need to pressure the White Sox on defense. With Crede out, they're shaky at the corner IF and old and slow in the OF, and their catcher is one of the easiest to run on in all of baseball. Bunt, steal, hit and run, go first-to-third - run, run, run.

5. Set the Table
To take advantage of their speed, the Twins' speed guys will have to get on. Wouldn't it be great to have another night like last Thursday, when Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and Alexi Casilla went 9-14 with a walk?

6. Feast
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer all have monster career numbers vs. Danks. When they come up with men on, they have to get hits. Morneau, in particular, needs to atone for flat last week of the season and see if he can't steal back the AL RBI title.

It's funny how the Twins and White Sox play such completely different offensive styles, yet accumulated the same record. In addition to everything else at stake tonight, this game is a mini-referendum on Ty Cobb-style baseball vs. Babe Ruth-style: the speedy little singles hitters vs. the big, slow, boppers. I know which side I'd like to see prevail.

Monday, September 29, 2008

10th Split: 8-9

Overall Record: 88-74
First in AL Central by 0.5 games

Previous Splits:

7-9, 10-6, 7-9, 7-9, 13-4, 11-5, 7-9, 12-4, 6-10

Another regular season has come to an end (mostly, maybe). The Twins await the result of this afternoon's makeup between the White Sox and Tigers to see if they must play game #163 in Chicago on Tuesday. Officially, that's a regular-season game. As far as I'm concerned, it's a playoff game, so I'll wrap up my splits now.

While the 9th split, encompassing most of the frustrating, interminable, West Coast + Toronto road trip was the worst of the season, the Twins weren't really outplayed in it - they just did enough little things wrong to lose a lot of games. A lot of that had to do with the starting pitchers keeping it close on the days when the offense wasn't doing much. No such luck in this split, as the Twins were blown out in 4 of their 9 losses, and gave up 12 R in another.

That affair, the 12-9, 11-inning loss at Cleveland, was the one game during this split that I wish we could get back. Francisco Liriano had his first bad outing since his recall, a couple of errors led to 4 unearned runs, the bullpen blew another 8th inning lead, and then Joe Nathan served up the game-winning 3-run HR to Victor Martinez, who had hit 1 HR all season prior to that. That one extra win sure would come in handy right about now, huh?

The offense put up 89 wins over the 17 games, just about 5.5 runs/game. But, as with the 9th split, most of those came in just a handful of wins - the Twins combined for 25 runs in their 9 losses, and 9 of those came in that Cleveland game. Justin Morneau was a crucial reason the offense sputtered - he hit just .254/.296/.343 with 10 RBI over the final 17 games, losing the RBI title and likely costing himself a chance at the MVP. Joe Mauer, meanwhile, was marvelous, hitting in 14 of 16 games played with a line of .381/.451/.556 with 12 RBI. I'll also mention Carlos Gomez, who finished strong at .306/.348/.484 with 16 RBI out of the 9-hole.

When your offense provides you with 3 or fewer runs in 8 of 17 games, you'd better have air-tight starting pitching if you want to come away with a winning record. Unfortunately, most of the Twins' young pitchers went into a serious fade at the end of the month. Kevin Slowey, Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins combined for just 3 QS over the final 2.5 weeks, frequently failing to finish 5 IP. Scott Baker was a bright spot, allowing 1 or fewer runs in 6 or more innings in 3 of his 4 starts, failing to do so only when a rainout forced him to pitch on 3 days' rest in Cleveland. We can also celebrate the emergence of Jose Mijares as a stabilizing presence in the 8th inning - he allowed only 1 ER on 3 H in 9 IP down the stretch.

Not a great finish for the Twins over the last 2 splits - there were certainly ample opportunities for them to have pulled out 1 more game than they did. Now they wait to find out whether their plane will be flying to Chicago of Tampa.

In the Clubhouse

Twins 6, Royals 0
Magic Number: 1

First of all, thank you to Scott Baker for giving the Twins the 2nd best game of his career on a day when they had to win. Obviously, the CG vs. the Royals last year when he took a perfect game into the 9th was better. But today, he allowed just 4 singles in 7 IP and set a new career high with 9 K. Before the season began, I said Baker would be the Twins' #1 starter. With his performances on this home stand (14 IP, 1 ER, 9 H, 2 BB, 13 K) he proved that he's an ace. Lots of teams have good pitchers, but an ace is someone who is good when his team has to have a win. We saw a couple this weekend: Johan Santana (3 H CG shutout, 9 K on 3 days' rest) and CC Sabathia (4 H CG shutout, 7 K on 3 days' rest). I hope Baker will get a chance to cement his ace status in the playoffs.

Baker might have been able to complete the game, had Gardy wanted to take him out to 120 or so pitches like Sabathia and Santana threw. The Mets and Brewers have very dicey bullpens, so you'd better leave the ace in there. The Twins can rely on Joe Nathan, of course, but the 8th has been a nightmare since Pat Neshek went down - until Jose Mijares showed up, that is. He allowed just 1 ER in 9 September innings (that coming when Matt Guerrier was on the mound) on 3 H (one a "double" that Delmon Young lost in the ceiling). He and Nathan combined with Baker to hold the Royals to a score even the Twins' sputtering offense could overcome.

I was afraid we were asking for a repeat of Saturday's defeat when the Twins left 7 men on base over the first 3 innings, including 5 in scoring position. They could only muster 2 R from 4 BB, 2 HBP and 2 E, thanks mostly to the fact that they only came up with 2 H. In the 7th, the Twins loaded the bases again, and finally got an RBI hit from Young to give themselves some breathing room. Joe Mauer delivered a 2-run triple in the 8th to put the game away.

Mauer finished the day 2-5, giving him a .330 BA for the season. I guess his batting title isn't official until it's determined if the Twins will play on Tuesday - stats from that game count towards the regular season (although if Morneau were to come up with 2 RBi in game #163, Josh Hamilton would have a right to be ticked). But according to my math, he should have enough even if he goes 0-5.

Now the Twins are like a golfer who has finished his round with a 1-stroke lead. He chills out in the clubhouse while his opponent heads to the 18th tee needing a birdie to force a playoff. With the exception of Mark Buehrle's performance on Sunday, the White Sox have been awful this week starting on short rest. Today, it's Gavin Floyd's turn. Jim Leyland will surely be pumped up to ruin the season for the Sox, but will his team of underachievers follow his lead? Freddie Garcia will start for the Tigers having made 2 starts this season - 1 good, 1 bad. Can he beat his former team? Can he stay in the game long enough to protect his combustible bullpen? Do the Sox have one more crappy game in them?

I guess I'll be watching. Go Tigers.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fortune Frowns on the Twins

Royals 4, Twins 2
Magic Number: 2

It appears that the baseball gods want to see this one-game playoff next week. Things may yet turn out all right, but it's excruciating to see the bounces going against my team at a time when they have to win.

The first bounce came in the 6th inning. Boof Bonser relieved Glen Perkins, and gave up 4 H without retiring a batter. In fairness to Boof, only one of the hits was a solid line drive - the others were 2 choppers and a flare. The second chopper was the first place fate turned on the Twins. It was just over and to the right of the mound. If Boof fields it cleanly, he starts a DP. If he doesn't touch it at all, Alexi Casilla fields it and starts a DP. Instead, Boof deflected it into short RF, allowing the tying run to score.

The second bounce came the next inning. Matt Guerrier was called on to rescue Boof, which he managed to do in spite of falling behind 2-0 on each hitter he faced with the bases loaded. One sent a ball over the bag at third that Brendan Harris was able to turn into a force at the plate, the other hit a liner to Justin Morneau at first. Gardy left Guerrier out there to start the 7th, and he promptly fell behind the first 2 hitters and surrendered singles to each. Jesse Crain was brough in to rescue Guerrier. Bad bounce #2 happened on a slider in the dirt that struck out Jose Guillen - it skipped away from Joe Mauer, allowing the runners to advance to 2nd and 3rd and prompting the infielders to play in. The next hitter lofted a broken bat blooper that would have easily been caught by Morneau at his normal position. Instead, it was just far enough out of reach to tick off his glove and allow the go-ahead runs to score.

Morneau is pressing at the plate, and it's hurting the team. He went 0-3 with RISP. This was most egregious when he followed Joe Mauer's 4-pitch walk to load the bases with an inning-ending GIDP on the first pitch. KC pitcher John Bale had thrown 6 pitches before Morneau's AB, and the only "strike" was the pitch Casilla attempted to bunt (and popped up). That is a take situation all the way - swinging early in the count helps the pitcher out.

The Twins grounded into 4 DPs overall. Mauer's GIDP in the 9th was a killer, especially since he hit the ball right on the screws. Carlos Gomez nearly knocked in the tying runs in the bottom of the 8th, but his liner to the gap in left-center was just within range of LF Mark Teahan.

So, for the second straight game, the Twins didn't get a lot of breaks at the Dome (though they didn't execute quite well enough to win in spite of the breaks). But for the second straight game, Cleveland pummeled the White Sox, and the Twins are still in first place. They still need one more loss from the Sox, whether against the Indians on Sunday, the Tigers on Monday, or the Twins on Tuesday. Cliff Lee will not be starting for Cleveland today, so that's one more bad break for the Twins. However, the Twins must win the game they will be playing today. If they do that, the only way they can be eliminated is to lose on the field to the Sox on Tuesday. If they must come up short, that's how I'd prefer to see it happen.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cleveland Rocks

Royals 8, Twins 1
Magic Number: 3

Practically nothing went right for the Twins on Friday night. Francisco Liriano was eaten alive by a relentless stream of bloopers and bleeders, with the occasional liner thrown in for good measure. Up, down, inside, outside - it didn't matter where he threw the ball, the Royals' hitters put it in play somewhere a Twins defender couldn't get to it.

If your pitchers can't get anybody out, you might as well have a horrible night at the plate, too, and the Twins did. Kyle Davies was as on as he can be. Hitters got fastballs when they were expecting sliders, changeups when they were expecting fastballs. Nothing worked. At least Joe Mauer got a couple of hits, raising his average to .331 and extending his lead in the batting race.

That's OK. We just need things to revert to averages now. On average, the Twins win 2 out of every 3 games at home. They'll need to win the last 2 to make sure that happens here. They average just over 5 R/game, which would get them about 15 R per 3-game series. That means they should get 14 R over the next 2 games (7 & 7 would suit me best). They allow an average of 4.63 R/game, or a little under 14 R per series. That means they should only give up 6 R over the next 2 games. The Royals' season averages for runs allowed and scored suggest corresponding outcomes. A couple of 7-3 wins today and tomorrow would be most satisfying. Make that happen, OK fellas?

Fortunately, Ryan Garko and the Cleveland Indians outslugged the White Sox last night, so the Twins are still in first, and the Magic Number has declined to 3. I thought that might be Chicago's best chance to win - from here on out they're starting guys on 3 days' rest. I read that the Indians might skip Cliff Lee on Sunday because he's got a bit of a sore neck. All I can say to that it, "Suck it up, you pussy!" I don't know who would pitch instead of him, but it wouldn't be quite as good, would it? Of course, the Twins have lucked out for Sunday - the Royals have decided to skip Zach Greinke's regular turn because he's already reached 200+ IP. They'll get Brandon Duckworth instead, which should be a lot easier.

If anybody thought the Royals were just going to lay down, that impression should be obliterated after last night. They are the hottest team in the league right now, and the Twins are going to have to fight them with everything they have to claim these last 2 wins and clinch a first-place tie.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Return of the Piranhas

Twins 7, White Sox 6
Magic Number: 4

This is shaping up to be quite a week of rediscovery for the Twins and their fans. Last Thursday, they won their first close game in 3 weeks. On Sunday, they won their first low-scoring game in a month. On Wednesday, they won their first 1-run game in 4 weeks. And last night, they got their first walk-off win in 5 and a half weeks. Also, for me, it was the first series that completely satisfied me since the beginning of August.

It looked for all the world like Kevin Slowey was up for the task of this huge game, as he easily retired the first 10 batters. Then Orlando Cabrera got the Sox on the board with a HR into the first row of seats in LF. Jermaine Dye followed with a single, and then the wheels came off the Twins' train. Carlos Gomez and Denard Span collided trying to catch Jim Thome's drive to right-center, allowing the ball to drop for a "double" that sent Dye to 3rd. Paul Konerko's subsequent groundout should have ended the inning - instead it drove in the 2nd run. After Ken Griffey Jr. walked, Brian Buscher misplayed a chopper that went for an RBI "infield single." AJ Pierzynski was hit by a pitch, and then Juan Uribe drilled Slowey in the wrist with a liner - Slowey threw the ball away down the RF line, and all of a sudden it was 6-1 Sox and Slowey was on his way to get x-rays.

There weren't actually a lot of well-hit balls by the Sox off Slowey. I still have confidence in him as the Twins' #3 starter in the playoffs. I hope his wrist heals quickly.

Enter (gulp) Matt Guerrier, who pitched one scoreless inning despite walking 2. Dennys Reyes, Boof Bonser, Jesse Crain, Craig Breslow and Joe Nathan followed, allowing just 2 H over the final 5.1 IP with 5 K. 6.1 scoreless innings from the 'pen! That's 10.1 in a row! Nathan's performance was particularly important - he was able to pitch 2 innings, the second against the heart of the Sox' order, and retired all 6 batters he faced.

The superb bullpen work enabled the Twins to nibble away at the 5-run deficit, one or two chunks of flesh at a time. Ozzie Guillen said before the series that he wanted to poison the piranhas. They were biting last night. Carlos Gomez overcame his OF misplay by having the best hitting night of his career. Yes, better than the cycle in May. 4-5, double, 2 triples, 2 RBI, 3 runs scored, and 2 of the hits were to RF! The big one off Bobby Jenks in the 8th came with 2 strikes! Gomez is now hitting .292/.342/.446 in September. We won't know 'til next year whether he's actually learning or is just getting hot at the right time, but he was absolutely critical to the Twins in this series.

Denard Span was no less so tonight. He led off the game with a single and scored the first run. He missed a chance to drive in 2 with 2 out in the 2nd, but afterwards followed each of Gomez' hits with a productive AB: an RBI double in the 4th to cut the deficit to 3 runs, a sac bunt in the 6th to cut it to 2, and a scintillating RBI triple in the 8th to tie the game. He swung the bat so well that the Sox opted to intentionally walk him with the winning run on 3rd in the 10th.

That set up Alexi Casilla, who had failed to bring home Span with the winning run in the 8th when he fouled off a suicide squeeze attempt, then struck out. In the 10th, he simply served the 0-1 pitch into short CF, and the party was on.

I had thought going into the series that it would be crucial for the Twins to get these 3 on base, and to have them run like crazy. The Sox are too old and slow to keep up with that kind of baseball. Tonight, the Twins didn't get one over the fence, but they relentlessly outslugged the Sox anyway, tallying 4 doubles and 3 triples to go along with 8 singles and 3 walks. It was a thrilling performance from the speedsters, who figure to be a part of the lineup for many years to come.

Joe Mauer went 3-5 in the game, and leads the batting race by 4 points heading into the final weekend. If he can get 4 H over the last 3 games, it should be enough to get him his 2nd batting title. Justin Morneau leads the RBI race by 3. He's done a lot of damage against KC this year, so a couple more RBIs could get that done for him as well.

The Twins don't quite control their own destiny, but the ESPN odds-makers give the Twins about a 2-1 chance of winning the division at this point. The Twins have won every series against the Royals this year, going 11-4 overall. The Sox face an Indians team that has played very well since mid-August. They come into the final weekend 79-80 - tantalizingly close to .500. I'm sure they'll play very hard to try to achieve that. Also, Cy Young front-runner Cliff Lee will pitch for the Tribe on Sunday, and he'll be giving everything he's got to try to finish 20 games over .500. The White Sox, meanwhile, will be pitching everybody on 3 days' rest. Though the Sox are almost as good at home as the Twins, a lot of that mojo came from Carlos Quentin and Joe Crede, neither of whom will be in the lineup. I like Cleveland's chances of winning 2 out of 3.

The Twins can't take the Royals for granted, however. They come in having won 11 of their last 13 ballgames, and you know they'd like to go out on a high note. We also shouldn't forget what they did to the Tigers in 2006, sweeping them in Detroit over the final weekend to enable the Twins to take the division. They will be sending their 2 best pitchers, Gil Meche and Zach Greinke, to the mound in this series.

So the Twins can't relax yet. But if they can keep up the intensity they showed in the Chicago series, they should be in great shape at the end of the weekend.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One To Go

Twins 3, White Sox 2

The Twins are rising to the occasion of these big games. Tonight the bullpen pitched 4 scoreless innings, and the Twins won a one-run, low-scoring game. If you're thinking that it seems like a long time since that's happened, you're right. Not only was this the Twins' first 1-run victory since August 27th (precisely 4 weeks ago), it was the first time they won a game in which they scored fewer than 4 runs since August 21st, one day shy of 5 weeks ago.

Nick Blackburn was definitely shaky, and Gardy was probably wise to take him out of the game when he did. Though he was almost constantly in trouble, Blackburn managed to avoid disaster by allowing his only 2 XBH with the bases empty. Both of those hitters wound up scoring, but overall it was a decent performance.

Of course it was nerve-wracking to entrust the game to the bullpen, but Gardy went with the right guys tonight. Craig Breslow needed just 7 pitches to get through the 6th, Boof Bonser gave up a soft single but was otherwise good in 12-pitch 7th, Jose Mijares went through the 4-6 hitters 1-2-3 with just 12 pitches. Of the 4 innings, the 9th was the most exciting (agonizing?). Joe Nathan allowed a drive to the gap in left-center by AJ Pierzynski that Carlos Gomez was able to run down with his afterburner speed. Nathan then walked Nick Swisher on 4 pitches to put the tying run on with 2 out before getting the final out on a routine grounder.

The Twins' attack tonight consisted of 9 singles and 4 walks. Luckily, the speedsters got on base 5 times and scored 2 of the runs. Joe Mauer went 0-4, but 2 of his outs produced runs. Gomez laid down yet another bunt single, giving the Twins nearly double the number of bunt hits of the 2nd place team in the Majors. Definitely a stereotypical Twins offensive performance tonight - good enough for the win thanks to solid pitching and a strong defense.

The series is won, but no one can be satisfied with that. The White Sox' magic number is stuck at 5, but the Twins' is 6. A win tomorrow night puts the Twins ahead of the Sox and puts them as much in control of their own destiny as they can be at this point. There have been so many series this year in which the Twins won the first 2 games but failed to accomplish the sweep. This time it has to be different. The Twins are surging, the Sox are reeling - finish them!

One Down

Twins 9, White Sox 3

Twins fans couldn't have asked for much more than they got last night.

Scott Baker delivered a strong start, allowing just 5 singles and a walk in 7 IP. It's crucial in this series that the Twins' starters go deep into the game and keep the ball in the yard, and Baker achieved both. He'll need to be just as good in his final start on Sunday vs. KC.

I thought it was funny how Chicago's run in the 2nd was a Twins kind of rally: 2 singles, aggressive baserunning puts a man on 3rd with no out, scores when the next guy puts the ball in play (GIDP by Ken Griffey, Jr.). Then the Twins' runs in the bottom half were White Sox kind of runs: leadoff man walks, next man up hits a homer.

The Twins accomplished something last night they've rarely managed to do lately - they outslugged their opponent. 2 doubles, and triple and 3 HR was like a week's worth of XBH on the just-finished road trip. It would be great if they could keep it up for the rest of the home stand.

Jason Kubel led the way, going 3-4 with 2 HR and a triple. (If only I hadn't been eliminated in the first round of my fantasy playoffs!). Delmon Young followed him by going 3-3 with a double, HR and BB. The Twins got nothing from Denard Span and Alexi Casilla at the top of the lineup, and scored 9 runs anyway. Span & Casilla will need to get on base a lot the rest of the way.

Matt Guerrier was brought in to mop up the 9th inning, and issued a 2-out walk followed by a 2-run HR. After an August in which he compiled a 10.13 ERA and 2.06 WHIP with 3 HR in 10.2 IP, he's allowed a 9.82 ERA and 2.59 WHIP with 3 HR in 7.1 IP in September. If the Twins make it to October, I wouldn't even put him on the playoff roster. He's absolutely toast.

As heartening as this victory was, we've seen it before recently. It was every other game of the disappointing split with the A's. It was the first 2 games of the Royals and Orioles series. It's critical that the Twins win this series, obviously, but they won't really get out of the hole they've put themselves in unless they sweep. The situation is like that of a team that loses the first 2 games of a playoff series. When you come home, you need to win 2 to stay alive, but you don't want to end the series having to win the last 2 on the road either. So we're back to square one tonight, with a tough matchup against Mark Buehrle. Keep it up.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Home Stretch

Rays 11, Twins 1
Rays 7, Twins 2
Twins 4, Rays 1

Obviously, it wasn't a great weekend for the Twins - losing 2 of 3 while being outscored 19-7 ensures that. However, the Rays are easily the best home team in the league, so for the Twins to split the 4 games overall was a good accomplishment. Tuesday's failure (on so many levels) in Cleveland was the difference between the .500 road trip the Twins were hoping for and the 4-6 mark they actually achieved.

What was disconcerting about this weekend was the performance of the starting pitchers. When Francisco Liriano rode to the rescue on Sunday with 7 strong IP, he surpassed the combined innings total from the previous three starts. I thought Nick Blackburn was kind of unlucky in the first inning on Friday, as a couple of the Tampa hitters sliced fly balls into the opposite corners just out of reach of the outfielders. But he completely came apart in the 2nd, walking 3 (one intentionally), including walking in a run to finish his outing. The only out Kevin Slowey was able to get in the 5th inning of his start was a throw-out by Joe Mauer on an attempted steal.

While Blackburn and Slowey (and select members of the Twins' bullpen) were being ground down by the Rays' lineup, the Twins hitters were completely befuddled by the Rays' starters. Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir combined for 13.2 IP, 1 ER, 12 H, 2 BB, 10 K. In the two games, the Twins' offense mustered just 14 H (1 double) and 6 BB. Once again, the Rays brutally outslugged the Twins, collecting 10 more XBH out of 21 total, including 3 more HR.

Liriano restored order with his 7 IP, allowing just 5 H (1 double) and 1 ER while striking out 7. He did allow 4 BB, the highest total since his ill-advised call-up in April, but given the abnormally high BB totals for Blackburn and Slowey, I'm going to write that off as a credit to a very patient Rays offense. Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan combined to finish the game with 2 perfect innings.

Mauer led an opportunistic Twins offense on Sunday. While Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel were going 0-8, it was Mike Redmond, Adam Everett and Carlos Gomez who drove in the runs. Mauer led off the 4th with a walk, beat out a force attempt at 2nd off the bat of Justin Morneau, and scored on a single from Redmond. After Brian Buscher flew out, Everett beat out a dribbler to 3rd, scoring Morneau and Redmond when the throw from 3B Evan Longoria skipped up the RF foul line. With Everett now at 3rd, Gomez pulled off a push bunt single, demonstrating again the only appropriate time to dive into first base.

For the series Mauer was 8-15 with 2 BB, and, with a 6-point lead in the batting race, is now in the driver's seat for a second batting title. Morneau still leads the RBI race by 3. Both of them need to have good final weeks, for lots of reasons.

The Twins finished their road schedule with a record of 36-45. I can think of 4-5 of those games just in the past two months that easily could have (should have?) been wins, and could have given the Twins an essentially .500 road record. Oh well, they'll have to do better next year.

The final series with the White Sox is upon us. Beginning 2.5 games back, the Twins will need to do everything right from here on in if they're to overtake their rivals.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hangin' In

I'm not just a fair-weather blogger. We were traveling earlier this week, and I had to take care of the baby when we got back as my wife prepares to return to work. Babies are a lot of work on their own. I haven't had a chance to watch or listen to a game in awhile, but here's what I'm thinking:

Orioles 7, Twins 3

Just as I suspected, the Twins followed up their 24-run double-header by failing to score at all in 8 IP vs. a rookie who began the game with an ERA over 7.00! Nick Blackburn, meanwhile, gave up a million HR. Well, 4. And Philip Humber served one up for good measure. All 7 Orioles runs scored on HR. 5 of their 11 H were for extra bases - the Twins had 1 XBH out of 8 total H.

Indians 3, Twins 1

Here the Twins were shut out for 6 IP by a rookie making his 2nd MLB start. Kevin Slowey allowed 2 HR, accounting for all three Indians runs. Matt Guerrier loaded the bases without retiring a batter, but Dennys Reyes bailed him out. The 9-5 batters went a combined 1 for 21 with 2 BB.

Indians 12, Twins 9

This game encapsulates everything that has been troublesome about the Twins since July. It begins with Francisco Liriano having his first bad start since being recalled from AAA. But he was aided in his suckiness by a critical throwing error from Nick Punto, resulting in 4 unearned runs. The Twins rallied from an 8-1 deficit to retake the lead, thanks to the 9-3 hitters going 7-19 with 5 BB, only to see the bullpen immediately give up the lead. The offense went silent in extra innings, and Joe Nathan took the loss when he allowed a 3-run HR to Victor Martinez, who had only 1 other HR in his injury-plagued season.

How many different ways could the Twins have one that game? And yet, they found a way to lose it. By the way, 6 of the Indians' 14 H were for extra bases, including 4 HR. 2 of the Twins' 13 H were for extra bases.

Indians 6, Twins 4

Hoping to salvage the finale, the Twins needed to beat Cy Young front-runner Cliff Lee. Though he lasted into the 7th inning, the Twins managed to score 4 runs off him, battering him for 10 H (only 2 for extra bases) and 3 BB. Scott Baker was not good on 3 days' rest, failing to complete 5 IP while allowing 4 R of his own. So, having just tied the game against Lee, the Twins' bullpen promptly gave the 2 runs right back. Jose Mijares took the loss, but Guerrier was the culprit once again. Entering with a man aboard and 2 out, he allowed 2 doubles and a walk before getting the last out. The Indians had 9 H in the game - 5 for extra bases, including 2 HR.

Twins 11, Rays 8

And now we come to the happy ending. Jason Kubel finally hit his 18th HR to put the Twins up 3-0 in the top of the first. But Glen Perkins was once again blown to bits by the Rays (aided in his suckitude by a throwing error that led to 3 unearned runs). Trailing 8-6 at the start of the 9th inning, the Twins did something they almost never do - they rallied to take the lead. The offensive outburst came in part thanks to multi-hit games from the 9-3 hitters, and 5 XBH out of 15, including 2 HR. Nathan came on to earn his first save since August 27th, over 3 weeks ago. The Rays, for their part, scored 7 of their 8 runs on their 5 HR, and 7 of their 9 hits were for extra bases.

Now, here's where things are:

The starting pitchers may well be fading as they reach innings totals they haven't yet experienced in their young careers. I think Liriano and Baker will be fine, and though Slowey's outing was bad for him lately, it was still a quality start. Blackburn will hopefully be able to bounce back from an unusually bad start as he has all season. But Perkins has had it. He's allowed 9 HR in his last 5 starts, and 3 or more R in each, while his innings have been declining. It would be suicide to send him out there against the White Sox next week. In what will most likely be a must-win game for the Twins, they can't afford to send their most homer-happy starter out against the most powerful lineup in the league. They should use Monday's off-day to skip Perkins, setting up a rotation for the Chicago series of Baker, Blackburn and Slowey. Perkins can pitch in the KC series - they probably won't be able to take him deep too many times. I know that puts the two lefties on consecutive starts, but at this point in the season I don't think it's a big deal.

Matt Guerrier has absolutely had it. If he's not physically burned out, he is mentally. Sit him on the bench and forget about him, unless the team is up or down by 5+ runs.

When Gomez, Span, Casilla and Mauer are getting on base, the Twins score a lot of runs. When they don't, the Twins aren't going to do much. This is because the Twins have been brutally out-slugged this season, especially over the past week, when they've allowed 18 HR in a span of just 5 games. The Twins mostly get singles, so they've got to have their speed guys on a lot, or a rally just isn't going to come together for them.

Nathan picked up his 35th save on a Thursday night 4 weeks ago in Anaheim. Why did he only collect 2 saves in 4 weeks? Because the Twins have to win close games for him to get a save, and that just hasn't happened. I'll define a close game as one in which the winner earns a save or scores the winning run in their last at-bat. In the last 4 weeks, the Twins are 2-14 in close games. That's almost unbelievably awful. Imagine if they'd gone 4-12 - still awful, but they'd be in first place right now.

But that's the amazing thing - for as bad as things have been - this week, this month - the Twins are still just 1.5 games out of first place in the AL Central. If they can just match Chicago over this last road weekend, they'll be right where they need to be to begin the final home stand against their rivals.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Happy When It Rains

Twins 12, Orioles 2
Twins 12, Orioles 6

I was upset when Friday night's game was rained out. First of all, with 10 straight games scheduled, it means a disruption to the rotation: Scott Baker either has to pitch on 3 days' rest vs. likely Cy Young Cliff Lee in the finale of the Cleveland series (a game that might be very important for the Twins), or the bullpen will have to do it. Neither option is that appealing. Second, playing 2 games in one day usually precludes using certain players in each game (Joe Mauer, for example), and would require the Twins to use more of their bench than they might ordinarily like (Adam Everett makes an appearance, for example). Then there's also the way double-headers tend to go - as well as you might play in the first game, it's hard to continue it into the second game.

Game one was certainly everything I could have hoped for. Scott Baker was solid once again, allowing just 1 ER on 4 H and 3 BB in 6 IP (why all the walks, all of a sudden?). The offense provided abundant run support, led by Denard Span's 2 HR and 4 RBI, Justin Morneau's 4 H and 2 RBI and Carlos Gomez' 2 H and 4 RBI. As the Twins were piling on in the 9th, I thought to myself, "Shouldn't you guys be saving that for the first inning of the second game?"

Not to worry. The Twins batted around in that inning as well, and Gomez had one more 2 RBI double in him as the Twins jumped out to a 6-0 lead. Matt Tolbert, invisible on the recent home stand despite swinging the bat very well in Toronto, kept it up with 2 triples, a BB, and 3 R. Morneau knocked in 2 more to tie Josh Hamilton for the AL RBI lead. Even Mike Redmond, necessarily catching instead of Mauer, had 2 RBI singles. The offense matched the output from the first game, eventually tallying 12 runs.

This was especially important because Glen Perkins has suddenly become the shaky piece of the rotation. Spotted a 6-0 lead before he took the mound, he gave 2 R right back. After the offense extended the lead to 10-2, he served up another 4 R to the O's in the 3rd. What should have been an easy win #13 for Perk turned into another disappointing ND. Over his last 4 starts, Perkins has thrown just 20.2 IP, allowing 17 ER on 32 H (including 7 HR) and 7 BB for an ugly 7.40 ERA and 1.89 WHIP. Needless to say, that's got to change immediately, particularly since his next 2 starts are against playoff contenders Tampa and Chicago.

Incredibly, the bullpen swooped in and gave the Twins 9 solid IP between the 2 games, allowing only 1 ER on 9 H and 4 BB. I hope they've saved a little bit of that for today. Because, as you all know, now that the Twins have blown the O's out in the first 2 games of this series, they're only going to score 2 R in the finale. That's been the pattern, anyway. I hope I'm wrong!

Michael Cuddyer was activated from the DL and pinch-hit late in the first game. I'd like to see him get as many ABs as possible over the last 2 weeks of the season - get him up to speed. If the Twins do wind up in the playoffs, my preference would be to see Cuddy in the starting lineup instead of Gomez.

Also of note: the 24-8 combined score of the 2 games raised the Twins' run differential for the season to +100. For the first time, that number exceeds the White Sox' total.

As inconvenient as the rainy weather was for the Twins this weekend, it's been even worse for the White Sox. They weren't able to make up their rainout yesterday, meaning they must now try to play 2 games on what should have been a get-away day for them, getting their 10-game road trip off to a late and weary start. And they'll now have to make up the 3rd game some other time, perhaps on the Monday after the season ends, potentially using up a starter they might have wanted for a 1-game playoff with the Twins. We'll see what kind of impact this weekend's wetness has on the remainder of the AL Central race.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Finish It!

Twins 7, Royals 2
Twins 7, Royals 1
Royals 3, Twins 2 (10 innings)

Though the Twins managed to win their first series since before their road marathon began 3 weeks ago, they continued the pattern that has caused them to miss countless opportunities to overtake the White Sox in the standings. Just like in the Oakland and Seattle series, the Twins got a strong performance from their starter in every game, but the offense only showed up part of the time. This makes 11 losses in the last 17 games; in 7 of those games, they have scored 3 or fewer runs, and they've lost all 7. In 5 series vs. the Royals, the Twins have won the 1st 2 games each time, but are 1-4 in the finales. Let's hope they have another chance to sweep the series at the end of the season.

The Royals are a terrible offensive team, so you'd expect the Twins' pitching to do well against them. Nick Blackburn set the tone by going 7 IP and allowing just 2 ER on 5 H and 1 BB. Kevin Slowey topped that, going 7 IP, 1 ER, 4 H and 1 BB. Then Francisco Liriano finished the set with 8 IP, 2 ER on 6 H and 0 BB with 6 K. The three starters combined for 22 IP, 5 ER, 15 H and 2 BB for a 2.06 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. While the bullpen allowed just 1 R in 6 IP for a 1.50 ERA, they gave up 6 H and 1 BB for a 1.17 WHIP - still good, but noticeably worse than the starters. And that 1 R they allowed resulted in a loss.

It's no startling revelation to say that the bullpen is much weaker than the starters - that's been apparent for about 2 months now. So it was particularly frustrating for me to see my fantasy come to life - 8 IP from the starter hands the ball straight to Joe Nathan - and yet have the Twins find a way to lose anyway. I now quake in fear every time Matt Guerrier takes the mound - since June 30th, he's allowed 24 ER in 28 IP on 37 H and 10 BB (7.71 ERA, 1.68 WHIP), including 6 HR. Those numbers are reminiscent of Livan Hernandez. Guerrier has accumulated 6 losses for the Twins in that time. Over the same period, Jesse Crain has allowed 15 ER in 25 IP on 27 H and 8 BB (5.40 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), including 2 HR. He's lost 2 games. Though Crain's numbers aren't great, it seems that it would be prudent to give him the ball before Guerrier.

Do Carlos Gomez' excellent defense and occasional productive ABs really make up for all the mistakes he makes and all the ABs he throws away? Would the Twins be better off with Denard Span in CF, Jason Kubel in RF and a better hitter than Gomez (say, Randy Ruiz) at DH? I doubt we'll find out.

Coming into this home stand, the Twins had a .667 winning percentage at home, and were facing two divisional opponents with losing records that the Twins had beaten up all year, so going 3-3 is definitely not good enough. However, thanks to some inspired play by the Blue Jays, the White Sox remain just a step ahead of the Twins. Which Central Division contender will get it together first?

9th Split: 6-10

Overall Record: 80-65
2nd in AL Central by 1 game

Previous Splits:

7-9, 10-6, 7-9, 7-9, 13-4, 11-5, 7-9, 12-4

The Twins picked a most inopportune time to have their worst split of the season. Obviously, it was a tremendous challenge to have to play 14 straight games on the road (including the first 11 of this split). But we know that it was easily within the Twins' power to have done much better. 9 of the 10 losses were by 2 or fewer runs. 5 came after the Twins had the lead in the 7th inning or later. 3 came in games Joe Nathan was supposed to save, and all three of those innings contained fielding mistakes. The Twins lost 5 games in which they gave up 3 or fewer ER in 9 IP. Wouldn't a championship team win the close ones?

The offense put up 83 runs in the 16 games, an average of better than 5 R/game. But the actual distribution was way off balance - the Twins scored 54 R in their 6 wins (9 R/game), but just 29 R in their 10 losses (2.9 R/game). The rotation (with the exception of Glen Perkins) did a terrific job of keeping the team in the low-scoring games, delivering quality starts in 11 games, and coming one out short of a QS in 2 others. But the bullpen allowed one or more runs in 11 games. And the defense committed 11 errors, resulting in some devastatingly painful unearned runs, which led directly to a few losses.

The good news is that the White Sox have been scuffling as well, and they've lost their best player, Carlos Quentin, for the balance of the month. The Twins only have to outplay the White Sox by 1 game over the final 17 to tie for the division title. And they only have to match the Sox over the next 11 in order to set up the final head-to-head series at the Metrodome. I should also note that the 80 wins the Twins have now is already 1 more than they had in their disappointing 2007. Even a lackluster stretch run should result in them surpassing the 84 wins I had predicted they would amass this season. So, though their recent play has been hugely frustrating, they remain in the thick of the pennant race, and have exceeded expectations. Whatever happens over these last 2.5 weeks, the 2008 Twins are a success in my eyes.

Bold prediction: the Twins will win 90 or more games for the 5th time in 7 seasons.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Birds of a Feather

Packers 24, Vikings 19

Looks like the Twins aren't the only team in town playing just badly enough to lose. Last night the Vikes had the edge in total yards, time of possession, 3rd & 4th down conversions, and committed fewer penalties for fewer yards than the Pack. Really, they played a very good game against a playoff team on the road. The only trouble was they gave up one huge passing play, one huge running play, and one huge special teams play. Each of those 3 plays led to one of the Packers' 3 TDs. I can forgive the passing one in the first half - the coverage was pretty good, and the receiver just made an outstanding athletic play to leap up bring the ball down. As for the other two, poor tackling, defenders out of position, over-pursuit that allowed cutbacks. Blecch.

The 4pm Pacific start time caused me to miss the first half, which may have been a good thing. My buddy Kenneth missed it all, following the play-by-play online. When he joined us just after the end of the game, he said, "Your QB is a mess." I replied, "He did alright." Then Kenneth's wife, Krysta, asked, "Then why did you wince every time he dropped back to pass?"


Tavares Jackson definitely makes me uncomfortable. However, he had a much better 2nd half after getting fewer game speed reps in pre-season than we all would have liked. He led 3 long scoring drives, all of which should have resulted in TDs. The one that didn't was because Jackson's pass to the back of the end zone was broken up by one of his teammates. Even after the TE tipped the ball, the WR still made the catch, but was unable to quite get his second foot in bounds. If the Vikes could have stayed out of their own way there, they would have matched the Pack score-for-score in the game, and been tied in the final minutes.

I don't know that Jackson is capable of leading a winning drive in the closing minutes in hostile territory - that's certainly the time when he made his fatal mistake (his only INT of the game). But I was impressed with how well he hung in the pocket and delivered the ball accurately while absorbing hits, and how he was able to improvise a few times and use his legs to keep the drives moving. He wasn't as good as Aaron Rodgers, obviously, but Rodgers' performance is a bit overrated. That one bomb he threw counted for about 30% of his total yardage - other than that he averaged about 7 yards/completion. He wasn't asked to throw the ball down the field in an attempt to come back, and he wasn't able to sustain any drives in the 2nd half. If I were the Packers, I wouldn't be feeling too overconfident about the win - it was more that Vikings lost.

Looks like the Vikes have a pretty tough schedule this year. I don't expect things to get any easier for them - or for us fans.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Falling Fast

Twins 10, Tigers 2
Tigers 6, Twins 4
Tigers 7, Twins 5

Coming home does not seem to have solved the Twins' problems. The bullpen showed it is just as capable of throwing away an 8th inning lead in MN as on the road. After a brilliant August, Glen Perkins had his second straight shaky start in September. The Twins are just 1-5 in their first week of this month, and must turn things around immediately if they are to keep pace with the White Sox.

On a positive note, Francisco Liriano was awesome on Friday night. His slider was working, and he wasn't afraid to use it. The velocity of his pitches is still well short of his 2006 stuff, but he isn't too much less effective for it. Scott Baker was also terrific in his start. Ultimately, too many walks, but he got the Twins into the 8th inning with only 2 R allowed, and the bullpen should have been able to take it from there. Also, a good effort by the top of the order, as Denard Span reached in 7 of 15 plate appearances and scored 5 R, Alexi Casilla reached in 7 of 14 PAs and scored twice, and Joe Mauer reached in 7 of 14 PAs, scoring 3 times.

Unfortunately, Mauer could not come up with the big hit with runners on base. Justin Morneau drove in 8 R over the weekend, but failed to drive in any on Saturday, despite batting 3 times with runners on 3rd, including twice with the bases loaded. Dennys Reyes was the right guy to bring in against Curtis Granderson on Saturday, but he made perhaps his worst pitch of the season, hanging a 1-1 slider that Granderson blasted for the game-tying HR. Had Reyes gotten Granderson out, I might have liked to see Joe Nathan come on to face the heart of the Tigers' order. But, with the game tied already, might as well bring in Matt Guerrier, who had great lifetime numbers against all those guys. Naturally, he didn't retire any of them and continued his second-half implosion.

After Nick Punto reached with a marvelous AB leading off the 9th on Saturday, I couldn't believe that Gardy didn't pinch-hit for Carlos Gomez. He's been doing it with great frequency over the past couple of weeks, and he had the AAA batting champ on his bench, with the speedy Jason Pridie available to pinch-run and take over in CF should Randy Ruiz reach. Instead, Gardy left his most K-prone hitter in there, and Gomez promptly struck out on three pitches. That was tantamount to giving away 1 of the Twins' final 3 outs.

The Twins are 2 games behind where I'd hoped they'd be after 6 September games. That makes this upcoming series with KC a must-sweep. The Twins must also hope that the Blue Jays continue their inspired play vs. the White Sox. It's still not too much to ask that the Twins could be within 2 games of the White Sox when they face each other the last week of the season, but the margin for error has pretty much evaporated over the past 2 weeks. When they do face the White Sox, they certainly must play better than they just did against the Tigers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Oh, the Humanity

Blue Jays 7, Twins 5
Blue Jays 5, Twins 4 (11 innings)
Blue Jays 9, Twins 0

Well, it could have been worse.

The Twins could have lost that first 12 inning game in Anaheim. Denard Span's throw to the plate in the last game in Seattle could have been off line. Or the team plane could have crashed into Lake Huron.

As it was, this dreaded 14-game road trip concluded with a sweep in Toronto and a 5-9 record. 8 of the 9 losses came by 2 or fewer runs. 5 came in the opponent's last at-bat. That three of those losses came because the bullpen's best member, Joe Nathan, blew a save was excruciating. That at least 2 if not all 3 of those blown saves were the result of bad defense was embarrassing.

This was not a good time to be facing the Blue Jays. They have been playing very well over the past several weeks on all sides of the ball. Their defense has made the fewest errors in the league since the All Star break, and their placement, range, and decisive, strong throws robbed the Twins of several potential hits. At the plate, they had a good approach up and down the lineup, and they got an amazing debut from rookie Travis Snyder. I'll be rooting for them to have a great September and knock the Yankees into 4th place.

Joe Nathan, as I mentioned, got no help from the defense in his blown save on Wednesday. All of his blown saves on the trip had 2 things in common: a fielding error, and the leadoff man reaching base. He can't control what his fielders do behind him (unless he's the one doing the fielding), but he can avoid walking the backup catcher with a .230 BA. Get the first one, Joe!

As great as Snyder was for the Jays, the Twins' September callups did not distinguish themselves in this series. Matt Tolbert did a good job at the plate (a couple of hits and some loud outs), but couldn't quite get to several balls at 3rd, plus made a throwing error on a routine play. Jason Pridie's brutal error in the 9th on Wednesday cost the Twins the game. Bobby Korecky and Philip Humber were blown to bits in their one combined inning. I hope Jose Mijares does better whenever he gets out there.

Wednesday night was the third time since the break that Gardy has pulled Nick Blackburn out of a game (when his pitch count was OK) mainly because his defense was making mistakes behind him. With the bullpen struggling as much as it is, I think it would be wise to leave the starter in there as long as he's not giving up a ton of hard-hit balls, which was the case in the 7th inning the other night.

The Twins had better win a ton of games at home now, because they're headed right back on the road for 10 more next week.

Monday, September 1, 2008

August Review

Twins Record: 17-12
Overall Record: 77-60, 2nd in AL Central by 0.5 games

Any time a team goes +5, they've had a good month. Do that every time and you finish up with 96 wins and a postseason spot. The Twins were 4th in the AL in runs scored for August, and led the league in ERA (amazing what can happen when you quit giving the ball to Livan Hernandez and Brian Bass every few days). They head into September just 2 wins shy of their total for all of 2007. Barring a major collapse, they figure to wind up with their 5th 90+ win season out of the last 7, and they remain in the thick of the division race.

So why do I feel that 17-12 was a disappointment? For starters, the Twins' +52 run differential for the month should have translated into a lot more than +5 wins. The last 10 losses the Twins suffered in August came by 2 or fewer runs or in extra innings. That suggests that it wouldn't have taken much more to turn some of those losses into wins. That is particular true when you look more closely: 8 games lost by the bullpen, 5 when the Twins were leading after 7 innings, 3 leads lost with Joe Nathan on the mound. Then look at who they lost to: only an 11-8 (.579) record against Seattle, Oakland and KC - the rest of the league went 45-21 (.682) against those teams. With just a bit steadier bullpen work (and one routine throw to first from Adam Everett back on the 10th), the Twins could easily have won 3 more games than they did this month.

While the team's overall statistical performances were impressive, it is important to bear in mind that 22 of the games this month were against opponents ranking in the bottom 6 in the league for ERA for the August (no wonder they scored a ton of runs), and 23 were against teams ranking in the bottom 5 in OPS (no wonder they out-homered their opponents). In September the Twins face a much more potent schedule, though still not as tough as what the White Sox have in front of them. Another +5 month is certainly within the Twins' ability. If they accomplish that and reach 92 wins, will it be enough to propel them into October?

For purposes of evaluations, I'll only be looking at pitchers with more than 10 IP (lucky you, Eddie!) and hitters with more than 25 ABs (sorry, Mike Lamb!).

Getting It Done

Francisco Liriano - You can tell me all about how Liriano's stuff isn't as good as 2006, or that he only faced teams with mediocre offenses. That may be true, but a lot of Twins pitchers faced those teams, and Liriano's the one who went 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 6 starts this month. How big a lift has he been to the rotation? He allowed fewer earned runs in 36.2 August innings (5) than Livan allowed in 2.2 IP in his first start with the Rockies (9).

Kevin Slowey - Slowey's first start of the month vs. Cleveland kept him from matching Liriano's August dominance. But in each of his 5 starts since, he allowed 2 or fewer ER in 5.2 or more IP. Overall, he averaged a strikeout per inning and allowed a 2.92 ERA and 1.00 WHIP thanks to a sick 37/2 K/BB ratio.

Dennys Reyes - This month saw Reyes return to his 2006 form: in 11 IP, he had a 0.82 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 11.45 K/9. When he wasn't striking people out, he got 21 grounders to only 2 fly balls, and even got a few righties out. Awesome.

Joe Mauer - He started the month with a BA of .320 and an OBP of .413. He ended the month with a BA of .320 and an OBP of .413. Consistently excellent, while starting 24 of 29 games. I guess it'd be nice if he'd get more XBH, but whatever.

Craig Breslow - Speaking of how much better Liriano is than Livan, how much better is Breslow than Juan Rincon? In August, Breslow gave up 4 ER in 12.1 IP with a 0.97 WHIP and 16/10 GB/FB ratio and 8 K, and his ERA went up. What a great pickup - probably Bill Smith's best addition of the season.

Boof Bonser - Yes! Boof Bonser! He finally adjusted to the bullpen, striking out 14 in 15 IP, while sporting a 2.40 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 23/13 GB/FB ratio. Is he the next Latroy Hawkins?

Glen Perkins - What a month this might have been for Glen Perkins had he not faced the Mariners 3 times. 11 of the 13 R he allowed came on the only 6 HR he allowed - all to the Mariners, most in the 6th inning or later. In each of his 2 non-Mariners starts, he allowed 0 R and 7 baserunners in 8 IP. Luckily, he won't be facing the Mariners in September!

Jason Kubel - .326/.379/.523 with 3 HR and 13 RBI in less than 100 ABs. If he can finish up with a September like he had in 2007 (.325/.404/.584, 3 HR, 14 RBI) he'll be the third leg of a deadly heart of the order.

Denard Span - In his first complete month in the leadoff spot, Span reached base 37% of the time, hit 12 XBH including 3 HR, drove in 23 runs, scored 20, and went 8/10 stealing bases. Why, oh why, did it take the Twins so long to figure out that he belongs there?

So Far, So Good

Joe Nathan - Though his line for the month was as sick as ever (12.1 IP, 13 K, 0.73 ERA, 0.89 WHIP), I can't put Nathan in the ass-kicking category because he blew 3 of his 10 save opportunities. I agree that saves are an overblown stat, but the bottom line is, when Nathan takes the mound and the Twins have the lead, I expect a win, and that didn't happen 30% of the time he was in that situation. I bet he would agree that he didn't get it done this time.

Scott Baker - As with Perkins, Baker got lit up by the Mariners (6.75 ERA, 1.96 WHIP in 17.1 IP) and was lights out against everyone else (1.71 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 21 IP). What was it about the Mariners?

Nick Blackburn - Is Blackburn beginning to wear down? This was the first month in which he failed to produce 3 starts with 2 or fewer runs allowed. His walk total (11) was almost double the previous high he had established back in April (6). Still a perfectly good #5 starter, though.

Randy Ruiz - Congratulations to Randy Ruiz on a very promising and long overdue start to his Major League career. The average (.320) and OBP (.370) are great. Now he needs to get some more XBH and cut down the Ks. Something to build on.

Brian Buscher - Like Ruiz, I love the BA (.312) and the RBIs (14) are terrific for a platoon player. I just want to see more XBH, fewer Ks, and, oh yeah, not so many errors at 3B.

Nick Punto - The first 10 games of August were most unkind to Punto - he collected just 5 H in 39 AB while striking out 11 times. He picked it up the rest of the month, batting .362 with 7 doubles and a triple. He is very close to the level he was at in 2006.

Justin Morneau - Morneau also struggled in the first half of the month, going just 6 for his first 44 with 2 doubles. But over the last 16 games he's hit .379/.423/.667 with 10 doubles, 3 HR and 15 RBI. He had an OPS over .800 and drove in at least 20 runs for the 5th straight month.

Mike Redmond - It's amazing to me how few games Redmond is getting into this year. He's holding his own when he does play, and hit .276 with 2 doubles in just 29 ABs this month.

Brendan Harris - Now established in a platoon roll, Harris hit .266/.319/.469 in 64 August ABs. Terrific isolated power, decent eye, decent range at 3rd. I just wish he put the ball in play more (16 K, or 25% of his ABs).

Adam Everett - The Twins got a .704 OPS out of Everett this month, along with a HR and 10 RBI in just 38 ABs. He might actually be playing more if he hadn't made a couple of crucial errors.

Need To Pick It Up

Alexi Casilla - I was thrilled to see Casilla back in the lineup, for his glove if nothing else. It doesn't look like his rehab assignment was long enough to get him back to form hitting-wise - he went just 6 for his first 34 when he came off the DL. He had a nice weekend in Oakland (5 for 13 with a HR), so hopefully he can carry that forward into September.

Delmon Young - The power finally arrived for Young in August, as he clobbered 4 rather spectacular HRs (including the tying shot off Mariano Rivera). He had more walks (8) this month than in June and July combined (5). Other than that, he was mostly a singles hitter, and there were far too few of them.

Carlos Gomez - With Kubel and Span both hitting their butts off, Gomez finally played himself out of the everyday lineup with his 3rd straight month of sub-.600 OPS. He also had a couple of costly misjudged fly balls out in CF. On the bright side, he got back to stealing bases again, going 7/8 - his best production on the base paths since April. Good thing, since he'll be doing a lot of pinch-running from here on out.

Jesse Crain - And now we come to the guys who probably did the most to make August a disappointing month. Crain either allowed runs or failed to record an out in half of his 14 appearances. He has allowed the winning runs to score against him in each of his last 3 appearances.

Matt Guerrier - But Guerrier wins the prize for Least Valuable Pitcher in August. He was touched for runs in 6 of his first 8 appearances, allowing the winning or tying runs to reach base in 3 of the Twins' losses. Obviously overworked, he was used just once between the 12th and the 21st. He's allowed 0 R on 1 H and 2 BB with 4 K in 5.1 IP on the current road trip, so hopefully he's got things turned around.

...and Down and Up

A's 3, Twins 2
Twins 12, A's 4

As I began watching Saturday night's game, I thought to myself, "4 runs ought to do it." I think that the Twins' pitching ought to be able to hold a pitiful offense like that of the A's to 3 or few runs, particularly with Francisco Liriano on the mound. Denard Span's 4th HR brought them halfway to the threshold of runs which would have made me feel comfortable. But from there, the offense stopped, producing no hits from the 7th inning on. You probably gulped audibly, as I did, when Matt Guerrier was brought in to pitch the 8th. But this time he was his old self, retiring the side quietly in order. Phew! On to Joe Nathan, who couldn't possibly blow 2 saves in one week, right?

Wrong. Not only did Nathan blow it, he Blew it, falling behind Bobby Crosby 3-1 before giving up a leadoff single (tying run on first), hitting Emil Brown with a pitch (winning run on first, tying run on second), then throwing his force attempt at 3rd base on the ensuing sac bunt into the Coliseum's expansive foul territory, allowing the tying and winning runs to score. You can't lose a game much more single-handedly than that!

But where was the offense, which had pounded out 20 H and 12 R the night before? More specifically, where was Brendan Harris, who 3 times came up with Jason Kubel on 2nd and Delmon Young on first, and went force out (would have been a DP had the second-baseman not double-clutched), DP, K looking. The only hit the Twins received with RISP all night was Span's HR, which was also their lone XBH.

No such troubles on Sunday, when the Twins used 10 H (6 XBH) and 9 BB to once again put up 12 R on the A's. They had 4 H with RISP, plus 2 SF. Overall, the Twins outscored the A's 28-12, yet only managed to split the series. They are 5-6 on this looooooong road trip, despite outscoring their opponents 57-37. A lot of that has to do with getting 33 of those runs in just 3 games. The Twins have been held to 3 or fewer runs in 6 of the 11 games, and are 1-5 in those games. Couldn't they spread it around a little bit?