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.

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