Wednesday, May 27, 2009

3rd Split: 9-7

Overall Record: 24-24
2nd in AL Central by 3.5 games

Other splits: 7-9, 8-8

It's been a streaky couple of weeks, but things are generally trending in the right direction for the Twins. Facing a slate of first-place teams - plus the White Sox in Chicago - I said last time that the offense was going to have to carry the team through this stretch. And did it ever! The Twins scored 105 runs over these past 16 games, better than 6.5 R/G on average. They put up 6 or more runs in 8 of these recent games, and were victorious 7 times. Unfortunately, they only came up with 4 R/G in NY, which was just enough for them to lose all 4 games by 1 run or in extra innings. Had they been able to do just a little bit more in any of those games, this split would have been great instead of just good.

As I noted earlier, there is a dark cloud hanging over this offensive explosion: almost all of the production has come from just 6 players. Denard Span (.364/.478/.436, 11 R), Joe Mauer (.389/.500/.815, 8 HR, 22 RBI), Justin Morneau (.383/.493/.800, 6 HR, 18 RBI), Michael Cuddyer (.311/.400/.672, 5 HR, 13 RBI), Jason Kubel (.413/.481/.500, 8 RBI) and Joe Crede (.256/.304/.628, 5 HR, 14 RBI) did just about all of the damage. Gardy wisely moved Mauer up to the #2 slot in the order, eliminating an easy out between him and Span; the Twins have won all 6 games with Mauer in that position.

Just as importantly, the pitching staff seems to be finding itself. They have allowed 3 or fewer runs in 6 of the last 7 games. This is especially due to Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, who in their 7 starts during this stretch combined to allow just 12 ER in 48.2 IP, each completing at least 6 IP every time out. Anthony Swarzak made an impressive big-league debut with 7 scoreless innings - I'll be watching his next couple of starts with great interest. Scott Baker claims to have made a mechanical adjustment that certainly yielded good results in his last start - we'll see if he can repeat it.

Just 6 more errors over this split, so with 19 total for the season the Twins are still leading the league in fewest errors and unearned runs allowed. They are in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency - the percentage of balls in play turned into outs - but I think that says more about the guys on the mound than the guys in the field. As the starters continue to improve, I expect the Twins to move up the defensive efficiency leader board.

The Twins have a much easier draw in the coming split, although it will include 12 road games, including the dreaded early June West Coast trip. The Twins are just 5-14 on the road - 2nd to last in the Majors in terms of winning percentage. They're going to have to turn that around starting this weekend if they want to keep the positive trend going.

Bold Prediction: Francisco Liriano is going to give the Twins 18+ IP with an ERA lower than 4.20 over his next 3 starts.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Drop Off

Red Sox 6, Twins 5

I was disappointed that the Twins' offense didn't have a better showing against Brad Penny. Part of that was because, unlike the other time they faced him in April, his fastball had some movement and he was throwing his breaking stuff for strikes. The other part had to do with the Twins' lineup. With Denard Span still recovering from the flu, Joe Crede with a swollen hand after being HBP yesterday and Joe Mauer just getting a day off, the lineup began with Carlos Gomez and Matt Tolbert in front of Justin Morneau. Span's OBP is .100 points higher than Gomez' and Mauer's OBP is literally double Tolbert's. Not surprisingly, the table wasn't set. Span's absence also forced Delmon Young into the lineup - he went 0-4 with 3 K for the second straight game. I guess I'll be charitable and write that off to him losing his timing after being out for a week and a half. Anyway, this was not the lineup that has been putting up so many runs this month.

And yet, they still managed to knock Penny out after 5.1 IP and score 5 R in the game. The last 2 came on Mauer's 2-out, PH HR off of Jonathan Papelbon. In just 23 games and 81 AB, Mauer already has 11 HR, 25 R, and 31 RBI while hitting .444/.530/.914. I don't think he needs to get another hit this week in order to win the AL Player of the Month award. Mike Redmond, in 2/3 the AB, has 0 HR, 2 R and 3 RBI while hitting .259/.322/.315. Obviously, Redmond wasn't going to be anywhere near as good as Mauer this year, but that's as drastic a drop off in production as we'll see from any starter to his backup.

Francisco Liriano got hit around a bit, but he pitched better than his line indicates. The big positive I'll take away from that outing was the 7 K and 0 BB in 4 IP. Remember, it was when he started limiting his walks last year at AAA when things started to take off for him. As for the 11 H, almost half of them were grounders that found their way through. In his 4 IP, Liriano didn't have a single ground ball turned into an out - that's unusually bad luck. And we can point the finger again to the lineup, where Brian Buscher was manning the hot corner instead of Crede. In the 3 run 3rd inning, there were 3 sharply hit balls that got by Buscher - one that went right through him, one just out of reach to his right, one just to his left. It's not difficult to imagine Crede at least knocking down all of those balls, 2 of which went for 2B and the other an RBI single. Maybe Liriano could have hung around a little longer with the Twins' best defense on the field.

All of this brings into stark relief something that might be easy to overlook when the Twins are scoring 5.3 R/G: there are actually only 6 productive hitters in the Twins' lineup (Span, Mauer, Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Crede). None of the other 7 position players has an OPS over .650. Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez at least contribute with above-average fielding, but it's a pretty weak team on the whole. That just goes to show what an incredible level of production we're seeing from the top 6. If they cool off at some point - and they almost certainly will - somebody else had better step up or it's going to be a long summer.

Minor League Notes

Danny Valencia drew 3 BB yesterday to raise his season line to .339/.432/.597 with a 26/20 K/BB ratio in 124 AB. He's hit .305/.367/.521 in 433 PA at AA, and has clearly improved from '08 to '09. Send him to Rochester already.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mmmmmmm, Cheese

Twins 11, Brewers 3
Twins 6, Brewers 2
Twins 6, Brewers 3

After a discouraging 1-6 road trip, it's nice to come back to home, sweet Dome. The Brewers hadn't lost a series in weeks, but were easily taken apart by the Twins' offensive juggernaut. Led by Joe Mauer (5-8, 2 HR, 3 BB, 5 RBI), Justin Morneau (6-10, 3B, HR, 7 RBI), Michael Cuddyer (5-11, 3B, HR, 2 BB, 5 RBI) and Joe Crede (4-10, 2 HR, 3 RBI), the middle of the order didn't miss a beat despite losing Jason Kubel to a swollen knee for the series. Cuddyer thrillingly gave the Twins their second cycle of the season, Morneau capped the series with the Twins' 4th grand slam of the year, and Mauer surpassed his HR production from all of 2008 in just his 22nd game.

Even better than the continuing onslaught from the hitters was the performance of the Twins' starting pitching. Kevin Slowey lasted into the 8th inning, Scott Baker lasted into the ninth, and Anthony Swarzak completed seven shutout innings. It was a most auspicious major league debut for Swarzak, who has been pitching very well ever since being promoted to Rochester. With Glen Perkins struggling in his outings prior to being placed on the DL, I wouldn't be so hasty about sending Swarzak to the bullpen when Perkins returns. We'll see how the next couple of starts go, but Swarzak has a higher upside than Perkins, who could actually do the Twins a lot of good as a middle reliever.

Now, bring on the Red Sox. I've been hoping for weeks that the Twins would get another chance at Brad Penny. He was lucky that they didn't destroy him in the 2nd half of that double-header in April - so many balls were hit hard and to the deepest parts of Fenway Park. The way the Twins are swinging right now, they're going to tear Penny apart if he brings the same stuff he had on that day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Last Laugh

White Sox 6, Twins 2
White Sox 7, Twins 4
Twins 20, White Sox 1

That was cathartic, huh?

After following up their hard-fought, narrow sweep at the hands of the Yankees with 2 rather poor games in the Windy City, the Twins emphatically ended their 6-game losing streak with their best all-around game since 2002 (a 23-2 drubbing of Cleveland, with both runs coming on Jim Thome solo HR, if I recall correctly).

Facing a pair of tough LHP in Mark Buerhle and John Danks, runs figured to be at a premium, so the Twins' starters for those games, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, needed to be a whole lot finer than they were. Baker issued a season-high 4 BB and served up 2 more HR, leaving after 5 IP with 105 pitches thrown. Liriano skated through 3 scoreless innings before allowing 7 R in the 4th, capped by the 2nd HR of the inning, Jermaine Dye's grand slam. He was gone after 4 IP and 90 pitches with 3 BB and only 1 K.

In each game, Scott Podsednik was picked off first, but wound up with a SB anyway when Nick Punto dropped Justin Morneau's throw on Tuesday and Michael Cuddyer's throw hit Podsednik for an E on Wednesday. (All 3 of Cuddyer's E have come playing 1B. In Chicago.) The offense's string of games with 5+ BB ended as they accumulated just 4 BB in the first 2 games. They continued to struggle with RISP, scoring 5 of their 6 R on HR or SF.

But then, the offense that had been bottled up all week burst out with an orgy of hitting that we hadn't seen in nearly 2 years. 20 H. Another 5 BB. 4 HR, including 3 with men on base! 6 of the starters with multi-hit games. Matt Tolbert went yard, for crying out loud!

Was the secret moving Joe Mauer up to the #2 slot? I was going to comment about how poorly that slot had performed for the Twins this year, but Gardy noticed and did something about it. He's too prone to leaving spring training with grand ideas about how players ought to perform, but once the team gets into late May, he makes adjustments that produce results. This performance by the offense should certainly reinforce the new lineup for awhile. I still think Cuddyer is swinging well enough right now to get a chance to break up what was, today, a string of 4 straight lefties at the top of the order.

Nick Blackburn, for his part, stayed pretty aggressive and won his first career game at the Cell. He got a huge break in the 3rd when Alexi Ramirez' bases-loaded liner went straight to Joe Crede, who found Podsednik too far off 1B for a DP. Blackburn got Dye to end the inning, and the Sox never threatened him again.

So here's the punchline: thanks to this afternoon's laugher, the Twins not only outscored the Sox in this series, they actually scored more runs than they allowed on the whole 1-6 road trip (42-35). Suddenly, the Twins' run differential for the season is only -6, and their 19-23 record starts to look rather unjust. Particularly their 8-12 May record; they're +17 in run differential for those 20 games. Hopefully, they won't end up like Cleveland last year.

Roster Move

In order to make room for Anthony Swarzak, who will indeed get a chance to take Glen Perkins' spot in the rotation, the Twins tried to clear Craig Breslow through waivers, but promptly lost him to the Oakland A's. Effectively, this means that the Twins traded Breslow for Sean Henn. Henn has been solid at Rochester this year, but he has lousy career numbers in the Bigs. Worst of all, he's not particularly good at getting out lefties: they have about a .760 OPS against him in his career. Breslow held lefties to about .640. He was off to a ghastly start this year, with BB and HR rates so unprecedented that there wasn't much reason to think they'd continue. Henn, meanwhile, has outperformed his career rates at Rochester, and so has nowhere to go but down.

This was another dumb move by Mr. Smith. Swarzak should have been called up on Tuesday, or Perkins should have been DLed today, but there was no reason to involve Henn or risk Breslow at all. But the strategic failure goes beyond these guys. It's this mental block everybody seems to have about there being more than 2 LHP in the bullpen. As long as 1 of them is awesome at getting out lefties and the others can also get out righties, who cares? Breslow and Jose Mijares, when pitching up to their ability, can get out both. The rationale for letting Dennys Reyes walk away was that Breslow and/or Mijares could fulfill his role for less money. Well, neither has filled his role, and now Henn will be asked to do it with his .760 OPS against. Reyes, meanwhile, has allowed a .472 OPS against lefties for the Cardinals, with 7 K and 1 BB against 28 batters faced so far. Think of all the lefties that have hurt the Twins' 'pen this year, and how nice it would have been to have an arm like that at their disposal. Sigh.

Minor League Notes

Whatever was bothering Alexi Casilla at the plate in the Majors, he didn't take it with him to Rochester. He's hitting .353/.411/.471 with 3 3B and a 8/5 K/BB ratio since his demotion. Tolbert had better keep hitting like he did on Thursday. And Danny Valencia and Anthony Slama have added to their promotion cases this week. Valencia hit his 5th HR today, raising his season line to .324/.409/.595, good for 2nd in the Eastern League in OPS. Slama struck out 2 in a scoreless inning on Wednesday, and now has 35 K in 22.1 IP with a 1.61 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, and still just the one HR allowed.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meet the New Bronx

Yankees 5, Twins 4
Yankees 6, Twins 4 (11 innings)
Yankees 3, Twins 2 (10 innings)
Yankees 7, Twins 6

I hate the Yankees. I think it started with the Chuck Knoblauch trade, when their already deep team was augmented with the only star player the Twins had at the time. Knoblauch's implosion and several good years of Eric Milton and Christian Guzman helped me get over that, but every time the Yankees sign a smaller team's franchise player, or the Twins lose one of their stars to a huge market team, I'm resentful. Seeing the Yankees lose is one of my greatest pleasures as a baseball fan.

So it's been particularly galling to me that the Twins have utterly failed to bring any defeats to the Yankees in NY during the Gardenhire era. Every season, no matter how talented the Twins are, they absolutely fall apart in the Bronx, losing 19 of 22 games from 2002-2008 by a combined score of 128-67, with 10 of the losses coming by 4 or more runs. Even with the Yankees struggling a bit coming into the series, with A-Rod and Mark Teixeira hitting poorly, with their bullpen among the worst in the league, with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain getting knocked around early in games, everything seems to go right for them once the Twins come to town.

And yet, I'm not nearly as disgusted as I was with the recent series in New York. The Twins got 3 QS (again, I don't think that should be taken away from a pitcher if he gives up a 4th run after the 6th inning), and when Glen Perkins faltered on Monday, R.A Dickey stepped up with his best outing of the year, 4.1 scoreless IP. The defense committed just one error in the 4 games, and made some outstanding plays, including Joe Mauer's game-saving, diving tag of Brett Gardner on Sunday, probably the best play we will ever see from a catcher. The offense continued to grind away at the opposing pitchers, walking at least 5 times in each game and hitting 7 HR.

The Twins were right there until the last inning in every game, giving the Yanks everything they could handle. I was proud to see the Twins match up so well with a team that many have projected to win 95 or so games, especially on the road. It was like watching the '91 World Series again, except every game was played in Atlanta. The great thing about that series was that the games were so close, every mistake was magnified - you had to play your very best all the time in order to win.

And that's the disappointment of this series, I suppose. The Twins played very well, but not quite well enough. In a series this close, the offense can't stop hitting with men in scoring position. Every HR came with the bases empty. The Yankees' defense certainly took some things away - Denard Span must have wondered how he had offended the baseball gods after he lost 3 potential hits in 4 AB to outstanding plays by the Yankee IF - but there were some giveaways, too. With the bases loaded, 2 out and Mauer on deck, why is Matt Tolbert swinging at a 2-0 pitch? A BB forces in the lead run and brings the game's best hitter to the plate, and Tolbert isn't exactly mashing right now (.179/.283/.231). In such a tight series, everyone has to be disciplined.

But almost everybody whose last name doesn't begin with an "M" had letdowns. In such a tight series, Joe Nathan can't serve up a leadoff triple to the 4th OF. Nick Blackburn can't walk 2 in a row with 2 out in front of Teixeira. Michael Cuddyer can't forget to retouch 2nd base on a fly out. Span can't uncork the worst throw of his big league career on the game-tying SF.

These things are largely within the Twins' power to improve, and hopefully they can look at this series as a test they couldn't quite pass. Now they've seen what they need to do to beat the best on the road, and they have to rise to the challenge and incorporate those things into their game. The good news is, most of the rest of the AL isn't as good as the Yankees, so the level of play the Twins brought to this series should serve them pretty well in Chicago, for example.

That said, the bullpen certainly needs to be improved, and the Twins are making an attempt to do that by bringing up Sean Henn from Rochester while Perkins goes on the DL. Henn's been having a very good year at Rochester, posting a 1.13 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 24 IP with a 32/10 K/BB ratio. For his career, his numbers haven't been too different from Craig Breslow's, so while we might get something like Breslow gave last year, we could also get what Breslow's been giving us this year. I'd still like to see another move made, maybe ditching Luis Ayala in order to give Anthony Swarzak a couple of chances in the rotation.

Minor League Notes

While I'm on the subject, I think there are some guys who should be promoted to Rochester by the end of the month. Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama continue to do very good work for the Rock Cats, though Slama's BB rate has accelerated a bit in recent games. These guys are the best hope for the Twins bullpen future, and the sooner the future becomes the present, the better. Then there's Danny Valencia, who went 2-4 with a 3B on Sunday to raise his line to .313/.405/.552, good for 6th in the IL in OPS. He's cut his K/BB rate from about 4/1 last year to 3/2, about where it was when he was promoted from Fort Myers. If he's going to have a chance to win the 3B job out of spring training next season, the Twins would be wise to give him as much seasoning at AAA as they can this year.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Patience and Perseverance

Twins 6, Tigers 2
Twins 14, Tigers 10 (13 innings)
Twins 6, Tigers 5

At last, a proper Dome stand. After going 2-2, 4-3 and 3-3 to open the season, the Twins were able to win 5 of 6 against Seattle and Detroit, and came within 2 innings of 6-0.

I will remember the first play of Tuesday night's game as the moment when I finally gave up on Delmon Young. It's possible to tolerate his absence of XBH and plate discipline while he's hitting close to .300, but not when he's also failing to make basic plays in the OF, like reading and catching Curtis Granderson's leadoff liner that sailed over his head for a 2B. Bert Blyleven charitably talked about how easy it is to lose the ball in the lights, but I don't think that's what happened. I think Young just misjudged it. Because he's a bad fielder. And he's not getting any better.

You think you've got a migraine, Delmon? Try watching yourself play. The Twins have a ton of OF between the Majors and AAA who can strike out 5 times as often as they walk and hit for minimal power. But most of them can at least catch the ball, and any of them would be more deserving of regular playing time than Young is right now. Take your time with your family this week, Delmon.

Fortunately, Slowey was able to pitch through that "hit" and another charged to him when Matt Tolbert exuberantly cut in front of Nick Punto on a chopper over the mound. Without those, he allowed only 6 H and 2 BB in 6 IP. The 2 BB doubled his season high, which I think was just an indication that plate umpire Ed Rapuano had way too tight of a zone.

That cut both ways, though, and the Twins took advantage of it by drawing another 7 BB against the Tigers' pitchers. The Twins have done well so far against Armando Galarraga. He's one of those pitchers who doesn't actually throw many strikes, but rather hopes that the movement of his pitches on the margins will induce swings out of the zone. If a hitter comes to the plate with the mentality that they're going to take a couple of strikes, they will usually find themselves ahead in the count, especially if the ump is conservative. Once there, they can pick out a pitch to drive.

The difference between a fly to the wall in LF and a HR can be as little as a foot or two - less than 1% of the total distance from home plate. Joe Mauer has that extra 1% this year, and because of it he's already hit nearly as many HR (4) in 35 AB as he had in his first 300 AB (5) last season. He would have had 5, in fact, had LF Clete Thomas not pulled his first-inning drive back onto the field. Mauer simply hit the ball harder in his next AB, getting the ball to nearly the same spot too fast for Thomas to make a leap.

Wednesday night's marathon was directly caused by plate umpire Paul Schrieber's even tighter strike zone. After one trip through the order (during which Glen Perkins needed to throw just 24 pitches), the Tigers must have noticed that Schrieber wasn't calling anything on the corners, so why were they swinging so early in the count? Perkins, who had walked just 8 batters in his first 6 starts, suddenly walked the bases loaded, where 2 runs could come in on a 2-out bouncer up the middle. (A better throw to the plate from Matt Tolbert, who short-hopped Mike Redmond, might have ended the inning with only one run scoring, saving us all a lot of trouble.) In the 5th, Granderson led off with a BB, stole 2nd, and eventually scored on a WP.

The bullpen has to burst into flames at least once every series, and this was the night. Luis Ayala couldn't retire the first 2 batters of the 7th, so in came Matt Guerrier, and Miguel Cabrera immediately took him deep to put the Tigers ahead. To their credit, the rest of the staff managed to put up zeroes until the 13th, when poor Jesse Crain was duped into balking by a feinted SB attempt by Granderson from 3B just as Crain was beginning his windup.

I said that the offense would have to carry the Twins through this next stretch of games. Every time the pitchers put the team behind, there was the offense to answer. 7 more BB. A couple of SF. A 2-run 3B from Denard Span after the Tigers had taken the lead in the top of the 6th. A 2-run, PH HR from Jason Kubel to tie the game in the 8th. With the Tigers' 'pen beleaguered from 2 straight short starts, Jim Leyland was forced to ride Brandon Lyon to the end of the game, though it would end on his 60th pitch.

I questioned whether giving up Span to put PR Nick Punto into scoring position for Matt Tolbert was a wise move, but Tolbert promptly delivered the game-tying single. 2 more BB filled the sacks for Joe Crede, who smashed a hanging slider into the LF seats for an emphatic, walk-off comeback win.

With Justin Verlander in the midst of a hot streak and both bullpens decimated, the game plan in the finale had to be to get as many innings as possible out of Scott Baker while making Verlander throw as many pitches as possible. Baker delivered by facing the minimum through 5 IP, but the 6th started with a broken-bat bloop single and a hit-and-run single to put runners at the corners with nobody out. Baker struck out the next man and got Granderson to pop up, but couldn't escape the jam when the next pitch was lined just over the glove of Jason Kubel in LF. Luckily, it hopped the fence for a ground-rule double, allowing only one run to score. Unluckily, Magglio Ordonez' grounder sneaked into CF scoring 2 more. Then Cabrera whacked another ground-rule double, and Clete Thomas went down to ground a shin-high curveball into CF for 2 more runs.

Suddenly down 5-0, and with Verlander striking out everyone in sight, it looked like the game was over. But Verlander was already approaching 100 pitches, and though he set his career high for K to start the 7th, Brian Buscher lined a single and Nick Punto drew a walk. With Verlander at 122 pitches and a succession of LH batters coming up, Leyland went to LOOGY Bobby Seay. Span greeted him with a single to load the bases, and Tolbert walked, forcing in a run. Joe Mauer grounded into an RBI FC. Justin Morneau pulled the first pitch into RF for an RBI single, then Jason Kubel raked a ground-rule 2B to right-center to bring the Twins within 1. Zach Miner came in, walked Michael Cuddyer, then gave up a bloop single to Crede to put the Twins ahead.

Craig Breslow earned his first win in his best appearance of the year: 1.2 scoreless IP with 0 BB. Guerrier and Nathan got the final 4 outs, and the Twins at last won a day game.

The selectiveness the Twins showed over this home stand will serve them well as they face the Yankees and White Sox on the road. They might need to keep scoring 6 R/G to be successful. I'm encouraged - things have to go better than they went at the old Yankee Stadium, right?

Monday, May 11, 2009

2nd Split: 8-8

Overall Record: 15-17
3rd in AL Central by 3 games

Other splits: 7-9

The series loss to the Royals and poor road trip last week may make it seem like it was a lot worse, but the reality is that the Twins managed to tread water over the last 16 games. After being blown out 97-66 over the first 5 series, they were able to outscore their opponents 81-72 in the 6 series since. One would have expected them to do a little better than .500 with a +9 run differential over 16 games. Then again, they should have lost a lot more than 9 games with a -31 run differential over the first couple weeks, so the Twins are still in a pretty good position given their relatively poor play up to this point.

This stretch was reminiscent of late last season, and not in a good way. The Twins lost 3 games they were leading after 6 innings, thanks mainly to a faltering pitching staff that still boasts only 4 members with ERAs under 4.50. There are some positive signs, as Scott Baker seems to be figuring things out and Jose Mijares has mostly provided an upgrade to the bullpen. But it's frustrating to see light-hitting teams like KC and Seattle managing to put up 5+ runs against the Twins' pitching.

The offense has warmed up, thanks in no small part to the debut of Joe Mauer. While Delmon Young certainly picked up his batting average, as I predicted he would, he had nary an XBH during this stretch. The big improvement from the right side has come from Michael Cuddyer, who hit .207/.254/.310 through the first split, but jumped to .340/.453/.660 with 12 RBI in the second. Joe Crede also heated up, going .300/.333/.525 before a tight hamstring forced him from the lineup this weekend. Unfortunately, Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez have mostly played themselves out of the lineup, and Alexi Casilla played himself back to Rochester - and Matt Tolbert hasn't done a hell of a lot better so far.

The Twins have continued to play largely error-free ball. Their 13 errors is by far the fewest in the AL, and three of the 5 errors they committed during this split came in one game at the hands of a rather harsh official scorer. Too many of the fielding mistakes came from Casilla, and the exchange of him with Tolbert hopefully will at least shore up that area of the team.

130 games to play, the pitching staff still hasn't gotten it going, and the Twins are only 3 games behind the Tigers and Royals. Nothing to worry about yet.

Bold prediction: The offense is going to have to carry the team through the next 5 series (Tigers, @Yankees, @White Sox, Brewers, Red Sox).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

25 Good Innings

Twins 11, Mariners 0
Twins 9, Mariners 6
Mariners 5, Twins 3

The Twins came within 2 innings of a weekend sweep in which they never trailed - quite a departure from the first couple weeks of the season. Some observations from the series:

Last season I predicted that Joe Mauer would have a breakout year in the HR department because, with his legs back under him, all those warning track outs to left-center would have just enough extra on them to carry into the seats. It didn't happen in 2008, but so far he has 3 HR in his first 33 AB of 2009, all of them just over the wall in left-center. Mauer has been all-around awesome since coming off the DL. He'll cool off, of course, but there's no reason to think that this can't be his best ever OPS season. Provided he stays healthy, of course.

Right behind him is Justin Morneau, who twice followed Mauer's HR to left with blasts to RF, and came very close to having a 3rd straight game with a HR when his 3rd-inning drive on Sunday hit the top corner of the baggie in deep right-center. (That makes 2 balls from Morneau so far this season that would have been out just about everywhere but the Metrodome.)

As well as those two are swinging, I think it's time to move Cuddyer up in the order, if not between them, then certainly right after Morneau. For Cuddyer, the signal of whether or not he's seeing the ball well is his walk rate, which has been through the roof in recent weeks.

Scott Baker finally put it all together. He was so close to that level in his previous start - his failure last Sunday was in allowing all his hits consecutively - that I feel pretty confident that he's ready to resume his position as the Twins most consistent starter.

Did Francisco Liriano's outing on Saturday remind anybody of Baker's the previous week? He only made it once through the order without a hit, but it still fell apart awfully quickly. Thank goodness he got plenty of run support.

Nick Blackburn has, for the most part, been pretty good about following a poor start with a good one. That was the case again on Sunday, when he pitched his best all-around game of the season, allowing only 5 H and 1 BB in 7 IP with 6 K - nearly matching Baker's outing. I was impressed with how Blackburn was able to pitch out of a runners at the corners with no out jam early in the game.

With Blackburn at 99 pitches and lefties Ichiro and Griffey Jr. due up in the 8th, it made sense to go to the LHP 8th inning guy, Jose Mijares. He was scored upon for the second straight outing, in this case on a game-tying HR to Griffey. Griffey, by the way, is slugging .611 vs. the Twins this year, and just .317 vs. everybody else. Jesse Crain came on and failed to retire a batter, including sending a run home on a WP. The first batter he faced was Adrian Beltre. He's sluggling .680 vs. the Twins, but just .243 vs. everyone else. So what does everybody else know that the Twins pitchers don't?

Sunday was a rare example of a game in which the team that threw drastically more pitches managed to win. I love that the Twins, having chased Seattle's starters early on in the first two games of the series, were able to grind Erik Bedard out of the game with 110 pitches thrown in just 4.2 IP. It's a credit to Bedard's abilities that he was able to limit the damage to just 2 runs. Anyway, that kind of patient approach is going to pay dividends if the Twins will keep it up in future games.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Rainy Days in Baltimore

Orioles 4, Twins 1 (6 innings)
Orioles 5, Twins 4

Things did not go the Twins' way on the back half of this road trip. Where their earlier rain-shortened game in Boston was merciful, coming with the score 10-1 Red Sox with 2 men still in scoring position, Wednesday's early finish was frustrating. The Orioles don't have nearly the bullpen depth that the Sox do, so there was still plenty of time for the Twins to make up a 3-run deficit.

The weather turned it into a game where the team that started fastest was likely to win, and the O's got 3 runs in the first off of Kevin Slowey. Most of the pitches they hit were down in the zone, but the O's raked them for line drives anyway. A grounder over 3B, a HR off the foul pole, a 2B on a play where Michael Cuddyer's throw to second arrived in plenty of time but was off line. I wonder what kind of game Slowey would have been able to make it had he been able to throw more than 3 IP, but the repeated delays caused him to be removed early. At least the shortened game meant that the Twins bullpen didn't have to throw 6 innings.

I thought Glen Perkins did a creditable job on Thursday, lasting 6 IP despite being unable to throw his offspeed pitches for strikes. That enabled to the O's to sit on the fastball, and they opened up and turned on a few for some key hits, especially the 2-out RBI single from Cesar Izturis (which followed Greg Zaun's swinging bunt single to 3B).

The Twins offense, meanwhile, reminded me of the second game against Boston 2 weeks ago, but this time they actually got the 14 H. But 4 R on 14 H + 2 BB is not a good ratio. The Twins hit into 2 DP and saw Delmon Young caught stealing second (he picked the right pitch to run on, and the throw was way off the mark on the 1B side, but Young's jump was so poor that he was still tagged on the hand a few feet from the bag). In addition to that, there was the tumbling catch of a liner hit by Matt Tolbert, the diving catch of a slicing drive hit by Justin Morneau, the leaping catch of a liner hit by Joe Crede. Morneau also drove a ball to the wall in right center. The O's D kept them in the game until the 8th.

In the bottom of that inning, Jose Mijares threw a ton of strikes: 14 of his 18 pitches. But 2 of them missed his location within the zone: a belt-high fastball that Melvin Mora lined into left for a 1-out single, and the 0-2 pitch to Ty Wigginton. Having got ahead with 2 good curveballs, Joe Mauer set up for a fastball low and away, but it drifted over the plate where Wigginton could ground it past Nick Punto for a 2-out hit. Lou Montanez then did a good job going down and lining a 1-2 curveball into LF. Denard Span would have had a good shot at Aubrey Huff at the plate, but he couldn't get a handle on the ball right away, so Crede elected to cut off the throw home and get Wigginton on his way to 3rd.

Second Base Swap
The big news of the series was the demotion of Alexi Casilla to AAA and recall of Tolbert. Tolbert had also started pretty slowly for Rochester, but was starting to get hot in the past week, so the timing may be good here. It's almost certainly an upgrade - it would be tough for Tolbert to fail to exceed Casilla's .167/.231/.202 line, and I can't imagine Tolbert ever losing focus as Casilla often has recently. We'll see whether Casilla can get it going and come back stronger as people like Scott Baker and Jason Bartlett have been able to do.

While we're on the subject of demotions, it might make sense to send Carlos Gomez down to Rochester, where he can get 4-5 PA every day and refine the missing pieces of his game. Jason Pridie, like Tolbert, has heated up recently, and is also a fleet OF and good baserunner. He could fill the role Gomez currently has just about as well, enabling the higher-upside player - Gomez - to get in better position to fulfill his potential.

Minor League Notes
Luke Hughes has also been hot lately for the Redwings; his season line is up to .279/.376/.547 with 5 HR - too many Ks (23 in 86 AB) and E (6) so far, but on the right track. Top 10 prospect Anthony Swarzak has a 2.03 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with a 23/6 K/BB ratio in 31 IP through his first 5 GS. That might put him ahead of Kevin Mulvey on the depth chart (2.96 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 22/12 K/BB in 24.1 IP).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Beginnings of Big Innings

Twins 7, Tigers 2
Tigers 9, Twins 0

Each team won a game in this short series, thanks mainly to one unruly, bat-around inning.

The Twins took game 1 on the strength of a 5-run 7th, turning a pitcher's duel into a solid Twins lead in the span of 4 hitters. Justin Morneau led off with a grounder through the right side. The key pitch of the game came to the next batter, Jason Kubel. With the count 2-2, Tigers starter Edwin Jackson delivered a fastball that narrowly missed the outside corner for ball 3. Another umpire might have called Kubel out there, and I wouldn't have complained if he had. The next three pitches went: ball 4, RBI 2B, 2-run 3B, and Mr. Jackson was headed for the shower, his QS start turned into 5 ER and a loss - exactly what had happened to Scott Baker the day before.

Brandon Lyon came in and threw 2 pitches: the first hit Delmon Young, the second was bunted by Nick Punto in an attempted safety squeeze. I don't think much of Miguel Cabrera as a defender, but he made a good play on the bunt, charging toward the mound and throwing a strike to the plate to get Cuddyer by a step. If Cabrera doesn't come up with that ball, I think Punto probably has an infield hit.

A LHP came in, and Denard Span picked up his 2nd IF hit of the game thanks to a generous scoring ruling on a ball that Adam Everett probably should have fielded. (I was delighted to see Span swing at the 2-strike pitch that resulted in his first IF hit leading off the game - that's the pitch that he has so often taken for strike 3. Even though it sawed him off, I'm glad to see him recognize that it's a pitch he needs to offer at.) Alexi Casilla finally had something drop in, and Punto's astute read on the flight of the ball/positioning of LF Carlos Guillen enabled him to score from 2nd just a few feet behind Young coming in from 3rd. Joe Mauer and Morneau were retired, but the game was all but out of reach, with Francisco Liriano dealing into the 8th inning.

Liriano may still be a bit short of his old velocity, but his stuff looks terrific to me. Everything he threw was breaking sharply downward. He struck out 9 in 7.1 IP and allowed only 4 H, though 1 of those was a HR. I hope everyone can recognize the difference between the pitch that resulted in the HR hit by Cabrera and those that Scott Baker has given up this year. Liriano threw him a pitch down and in that Cabrera simply golfed out of the park - nothing a pitcher can do about that.

For the Tigers tonight, the 2nd-inning damage was all done after 2 were out. Nick Blackburn, who had issued a 4-pitch walk to the hacktastic Placido Polanco in the 1st, managed to issue another to catcher Gerald Laird, who was 1 for his last 21 coming into the game. Obviously a night of poor command for Blackburn - the 0-2 pitch to Clete Thomas following the Polanco BB was up and over the plate, right on the heels of a pitch down and away that had resulted in a swing and a miss. He continued to miss his spots, though the Tigers had the benefit of both exquisite placement of their hits and ugly defense from the Twins.

After Laird's BB, Ramon Santiago drove him in with an RBI double into the RF corner on a liner that was just out of Morneau's reach. Casilla looked unprepared to throw home when he received Michael Cuddyer's throw from the wall. Then Josh Anderson blooped a ball into LF just out of Young's reach for an RBI single; the ball bounced past Young for an error allowing Anderson to go to 2nd. Polanco hit a grounder up the middle that Casilla could only knock down for what I thought was an exceedingly tough error, particularly when compared to the error that Everett avoided the previous night. (The error on Joe Crede was pretty tough, too.) Then Thomas hit a ball just close enough in front of Cuddyer to induce a dive; it got past him to the wall for a 2-run 3B.

With Cabrera coming up and 2 bases open, I would have expected the Twins to pitch around him, if not put him on. After all, he's hitting about .400, and the next batter, Curtis Granderson, was down around .260. Your chances are better with Granderson, even if he is a lefty. But they pitched to Cabrera, and he promptly ripped an RBI single to left. Granderson was retired for the final out of the inning.

It felt like the Twins were sleep-walking through this game. Except for Kubel - maybe it helped that he didn't have to play in the field. R.A. Dickey finally had a scoreless outing, Jesse Crain made a solid return to the mound, and Craig Breslow only walked 1 guy. Pretty good night for the bullpen, I guess.

On to Baltimore...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Buzz Kill

Twins 7, Royals 5
Royals 10, Twins 7 (11 innings)
Royals 7, Twins 5

Welcome back, Joe Mauer! What an emphatic return to the lineup, launching a HR on his first swing and a 2B on his second. He finished the weekend 7 for 10 with a walk, HR and 2 2B, including a 2-out RBI pinch single off Joakim Soria. Just like that, the Twins put up 19 R in 3 games against what had been one of the league's better pitching staffs coming in.

But I don't feel good tonight. Nope.

All three Twins starters managed to give up 5 ER. Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins each gave up big 2-out hits. Scott Baker rattled off another string of outs (18 of 19, carrying a no-hitter into the 7th), but ultimately found himself in the same place as his last start, exactly where Francisco Liriano was a couple of weeks ago - pitching pretty well, except for allowing so many hits to be clustered together. (By the way, this is why I think ERA is a better measure of pitching performance than WHIP. Baker's ERA on Sunday was 7.50, which is bad, but his WHIP was 1.00, which is good. It should be clear that "bad" is more descriptive of the way the game ended.) All three were OK for stretches of the game, but didn't execute their pitches at critical junctures and ended up walking away with lousy lines that put a ton of extra pressure on what was, for the most part, a very productive offense.

What really upset me about this series was the litany of no-nos the Twins committed:

- You do not make the 3rd out at 3rd base. You especially don't do that when the next batter is a scorching-hot 2-time batting champ.

- You do not walk the leadoff hitter. You especially don't do that in extra innings.

- You do not walk someone who is trying to bunt.

- You do not walk in a run. You especially don't do that in extra innings.

- You do not give up HR on 0-2 pitches.

I'm probably forgetting some. The last 2 games were easily winnable had the Twins played even average baseball. Apart from the isolated defensive and baserunning miscues, what really stood out was the ineffectiveness of the back half of the Twins' bullpen. Having used Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan rather extensively on Friday and Saturday, Gardy was forced by the extra innings into going to Craig Breslow to start the 11th. Breslow has been reasonably effective when he's throwing strikes. But he's walked at least 1 batter in 5 of his last 6 appearances, including 3 in this game. That forced Gardy to go to the last guy in the 'pen - R.A. Dickey - with the bases loaded. Not surprisingly, some runs scored.

With everyone else exhausted, Gardy had to go to the combustible Luis Ayala and Dickey again on Sunday, and they allowed 4 runs to score while they were on the hill. I could give Ayala a few more weeks to put things together, but Dickey should be back in Rochester. Had the starters fared better this weekend, that likely would have been the decision when Jesse Crain was activated from the 15-day DL. Instead, Gardy decided to go right back to his 12-man bullpen. As long as Dickey is the 12th man.

The Royals will be greatly inspired by this series win, using it to build confidence that they may be able to draw on later in the season. They aren't so much worse than the rest of the division that they can be taken lightly. The Twins had an opportunity to win a series from a division rival at home, and they bumbled it away. I can't help feeling that it might come back to haunt them later on.

Minor League Notes
Anthony Slama finally gave up his first professional HR last night, though he was still able to earn a save for New Britain. Rob Delaney has already thrown 17.2 IP in the first 22 games of the season. I think it might be a good time to give those guys a little bit of a break - I don't want them to be burned out by the time the Twins call them up later this year.