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.

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