Monday, September 28, 2009

The Playoffs Started Yesterday

After nearly 5 and a half months of mediocrity, the Twins have suddenly decided to be awesome. They've unleashed an 11-2 run, averaging 6.2 runs/game, and all without their All-Star, former MVP cleanup hitter. Thanks to Michael Cuddyer, who stepped into the infield and has hit .370 with 6 HR and 19 RBI in Morneau's absence, and also the bottom of the order, where Delmon Young and Matt Tolbert have taken advantage of everyday playing time by hitting over .300 for the month, joining Nick Punto in that respect. Couple that with continued strong play from Denard Span and Joe Mauer and solid contributions from Orlando Cabrera and Jason Kubel, and the Twins are slugging their opponents into submission.

It was apparent a couple of weeks ago that the Twins were going to have to take at least 5 out of 7 from Detroit this month in order to have a shot at the division title. That means that they have to win 3 out of 4 at Comerica Park this week. While splitting the series won't eliminate them, it will force them to lean rather heavily on White Sox to play a great series on the road. Not holding my breath there. So I'm thinking about this like it's a best-of-five playoff series, and the Twins have already lost game 1. Playoff teams bounce back from losing game 1 just about every year, so it's doable. Unfortunately for the Twins, they have to play all of the remaining games on the road.

The match-ups aren't terrible. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Twins send their #1 and #2 starters against Detroit's #4 and #5 guys. Nick Blackburn has big-game experience from last fall, and Brian Duensing has been money as a starter. If the Twins can at least split the first 2 games of the series, they'll be in good position to get wins in the last 2. One thing I hope they've learned from last weekend: take care of Gerald Laird - don't try to steal on him, and don't walk him. Just about every big inning the Tigers have had this year came when the terrible hitters at the bottom of their lineup got on base.

Every spring, I hope that the Twins will still be playing meaningful games the last week of September. As they have most every year this decade, the Twins have fulfilled my wish.

By the way, this is how big a Twins fan I am: I woke up this morning, turned on my computer, and thought, "Oh, yeah, the Vikings played yesterday. I wonder how they did..."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

9th Split: 9-7

Overall Record: 73-72
2nd in AL Central by 4.5 games

Previous splits: 7-9, 8-8, 9-7, 8-8, 9-8, 7-9, 7-9, 9-7

Well, what do you know? The Twins delivered their 9th straight split within one win of .500, and are, not coincidentally, one win over .500 after 145 games. I've been keeping track of splits for most of this decade, and I've never seen anything close to this level of consistency. There's almost always a really bad stretch or a really good stretch. At this point, I don't know that this team has it in them do be anything but mediocre.

Sure, they were just one out away from one more win against the White Sox before Joe Nathan had the worst collapse of his Twins career. And don't forget that, in the 6th inning of that game, the umpires reversed a (correct) call that had awarded Michael Cuddyer a leaping catch at the wall in RF. So, when you think about it, the Twins pitchers and defenders actually got 27 outs without the White Sox scoring. But, that's just the kind of season they've been having.

The loss of Justin Morneau for the last three weeks of the season would seem to cement the Twins' dismal prospects. But, whether because of the sore back or his normal late-summer doldrums, he was hitting just .174/.275/.322 since August 1st. That wasn't quite as bad as what Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert were doing out of the #2 slot earlier in the season, but it's brutal non-production from a cleanup hitter, particularly when Denard Span and Joe Mauer are constantly on base. Losing Morneau means that Jason Kubel and Cuddyer can move up into those RBI spots, and they've already been cashing them in. Meanwhile, Morneau's AB will be made up down in the order by one of the extra OF, who shouldn't have any trouble at least matching what Justin was able to do in recent weeks. The payoff has been immediate, as the Twins have scored 5 or more runs in each game since Morneau went on the shelf.

Pitching was very good in this split - the Twins averaged just 3.5 runs allowed per game. The defense was strong as well, committing just 8 errors (4 in one horrible game in Cleveland) for 66 overall, the lowest total in the AL. They allowed only 2 unearned runs (also in that awful Cleveland game), raising their season total to 33, still second-lowest in the AL. The rotation seems to have stabilized (except for Jeff Manship, who will be skipped as much as possible from here on in), and the additions of Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay seem to have helped to quiet things in the bullpen.

The Twins have 7 games left with Detroit, 6 with KC, and 3 with Chicago. None of those teams has a positive run differential. Conditions are as ideal as they're ever going to get for the Twins to finally have a soundly winning split. Can the Tigers falter enough to give the division away? That will largely depend on how much damage the Twins can do to them head-to-head. If the Twins can win at least 5 of the 7 games, they stand a reasonably good chance of sending the Tigers to something like a 6-11 finish while the Twins go 11-6. They haven't been able to take care of business all season - it's now or never.

Bold prediction: They're going to come up just short.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

August Review

Twins Record: 14-14
Overall Record: 66-65, 2nd in AL Central by 3.5 games

The Twins took their season-long Jekyll and Hyde act to new extremes in the month of August. In the first half, they went 4-11 while allowing 6.3 R/game and going just 4-8 in games in which they scored 4 or more runs. Those 4 wins came by a combined score of 39-2. If my California math is correct, that means that the Twins allowed 8.5 R/game in those 11 losses. The starting pitchers were being consistently demolished in the early innings, leading to extensive innings from a middle-relief corps that was so-so at best. With 3/5 of the Fab Five on the DL by mid-month, it looked as though the Twins would never find enough to arms to hold down the opposition, despite the valiant efforts of a still productive offense.

The balance shifted on the 18th, when Joe Mauer and Delmon Young (of all people) led the Twins back from a 5-0 deficit to beat a very good Rangers team 9-6. Beginning with that game, the Twins are 10-3 over their last 13. The pitching has calmed down to a great extent allowing 4.3 R/game and delivering 7 QS and 7 saves after just 5 QS and 0 saves in the first half. That shows that the team has been finding a way to win close games again. After enduring their worst sustained stretch of baseball this season, the Twins are now in the midst of their best stretch.

The cast of characters has greatly changed, with Orlando Cabrera now at SS and #2 in the order, and Carl Pavano filling Kevin Slowey's spot in the rotation. The bullpen was recently augmented with veterans Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch. And rookies Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship have stepped into the back-end slots vacated by the injured Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins. As shaky as the two lefties have been for most of the season, I doubt that the Twins will be able to make up their deficit with the Tigers without at least one of them supplanting those youngsters. Duensing hasn't had a strong enough track record at AAA, and Manship hasn't had enough innings there for me to think that either of them can give the Twins the 6 or so QS they're going to need down the stretch.

The offense has been more or less rolling since May. In August the Twins were 4th in the AL in scoring and 5th in OPS. If they can continue to put up 5.3 R/game for the rest of the regular season, they should be able to come in over .500, given the relatively weak competition they'll be facing from here on out. The fielding has remained pretty steady, as well, still among the top 2 or 3 in fewest errors and unearned runs allowed. The Twins' destiny for 2009 is in the hands of their depleted, then restocked pitching staff. As I've been saying for awhile, if they can just deliver average run prevention, this team still has a shot.

Grades this month will go to players with at least 25 PA and pitchers with at least 10 IP.

Getting It Done

Joe Mauer - Seems like he's always at the top of this list. The league's most awesome player turned in another astounding month, hitting .391/.449/.652 with 8 HR, and even threw in 3 SB!

Denard Span - In his best month as a big-leaguer so far, Span hit .375/.458/.473 and scored 18 R out of the leadoff spot.

Jason Kubel - The league's best DH this year, Kubel continued to roll, hitting .307/.380/.511 with 4 HR and 19 RBI, driving in some of the runs that Justin Morneau missed.

Michael Cuddyer - Tied with Span for second on the team with 53 TB in August. Cuddyer needs to walk more often, but is on his way to setting some career highs and justifying the contract he signed prior to last season.

Mike Redmond - Just when I thought the old man couldn't do better than his July numbers, he goes 7 for 22 with a double and a triple!

Jose Mijares - At last, he got his control under...control, walking just 3 batters in 15.1 IP. He served up a couple more HR, but had 9.39 K/9 and 0.78 WHIP for the month.

Scott Baker - Suddenly, Baker became the Twins' only reliable starter, and he responded by walking just 5 in 39.2 IP for a 0.96 WHIP. Unfortunately, his only poor start of the month was costly, as he allowed 6 ER in 4.2 IP against the Tigers in a game where the offense scored 6 R for him. The race would be a lot tighter if Baker had been his typical, dominant self that day.

Matt Guerrier - He was a little more hittable than in previous months, but Guerrier continues to look like the brilliant setup man he was in 2007 and the first half of 2008.

Brian Duensing - His 2 W are the reason this wasn't a losing month for the Twins. For a rookie with his recent minor league track record to have put up a 3.70 ERA and 8.14 K/9 is a most pleasant surprise.

So Far, So Good

Brendan Harris - He's done a solid job of filling in for the oft-injured Joe Crede, hitting .288/.351/.385 in August while making most of the plays at 3rd base.

Alexi Casilla - A couple of doubles, a couple of triples, a .317 OBP, 3 SB and some sick defensive plays. I'll take it from the #9 spot.

Delmon Young - .262/.279/.476 isn't earth-shattering, but I have to appreciate that the guy managed to hit 5 HR with 15 RBI in just 84 AB this month. Maybe this is as good as it gets...

Orlando Cabrera - He started out as well as he possibly could have, so it's a bit of a let-down to see his totals for the month at .658 OPS. He's made rather a lot of errors at SS. But, then again, I don't think anyone should have expected much different.

Jesse Crain - 0 HR allowed in 10 IP, a 1.18 WHIP, 3.55 ERA and 9.95 K/9. One more month of that will work out just fine, thank you.

Carl Pavano - 6 or more IP/start, low BB/9, an ERA in the low 4.00s - this is what I thought we'd be getting from Slowey right now, so I'm glad Pavano has been able to step in and fill that slot.

Need To Pick It Up

Justin Morneau - He seems to lose it in August every year. .220/.319/.390 with 3 HR and 13 RBI is pedestrian - well, it was surpassed by Delmon Young, for crying out loud! One more good month, please...

Carlos Gomez - I think he's improved a lot over last season, but he's also capable of more than .259/.295/.362 with 2 SB. And 15 K in 58 AB feels like a regression.

Nick Punto - It's undoubtedly for the best that he's out of the everyday lineup. It seems like he can't even hit a fastball right now.

Joe Crede - Maybe the nagging injuries and inconsistent playing time caught up to him. No amount of stellar defense is worth .192/.276/.288 from your 3rd baseman.

Nick Blackburn - No one embodies the split personality of this month better than Blackburn, who allowed 12 ER in 10.1 IP in his first three starts, then finished with 7 ER in 19.2 IP over his final 3. We need good Blackburn for the rest of the season.

Bobby Keppel - He's just so hittable - as one might expect from a journeyman AAA reliever, he's overmatched in the Show.

Francisco Liriano - He just couldn't find the command of his fastball. I hope this DL stint is doing him some good, physically and mentally, because I don't think this team can do very much against good teams without Liriano contributing.

Anthony Swarzak - Eek! He was doing so well, then 33 H, including 8 HR in just 13.1 IP over 4 starts. Get yourself together, man!