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.

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