I always get a little nervous when somebody gets called up to make their major league debut against the Twins. A team full of veteran hitters ought to be able to make the kid sweat a bit, but it doesn't seem to go like that for the Twins. That was especially true on Monday night. Not just because Jeremy Hellickson is one of the top prospects in all of baseball. And not just because the Twins' lineup was devoid of recent All-Stars Orlando Hudson, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Hellickson's stuff was very good, his command superb. But his demeanor, right from the first inning, showed that he wasn't going to be a pushover. There was something like disdain in his body language when he fielded Delmon Young's comebacker in the 1st, as though he was disgusted that Young had deigned to put the ball in play. He held a very hot offensive team to 2 ER and 5 baserunners over 7 IP, then went straight back to AAA. The Twins have Jeff Manship for spot starts. The Rays have Hellickson. Sick.
The game came down to the 5th inning, when the Twins went 0-2 with RISP while the Rays went 2-3. The deciding runs came at the end of an epic, 12-pitch AB from Matt Joyce, who finally doubled in 2. However, the 1-out double from Jon Jaso that went off the glove of Michael Cuddyer at 1B should have been an out, right? I mean, Justin Morneau usually makes that play. Had Cuddyer fielded it, that's a scoreless inning. Furthermore, the subsequent double by Carl Crawford over the head of Young LF was catchable. Young took a bad route, obviously misjudging it. I mean, Crawford would have made that catch had a Twin hit that liner. The Rays gave Carl Pavano a harder time this season than most teams have, but even so, he might have lasted into the 7th with the game at least tied had he gotten a bit better defense behind him.
In other news, it took 4 Twins relievers 52 pitches to get through the last 2 innings of the game.
Twins 4, Rays 6
Brian Duensing put the Twins in an early hole with a 3-run HR in the 1st inning. He was solid after that, though, allowing only 2 more H and 3 BB over the next 5 innings to earn a QS and give the offense a chance to claw their way back into the game. They did that, thanks mostly to some very timely hitting from Joe Mauer and some uncommonly good getting on baseness from Drew Butera. Well, one of Butera's hits was his 2nd career HR, and his dad was around to see this one, too! They should fly Sal out to all of Drew's games.
No sooner had Butera tied it in the 7th, then the Rays answered in the bottom half with another 3-run blast, this time from BJ Upton. It came off Matt Guerrier, who doesn't look like he should ever pitch against A-Rod or the Rays. Most infuriating, the 2 guys who scored ahead of Upton were PH who worked consecutive BB.
Down 3 in the 9th, the Twins made it interesting, and should have been able to tie the game. PH Jose Morales drew a 1-out BB, but was forced at second when he broke back to first on Denard Span's short-hop liner to RF. Not good baserunning, but that's not even the problem. The Rays weren't holding Morales on - why didn't he run to 2nd? There was some excuse that the coaches weren't sure he'd have the speed to make it. I know he's a catcher, but he's a lot sprier than Kelly Shoppach, and the Rays probably wouldn't have even covered 2nd. It's called Fielder's Indifference. Span took advantage of it on the 2nd pitch. Morales had 4 free pitches before Span swung the bat. Take 2nd, and Span's FC becomes a single, with Morales moving to 3rd with 1 out. Then the error in the Jim Thome AB scores a run, Mauer knocks in another, and Young's game-ending grounder - a close play at 1st - becomes a game-tying play.
As tightly as the games with the Rays have been played, the Twins need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. If the Rays are going to give them a base, for heaven's sake, take it!
Twins 2, Rays 1 (13 innings)
David Price entered the game as one of the AL's best pitchers in terms of ERA and Wins, and he showed why against the Twins. His fastball was overpowering, and he had much better control than usual. Luckily, Danny Valencia owns him, going 2-2 with a BB for the 2nd time. Jason Repko followed Valencia's 1st single with a double to the wall in left center, and the Twins took an early 1-0 lead in the 2nd.
Scott Baker made that hold up the whole time he was out there. He was absolutely magnificent, allowing 0 R on 3 H and 1 BB with 7 K in 8 IP. Oh, and about those 3 H. The first was a sinking liner to CF to lead off the game. Span raced over, slid for the ball, and had it pop out of his glove for a double. Not an easy play, but certainly a makable play. Jaso hit a ground rule 2B - that was legit. In the 6th, Span and Young each pulled off a fly ball between them, letting it fall for another double. There's no excuse not to make that play. Had Span made either one of those plays, Baker's pitch count would have been just under 100 through 8 shutout innings of 1 or 2 H ball. Even so, he was in total control of this game - why not let him finish it? At least see if he can get it done in less than 120 pitches - he has an extra day of rest before his next start.
Matt Capps came in, because he's the closer. And he got Evan Longoria to hit a little fly ball to left that Young raced in for and dropped, kicking it away in the process for yet another double. Not an easy play, but a makable play (Young himself would make a very similar play the following afternoon). The tying run in scoring position with no one out. Naturally, he scored, and the Twins' rather overworked 'pen had to throw another 5 innings. Young redeemed himself with an RBI single in the 13th. After the game-tying single, the Rays went hitless the rest of the way against the Twins' relievers.
Twins 8, Rays 6
Finally, a game the Twins led comfortably from the start. They ambushed Wade Davis in the 1st, batting around and scoring 4 R. They tacked on single runs in the 5th, on a Repko HR, and 6th, on a double from Butera, who will probably never be this hot again. The Twins smashed Davis for 10 H, including 5 doubles and a HR, in 6 IP.
Kevin Slowey, meanwhile, was dealing even better than Baker. He also took a shutout into the 8th, having allowed just 2 H, 0 BB and 8 K. He started the 8th with a pitch count approaching 100, and seemed to tire. He allowed a leadoff HR to Upton, then - the fatal mistake - hit #9 hitter Shoppach with a 1-2 pitch. Then a single, followed by an out on a spectacular play by Alexi Casilla in short RF. Slowey had a chance to finish the inning, but he walked Evan Longoria to load the bases. Great effort, though.
In came Jesse Crain, who's been flawless for about 2 months. He walked Willy Aybar to force in a run. However, I thought he pitched well enough to strike Aybar out on 3 pitches. To my eyes (and to FoxTrax), the 1st, 2nd and 4th balls called by plate umpire Chris Guccione were in the strike zone. Anyway, Gardy brought in Ron Mahay to pitch to Matt Joyce, who was PH for not by Gabe Kapler, but by Jason Bartlett. Interesting choice, I thought. Ding! Grand slam, and the game is tied. Just Bartlett's 3rd HR of the year. You've got to be effing kidding me!
The baseball gods took pity on the Twins, and gave the game back in the next half inning, when Jason Kubel's 2-out popup hit the highest catwalk in that crazy domed stadium and caromed back toward the pitcher's mound, where it landed safely for the game-winning hit. This time, Capps was able to seal the deal.
The Twins went 3-5 in their 8 games with the Rays, who appear to be the 2nd best team in the league. The worst of the losses was by 3 runs, the others by 2 or fewer. 4 times the Twins blew leads in the 8th or 9th inning. The 2 teams seem very closely matched. The Rays can strike quickly, and they play hard to the final out. The Twins may face them in the playoffs, and they will need to play perfectly in order to prevail. They must not hit batters. They must not drop fly balls. They must not be tentative on the bases.
They must not play the way played these series.