Thursday, May 6, 2010

First Sweep

Twins 10, Tigers 4

Since they were shut out for the first time last Thursday, the Twins have established a wonderful offensive habit: they've put up a crooked number in the 1st inning. After Denard Span struck out to lead off the game - the only K of Max Scherzer's outing - the next 4 batters reached and scored, culminating in Michael Cuddyer's bomb into the 2nd deck in LF. It was more of the same in the 2nd as the first 3 hitters reached and scored, with Span's 2-RBI 3B the big blow. After 2 innings, the Twins had built a commanding 7-0 lead.

Then the bad habits kicked in: the Twins have been letting up on bloodied starters the 2nd time through the order, swinging early in the count and enabling them to hang around for a couple more innings than they maybe should have. Span's 3B came on Scherzer's 45th pitch, but he was able to get the next 9 outs on just 27 pitches. Meanwhile, the Tigers were narrowing the lead to 7-3. Patience returned in the 5th, as Jim Thome took 3 balls, Cuddyer and Jason Kubel walked, and JJ Hardy and Wilson Ramos had RBI hits to put the game away.

While Joe Mauer's bruised heel heals, Ramos is on the roster at the expense of a 7th reliever. This actually has a wonderful effect on the pitching staff. Scott Baker had a QS and got the team into the 7th inning. With 1 out, super-rookie Austin Jackson doubled on Baker's 98th pitch. Lefty Johnny Damon and Baker's personal nemesis Magglio Ordonez were the next scheduled hitters. With an extra guy in the 'pen, maybe Gardy takes Baker out there. But with the 'pen depleted, you ask for more from your starters, and Baker stayed in and finished the inning. (That decision is easier to make with a 7-run lead, of course.)

Twins 4, Tigers 3

2 quick runs in the 1st inning off Dontrelle Willis thanks to 2-out RBI hits from Thome and Delmon Young. Willis was in essentially the same position as Scherzer after 10 batters, having allowed 6 baserunners while throwing 48 pitches. But, again, the Twins let up, as Willis retired 12 in a row, culminating in a 7-pitch 5th inning against the top of the order. The Tigers tied the game at 2-2, and Willis began the 6th with just 87 pitches. Cuddyer knocked him out with a booming 2B with 1 out, and then Delmon Young beat out a swinging bunt for an IF hit, setting up JJ Hardy for an RBI single and a 3-2 lead.

Short of striking out a handful of guys, Nick Blackburn was about as good as he can be. He used his time off to contemplate a slight change in his delivery, staying back longer, and the result was 18 groundball outs (including 2 DPs). He gave up his share of hits, of course - when all but 3 batters put the ball in play, that will happen - but nearly all of them were singles. I chuckled when Rick Anderson came to the mound after the Tigers began the 4th with 4 straight singles, 3 of which were grounders just out of the reach of Twins infielders. What was he going to tell him? Quit getting grounders? OK, Blackburn escaped the inning with 2 fly ball outs and a liner, then went right back to sinking.

Heading into the 9th, Blackburn had thrown just 85 pitches. Outside of the cluster in the 4th, he had scattered 4 H and a BB over the other 7 IP. He had retired 7 in a row - 6 on grounders - including the formidable veteran trio of Damon, Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera in an easy 8th inning. It was a save situation, and Jon Rauch was available, but Blackburn was in control, and at least looked unlikely to give up more than a single or two. So, of course, he served up an emphatic HR to the first man he faced in the 9th. Two outs later, Young was unable to make an over-the-shoulder catch on Alex Avila's drive to LF - it fell for a 2B.

On the next pitch, Hardy dove for a grounder deep in the hole, making a backhand stop. As soon as Nick Punto saw that, he went from his cutoff position back to third base, behind Avila, who rounded the bag hard in an attempt to score the would-be tying run. By the time he was held up, Hardy had flipped the ball to Punto, and Avila was a sitting duck for the final out of the inning. In the bottom half, Hardy drilled a 1-out drive off the wall in left center that caromed away from both OF for a 3B. The Tigers figured out that their best chance to get Ramos out was to throw sliders out of the strike zone. The 2nd bounced away from Avila, and Hardy trotted home with the winning run.

Twins 5, Tigers 4

A couple of curious lineup decisions for the finale. It's unclear to me why Kevin Slowey got the start on regular rest, giving Carl Pavano 6 days off since his CG loss to the Tigers last week. Especially since Pavano has owned the Tigers since coming to the AL Central, and Slowey came into the game with a career ERA north of 5.00 vs. Detroit. Kubel has killed Rick Porcello, so you have to get his bat in the lineup. But Young and Thome have both been swinging the bat well lately, so whom to sit? Why not give Cuddyer, who's played every game this season and came in 2 for 11 vs. Porcello, a rest? Nope, Thome sat out, and Cuddyer is now 2 for 14 against Porcello.

2 more 1st inning runs for the Twins, and nearly a 3rd as Young's sinking liner to CF held up for the final out. Porcello needed 23 pitches to get through that inning. But the bottom of the order let up in the 2nd, going down 1-2-3 on just 7 pitches. A leadoff BB to Span in the 3rd set up Kubel for a 2-out RBI 2B - he stayed back and drove the ball to the gap in left center. The key sequence for the Twins came in the next inning, after Porcello walked Alexi Casilla with 2 out. Punto drove a ball to the track in RF, and the swirling winds contributed to a staggering drop for a 3-base error and run. Span immediately drove in Punto with a liner past the SS that probably should have been at least knocked down. Those 2 unearned runs were the difference between victory and defeat for the Twins.

Slowey was OK again, but still failed to get through the 6th. He got ahead of almost everybody, but couldn't entice anyone to expand the strike zone. He allowed 3 solo HR, but as Bert Blyleven likes to say, those won't beat you. Having gotten 23 IP from the SP over the previous 3 games, the bullpen was rested and effective. With the tying run at the plate in the 8th, Brian Duensing came in and dispatched the 2 batters he faced on 1 pitch each. Rauch was touched for a HR leading off the 9th, but retired the next 3 batters easily enough for the save.

Coming into the series, some of the power rankings had the Tigers ahead of the Twins, though the Twins led by 0.5 games in the standings. But it just depends on when you take your snapshot. The Tigers were coming in on a 5-game winning streak. Before it started, they were just 11-10, the sort of .500-ish record I think we can expect from them for most of the season. They've scored a lot of runs, but a lot of that comes from an unsustainable multitude of 2B and a soaring, .400+ BABIP from Jackson. When those things come down to earth, their hole-riddled lineup will have a hard time scoring enough to make up for a shaky defense. The Twins, meanwhile, have been winning at a consistently robust clip, pitching well, defending excellently, and scoring plenty of runs despite hitting very poorly with the bases loaded. The Tigers are now 3.5 games back, and I don't expect them to stay even that close for very long.

  • In the AB in which Kubel struck out with the bases loaded to end the bottom of the 6th on Wednesday, LHP Fu-Te Ni threw only 1 pitch in the strike zone. Kubel should remember that the next time those 2 match up.
  • Morneau has hit 6 HR, all on the road. Cuddyer has 4 HR, all at home.
  • Tuesday night's game was the 27th of the season, a convenient time to multiply stats by 6 in order to calculate the pace for the full season. The Twins are on pace to go 108-54, outscoring their opponents 864-612. That RA total is about 200 less than what PECOTA predicted. The folks at BP got some 'splainin' to do.
  • Glen Perkins has made 5 starts for AAA Rochester, but has accumulated just 17.1 IP. He's averaging more than a K/IP, but that's where the good news ends. He's walked 8 and allowed 31 H (including 5 HR) for a whip of 2.25 and a 10.90 ERA. I can't imagine a scenario in which he'd be useful to the Twins this season. It's time to take him off the 40-man roster (who would claim him off waivers? Why should we care if someone did?) and put Anthony Slama on.
  • Slama, pitching in relief in that game, was touched for a 2-run HR in addition to 2 BB. Of course, the HR came on the 57th pitch of the relief appearance, to the 11th man he'd faced. Be gentle with him, Tom Nieto - we're going to need him later!

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