Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Still On Top

Twins 5, Tigers 7

This series got off to a brutal start as Francisco Liriano hit the leadoff man with an 0-1 pitch, then failed to field a bunt to the right of the mound. The next 4 batters zinged line drives (Miguel Cabrera deserves credit for driving a ball below the knees for a 2-R 2B, Liriano deserves scorn for hanging a pitch to Brennan Boesch for another 2-R 2B). The malaise of the interleague road trip lasted 6 batters into the home stand. After that, Liriano was himself again, allowing just 1 ER on 2 H, 2 BB and 6 K, until he was undone in the 7th by a leadoff bunt hit and a failure to get an out on the ensuing sacrifice.

Other than the runs allowed, Jeremy Bonderman's line didn't even look as good as Liriano's. But he managed to scatter his H a little better, and he was bailed out by 3 GIDP - 2 from Jason Kubel. Still, there was still plenty of offense from the Twins' lineup. Jim Thome at DH looks like a really good idea, at least against RHP. In this game, he had a BB, HR and his first 3B since 2004.

The loss put the Tigers in 1st place by 0.5 games, the first time the Twins trailed in the division since April.

Twins 11, Tigers 4

This was a do or die game for Nick Blackburn's spot in the rotation. He didn't pitch brilliantly, but it was enough to win on this night. 7 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K. He allowed 3 R in the 3rd, but settled in pretty well after that. He only gave up 2 XBH, and got 12 ground ball outs. That's more like it.

The offense creamed Armando Galarraga and Fu Te Ni. Everybody reached base at least once, thanks to 13 H and 7 BB. 8 of the H went for extra bases, led by Denard Span's 3 3Bs. Thome added another HR.

Twins 5, Tigers 1

Kevin Slowey has been pretty shaky lately, so it was a pleasure to see him moving efficiently through Detroit's lineup. He needed just 81 pitches to complete 6 IP, with 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB and 4 K, before he was knocked out of the game by a Magglio Ordonez liner off his ankle. Matt Guerrier looked a little shaky in the 8th, as he did in his appearance on Monday, but he got through it unscathed. Jon Rauch, who hasn't had a save since the Rockies series, had to face 2 extra batters in the 9th after Matt Tolbert, inserted for defensive purposes, committed the 1st E by a Twins 3B this season.

Delmon Young got to hit 3rd with Joe Mauer getting the day off. He delivered an RBI single in 4 trips. Morneau was the big hitting hero with a 2B, HR and 2 RBI. Thome struck out 3 times against LHP. Michael Cuddyer had a lot of liners find leather in this series, but capped it by going 2 for 3 with a BB. The key rally in the 5th inning began with an IF H followed by the Tigers' failing to get an out on a sacrifice bunt. There's some symmetry in that.

The Twins did what they had to do in this series, winning 2 of 3 games and turning back the Tigers' advances towards 1st place. And rather emphatically, I might add. After the 1st inning on Monday, the Twins outscored the Tigers 20-8 the rest of the way. We saw that the Tigers are capable of some timely hitting, led by MVP candidate Cabrera and their improbably successful rookies. But we saw their weaknesses, too: poor starting pitching from the back of the rotation, easy outs from the bottom of the lineup, shaky defense all over the field. They are not a team that should be overlooked, but neither are the Tigers a team the Twins should fear.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Senior Slide

Twins 2, Mets 5
Twins 6, Mets 0
Twins 0, Mets 6

The in-laws were in town this weekend, so I didn't get to take a close look at any of these games. They don't look to be too difficult to summarize, though. Other than the 1st inning against Johan Santana, the Twins didn't do any hitting with RISP. Other than Carl Pavano, the Twins' starting pitchers didn't execute their pitches in the middle innings, resulting in big crooked numbers and consecutive XBH. What else needs to be said?

The Mets have the 2nd best home record in the NL, so it would have been an upset had the Twins won the series. It's weird to look at the completed interleague schedule and find that the Twins finished just 8-10, though. With the 4 non-rival opponents so strong, the Twins really needed to take care of business against the Brewers, and that didn't happen.

Tonight, they begin a 3-game series against the Tigers, who find themselves just 0.5 games back in the standings. It's a must-win series for the Twins, and I think they'll be fine. I wish they'd done some shuffling with the rotation, though. Pavano has owned the Tigers in recent years and is almost a lock to keep the Twins in the game. He could have pitched on normal rest Friday and been set up to pitch the finale vs. Detroit on Wednesday. (And his shutout would have been enough for the Twins to win on Friday, while Slowey's 5-runs allowed still would have given the Twins an opportunity to win on Saturday.) Gardy wants to give Nick Blackburn one more chance to get his act together in this series, since he's performed so much better at Target Field this season. So, after Francisco Liriano goes tonight, they will be handing the balance of this critical series over to their 2 most inconsistent starters.

It looks as though we'll get our first look at the lineup with Michael Cuddyer at 3B, Jason Kubel in RF and Jim Thome at DH. Sounds like a lot of runs to me.

  • Delmon Young had been the Twins' most reliable run-producer in recent weeks, but went just 1-15 with 4 K over the last 4 games. The H was a 2-RBI 2B in the Twins' win. In the 3 losses he went 0-11, and the Twins scored just 2 R total.
  • Danny Valencia got a start on Sunday and went 1-3 with a walk, lifting his OBP to .360. He hasn't been a game-changer at 3B, but he's not embarrassing himself, either.
  • I've read some reports that the Mariners are interested in Wilson Ramos, Brian Duensing, and a low-level OF in exchange for Cliff Lee. I'd have an easier time parting with Duensing than Kevin Slowey for the long term, so that part suits me. If that unnamed OF is Brandon Roberts, sweet - do the deal. If it's someone higher up the prospect list, like Angel Morales or Joe Benson, then I'd hesitate. The Twins only have Cuddyer and Jason Kubel under contract through 2011, and Delmon Young under team control through 2012. They're going to need 2 new corner OF in the next 3 years, so I'd be loathe to give up anybody from A+ or above who projects to have a decent bat at those positions. Ben Revere has much less strategic value to the Twins' future than either of those guys, so I'd still prefer to see him included if that's what's needed to close the deal.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Make the First Move

For the first time in nearly 2 months, before the Twins swept the Tigers at Target Field in the first week of May, things are getting crowded at the top of the AL Central standings. Since the end of that series, the Twins have been stagnant, going 21-23 over the past 44 games. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn have been inconsistent, Francisco Liriano had a run of terrible luck in May, and Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy have spent a lot of time on the DL. That's probably the biggest reason for the Twins' holding pattern. Those guys were the big offseason acquisitions, along with Jim Thome, who has spent most of the last 7 weeks on the bench. Without those guys in the lineup, this is basically the same Twins team as last season, the one that didn't get itself over .500 to stay until the last half of September.

Meanwhile, the Tigers and White Sox have been fattening up on a cupcake interleague schedule. The Sox are on a 14-2 run thanks to recent series against the Indians, Tigers, Cubs, Pirates, Nats and Braves. The Tigers had an 8-1 home stand against the Pirates, Nats and Diamondbacks. Atlanta wasn't able to slow down the Sox, but the Mets set the Tigers back a bit. Still, both teams sit within 2.5 games of the Twins, suddenly feeling like they can win the division.

As these teams are currently constituted, the Twins are still the class of the division. Even with recent hot streaks from the competition, they have an enormous edge in run differential: +46 for the Twins, +2 for the Tigers, -9 for the White Sox. At the midpoint of the season next weekend, we're still likely to find that the Twins are on pace to win 90-92 games, while the Tigers and White Sox are on pace for 84-86 wins.

What will the Tigers do to make up the 6 wins they'll need to catch the Twins in the 2nd half? They are doing as well as they are thanks to 2 rookies playing way over their heads - expect less production from Austin Jackson and Brendan Boesch in the 2nd half. Their rotation is in tatters, putting extra pressure on their bullpen. They play terrible defense and have a couple of huge holes in their lineup, even with the rookies playing well and aging players like Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Johnny Damon producing. Their payroll is already sky-high thanks to a string of bad contracts, and they're not drawing well in the recession-stricken Detroit market. Plus, they expended much of their minor league capital acquiring Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera a couple years ago, and Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff last year. They need another starter and an IF who has value with both the bat and the glove, but can they afford to do what it takes to land those players?

As for the White Sox, their pitching staff is in terrific shape, but their low-OBP offense means that they're going to have to pitch brilliantly all the time in order to win. They'll need a couple of impact bats, somewhere in the IF or maybe at C or DH, to take them over the top. But they also blew out their farm system picking up Jake Peavy last year, and have a top 12 payroll to go with bottom 12 attendance.

It's already going to be expensive for Dave Dombrowski and Kenny Williams to upgrade their rosters mid-season, but I don't doubt that either has the will to do it if things stay as they are for the next few weeks. However, if the Twins were to significantly upgrade their roster before the Tigers and White Sox had a chance to act, it might change the calculus enough to force the competition to concede. If the Twins were able to add 4-6 wins of value to the team themselves, the other contenders would then have to add about 10 wins in order to catch them, and I doubt either team can really afford that this year.

The most straightforward way to add that kind of value would be to acquire Cliff Lee from the Mariners. The Twins' present rotation has been uneven beyond Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano. I believe Scott Baker will ultimately prove to be an asset, but the lower he drops in the rotation, the better it looks. Right now, it's a rotation that can probably win the division, but not one that can be expected to out-pitch the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays in October. Lee would change that, giving the Twins 2 aces and 2 above-average pitchers to send to the mound in the playoffs. He has been worth 3.7 WAR in just 11 GS so far. If he keeps up that rate of production for the rest of the season, we could give the Twins 5-6 wins above Nick Blackburn, single-handedly pushing their win total into the mid to upper 90s. Plus, he's a Twins type of pitcher, relentlessly throwing strikes at an even better rate than Pavano and Baker.

What would it take to acquire him? He costs about $5M for the remainder of the season, and will almost certainly garner 2 first-round draft picks in 2011 when he signs his mega-deal in the offseason. Seattle got him for 3 prospects last December - 1 was a 4-star and the others were in the 3-star range. One would think that with nearly half a season gone he could be had for less than that, but there's going to be a bidding war for him as the summer goes on, and Jack Z. isn't going to forgo that unless the deal is sweet indeed. Fangraphs recently estimated Lee's value as including a top hitting prospect and some other goodies. I would think they'd want a former first-rounder and supplemental first-rounder to compensate for their lost draft picks, plus somebody pretty promising to make up for Lee's remaining value this season.

For me, the blow-them-away, you've got to take it now deal for Cliff Lee begins with Ben Revere and Wilson Ramos. Both are top-60 prospects at least, and neither has a place in the Twins' future everyday lineup. Now that Denard Span has become an efficient base stealer, there's really nothing in Revere's game that should be able to supplant him. Plus, Span is under contract until the middle of the decade. The corner OF positions are better filled by more powerful bats like that of Joe Benson, who is at the same level as Revere and could be ready to take over RF from Jason Kubel/Michael Cuddyer in 2012. Revere is a valuable prospect, but not to the Twins.

Ramos is a plus defender with a good bat (though he hasn't shown it much at AAA Rochester this year). Still, he's young for the level, and projects to be at least a solid regular for years to come. With superstar Joe Mauer getting the bulk of the work behind the plate, Ramos is never going to see that kind of time with the Twins. It's a luxury to have such a talented backup, but solid, RH-hitting backups can be found every offseason, and Jose Morales still looks to me like a serviceable backup for the future.

That takes care of the 1st-rounder and the value for Lee. As for the final piece, I'd try to send over a recent late-round pick like Carlos Gutierrez or Kyle Waldrop. If the Mariners like Trevor Plouffe and the Twins want to keep JJ Hardy for 2011, I could throw him in instead. There seems to be some buzz in the Mariners blogosphere around Kevin Slowey, whose fly-ball tendencies would play pretty well at Safeco Field with Seattle's go-get-it OF defense. I like Slowey, and would love to see him around here for a few more years. However, the Twins have used their 1st-round pick in the last 2 drafts on pitchers who project to arrive in the big league rotation rather quickly, and with Blackburn perhaps rashly under contract for the next few seasons, Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers would likely be putting the most pressure on Slowey. I definitely prefer him to Blackburn, but I don't see either one of them pitching in October, and Lee is clearly better than both.

Three talented players with 1st or 2nd-round pedigree, all of whom could be on the field for the Mariners in 2011 and under team control until at least 2013. That might be enough to entice them to move Cliff Lee early. The Twins, for their trouble, would get him for 17-18 starts instead of 12, and then get 2 high draft picks next season to replace what they'd lost this year. And they wouldn't be losing anything they need to be counting on for the long term anyway. The Twins' players and fans would be energized by such an aggressive acquisition, and recognize that the front office is fully committed to winning it all this season. The Tigers and White Sox would recognize it as well, and would have to take a hard look at themselves in late July to decide whether it is worth the cost in terms of dollars and organizational depth to try to keep up.

The Twins team we're watching now might be in for a fight to win the division, and doesn't appear to have what it takes to go deep into October. Bill Smith shouldn't be afraid to spend some of the Twins' considerable capital in order to change that equation.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Doing the Little Things Wrong

Twins 5, Brewers 7

The Twins had the chance to begin this series just like the home series against the Brewers: with an insurmountable crooked number in the 1st inning. The first 6 batters reached, scoring 3 and leaving the bases loaded for Danny Valencia. I fear he may have punched his ticket back to Rochester when he popped up on the 1st pitch. Chris Narveson had already walked 2, hit a batter, and gone to a few full counts, nearly 30 pitches into his outing without recording an out. He was utterly on the ropes, and there was no reason not to let the AB develop a little bit before swinging. Even Delmon Young took a pitch before lining his single to LF. Narveson was able to strike out Nick Punto and retire Scott Baker, and the Twins had to settle for 3. Valencia's rash AB sparked a string of 10 straight outs for Narveson, who was able to complete 5 IP.

Coming off one of the best starts of his career, Baker struggled to keep his pitches down. It finally caught up to him in the 4th, when the first 4 batters reached on 3 XBH. He couldn't quite escape without yielding a 2-out, RBI H to the pitcher just fair down the LF line. He allowed 1 more 2-out H in the 6th, leaving him with 5 ER on 9 H in 6 IP with 7 K. He's got to be more consistent if he's going to realize his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Alex Burnett was touched for a HR for the 2nd time in 3 appearances, pushing his ERA over 3.00.

The Twins made it interesting in the 8th when Young delivered yet another big 2-run 2B. But the rally fizzled from there. The tying run came to the plate in the 9th, but Justin Morneau struck out to end the game.

Twins 3, Brewers 5

This was one of the worst all-around games of the season, though Francisco Liriano is largely blameless. He struck out 7 and allowed only 2 H that reached the OF in the air. His lone transgression was a 1-out BB to Rickie Weeks after he was ahead 0-2 - Liriano delivered 4 straight pitches up and away. Weeks immediately came around to score on a 2B past Michael Cuddyer, for the first time showing off his lack of range at 3B.

The problem in this game was the Twins' failure to convert ground balls into outs. The crucial 2-run rally in the 4th that put the Brewers ahead to stay started with a 2-strike bunt single from Carlos Gomez. Then an IF "H" to Punto that could have been called an out at 2B and could have been scored a FC. A soft single to RF, then a 2-out, ground ball single just past a diving Orlando Hudson to bring home 2 R.

In the 6th, Gardy made a decision I did not like: he pulled Liriano with 2 men on so that Jim Thome could PH. At that time, it was a 1-R game, Liriano had just struck out Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee, and he was at 77 pitches - likely on his way to 7 IP and another QS. The bullpen had thrown just 2 IP in the last 3 days, but the next 2 starters were the struggling Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, who hasn't been reliable about pitching deep into games. To needlessly ask them to pick up 2 extra innings in this game didn't seem smart, especially since none of them are as good at pitching as Liriano. No, he wasn't going to continue that rally, but the Twins still had 3 more innings and at least one more trip through the order in front of them. Why go for broke so early?

The Twins gave away a R in the 7th when Brian Duensing walked 2 (1 intentional) and hit a batter around a failed GIDP chance thanks to an error from Punto. Braun hit with the bases loaded and beat out another potential DP to allow the 4th R to score. A 5th came home in the next inning, when Jeff Manship, the weakest pitcher on the staff, saw a walk come around to score on another 2-out H just past Cuddyer.

In the top of that inning, Young was on 1st with 2 out and the pitcher's spot due up. Gardy was forced to send up Matt Tolbert as the tying R, since Thome was already burned. Young took off for 2nd and was caught stealing to end the inning. About that:
  • It wasn't like Tolbert was going to hit into a DP with 2 out;
  • If Young scores on a single, the Twins are still behind;
  • If Tolbert makes the last out, Joe Mauer is guaranteed to hit in the 9th, and Morneau can hit as the tying run if anyone gets on;
  • By leaving the pitcher's spot standing at the plate, Young forced Gardy to replace another player (in this case, Punto), weakening his defense.
In short, I don't get it. Anyway, Tolbert walked leading off the 9th, getting Mauer to the plate with 2 out. He doubled, and Morneau once again came up as the tying run, and once again struck out to end the game.

Twins 0, Brewers 5

Now the Twins were in the position of having to beat the Brewers' best pitcher with Blackburn. No one would have beaten Yovanni Gallardo on this day, as he didn't allow a baserunner until the 6th and finished with a CG shutout with 12 K and 0 BB.

Blackburn didn't keep the Twins in the game for long. In the 3rd, he allowed the 1st 5 batters to reach on 2 2B, 2 HR and a BB. He is helpless when he doesn't get a low strike called early in the count. The Brewers appeared to be looking for the pitch down and away as well, jumping all over it for several sharp H. Blackburn was knocked out after 3.2 IP, allowing 5 ER on 6 H, 3 BB and 2 K. Much better than his last start, but still woefully bad.

Each Twins OF made an E in the series. They looked sloppy in the field and defensive on the mound. For me, this was the worst series of the season. It stings especially because it comes off the elation of the Phillies series, which might have propelled the Twins into a positive stretch that could have put some daylight between them and the Tigers and White Sox. Instead, they fell horribly flat. They've been milling around .500 for over 40 games now. I think it's time to shake things up.

  • The first order of business should be to take Blackburn out of the rotation. He hasn't been able to complete even 4 IP in 4 of his last 5 starts. His peripherals for those games have been disconcerting: 18.2 IP, 38 H, 6 HR, 9 BB, 9 K. It's nice to see the K/9 coming back into the mid 4.0's, but the HR and BB are a disturbing sign. More and more of the hits he's allowing have been screaming line drives. The guy needs to work on some things, and the rotation of a contending team isn't the place to do it.
  • Due to the excellent work he did in the rotation in the 2nd half last year and his strong performance out of the bullpen this year, Brian Duensing should be given the opportunity to take Blackburn's spot. His mop-up job this afternoon (3.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 3 K) got him up to 47 pitches. Give him the start against the Tigers next Tuesday with a 60-65 pitch count. With Liriano pitching the night before, the bullpen should be reasonably well-rested and able to pick up whatever innings Duensing leaves them. He could be stretched out to 100 pitches by the start of the 2nd half.
  • Pat Neshek gave up a bunch of runs last night, but a couple of the hits were swinging bunts, and a couple more were grounders. Ugly numbers, but nothing to get too upset about.
  • You can get upset about Glen Perkins, though. He got torched again for 6 ER on 8 H and 4 BB in just 3.2 IP. In 14 GS for Rochester, he's at 66.2 IP, 98 H, 12 HR, 22 BB and 53 K, for an 8.10 ERA and 1.80 WHIP. He's absolutely done, and should be taken off the 40-man roster immediately. Make a little room for Anthony Slama - somebody the Twins might be able to use this year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bent, But Unbroken

Twins 5, Phillies 9

Orlando Hudson was activated after missing 16 games. The Twins, coming off a series in which their starters had given them 22 IP over 3 games, elected to make room for him by placing Jose Mijares on the Family Emergency list and dropping to 11 pitchers. I'm a big fan of that roster construction. Also, Gardy placed Michael Cuddyer at 3B for the first time since 2005, enabling him to keep both Jason Kubel and Delmon Young in the lineup. This is another terrific decision, and one I hope the Twins will try out against their AL opponents, with Jim Thome given more frequent opportunities at DH.

Nick Blackburn rendered those decisions moot by turning in the most putrid start of his career. 2 HR - OK, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are awesome hitters, and Citizen's Bank Park is a bandbox. 6 H - yes, we know a pitch-to-contact guy like Blackburn is going to give up some H. But the 3 BB were perhaps the biggest reason that he lasted just 1.2 IP. Blackburn's lack of stuff means he's always pitching with a bit of a fire going. When he has poor command, he throws gas on it. He gave his team no chance to win this game.

On top of that, the similarly combustible Joe Blanton turned in his first decent start for the Phillies. On top of that, the Twins got a ton of bad breaks, from the wall-hugging carom in the RF corner that let Howard get to 3B in the 1st (from there he came home on a SF), to Utley's sprawling stop robbing Denard Span of a H, to Span's liner straight to Howard with 2 men on to end the 5th. Even the bobble by Shane Victorino hurt the Twins - if he fields that ball cleanly, Kubel holds up at 3rd and scores easily on the subsequent single from Delmon Young. But the bobble was just enough to entice Scott Ullger to send him home to be nailed at the plate.

On the plus side, Nick Punto goes yard! And the bullpen acquitted itself quite well, yielding just a solo HR in 6.1 IP. However, on the whole, this game put me in a pretty foul mood.

Twins 13, Phillies 10 (11 innings)

That valiant relief effort required 5 of the 6 members of the bullpen, so the Twins promptly sent Trevor Plouffe back to Rochester in order to recall Jeff Manship for emergency bullpen duty. Good thing they did. Kevin Slowey was just about as bad as Blackburn, also lasting just 1.2 IP while allowing 2 HR and 7 ER. Perhaps even more frustrating, because he immediately gave back a 3 R lead the Twins had built up while batting around in the 1st. That rally broke down when Danny Valencia was called out on a 3-2 pitch with 1B open. That let the Phillies intentionally walk Punto (they were probably respecting his power) and pitch to Slowey with 2 out. Cole Hamels was worked for 30+ pitches in that inning, but the Twins wouldn't get another baserunner until the 6th.

Manship came in and sponged up 4.1 IP, allowing just a solo HR. Justin Morneau broke his HR drought in the 6th, but that was matched by a solo HR from Jayson Werth in the 7th. So the Twins trailed 9-4 in the 9th with Jose Contreras on the mound to mop up. Jim Thome's towering 2-run HR seemed harmless enough that the home phans gave him a standing ovation. Then Punto walked, and closer Brad Lidge had to come on. Then Span drove in Punto, and suddenly the tying run was at the plate. That was Joe Mauer, and with 2 out he broke his HR drought with a blast to CF. The Twins' offense had come to the rescue of the battered pitching staff.

Matt Guerrier gutted out a 2 H 9th by striking out the side. Then, in the top of the 10th, Drew Butera goes yard! The last guy on the bench, forced into action, came through. With his father in the stands on Father's Day weekend. Incredible. The Twins nearly tacked on an insurance run with a 2-out rally, but Punto showed that he hasn't learned his lesson from last fall's baserunning gaffe, again getting himself thrown out trying to score on a grounder from Span that didn't quite find it's way through the middle of the IF.

That run would have been nice, because Jon Rauch gave up a 2-out HR to PH Ross Gload that barely cleared the wall down the RF line - a drive that wouldn't have been out at Target Field. Again, the Twins rallied. Charlie Manuel apparently didn't see what happened to the A's a couple weeks ago when they intentionally walked Morneau in extra innings. As in that game, he came in to score, as the Twins tacked on a 2-out 2B from Matt Tolbert. Now, with a 3-run cushion, Rauch finished the game without incident.

3 hours and 53 minutes. 392 pitches. 11 pitchers. 25 position players. 29 H, 23 R, 9 HR, 7 BB and 19 K. It was appalling. But when the dust settled, the Twins were standing tall.

Twins 4, Phillies 1

Back-to-back disasterpieces had forced the Twins' bullpen to absorb 15.2 IP over the first 2 games of the series. They held the line, yielding just 4 solo HR for a 2.30 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. But they were pretty well used up heading into Sunday afternoon's sweltering finale. Carl Pavano has turned into the Twins' most reliable workhorse. If it were possible to order a CG from a pitcher, this was the day to do it.

And Pavano delivered. Aided by some splendid defensive plays, Pavano took his typically efficient game up a notch, forcing contact by relentlessly throwing strikes early in the count. The precision that was so lacking from Blackburn and Slowey was present in nearly every pitch Pavano threw. He was touched for a solo HR, the 9th surrendered by the Twins in the series. But he allowed just 4 other baserunners, and needed only 105 pitches to finish 9 IP.

A strong performance from Pavano was all the more critical because his mound opponent was Roy Halladay, one of the game's elite pitchers and a guy who always seemed to prevail against the Twins when he was with the Blue Jays. He didn't walk a batter and struck out 8, but the Twins were able to touch him for a season high 11 H in 8 IP. Denard Span goes yard! Every little guy on the roster has gone deep in the past 2 series. Morneau lifted another one out, and Mauer and Kubel added RBI singles.

Mark this series in your memory. Facing the 2-time defending NL champs on the road, the Twins threw away the 1st game of the series against a shaky pitcher. Needing to beat 2 very good pitchers in order to win the series, they spotted the Phillies a 5-run lead. Down to their last inning, to their last out, they fought back. Again. And again. And they took the series over: through the 1st 17 innings, they were manhandled 18-9; over the final 12 innings, they clobbered the Phillies 13-2. Blackburn and Slowey needed the bullpen to pick them up, and it did. The offense needed to pick up the pitchers, and it did. Everybody needed Pavano to pick them up. And he did. The Twins showed their resilience this weekend - they are not to be underestimated.

Even more significant is the impact this series has on the standings. While the Twins have been grappling with assorted NL contenders, the Tigers and White Sox have been marauding through a slate of interleague also-rans. After Friday's game, the Tigers had pulled to within 0.5 games of the Twins. By stemming the tide on Saturday, the Twins got a game back, and held a 1.5 game lead through the weekend. Now, those teams will have to play the NL-leading Braves, while the Twins get a series with the Brewers. If they bring the same determination they had in Philly to Milwaukee, their 1st-place position should be even stronger by the weekend.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Double Trouble

Twins 9, Rockies 3

For the 10th time in 13 GS, Carl Pavano gave the Twins 7 IP. He always seems to give up a couple of R in those 7 IP, and this night was no exception. 3 ER on 5 H with 1 BB and 5 K. He allowed 2 solo HR, but those won't beat you, right Bert? What a tremendous asset he's been to the rotation.

It's amazing how a team can scuffle through a series and then explode as soon as the next opponent shows up. With a sinker-ball pitcher on the mound, all it takes is some fortuitous placement, and the Twins got plenty of that in the 4th inning. Everyone in the order but Jason Kubel managed to reach base by slipping grounders just past diving IF. Michael Cuddyer's 2B eluded the Melvin Mora when it hit the 3B bag. Nick Punto delivered a big 2-run single with the bases loaded. Joe Mauer, the 10th man to come to the plate, grounded into a DP to end the rally, the 3rd GIDP of the night from the Twins.

Matt Tolbert went yard! It was his 3rd career HR, and the 1st that didn't come on a windy day in Chicago. Somebody wants to stay on the roster beyond this series...

Twins 2, Rockies 1

The way this game started out, I didn't think it was going to be close. The Twins loaded the bases with nobody out in the 2nd, then got back-to-back H from Danny Valencia and Punto. But Delmon Young was nailed at the plate trying to score on Punto's single, and the rally fizzled after just 2 R had come in.

And that was it. The Twins continued to put runners on against Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin, but they bailed him out with GIDP to end the 3rd, 4th and 5th innings. The worst was the 5th, when Punto and Denard Span led off with singles. Tolbert sacrificed them into scoring position, and the Rox elected to intentionally walk Mauer to load the bases for Morneau. Who promptly beat the 1st pitch he saw into the ground for the Twin-killing. Ugh.

Luckily, Scott Baker was out of his mind. He shut the Rox out for 7 IP, allowing just 2 H and 1 BB with a career-high 12 K. Matt Guerrier quickly got into trouble in the 8th, but Jose Mijares came in to limit the damage to just 1 R. Jon Rauch had a perfect 9th for his 17th save in 19 chances.

Twins 1, Rockies 5

I was really looking forward to this matchup between Francisco Liriano and Ubaldo Jimenez. Looking at their stats before the game, I was surprised to see that Liriano had the edge between the two in K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. Jimenez was succeeding largely because of a BABIP that was about .050 below the MLB average, while Liriano's was high by about the same margin. Certainly a closer matchup than a glance at ERAs and Won/Lost records would suggest.

As I noted in regards to the Liriano/Tim Hudson tilt last week, the slightest imprecision can be fatal in matchups of elite pitchers. Liriano was anything but precise in the 1st inning, allowing 4 H, 1 BB and 2 HBP. He was rescued by a good cutoff play to nail one of the baserunners, then managed to leave the bases loaded after a brutal bat-around inning from the Rox. After that, he was an ace again, allowing just 1 H and 2 BB while facing 2 over the minimum for the next 6 IP, earning his 11th QS in 13 GS.

Unfortunately, Jimenez' good luck on BABIP persisted, making the game already out of reach. The Twins managed to put somebody on base in virtually every inning, but that hitter was immediately erased by 4 more DP and a pickoff. Both times Span was nailed on the bases it was a close play, but the timely, accurate throws compelled the umpire to give the benefit of the doubt to the defense. Anyway, that made the workload considerably easier for Jimenez, whose 8 IP, 8 H, 2BB, 4 K line wasn't a lot better than Liriano's 7 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 6 K. Jimenez scattered his H, and Liriano didn't.

On the plus side, Matt Tolbert showed up once again, collecting a chalkline 2B among 2 H in the game. For the series he went 4 for 9 with a 2B, HR and 2 BB, likely solidifying his place on the roster after Orlando Hudson is reactivated. Also chipping in with a rare productive game was Drew Butera, who walked and drove in the lone run for the Twins with a single in the 8th.

  • It's got to be Trevor Plouffe who heads back to Rochester when Hudson is recalled. While Tolbert has been hitting up a storm and Valencia has been solid, Plouffe is 0 for 10 since his recall.
  • I'm ready to face some fly-ball pitchers.
  • Angel Morales was promoted to Fort Myers. I can't imagine Aaron Hicks will be too far behind. Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee have both been reinstated at AA after brief demotions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

4th Split: 9-7

Overall Record: 37-27
1st in AL Central by 2.5 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9

The scoring remained sluggish, but the pitching improved enough to cancel out the 3rd split. The Twins allowed a dozen fewer earned runs in recent games, no doubt aided by facing the relatively weak offenses of Seattle, Oakland and KC. The net result of a 16-16 record over the last 32 games (and 18-18 over the last 36) coincides almost perfectly with the loss of JJ Hardy at the end of the 27th game of the season. Orlando Hudson's collision with Denard Span at the end of the final game of the Texas series left the Twins without his services for 14 of the 16 games of this split. One or both of those important offseason acquisitions has been absent for the past 30-some games. For me, that explains the dip in scoring and winning percentage from the first 1/5th of the schedule.

3B was an acknowledged weakness in the Twins' lineup this season, but it was supposed to be the only weakness. Losing Hudson and Hardy has forced Matt Tolbert and Brendan Harris into the lineup alongside Nick Punto, along with rookies Trevor Plouffe and Danny Valencia. Of that group, only Valencia has hit with any consistency, and those hits have all been singles. What's worse, Gardy has persistently played one of those guys in the #2 spot, sticking an easy out between Span and Joe Mauer. Add Span's horrendous west coast trip into the mix (2 for 30 with 1 BB) and it's actually remarkable that the Twins were able to come home from that trip with 3 wins.

One of the biggest reasons they did was the play of Delmon Young. He hit .368/.383/.649 with 4 2B, 4 HR and 19 RBI. That's a crapload of RBI for just 16 games, but that number doesn't even tell the story of how timely his hitting was. Last time, I predicted that the Twins would have at least 5 bases loaded hits in this split. They had exactly 5, and Young had 3 of them. He also delivered the game-winning hit late in 2 of the Twins' 1-run wins over this stretch.

The other major reason the Twins were on the happy side of .500 in this split is Francisco Liriano. All 3 of his GS during this stretch ended as 1-run Twins wins, so had he been any less awesome, the record would not have been as good. I should also mention Jon Rauch, who converted all 5 of his save opportunities while allowing just 1 ER in 6 IP on 7 H, 0 BB and 6 K.

As for the defense, it was not their finest hour. Through the first 48 games, they had accumulated just 10 E and 4 unearned R. But in the last 16 games, they committed 11 E and 7 unearned R, culminating in the disastrous 3 E, 3 unearned R inning that ultimately cost them a series sweep of the Royals. Most of those E were committed by middle IF who were not Hardy or Hudson.

Hudson could be back as early as Friday. His health will be one of the keys to the rest of the season. With him in the lineup, the Twins should always be able to pencil in at least 6 above average bats. With the pitching going strong, and the defense still excellent overall, that combination should be enough to enable the Twins to pull away from the Tigers over the long haul.

Bold prediction: At least one of Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Jesse Crain, Alex Burnett or Ron Mahay will no longer be on the roster at the midpoint of the season.

Monday, June 14, 2010

No Help in the Middle

Twins 2, Braves 1

I loved, loved, loved this game. And not just because the Twins came out on the happy side of a one-run game, or because I have Francisco Liriano on my fantasy team. It was crisply played, with good defensive plays from both sides, and each pitcher relentlessly throwing quality strikes. The plate umpire rewarded them with a generous strike zone, and the game clipped to its finish in just over 2 hours, which has to put it on the "short" list of quickest games in the league this year.

Atlanta's run came after they began the 2nd with a pair of singles just over the IF. Then a sac bunt and an RBI squib grounder to SS. That makes 3 straight starts in which Liriano hasn't allowed an RBI hit. His combined line for those 3 games: 21 IP, 18 H, 5 ER, 0 HR, 2 BB, 28 K. That's an ace.

In tight games, the slightest failure of execution can be fatal. For the Braves, that failure came when 2B Martin Prado couldn't get a grip for a throw after fielding Joe Mauer's bouncer up the middle leading off the 7th. Justin Morneau followed with a hot shot that was too quick for 3B Chipper Jones, who had shifted toward the middle of the field, to backhand. Then Michael Cuddyer got a swinging bunt to load the bases with nobody out. This situation has been trouble for the Twins all season, and Tim Hudson got Jim Thome looking on a liberal outside strike for the first out. But Hudson evidently didn't see the tape from Tuesday night when Jason Kubel clobbered a high fastball from Zach Greinke - he did the same thing here to tie the game. Then, the only real mistake Hudson made, an 0-2 slider that stayed on the outside corner, where Delmon Young could rip it into LF for the game winning single.

Twins 2, Braves 3

Another tight game, this time between struggling sinker-ballers Derek Lowe and Nick Blackburn, each of whom began the game with an ERA north of 5.00. Blackburn didn't exactly have his sinker working (9 groundball outs to 7 flies), and the 2 R he allowed came on a HR and back-to-back 2B in the 5th. The most encouraging thing about this performance from Blackburn was that he struck out 5, a season high and more than he'd accumulated in his previous 4 starts combined. He'll be more effective going forward if he can get at least a strikeout every other inning.

Unfortunately, Lowe was just as effective, thanks in part to some strong defense from emergency 3B Brooks Conrad - I don't know if Jones is still spry enough to make those plays. So it was tied going to the 9th, and this time the Twins blinked in the form of a 4-pitch BB from Matt Guerrier with 1 out. Through that tiny crack of daylight, Bobby Cox forced the door open, calling for the hit-and-run and suicide squeeze, each executed to perfection by his hitters. The Twins' defense was helpless, undone by another team that does the little things right.

Twins 3, Braves 7

Denard Span finally got a day off, introducing us to the dreadful OF combo of Young, Cuddyer and Kubel. I'd love to be able to blame Kevin Slowey's rough 1st inning on that below average OF defense, but I don't think anyone could have done much with the balls the Braves put in play. Conrad got a clean single, Jason Heyward's broken bat 2B landed just fair on the track in the RF corner, Troy Glaus' RBI single was off the end of his bat and would have faded in front of any CF, and Eric Hinske drilled his 2B halfway up the wall in RF. A better throw from Nick Punto to SS Trevor Plouffe would have nailed Hinske and kept the damage to 3 R, but that wouldn't have been enough to change the outcome for the Twins.

Somewhere around the 5th or 6th inning (the Twins went down in order on 7 pitches in each, so I get them mixed up) my feelings about this series changed. They went from admiration of the fine play of the Braves to disgust with the Twins' hitters. Brendan Harris got another chance to show everybody why he isn't very good this year. Mauer was the DH, meaning more futile AB from Drew Butera. With Span out of the lineup and Plouffe flailing away from the #2 spot, the Twins' #8-#2 hitters went 0-13 with a BB. Harris, Butera and Plouffe combined to see 25 pitches in 10 PA. With JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson out, the middle IF has resorted to the pathetic group that helped keep the Twins around .500 throughout most of 2009.

  • The walks have tapered off, but Young is really killing the ball right now, and he's doing it with men on base. As the BA drifts toward .300 and the SLG% toward .500, I wonder if he'll start to attract some special attention from the media, as well as from opposing pitchers.
  • Hey - Jose Morales threw out a couple of base stealers over the weekend! Can we call him up now?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Just Another 2 Out of 3

Twins 7, Royals 3

Welcome home, fellas. Denard Span's 1st AB was a lot like his last AB in Oakland - a sharp liner up the middle. There, it was speared by the pitcher. Here, it just cleared the leaping SS for a base hit. Span was so excited he forgot how to lead off and got picked off. Matt Tolbert followed with one of his only productive AB of the series, a BB to set the table for Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and, eventually Jason Kubel. I didn't think he'd get a fastball to hit in that AB. He sort of didn't - it was about neck-high - but he jumped all over it for a booming, 2-run 2B off the wall in deep right center.

The Twins once again ground Zach Greinke out of the game after 5 IP. Funny that Mauer and Justin Morneau, the Twins' 2 best hitters, should go 1 for 6 with 4 K against him, but everybody else went 8 for 17 with a BB and a HR (also courtesy of Kubel, who was ready for the off-speed pitch in his 3rd AB). Span got a huge 2-run single with the IF in after Nick Punto's S in the 4th. That ball just barely eluded a diving, drawn-in fielder. Amazing how much better Span's luck is at home.

Kevin Slowey! Yes! Right! Good! Just like that! I mean, he doesn't have to take a perfect game into the 5th inning every time out, but the efficiency, the precision, that's what I expect to see. This was the 3rd straight start in which he has still been pitching in the 7th inning.

Cuddyer misplayed what should have been the 2nd out of the 9th inning. That resulted in 2 unearned R, 10 extra pitches from Jose Mijares and an unnecessary appearance from Matt Guerrier. A poor note to end on.

Twins 6, Royals 2

3 of the Twins' 6 R in this game scored on outs, beginning with Danny Valencia's bases-loaded GIDP. That kid's gonna fit right in around here. That result is a bit of a testament to the organization's belief in contact: strikeout-prone hitters may leave a baserunner out there when all you had to do to score him was just put the ball in play. Only making one out would be better, as Punto and Tolbert were able to do later in the game. Getting a hit would be best, but that only happens about 1/3 of the time. The teams that can get something out of the other 2/3 have a chance to do just a little better than the competition.

Carl Pavano was really good again. He's given the Twins at least 6 IP in 10 of his 12 GS. I was a little disappointed that he didn't get a crack at the CG, especially after the Twins tacked on an extra, Save-killing run in the bottom of the 8th. He wasn't quite to 100 pitches, and he'll get an extra day of rest before his next start on Friday.

The trouble was the Alberto Callaspo AB in the 2nd inning. Pavano thought he had him struck out looking on the 1-2 pitch. I thought so, too, and Pitch F/X backed us up. Pitches like that are what I think is wrong with umpires. Ahead in the count, the guy hit the glove on a borderline pitch. Why not give it to him and ring the batter up? That would compel everybody else to come up swinging and speed up the game. And in this case, Callaspo doubled a couple of pitches later, leading Pavano to throw 4 more pitches than he should have to complete the inning. He could have had fewer total pitches and an extra out, getting him to the 9th with 91 pitches or so, a number he's surpassed in every one of his decent starts. Ed Hickox' stingy strike zone added a little time to the game, and influenced whether Pavano would be around for the 9th.

Twins 8, Royals 9

Luckily, I missed this fiasco while playing a lousy softball game of my own. Well, I left just after Baker gave up a HR to Mitch Maier. Really Baker - Mitch Maier? He was no darned good in this game, burying the Twins in a 5-1 hole and lasting just 5 IP.

Of course, with the Royals pitching, you're never really out of it, and the Twins came storming back in the 7th. They rattled off 6 straight H and did a lot of 1st to 3rd baserunning. They put up a 5-spot, negating the damage done by Baker.

Unfortunately, the defense wasn't able to hold the deficit where Baker left it. And it was all on the defense, as Jesse Crain retired the 1st 4 hitters he faced in the 6th. Punto hadn't made an error since last summer, but on this night, he managed to muff 2 in a row, either of which would have been the final out of a scoreless inning. Tolbert joined in the fun, and the 3 unearned runs would prove to be crucial.

Even that was nearly overcome thanks to a terrific 9th-inning rally from Span and the M&M boys. The difference was a 2-out, solo HR off Brian Duensing in the top of the 9th. Or, if you prefer, the run the Twins failed to get in the 3rd when Span got himself doubled off 2nd on a would-be SF from Mauer. Bad pitching, bad defense, bad baserunning - just a sloppy all-around game from the Twins. Maybe the worst of the year.

It seems routine now that the Twins will win the 1st 2 games of a series, especially at home. But they've only finished the sweep twice. Still, winning 2 of 3 at home is a great way to get yourself in position to win a title. So far, that's what the Twins are doing.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The B Team

Twins 5, Athletics 4 (11 innings)

This game was moving along quite well for a while. Joe Mauer drew a 2-out BB in the 1st, followed by Justin Morneau's 13th HR of the season for a quick 2-0 lead. The Twins padded that with a couple of 2-out RBI hits from Jason Kubel and Delmon Young in the 6th. And Scott Baker was absolutely soaring, allowing just 1 ER on 3 H with 3 K through the first 6 IP, and needing only 65 pitches to get there.

We've seen Baker come unraveled from stellar beginnings with shocking quickness, and that was the case again here. He issued his only free pass of the game with 1 out in the 7th, then promptly served up a 2-run HR to bring the A's within 1 at 4-3. He finished that inning with a couple of lengthy AB, bringing his pitch count up to a still very reasonable 87 to start the 8th. 3 pitches later he had surrendered a line-drive HR to Rajai Davis that just cleared the wall down the LF line, and the Twins' offense had to get back to work.

They finally broke through in the 11th, thanks to a leadoff 2B from Morneau and Young's 2nd RBI H of the game. The bullpen combo of Jose Mijares, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch allowed 0 R on just 1 H and 2 BB in 3.2 IP.

Twins 4, Athletics 3

Things got challenging on Saturday. Already without Michael Cuddyer for the weekend (Bereavement List) and Orlando Hudson for the whole road trip (wrist), the Twins had to scratch Morneau (flu) and JJ Hardy (wrist) from the starting lineup. That forced them to place Matt Tolbert at 2B, shift Nick Punto to SS, and put Brendan Harris at 1B. Jim Thome got to start at DH and went 1 for 2 with a 2B and 2 BB.

That motley lineup got 3 R on the board in support of Francisco Liriano. Thome was able to advance to 3rd and then home on consecutive outs from Jason Kubel and Young. In the 6th, they cashed in a bases loaded chance with a 2-run single from Young. Liriano got off to a shaky start, as the first 2 batters doubled and singled, but he got the next guy to ground into a DP - scoring the only R he would allow. He completed 7 IP, giving up just 3 more H and 2 BB against 10 K. Hopefully that's an indication that he left his BABIP woes behind when the calendar flipped from May to June.

Enter Jesse Crain to protect a 3-1 lead. He'd been stellar recently, going 8 straight appearances without allowing an ER, with a 7/1 K/BB ratio in those 8 IP with 4 H. He allowed a couple of 1-out singles, but appeared poised to escape the jam when he got Kevin Kouzmanoff to fly out, then got ahead of Adam Rosales 0-2. The next two pitches were fouls from the top of the strike zone. Perfect time for the curve ball. Or waste a slider off the plate. Nope. They went with a fastball down, which could have worked if Crain had hit the glove. Instead, the ball found the middle of the plate, and Rosales raked it into left center for a game-tying 3B.

The critical sequence occurred in the top of the 9th. With one out, the Twins sent sickly Morneau up to pinch hit. The A's elected to intentionally walk him. I know the guy has a nearly .500 OBP, but putting him on makes it 1.000 for that PA. It appeared to take Brad Ziegler out of rhythm, as he followed it with an unintentional BB to Nick Punto. After Denard Span grounded into a force out, Tolbert delivered the game-winning single. The A's put the winning on base, and the Twins made them pay.

Twins 4, Athletics 5

All the lineup carnage from Saturday recurred on Sunday, plus Mauer had to DH after catching the night before, meaning Drew Butera had to get some AB. That left just 4 good hitters in the lineup, one of whom (Span) came into the game in an 0-21 slump. Even so, the Twins managed to scrape enough runs together to stay in the game. Brendan Harris got his first H in ages on a play that should have been made by Kouzmanoff. Span got off the schneid with a 3B and was immediately brought home on a SF from Tolbert. Late in the game, Young hit a 2-run HR, followed by a PH 2B from Thome. Harris took a called 3rd strike to leave PR Hardy in scoring position.

That effort wasn't quite enough to make up for Nick Blackburn's 2nd straight short start. He was not good in this game: 10 H, 5 ER, BB, HBP and 0 K in 2.2 IP. But he wasn't that bad. The HBP was a missed call by the ump on a check-swing foul that should have been strike 2. The first inning was sustained by a broken-bat liner that found grass behind 2nd base - when a pitcher cuts a guy's bat in half, he deserves to get an out, and that could have been the 3rd of that inning. The 2nd run of that inning scored on an IF single to SS - a high chopper just out of Blackburn's reach over the mound. The 2-out RBI 2B Blackburn allowed in the 2nd was a weak fly ball into no man's land down the LF line, and Young got leather on it after a long run. The 2-run rally in the 3rd began with an IF single to the out-of-position Harris at 1B, a play that Morneau probably makes. So Blackburn allowed 12 baserunners in 2.2 IP, but he pitched well enough to have had only about half that many. Which is still way too many in 2.2 IP, but if some of those are outs, maybe it's 7 baserunners in 4 IP, or something like that. Not good, but not as bad as it looked.

Thankfully, the bullpen kept the damage to just 5 runs, and the Twins were down by just 1 in the 9th. Morneau PH again, and this time the A's elected to pitch to him. It reminded me of my softball game last Thursday: I was late, and when I walked into the dugout was told I was in the hole. I put on my batting gloves and maybe swung the bat twice before finding myself at the plate, stone cold. The first pitch missed, and I thought, "Maybe they'll do me a favor and walk me..." Which they did, and I got to warm up running the bases. I expected the still sickly Morneau to be thinking the same thing when he got ahead 2-0. But he started hacking away, eventually striking out in a PA in which he basically saw nothing but breaking balls below the knees. I don't think they threw him a strike - he got himself out.

As depleted as they were, it was a remarkable feat for the Twins to pull out a series win in Oakland, especially when each of the wins required some late-game heroics. Though they went just 3-4 on the road trip, it's still better than they've typically done in Seattle and Oakland in recent years. They should come home confident and ready to kick some interleague butt.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One is the Loneliest Number

Twins 5, Mariners 4
Twins 1, Mariners 7
Twins 1, Mariners 2 (10 innings)
Twins 1, Mariners 4

Living in California, you'd think it'd be easier for me to follow the West Coast games in detail. Nope. Between eating dinner and getting the baby bathed and ready for bed, most of the time between 7-10 PM Pacific Time is already spoken for. So I was only able to give cursory attention to these games. Here's what struck me:
  • 6 of the 8 R the Twins scored in this series came on HR. The Mariners scored 6 R in the series on outs, wild pitches and IF H. Odd to see the Twins get so completely out small-balled. The Mariners made them look like the White Sox.
  • What does it say about Target Field that the Twins could come to a pitcher's park like Safeco and rip 5 HR in 3 games - more than they managed in 9 games on the last home stand?
  • Wednesday night's game was pivotal. The Mariners have been a disappointment this year, but not because they haven't delivered outstanding pitching and defense. With back-to-back games against Cy Young caliber pitchers like Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, every run is crucial. Not just on the scoring side, but on the prevention side, as well. Obviously, the game ended on a bad call, and the Twins should have had an opportunity to win it with the top of the order coming up in the 11th. But they could have won it 1-0 in regulation had they not allowed Milton Bradley, who had 1 SB coming into the game, to steal 2nd and 3rd in the 5th inning. He came home on a SF, so all they had to do was keep a guy who isn't much of a base-stealing threat from running his way into scoring position and Slowey and the gang could have had a combined shutout. That was a bit of a mental letdown, and against a pitcher like Lee, those can be costly.
  • Great to see Slowey complete 7 IP, though. Now, do it again.
  • The Twins game wasn't the only one that ended on a missed call by the umpires. The Tigers' Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game on a similar play in Detroit. I've never seen the harm in expanding instant replay. Some say it will lengthen the games, but the players and managers already waste a bunch of time arguing close calls, so I doubt getting an official ruling from the replay booth would add much to that. Especially if they add a 5th umpire to the crews so that the other guys wouldn't have to leave the field. I can think of 4 losses since last year's All-Star break that might have gone differently for the Twins with replay in effect. If it's implemented quickly, there would be some kinks to work out, but I bet the system would be running pretty smoothly by next year and routinely by 2012.
  • Michael Cuddyer finally got a day off because he needed to be with his wife's family after the passing of his father-in-law. Really, it will be four days off. I guess that means that, when he comes back, he'll be good until the All-Star break.
  • Danny Valencia was called up to replace Cuddyer on the roster. Like everyone else this year, he collected a H in his first PA.
It doesn't feel good to lose to a team with as crappy a record as the Mariners. But the Twins are without one of their primary table-setters in Orlando Hudson, while Denard Span is going through a cold spell. And they were facing some of the best pitching in the league. And they can say with some plausibility that, if it hadn't been for the umps, they might have walked away from Seattle with a split. Let's see how the offense does in Oakland against a similarly good pitching/weak hitting team. With a strong weekend, there's still time to make this into a good road trip.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

May Review

Twins' Record: 16-12
Overall Record: 31-20, 1st in AL Central by 4.5 games

A few days ago it looked as though the narrative for this month would be about a .500-ish record from a Twins team that still couldn't quite get over the hump against playoff caliber competition. They had just lost 2 frustrating 1-run games to the Yankees at home in the same day, dropping them to 11-12 in May. But they finished the month on a high note, winning their last 5 games, including a sweep of the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, and enter June once again on pace to finish the season with around 100 wins.

The offense continued to struggle with men on base, especially with the bases loaded. But thanks to 109 more BB, the Twins' OBP was .358, good for 2nd in the league. They also were among the league leaders in SB% and SF. Their scoring was down slightly, from 5.13 R/G to 4.75, but that was still good enough rank them in the top half of the league in offense.

The pitching remained at the top of the league rankings with a 3.79 ERA. This was due in part to the fact the Twins were far and away the league leaders in fewest walks allowed, as usual. They're getting QS about 60% of the time and limiting opponents to a .311 OBP. They allowed 26 HR in 251.2 IP for 0.93 HR/9 - which is actually pretty good for the Twins (last season they were at 1.15 HR/9). Target Field taketh away, but it also giveth.

The fielding was once again extremely sure-handed, as the Twins committed just 8 errors resulting in only 2 unearned runs. Their zone ratings remained favorable despite the fact that JJ Hardy spent most of the month injured, leaving Brendan Harris to cover a lot of innings at SS.

This month I'll be evaluating players with at least 20 PA, starting pitchers and relievers with at least 7 appearances:

Getting It Done

Justin Morneau - Through 2 months Morneau is doing what Mauer did last year, leading the AL in BA, OBP and SLG% thanks to a searing .400/.496/.710 line in May. Producing in the spring has never been his problem, however.

Denard Span - His poor BABIP numbers from April evened out in May, enabling him to go .353/.403/.462. Even more impressive, he went 7/7 in SB, putting him on pace for 35-40 on the season.

Delmon Young - .313/.348/.538 with 9 2B, 3 HR and 18 RBI. That's what we signed up for. 6 more BB against 11 K already gives him one more BB than he had in all of 2009.

Orlando Hudson - He led the team with 23 R from the #2 spot. Hopefully he won't miss too much time after his game-ending collision with Span on Sunday night.

Nick Blackburn - A 2.65 ERA and 7.1 IP/GS despite just 2.4 K/9. One of these days, I'm going to figure out how he does it, and the paper I write about it will win the Nobel Prize for Sabermetrics.

Scott Baker - 3.55 ERA and 6.1 IP/GS with a 33/8 K/BB ratio and only 3 HR allowed in 38 IP. (He almost certainly would have had 40+ IP had he not run into a rain delay against the Yankees last week.) That's the real Scott Baker.

Matt Guerrier - He got the job done without missing bats in April, but in May he had 11 K in 11 IP to go along with a 2.45 ERA and 0.82 WHIP.

Brian Duensing - He continues to be very effective out of the bullpen. It's a shame that the only HR he allowed in 10.1 IP proved to be so costly.

Jose Mijares - He's been the good Mijares again since returning from the DL, allowing just 1 R in 7.1 IP with a 6/0 K/BB ratio.

So Far, So Good

Michael Cuddyer - .245/.339/.434 doesn't look too great from a corner OF. But his 13/14 K/BB ratio was exceptional for Cuddyer, and he had more than his share of well-hit balls result in outs. If Alex Rios hadn't brought back that ball from over the bullpen fence, Cuddyer's May line would have been .255/.347/.472 - he swung the bat well enough to deserve at least that.

Alexi Casilla - A 4/7 K/BB ratio in 40 PA gave Casilla an OBP of .400 for the month. He threw in a 2B and a 3B among his 9 base hits. I'd like to see him steal some more bases, but that's plenty useful for a role player.

Wilson Ramos - Sure, he did almost all of his hitting in his first 2 games, but it was an impressive snapshot of his potential. I'm sure we'll see him again in September - assuming he isn't traded for some other goodies, that is.

Joe Mauer - AJ Pierzynski would kill to hit .293/.384/.400, but for Mauer, it's a bit of an off month.

Jason Kubel - The strikeout rate remains rather high, but he did major damage when he made contact, leading the team with 20 RBI, 4 of which came on the grand slam off Mariano Rivera.

Francisco Liriano - The ERA was over 5.00 and the WHIP over 1.50, but I don't see any problem with Liriano's game right now. His HR/9, K/9 and BB/9 were all excellent. In essentially the same number of innings as Blackburn had, Liriano allowed 8 more hits, even though his K numbers meant that he gave up 25-30 fewer balls in play. That's just bad luck, and it will even out soon.

Carl Pavano - He threw one clunker in Toronto, but gave the Twins all they could have asked for in the other 4 GS: At least 7 IP with a 3.00 ERA with 3 HR allowed in 30 IP.

Jesse Crain - It looked as though Crain was on the brink after getting blasted twice in 3 appearances on the East Coast trip. But he hasn't allowed a R in his last 6 appearances, with just 3 H and 1 BB against 5 K over those 6 IP.

Jon Rauch - It was a bit of a shaky month for Rauch, who sent a 6-2 game against the Brewers into the bottom of the ninth at 7-6, then served up the clinching HR to the Yankees on Wednesday night, then let things get interesting against the Mariners on the 31st. Still, 6 saves in 7 chances, thanks in part to just 1 BB in 11 IP.

Alex Burnett - The ERA was excellent, but he walked as many as he struck out, inflating his WHIP for the month to nearly 1.50. He's been effective, but he'll have to cut down the walks before I'll believe that he can have consistent success this year.

Need to Pick It Up

Brendan Harris - Just 3 for his last 35, Harris wound up hitting just .140/.178/.163 for the month. His defense isn't anything special, either, so he's got to be hanging by a pretty thin thread right now, with everyone from Danny Valencia to Matt Tolbert looking like they could do better.

Nick Punto - He didn't walk much in April, so that's starting to come around, but the high number of strikeouts (15 in 69 AB) were the reason he was bad at the plate instead of merely not good.

JJ Hardy - He started the month 7 for 18 with a 2B and 3B, the latter resulting in a wrist injury as he slid into 3rd base. I really missed his glove during his 3 weeks on the shelf. He's gone just 4 for 24 since returning, but hopefully can find his groove again soon.

Jim Thome - Appearing mainly as a pinch hitter, Thome did a nice job of getting on base (.362 OBP), but struck out 14 times in 46 AB.

Drew Butera - Sadly, 4 for 20 with a 2B may be as good as it gets for Butera.

Kevin Slowey - No, it wasn't bad, but someone with Slowey's skills ought to be able to do better than a 4.55 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and 1.6 HR/9. Of course, what really disappointed me was the average start that finished short of the 6th inning.

Ron Mahay - The damage basically came in just 2 appearances, and there were extenuating circumstances in each. But they hurt, especially for someone who is on the fringe of usefulness like Mahay. He alternated excellent and crappy months for the Royals in 2009 - we may be in store for a similar roller coaster ride this year.