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.