Friday, April 29, 2011


Twins 2, Rays 8

Even though everything appeared to hunky-dory at the end of the weekend's mini-sweep of the Indians, and the team got an extra day off with a rainout on Tuesday night, they somehow showed up to the ballpark in worse shape than when they'd left it more than 72 hours earlier. Delmon Young wasn't ready to play after a week on the shelf, and had to be placed on the DL. Jim Thome and Jason Repko had nagging, day-to-day injuries that kept them out of the lineup for the series. Carl Pavano was the latest to catch the flu, pushing back his expected start this weekend.

So, once again Gardy was forced to fill out lineup cards inundated with the scrubs, and the results were predictably pathetic. Thome would have been particularly useful against the 3 RHPs the Rays threw in the series. Toss in the fact that Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel didn't hit in the same games, and you've got a lot of quick, easy innings for the Rays' talented young starters. To top it all off, the weather was horrible. The end result was a Twins squad that, top to bottom, looked like it didn't want to be there, and played accordingly. For the series, they were outscored 29-6 by a Rays team that came in hitting just about as badly as the Twins had this season.

I won't go into any of the individual performances. I find Francisco Liriano's total lack of command absolutely mystifying and infuriating, but I don't have anything smart to say about it. I'm a little puzzled by what the Twins opted to do logistically this week, though.

With Pavano sick, the plan was evidently to push his next scheduled turn back to Sunday. That's fine, but I don't see why it necessitated giving a spot start to a replacement level pitcher on Thursday. Scott Baker last pitched a week ago Thursday, and Brian Duensing pitched on Saturday. Either one of those guys could have comfortably thrown one half of the double-header. The other could start Friday's series in KC on extra rest. For Saturday, they could call up Kevin Slowey to go 3-4 innings, then hand the ball to Glen Perkins for another 3 or so. Or call up Kyle Gibson, the Twins' #1 or #2 prospect (depending who you ask). In his last 3 GS, he's allowed 4 ER on 10 H and 4 BB in 17 IP with 17 K. He would have been pitching on 3 days' rest, but so was Anthony Swarzak.

Ah, Swarzak. I guess there was no harm in tendering him a contract, but I would have much rather seen him banished from the 40-man roster instead of Rob Delaney. He was terrible at AAA last year, and then he was terrible in the Venezuelan Winter League in the offseason. In his last 3 GS, he allowed 11 ER on 18 H and 5 BB in 15.2 IP with 7 K. On Thursday night, he allowed 5 ER on 8 H and 1 BB in 5.1 IP with 1 K. Whoa - didn't see that coming! He was promptly returned to the minors. Please, can that be the last we see of him?

Eric Hacker wouldn't have been a much better option, but he was originally slated start on Thursday. At least he was already on the 25-man roster. But he was used up in long-relief on Wednesday when Liriano lasted just 3+ IP. Question: why is tomorrow's scheduled starter the 1st guy up in the 'pen when tonight's starter struggles? There are 7 guys in the bullpen. All of them just had at least 2 days off. If you give all of them except Hacker 1 IP on Wednesday, everybody but Joe Nathan should be available to go on Thursday, too, right? Duensing ought to be able to throw an inning or 2 on Wednesday and still be OK for Saturday, right? I would have done everything possible to avoid using Swarzak. But I guess I just see the world differently than Bill Smith does.

On to KC, where the Royals are coming off an 0-6 road trip. They're just as cold as the Twins. Something's got to give! At least the rotation is set up to make things hard on their offense. If Thome can return, the Twins may have enough offense to put this ugly week behind them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bless the Rains

Twins vs. Indians, postponed
Would it be hyperbole to say that this rainout was the best thing to happen to the Twins all season? Neither Justin Morneau nor Delmon Young were in the announced lineup, meaning a 4th straight game with a 2-man bench and a batting order featuring 3 of Jason Repko, Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes and Steve Holm, in addition to Alexi Casilla. That murderer's row helped the Twins put up 7 R over the previous 3 games, an anemic output even by their pathetic standards.

Thanks to Mother Nature, a game that would have been played with the Twins at their weakest will now be made up after the All-Star break. Barring any unforeseen setbacks, Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be back in the lineup by then. Everyone should have shaken off the effects of their shortened spring training and be fully into the flow of the season. Coming into the game, the Indians couldn't have been hotter, and the Twins couldn't have been colder - those situations should be at least more equalized later in the summer. And by late July Bill Smith should be making moves to strengthen the Twins' shortcomings, whereas the Indians will probably looking to unload Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore for more prospects. It will be a lot easier to make this game a W at another time. Phew!

Justin Morneau is back. And I don't just mean that Gardy finally was able to write his name into the cleanup spot after a week battling the flu. He hit like he used to, like he hasn't all season, driving the ball up the middle and the opposite way. One of those was the game-breaking hit, a 2-run single after the Indians had opted to intentionally BB Jason Kubel to load the bases. Hopefully we've seen the last of that.

10 runs! 13 hits! 5 walks! This is the offense we thought we had going into the season. Repko and Casilla kept the line moving with 2 H apiece, twice setting up crooked number innings. To top it off, Joe Nathan finished the game with a dominant, vintage inning, striking out 2 and needing just 13 pitches to retire the side.

3B coach Steve Liddle and the baserunners need to get on the same page. What should have been an insurmountable 3rd-inning outburst was reduced to just 2 R thanks to 2 guys getting hosed at the plate by Shin-Soo Choo. Casilla was first; he got a late sign from Liddle, so he decided to look into RF himself just as Liddle emphatically put up the stop sign. Morneau followed with a booming 2-R double that short-hopped the wall in CF. Michael Cuddyer slipped a single into RF in the next AB. On that play, Liddle's hold was again late, but meek, a sort of half-hearted "Stop?" just as Morneau went past to his doom.

Target Field kept 4 balls in the yard that might have been HR in a lot of other parks. Thankfully for the Twins, a replay review found that Michael Brantley's drive struck the top corner of the limestone facing of the short porch in RF. Jim Thome clobbered 2 shots that bounced high off the 18' wall in the RF corner. And Kubel's game-winning double hit high off the big wall in right center. Kubel has been a beast all year; now with Cuddyer, Thome and Morneau starting to heat up, things could get pretty fun if Delmon Young can get himself back on track.

Over the weekend, the Indians, Royals and White Sox were swept, while the Twins and Tigers went unbeaten. That tightened the standings slightly, and sent the Sox into the cellar. The Twins are just 4 games out of 1st place, with their worst baseball of the season hopefully behind them.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Out of Their Depth

Twins 5, Orioles 3
Francisco Liriano pitches into the 7th inning for his 1st QS of the year. But I actually liked his previous performance better. Until the 7th, the O's didn't hit the ball any harder than KC did, but managed just 2 H as the BABIP gods smiled on Frankie for a change. But he had a brutal 2/5 K/BB ratio for the game, and only one of the ball-four pitches was even close to being a strike. The 2 HR in the 7th came on hangers way up in the zone. Why can't he locate? Nice to get a win from him, but he's still not where he needs to be to carry this team.

You know it's your night when you get 3 RBI on 2 H from Drew Butera, Alexi Casilla draws a BB to load the bases, and an insurance run comes home on a WP. And they needed every bit of it, as the Twins' closer came on and served up yet another HR in the bottom of the 9th. Spectacular debut for Jim Hoey as the setup guy, though. Hopefully he can build on that.

If you're going to give up 11, you might as well not score any.

Joe Nathan is starting to remind me of Superman after he gave up his powers. (Did I just date myself?)

I had a notion to pin a couple of the losses in Tampa on the Twins' pathetic bench players. But with 2 losses coming on blown leads in the 9th and the other not particularly close, I didn't think the charge would stick. This game, though, is on their hands. With Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the DL and Justin Morneau and Delmon Young out with the flu, Gardy was forced to start both Jason Kubel and Jim Thome against a LHP, plus fill out the lineup with Jason Repko, Luke Hughes, Steve Holm and Matt Tolbert. That foursome combined to go 1 for 15 with a BB, and the H was a bunt single. Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Thome and Danny Valencia all reached base twice, so the bottom of the order had plenty of chances to extend rallies and knock in runs. But they didn't, because most of them don't belong in the Majors, or if they do, it's because of something other than their (in)ability to hit. Zach Britton was apparently battling an illness during the game, but even in his weakened state he was too much for the Twins' scrubs.

And still, with all that working against them, they came within a few feet of a game-tying HR on the final swing of the night. Argh! I'm going to remind you of this loss when the tight race rolls around in September.

Until everybody gets healthy and the bats wake up, this is what it's going to take for the Twins to win. Scott Baker was at his best: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K. That's 2 very good starts in a row for him, lowering his ERA to 3.24 and his WHIP to 1.12, with nearly 9 K/9. Those are the ace-type numbers that he's capable of, and will need to continue to put up, especially with Liriano still struggling with his control.

2 HR in the same game! 2 straight days with a HR has Cuddyer's OPS up over .700! Now, if we could just start hitting them with somebody on base...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1st Split: 6-10

5th in AL Central by 6 games

Click here for a reminder of why I do these.

Last fall, I advocated a quiet offseason for the Twins. Their resources were somewhat limited, and there was no way of knowing which of the many players coming back from down seasons and injuries would fail to bounce back in 2011. If it turned out that everyone was healthy and productive, they could spend on luxury upgrades to an already successful team. But if it turned out that one or more positions had broken down, they would be in position to shore up those specific areas. Unfortunately, that strategy, combined with a fairly unimpressive slate of prospects at AAA, would mean that they would begin the season with a disquieting lack of depth, especially at the up-the-middle positions and 1B.

Needless to say, the Twins haven't been healthy or productive so far. It started in spring training, when Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano all joined the program late due to lingering physical troubles from the offseason. Kevin Slowey and Tsuyoshi Nishioka hit the DL after the 1st week of the season. Mauer joined them a week later. Now Morneau is sick. That's forced Cuddyer to start more than half of his games in the IF, where he's even more of a defensive liability. Drew Butera is now the primary catcher, with AAA filler Steve Holm as the backup. AAA filler Eric Hacker has been called up to fill in for Slowey. What began the season as a pretty good starting roster has become inundated with replacement level scrubs.

The hitters who missed half of spring training haven't done a thing at the plate. Mauer (.235/.289/.265), Morneau (.208/.250/.302), Cuddyer (.228/.279/.281) and Young (.228/.286/.281) have yet to put a ball in the seats in over 200 combined PA. The terrible BA are exacerbated by a team-wide fear of drawing walks: the Twins are last in the AL in that category. Add that to their MLB-low 5 HR, and it's not surprising to find them at the bottom of the leader board in OBP, SLG%, IsoP, OPS and RS. We heard a lot in the offseason about how the front office was trying to add some team speed. That has resulted in 7 SB so far, tied for 10th in the league. Nishioka has been hurt and Casilla can't get on base, but Denard Span (.313/.343/.422) has been at 1B plenty, and he has as many steals (1) as Jason Kubel (.316/.361/.491). Those two, incidentally, got their reps in during spring training.

The pitching, despite some rather loud setbacks, has largely been decent. After sleepwalking through the 1st 2 games of the season, they've allowed 53 R over the last 14 games for an ERA comfortably under 4.00. Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn have all been solid, averaging about 6 IP/GS with good ERAs and (for them) K/9 - especially if you give the first 3 a mulligan on their shaky, season-opening innings. Liriano has struggled, mainly due to terrible command and somewhat reduced velocity (related to a shortened spring training, perhaps?). The bullpen has had a couple of bright spots, but those are overshadowed by the failures of Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, who have blown 3 saves between them. Dusty Hughes and Jeff Manship have been horrible, with Manship earning a demotion to AAA yesterday. Hopefully we've seen the last of him.

The defense hasn't been stellar, but it's been a pleasant surprise in a lot of ways. Nishioka had a very jittery debut in the field, but the rest of the team has made just 7 E. They've resulted in 4 unearned runs so far, though I think Cuddyer should have been charged with an E and UER at the end of Kansas City's big inning vs. Liriano. The surprise has been the play of the corner OF, where Young and Kubel have made a ton of catches at the fringes of their range. Maybe those would have been easier catches with better fielders, but they've made the plays they were capable of so far.

It's been a flat-out lousy start. But, thanks to the fact that several of their opponents have been scuffling offensively as well, the Twins have managed to stay in most of the games so far. In fact, if Nathan and Capps had done their jobs, this could have been a .500 split. That's extraordinary when you think of how all-around awfully the Twins have played. The good news: this is only 1/10th of the season, they're only 1.5 games behind Detroit and 1 behind the White Sox (the true contenders for the division title), and there's nowhere to go but up.

Bold Prediction: The Twins will hit at least 12 HR over the next 16 games.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Save Me

Twins 3, Rays 4 (10 innings)

Any time a Closer blows a save, it tends to overshadow everything that came before it in the game. Whatever the circumstances leading up to it, all that guy had to do was hold the lead for one inning and his team would have had a win in the books. The significance of the Closer is doubly emphasized when the offense promptly retakes the lead in the top of the 10th, but the other Closer comes in and also blows a save in the bottom half. And it is tripled when the same 2 guys go out there 2 days later and give up late-inning runs, again costing the team a win. And it gets even a little more emphasis from the fact that the SP in those 2 games had completely shut down the opposition, allowing just 1 R on 8 H and 3 BB with 13 K in 15 IP.

It's easy to blame this series loss on Joe Nathan and Matt Capps. After all, if they had done their jobs, the Twins would have walked away from Tropicana Field with 3 wins instead of 3 losses. But I'd like to make sure the offense gets its fair share of the blame. In those losing efforts, the hitters went 3 for 23 (.130) with RISP. Even productive outs in many cases might have resulted in the 1 or 2 extra runs the team needed to put the game away, but they couldn't muster those, either.

It would be nice to pin that futility on the lack of depth at the up-the-middle positions - Luke Hughes and Steve Holm had chances to sustain a couple of rallies on Saturday and didn't. But just about everybody in the lineup has been guilty of that at one time or another. When Casilla and Span set the table, Morneau doesn't hit, and the rallies fizzle. When he and Thome do hit, Delmon and Cuddyer don't, and the rallies fizzle. When they hit, Casilla doesn't, and the rallies fizzle. Nobody's getting the timely hits right now.

With neither the defense nor the bullpen looking terribly sharp in the early-going either, at least the starting pitching has been strong. In this series, all 4 starters were still on the mound in the 7th inning. Nick Blackburn's QS through 6 IP was quickly forgotten when he served up a no-out, 2-run HR in the 7th, but he'd pitched 5 stellar shutout innings prior to seeing the wheels start to come off in the 6th. The starters have definitely stepped up and done their part to help carry the offense through this slump. With them pitching so well, the hitters don't have to do too much more to get this thing turned around.

Next stop: Baltimore, where the Orioles have lost 7 in a row. It's still the road, it's the AL East. But it's also a good opportunity to come home with a couple more wins.

  • Joe Mauer's vague but persistent soreness sent him to the DL after Thursday night's game with what was initially diagnosed as bilateral leg weakness. By the end of the weekend it appeared that the cause was a viral infection which caused him to lose about 12 pounds in a matter of days. He seems to be on the mend already, and should be more or less back to full strength by the time his DL stint is up at the end of the month.
  • Nathan has been demoted to low-leverage situations until he can get himself back to form. I don't know how many strong outings he'll need to have to reclaim the Closer job from Capps, but I do expect him to improve as the season goes along.
  • Denard Span and Jason Kubel were 2 of the guys from whom I expected bounce-back seasons in 2011, and they're each off to great starts. Span is hitting .339/.371/.458, while Kubel's 2nd straight game with a HR lifted his line to .321/.368/.509. They are the only guys currently in the lineup who are enjoying BABIPs above the league average. Those will come down eventually, so they'd each better start working counts and drawing walks the way they've shown us they can in recent seasons if they want to keep up their OBPs.
  • Joe Benson kept hitting this weekend, adding a 3B and raising his line to .385/.442/.615, with a K% that is presently just under 18%. So far, so good there.
  • There are 2 other prospects who I'd especially like to see work their way into the Twins' 2012 plans. Chris Parmelee could make himself into a viable lefty platoon option in the OF, perhaps replacing Jason Kubel. But, like Benson, he needs to hit well enough early in order to earn a quick promotion to Rochester. He hit his 1st HR of the season today and is off to a .357/.372/.548 start. Needs to walk more, though.
  • The other is Rene Tosoni, who is trying to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2010. He would make a nice upgrade to Jason Repko, since he can do all the things Repko does, plus hit. He's already got a 9-game hitting streak which has him at .324/.381/.676 with 4 2B and 3 HR.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Twins 4, Royals 3 (10 innings)

9 runs in 2 games. Not kicking ass yet, but definitely an improvement. The Twins saw 7 of 9 starters reach base in each game, including multi-hit efforts from Denard Span, Matt Tolbert, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Luke Hughes. Still not slugging very much (just 4 XBH - all doubles), or working counts (4 BB) or creating havoc on the basepaths (1 SB), though. All of those elements will have to be in place before the offense can really take off. Nice to see some of the BAs starting to come up, though.

The back end of the bullpen is working fabulously so far. Liberated from the Closer label, Matt Capps is free to to be a setup workhorse, locking down the 8th inning but often putting out fires in the 7th, too. Joe Nathan and Jose Mijares have kept the opposition quiet since their jittery opening weekend. Dusty Hughes combined with them to shut down the Royals over the last 4 IP of Tuesday night's game on just 50 pitches.

Much has been made of Gardy's pre-game comment that he had asked Francisco Liriano to try to pitch to contact more. Liriano certainly followed that game plan, allowing 19 of the 24 batters he faced to put the ball in play. Those batters accumulated 8 H, all in a hellish 4th inning. In the other 4 IP Liriano completed, he retired 13 batters quietly (Tolbert's throwing error required an extra out), including 4 K and 0 BB. He was averaged just over 3 pitches/PA in the game.

There's a happy medium, I think, in which Liriano would generally pitch to contact, but revert to trying to strike everyone out with RISP. Yesterday, he had a 1-2 count on Billy Butler and an 0-2 count on Wilson Betemit, but didn't try to put either one away with his unhittable slider down and in. Johan Santana was phenomenal at changing his approach with runners on, one of the reasons his career strand rate is so high. Liriano needs to learn to do that, too.

Still, I can't be too upset about the pitches that were actually put into play in that inning. They were just about all at or below the knees. 6 of the 8 H touched the ground in the IF, just a step or so out of the reach of the fielders. The 2 that didn't were a soft liner off the end of the bat and a chip-shot blooper over the drawn-in IF. The Royals didn't really hit anything hard off Liriano all day. On most days, the sort of performance he gave on the mound should have had him beginning the 8th inning with a 3-4 hitter and a very low pitch count.

That being the case, I was surprised that he got a lightning-quick hook when Betemit drew a leadoff BB in the 6th. It was Liriano's only BB of the game. If it had come on 4 straight well out of the zone, I could understand it. But it was a 7-pitch PA, and the 3-2 pitch was no more than belt high over the outer half of the plate. If the ump calls Betemit out there, would Gardy still have yanked Frankie after the next baserunner? I know the offense had just put up a crooked number, and you don't want to risk giving the momentum back, but don't you have to show a little more confidence in your starter there?

Over the last few years, it seems like the Royals get off to a good start thanks to a high team BA, then make easy outs for the next 4 months, then get feisty again in September when they finally ditch their lousy veterans in favor of the kids who've been clobbering AAA all summer. Looks like they may be in store for more of the same in 2011.

  • Joe Benson was going to have to have a tremendous season in order to get the Twins to put him in their plans for 2012 (and consider letting Cuddyer walk after this season). The odds of that happening were lengthened significantly when he was optioned to AA New Britain to start the season, even though he hit .251/.336/.527 there last season on his way to earning the organization's Player of the Year award. I guess they want to see more BA and fewer Ks from him before they'll move him up to Rochester. So far, so good. In his 1st 7 games, Benson hit .393/.433/.571 with 2 doubles, 1 HR, 3/3 SB and an OF assist. His 21.4% K rate over that week is still high, but a major improvement over what he did last year. He isn't likely to keep that slash line up in the coming weeks, but a fast start means that even a few average weeks to follow will have his numbers looking pretty darn good by the end of April. We need to get him up to AAA ASAP.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Good Pitching Beats Bad Hitting

Twins 2, Athletics 1

5 runs in 3 games.

I know the A's have good pitching. Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Brandon McCarthy are all former top prospects who look poised to make good on their promise. The A's relief corps was a strength last year, and they used free agency to add a prominent member from each of the Twins' (Brian Fuentes) and Rays' (Grant Balfour) dispersed bullpens. Despite the slew of errors they committed in the 1st week of the season, the A's have a solid defense, with average or better defenders at just about every position. It was tough to score on them last year, and it looks like it's going to be even tougher this year.


That doesn't account for the magnitude of offensive ineptitude we saw on display this weekend. The Twins were already in a horrific funk from their opening road trip, and the A's excellent run prevention merely exacerbated was already a big problem. Now, through 3 series, the Twins rank 2nd to last in the AL in BA, OBP, SLG% and WAR, and dead last in HR, IsoP, SB and BB%. That means they aren't getting on base, and when they do, it's only to 1B, and then they stay there.

At the end of Saturday's game I was stewing a bit to have allowed only 2 runs in 2 games and yet lost one. (And those 2 runs! BB, WP, E on a pickoff attempt, SF was how the damage was done on Friday. The next day, it was a 2-out single, WP, E6. Those are 2 excellent illustrations of how to give away a run to the other team.) But by the end of the weekend, I was just happy the Twins had managed to get through their home opening series without being swept.

Why is this happening to the offense right now? I have a theory. It may be a bit simplistic, but check this out:

Guys who had 60+ PA in Grapefruit League games:
Danny Valencia - .194/.265/.290, HR
Luke Hughes - 1 for 7
Denard Span - .286/.342/.400, HR
Jason Repko - 0 for 2
Jason Kubel - .300/.323/.367
Tsuyoshi Nishioka - .208/.269/.250, SB
Alexi Casilla - .167/.211/.278, SB
Total: .224/.278/.317, 6 2B, 2 HR, 2 SB

That's lousy. Though, in fairness to Repko, what are 2 AB? And to Hughes, that was a loud out in the 8th inning on Friday night. Valencia deserves to have a better line - he's been robbed a few times already. Nishioka was struggling with the MLB strike zone - lots of called 3rd strikes - but when he put the ball in play he was 5 for 16. Casilla should get about 200 more AB before we decide whether he can hit or not. You'd like to see more power from Kubel, but the average is there, and he's come through against some tough LHP. Span is doing fine. They're off to a slow start; as a group, their OPS should be at least .100 points higher.

Guys who had <60 PA in Grapefruit League games:
Matt Tolbert - 1 for 5
Delmon Young - .188/.212/.219
Justin Morneau - .258/.303/.355
Jim Thome - .167/.250/.444, HR
Drew Butera - 1 for 4
Michael Cuddyer - .107/.194/.107
Joe Mauer - .233/.303/.267
Total: .203/.258/.270, 7 2B, HR

Now, at a glance, that may not seem to be too much worse than what the other guys are doing. But, with the exception of 9 decent (for them) AB from Tolbert and Butera, this is the heart of the order. On a day when Thome is the DH, they hit 3-7 in the lineup (or 2-6 now that Nishioka is on the DL). Their combined OPS should be more than .300 points higher. They're struggling to hit line drives. Most of them are having trouble getting the ball out of the IF. They look out of sync at the plate. When several of those guys were being held out of the spring lineups for various injury reasons, we kept hearing that the goal was to get them ready to play on April 1st. It doesn't appear that they accomplished that goal.

They will break out eventually, of course. It may not happen this week - Kansas City is off to a hot start and Tampa Bay has good pitching and defense, too. But the Royals have a terrible lineup, and the Rays are the only team in the league hitting worse than the Twins. There will probably be a bunch more low-scoring games, but the Twins should win a few.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Par for the Course

Twins 3, Yankees 4
Twins at Yankees (postponed)

These games followed a similar blueprint. The Twins' starter struggled with command, putting baserunners on in front of a big XBH which put the Twins in an early hole. The offense struggled to make that up against the Yanks' strong pitching staff.

For Scott Baker on Monday, it was a HBP on an 0-2 pitch in front of A-Rod's drive down the LF line in the 1st. Then he walked Nick Swisher in front of Jorge Posada's deep fly to RF in the 2nd. I'm with Bert Blyleven: solo HR won't kill you (unless you give up 4 or 5). If Baker had made the Yankees hit their way on, he might have allowed 1-2 fewer runs. Props to him for settling down and making himself the 1st Twins starter to complete 6 IP, though.

On Tuesday, Brian Duensing walked the 1st batter of the game in front of a single and a 3-run HR. He really settled down after that, allowing just 1 more ER (another HR) and 4 H, 1 BB while getting 21 outs. Props to him on being the 1st Twins starter to complete 7 IP. I wish they didn't need the 1st inning to get warmed up, though.

Francisco Liriano's start on Wednesday also boiled down to a bad inning. That was the 4th, when he - guess what? - walked the leadoff man. That, plus a groundball single through the hole on the right side, put 2 guys on for the big mistake he made in the game - an RBI 2B on a 1-2 pitch. Overall, Liriano's line was pretty similar to that of his 1st start: 5 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. At least he kept the ball in the yard!

The Twins' bullpen was very impressive in the series, throwing 9 scoreless innings, including 3 shutdown combined IP from Matt Capps and Joe Nathan from the 8th-10th on Tuesday. Holding the Yankees to 4 R/G is actually no small feat. But it should have been better. Of the 12 R the Twins allowed, 4 came from the guys who homered, 3 came from guys who hit their way on, and 5 came from guys the Twins put on via BB or HBP. The margin of error when they face the Yanks is so small, they can never afford to give away bases or outs. Would any of these 1-run games have turned out differently if the Twins had shown more Twins-like control?

The offense continued their anemic hitting. All three Yankees starters threw QS. The Twins hitters were able to muster just 5 R and 17 baserunners in 19 combined IP from Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett. Sabathia left the game having retired 17 straight Twins. Fortunately, the Yankees' relievers lost the strike zone and the Twins were able to get a couple of soft hits to fall in, stealing game 2 of the series.

It ended on a particularly sour note when Tsuyoshi Nishioka, playing in just his 6th MLB game, broke his leg while trying to turn a DP at 2B. Ironically, he paid a dear price for his own defensive imprecision: Nick Swisher, whose take-out slide caused the injury, would have been out easily had Nishioka not bounced his relay throw to Morneau in the dirt on the previous play. It doesn't sound like it's too serious (as broken legs go), so hopefully he'll be back in the lineup soon. I'm glad that Luke Hughes will get another chance to show what he can do so soon, but I don't think he's good enough to be more than a platoon player, either. He can only platoon with Matt Tolbert, and the more PAs he gets, the worse off the Twins will be. It didn't take long for the Twins' disconcerting lack of depth at the MI position to be exposed, did it?

The rainout on Wednesday immediately exposed the Twins' top-heavy, East Coast schedule. The only off days the Twins had before September that weren't in the middle of a home stand or a West Coast trip were May 5th and August 11th, and the Yankees are spoken for on both of those dates. So the Twins will have to return to the Bronx in the last 3 weeks of the season. I can't say I'm too disappointed. With them hitting so poorly right now, I've got to believe they'll be in a better flow later in the season. Plus, by then Bill Smith will have made whatever moves he's going to make, and the team that takes the field for the makeup game will be the playoff version of the Twins, not their spring training 1st draft.

A Gardy managed team has never won a series at Yankee stadium. Given recent history, par for this series was 1-3. Whatever happens in September, they've at least done that. Coming home for the opener at 2-4 isn't nearly as inspiring as the 5-2 opening road trip they enjoyed last season. But I'm neither surprised nor disappointed by that outcome. Plenty of good Twins teams have competed in the AL Central despite lousy trips to Toronto and New York. I expect this team to do the same.

Monday, April 4, 2011

False Start

Twins 3, Blue Jays 13
The 1st inning of the 1st game of the season doesn't count, right? I mean, isn't it just for warmup? No? Whoops.

Blinded by my unwavering confidence in Francisco Liriano's stuff, I overlooked his late-starting and very shaky spring training and started him against the Jays, though he's pitched horribly against them, including yielding 33% of his HR to them last season. Lesson learned. He's already on the bench for his start at Yankee Stadium. I'll play him at home against the Royals.

Anybody wanna get a hit? Thank you, Denard Span. At least somebody around here is rewarding my unwavering confidence in them.

Naturally, after pummeling Carl Pavano and Liriano, the Jays were tamed by Nick Blackburn. Matt Capps came on in the 7th inning to save the Twins from a 2-on, no out situation created by a pair of Jose Mijares BB. That left Glen Perkins for the 8th and Joe Nathan for the 9th. I never thought I'd say this, but I felt a lot more comfortable with Perkins out there.

Great to finally see some signs of life from the offense. Now, if they could just avoid getting thrown out on the basepaths, they might be onto something.

Sunday's 9th inning was such an ordeal that it almost felt like the Twins lost the game. But they did salvage a win, and that was about the best that could have been hoped for in this series. They've finished the schedule in 1st place in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but none of those teams was able to win a series in Toronto, either. Of course, I'd love to see them fair better than usual in NYC this week. But I'm afraid I didn't see anything this weekend to make me think that will happen.

  • Every single MLB team will have at least one series in which they play like crap, as will every single player. Those things are magnified at the beginning of the season, but have no more meaning there than they do in the middle of the summer. So I refuse to draw any conclusions about the team or individual players based on what happened in this series. Let's see how everybody does the next time out.
  • That goes especially for Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who had a fine spring, especially on defense, then looked pretty weak in his debut. He was a rookie playing in his 1st MLB game on Friday. He was nervous. Some guys can control that better than others. He made a couple of mistakes on routine defensive plays that cost the team at least 2 1st-inning runs. But the error he made on Sunday (leading to another unearned run) was a really tough play, sprinting toward the plate, then throwing back across his body all in one motion. We saw Nick Punto make that play a lot, and it can only be scored an error, but just because Nishi didn't pull it off there doesn't mean he can't play 2B. I bet we'll see him get outs on similar plays as the season moves along.
  • I read this morning that Span was considered by the Rockies with the 9th overall pick in the 2002 draft. Pretty cool to think that another team considered him to be a top 10 talent.