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.

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