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?

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