Thursday, September 16, 2010

9th Split: 13-3

Overall Record: 87-58
1st in AL Central by 8 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 7-10, 7-9, 13-3, 10-6

Wow. To go +10 over a 16 game stretch once in a season is pretty good. To do it twice is really special. That's what the Twins have done in this improbably awesome 2nd-half run. Even in the 3 losses, they were in the game all the way, losing 2-1 to Seattle, 10-9 to Detroit and 2-0 to Cleveland. Other than that, whatever the circumstances, home or away, they found a way to win. They were able to hold their ground during Chicago's blazing hot streak, then pull away once the Sox cooled off.

As I predicted, the offense bounced back to 5+ R/G, thanks to 24 RS over the last 3 games. Jim Thome was the big hitting hero, making huge noise in his limited appearances by blasting 5 majestic HR, including the crucial game-winner in the 12th inning of Saturday's 1-0 affair. He was in the middle of just about every rally, batting .407/.555/1.000. Surprisingly, the only other guys who had a really awesome split were JJ Hardy and Matt Tolbert (only 5 GS, but 3 triples and 8 RBI with 4 BB).

The pitching was just as awesome as the hitting was back in the 7th split. The staff sported an ERA well under 3.00, and allowed just 48 RA over the 16 games. They were led by the rotation, all of the healthy members of which went 3 for 3 in QS. In fact, the only game in which the starter failed to earn a QS for non-injury reasons was Matt Fox' excellent emergency MLB debut vs. the Rangers, and he missed it by one out. The bullpen was fantastic, with the exception of the AAA guys and the execrable Randy Flores, who can't get anybody out, especially lefties.

I wish I could say the defense had shared in the return to excellence. The Twins made 9 more E resulting in 7 unearned runs, raising their season totals to 63 and 30. That puts them behind the Yankees in fielding percentage for the first time this season. Most of the errors have come from the IF, where Michael Cuddyer's best efforts are often insufficient to scoop low throws out of the dirt. But there were plenty of misplays in the OF as well, notably from Delmon Young. If the defense had been playing up to the level of the other phases of the game, the Twins might have gone 15-1 in this split.

But that's overkill, isn't it? The division is soundly in hand, and the Twins have even recovered to within 1.5 games of the best record in the Major Leagues. That potential for home field advantage over the Yankees and Rays should keep them focused all the way to the end, even as they rest many of their key players for a run into October.

Bold prediction: The Twins will clinch the division next weekend in Detroit.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Right Where We Want 'Em

Twins 0, Indians 2

Another road trip in which the Twins forgot to put their bats on the plane. Fausto Carmona has been much better this year, and was dominant in 2007, so for him to deal a 3-H shutout is as palatable as such a thing can be. But how does it take the Twins 21 innings to get a run against an Indians pitching staff that has allowed the 3rd most runs in the league? Yikes, that was a horrifying display of futility. I feel like Twins' fans are saying this almost daily now, but I'll say it again: Thank goodness for Jim Thome.

And thank goodness for Carl Pavano and good Nick Blackburn. The pitching staff kept the team in the game for every one of those dreadful scoreless innings. (No thanks to Randy Flores, who allowed both lefties he faced to reach.) As depressing as it is to allow only 2 ER in 29 innings over 3 games and lose one, it's incredibly fortunate to score just once in 2 games and come away with a W.

The offense was bound to go off on Sunday, and they did, with a bat-around, 5-R top of the 1st. The Tribe gave the Twins at least one extra out in the frame. We'll take it. The game was never really close after that. Cleveland's runs came on the heels of an extra out given by the Twins, but Kevin Slowey and 4 relievers had things in hand all day.

Kansas City had a great chance to steal a series from the Sox, but they gave them an extra out in the bottom of the 8th (thanks, Yunieski Betancourt) that led to 3 unearned runs. Why Joakim Soria doesn't come in to face the middle of the Sox lineup there, I do not understand. It's not like he got tired out facing the Twins during the week. But whatever. The Twins kept pace with the Sox, maintaining their 6 game lead in the standings and reducing the Magic Number to 14.

This sets up the final showdown with the White Sox in Chicago this week. It is an absolute must-sweep situation for the Sox, and even that would leave them 3 games back with 16 to play. Their remaining schedule includes 4 games against the Red Sox and a west coast trip with a stop in Oakland, where they have struggled in recent years as much as the Twins have in Toronto. If the Twins win even one game, the Sox will have at least 5 games to make up. If the Twins win the series, as they have won every head-to-head series so far this year, the deficit will be at least 7 games, and the dirt will start landing on the Sox' coffin.

The Sox have lined up their best starters to pitch this series, but so have the Twins. Francisco Liriano and Pavano have labored at times against the Sox, so they'll need to have their best stuff. The Sox have been making a living off of late-inning comebacks in recent weeks, so the bullpen needs to be at its best. It comes into the series fairly well rested, and Brian Fuentes and Jose Mijares are available again, meaning Flores will be the 3rd (at least) option against lefties.

We know Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome are going to hit - they've been doing it all year. The big key for me is the righties in the Twins' lineup. Michael Cuddyer has owned John Danks throughout his career - we'll need another big hit or two out of him. Delmon Young has been slumping since the beginning of August - he needs to finish as strongly as he did last September. JJ Hardy and Danny Valencia need to keep producing at the bottom of the lineup.

Times are already desperate for the White Sox. The Twins don't need to place any special urgency on any of the games, but it would be great for them to win the opener. Their work would be immediately done, and they could relax for the rest of the series and just have fun. The Sox, meanwhile, would go from desperate to dire, and they may even lose heart if they fail in their mission to sweep. A leisurely last couple of weeks would mean a lot to a Twins team that was badly undermanned just a couple of weeks ago. I'm hoping for a conclusive showing this week in Chicago. The Twins have proven all year that they're the best team in the Central. After Thursday, there should be very little reason to doubt it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I have to admit, having a newborn and a 2 year old does put a bit of a damper on the blogging. It doesn't stop me from keeping a close eye on the Twins, though...

The crappy hitting from the road trip lingered into the first 2 games of this series. Luckily, Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano each pitched into the 7th inning, and neither allowed any ER. The Twins still ended up using at least 4 relievers in each game, including Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Matt Capps in both.

The offense got plenty of help from the Detroit bullpen on Tuesday, with 2 BB and 2 HBP contributing to the winning rally. One of the HBP knocked Jason Kubel out for the next 4 games, however. That certainly made things tougher in Wednesday's contest. Thanks to other nagging injuries, the Twins were also without Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome. Danny Valencia delivered a couple more big hits in the middle of the two scoring rallies, and the Twins managed to win a game in which they only had 8 baserunners in 10 innings.

The Thursday night fiasco was as much a result of catastrophic mismanagement of the roster as anything that happened on the field. On Wednesday, the Twins had the opportunity to call up as many warm bodies from AAA as they had on the 40-man roster. They cavalierly elected to bring up only 2 position players, Trevor Plouffe and Jose Morales. No pitchers, even though Brian Fuentes was ailing and 3 of their righties should have been considered unavailable for Thursday. The bullpen effectively consisted of Jon Rauch, Randy Flores and Jeff Manship.

Manship was called into service almost immediately, as Scott Baker was removed with elbow soreness after 2 laborious and ineffective IP. Manship held the Tigers to 1 R on 4 H over 4 IP, and Rauch pitched a scoreless 7th. Meanwhile, the offense finally broke out, scoring 7 R on 12 H, with the help of a BB and a couple of Tiger errors. With the score 7-3 heading to the 8th, the Twins looked as though they would match the White Sox' 3-game sweep of the Indians. Once Flores allowed a 1-out HR, fill-in manager Scott Ullger (Gardy had been tossed during the previous inning for correctly arguing a call) decided to go to the 'pen for... the exhausted Guerrier. Whoops. Guerrier gave up 3 H and left with the score tied, though the last 2 R of the frame came on yet another too-low throw from JJ Hardy which Michael Cuddyer couldn't dig out.

The Twins scratched another run in the bottom half, but let the Tigers tie it again when Crain allowed his first HR in ages. He was available, but Capps wasn't? Anyway, Crain labored through 2 IP. Then Duensing came in for 2 IP, forcing the Twins to push back his Sunday start. Then Nick Blackburn came in, forcing the Twins to scratch him from Friday's start. This was a game to give the White Sox hope, as the Twins fumbled a 4-R lead late, then decimated their rotation in a drawn out losing effort.

Still, it was a series win, and it lowered the magic number to 26.

The Twins were forced to add Matt Fox to the 40-man roster to start Friday's game. He had a terrific MLB debut: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB. That kept the Twins in the game long enough to string a few hits together and take a 4-3 lead after 7 innings. Capps came in for a 5-out save after Flores failed to retire the lefty he was brought in to face.

After 6 straight 1-run games, it was nice to finally win one comfortably. The Twins annihilated Rangers starter Colby Lewis (on my fantasy team - making the result ever so slightly bittersweet) for 9 ER in 3.2 IP. Thome put an exclamation point on the day with 2 HR, moving him into sole possession of 9th on the all-time HR list. Carl Pavano delivered another 8-inning QS. Ian Kinsler soured the afternoon by homering off Rob Delaney in his MLB debut.

The Twins led most of the way in the finale. Blackburn delivered another 7-inning QS. The Twins broke the game open by taking advantage of a bunch of BB in the 6th. Rauch tried to finish up the last 2 innings, but gave up an RBI 2B with 2 out in the 9th. In came Matt Capps, who proceeded to allow all four batters he faced to reach. The final IF hit resulted in the last out when the 3B ump ruled that baserunner Michael Young had made contact with the third base coach. Whatever. I'll take it. That was frighteningly close to being a repeat of Thursday night. Instead, it was another Twins' sweep, making them 6-0 vs. the Rangers at home.

The White Sox swept the Red Sox in Fenway, once again getting away with a late rally. No help there. But the 3 Twins wins lowered the magic number to 23.

Almost a repeat of the Texas series. The Twins got just enough offense to win on Monday night. Flores again allowed the only lefty he faced to reach. But a more rested Guerrier came on to bail him out.

The middle game was a comfy blowout, capped by another loud blast from Thome, a moonshot into the stars of the American Flag in Target Plaza estimated at 480 feet. Another Rochester guy, Pat Neshek this time, was given a rude welcome to the big leagues while mopping up in the 9th.

The Twins beat Zach Greinke again in the finale, waiting until the middle innings to string some hits together. Duensing was stellar for 8 IP. Capps almost let the game get away in the 9th.

This time, the White Sox faltered, finishing their 10-game road trip with 3 straight losses in Detroit. That, combined with another Twins sweep, elevated the Twins' lead in the division to a season-high 6 games, and dropped the magic number to 17 with 22 games to play.

An 8-1 home stand. And had the Twins gotten a good throw from Hardy in that critical 8th inning against the Tigers, it could have been 9-0. Not a lot of hitting, but it was timely. Very strong pitching. And some nice breaks, too. Everything is going the Twins' way as they head into the final 3 1/2 weeks of the season.