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.

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