Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hit Your Spots

Twins 2, White Sox 5

Kevin Slowey is in the big leagues not because he has overpowering stuff, but rather because he has elite command of his pitches. His ability to locate his pitches is as exceptional, in its way, as Francisco Liriano's filthy slider - very few pitchers can match it. So it drives me bonkers when Slowey loses a game because he fails to hit his spots.

His problem through the first few starts of 2010 has been inefficiency: too many pitches in each AB are preventing him from getting through 6 IP. That was not the case on Tuesday, as he flew through the first 4 innings with under 40 pitches. He faced one batter over the minimum and appeared to be on track to go deep into the game. He became much more deliberate in the 5th, but that was appropriate for the situation he was in. Alex Rios led off with the a single, stole 2nd and moved to 3rd on a missed catch error by Orlando Hudson. With a runner on 3rd and nobody out, a pitcher is wise to approach things differently than when the bases are empty. And the results were excellent, as Slowey struck out righty Carlos Quentin, walked lefty Mark Teahen (who had touched him for a 2B earlier), then struck out righty Gordon Beckham.

He was one good pitch to the #9 hitter away from escaping the jam. Alexi Ramirez wouldn't chase anything out of the zone early in the count, and Slowey found himself behind 3-1. Walking Ramirez to load the bases for the light-hitting Juan Pierre, who came into the game with an OBP under .300 and 0 XBH, would hardly be a disaster. (Sometimes I wonder whether Slowey understands that, with RISP, it can be better to put a guy on 1st than to let him hit his way to 2nd.) The next pitch caught the heart of the plate, and Ramirez drilled it into the gap for a 2-RBI 2B. Pierre legged out an IF hit, then Slowey grooved one to AJ Pierzynski for another 2-RBI 2B. Then, with Andruw Jones batting, what was for me the worst pitch of the game: an 0-2 fastball smacked into right center to bring home Pierzynski. What is that pitch doing in the strike zone? Jones has struck out in over 25% of his AB this season - get him to chase something. I don't approve of the cookie to Ramirez, but I can understand it when the count is 3-1. On 0-2, the pitcher has to throw his pitch, but Jones couldn't have asked for better.

Three of the 6 straight H with 2 out in that inning were IF singles, including one from Paul Konerko. He's slower than some catchers, but Brendan Harris, playing short in place of JJ Hardy, was lucky to knock the ball down. With Hardy's superior range, I have no doubt that the inning would have ended there, and maybe Slowey could have stayed in to start the 6th. As it was, he was knocked out after 4.2 IP, and really has only himself to blame.

The game was lost in that inning, and not just because the Sox put up a 5-spot. Nick Punto and Denard Span had 1-out singles to start a rally in the bottom half. The lowest OBP of the next 3 batters was Hudson's .380, yet both he and Joe Mauer struck out swinging to end the threat. I'm not sure Freddy Garcia threw 2 pitches in the strike zone in those 2 AB combined. Hudson and Mauer flailed away at pitches well out of the zone. Just as annoying as a control pitcher missing his spots is when hitters with good plate discipline expand the strike zone. Those 2 got themselves out. Had one of them been more patient, maybe Justin Morneau's HR leading off the 6th could have come with some men on base.

Twins 3, White Sox 2

Now this is how it's done. Carl Pavano adjusted quickly after a rocky 1st trip through the lineup, allowing only 2 baserunners out of the next 18 hitters. 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB and 4 K on 96 pitches. He threw strike one to 20 of the 27 batters he faced. And they were quality strikes. The difference between a pitch on the corner and one 4 inches closer to the center of the plate is the difference between a lazy fly ball and a ringing double. I hope Slowey is learning something from watching Pavano go about his business. The veteran is averaging 6.2 IP/GS so far in 2010.

The baseball gods gaveth and tooketh away from the Twins' offense. The tying and winning runs score on 6-hoppers through the IF from Morneau and Span. But Michael Cuddyer's booming drive to left-center was pulled back onto the field by Alex Rios with a leap at the bullpen fence. The ball sounded good when he hit it, but I immediately found myself trying to help blow the ball over the wall. It's only been 18 rather cold games, but CF is looking like somewhere you don't want to hit the ball at Target Field.

Next, 3 at Yankee Stadium, and 2 each at Rogers Center and Fenway Park. I think the Twins might have won 1 game between those three locations in 2009. This next stretch is where they have to prove that they're for real this year. The Tigers just held the Yanks to 12 R over 4 games, and half of those came in the 9th of the one game the Tigers lost. The Yankee hitters better keep scuffling against Baker and Liriano this weekend.

  • Hardy was put on the DL retroactive to last Wednesday, so he'll be eligible to play in the final game of the road trip next Thursday. Meanwhile, the Twins chose to recall utility IF Matt Tolbert, though they already have 3 utility IF on the roster in Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla and Harris. This at the expense of Luke Hughes, Danny Valencia - who still doesn't have any HR but has been warming at the plate - and Trevor Plouffe, perhaps the most obvious replacement for Hardy. Plouffe is, after all, the everyday SS for the Red Wings, he has a reputation as a good defender, and he's been hitting very well since the middle of last summer. Plus, he was a 1st-round pick in 2004, and has been at AAA for the equivalent of almost 2 full seasons. You'd think they'd want to give him a little taste of the big leagues here. But no.
  • The Twins decided to add an extra reliever for the East Coast swing. They sent Wilson Ramos down to get regular playing time. They chose to call up not Rob Delaney or Kyle Waldrop or Anthony Slama, who have been kicking ass down there, or even Jeff Manship, but rather Jose Mijares, who has made 2 appearances on his rehab assignment and been rocked in each. He looks no kind of ready to face the ultra-patient hitters of the AL East powerhouses. But here he comes.
  • There were a flurry of moves made after I posted on Monday. 2/5 of the awful Rochester rotation has been replaced by Cole DeVries and Deolis Guerra. That opened the door for Kyle Gibson to move up to AA. Liam Hendriks moved up to A+, and threw a gem in his first game on Wednesday.

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