The Twins have gone through a tough couple of days. On Sunday afternoon, Johan Santana's amazing 17-game winning streak was brought to an end with an excruciatingly tough loss. Much worse was Monday, when it was brought to the public's attention that the Twins' dominant setup man Juan Rincon had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, bringing a great deal of public scrutiny on the pitcher as well as the entire team. Tonight, the Twins were back on the field ONCE AGAIN against an AL Central opponent, as the Indians are in town for a three-game set. The Twins have faced divisional opponents in 20 of the 26 games they have played so far; however, after the Cleveland series they will have a nice stretch of 15 games against teams from other divisions. So coming out of a rough couple of days, how did the Twins respond in their first game of this series against Cleveland? Well, they lost 4-2... and it was a loss marred by the two major issues that have haunted them through the first month of the season: getting hit early and failing to capitalize on big offensive opportunities.
Joe Mays got rocked early and had given up four runs through two innings. It was all the Indians would need for a win. The Twins had plenty of opportunities to mount offensive rallies and pass Cleveland, as the pitching of Jake Westbrook was not exceptional, but for the most part these rallies died before a run had crossed the plate. Surprisingly, the rally-killing was not even accomplished by Michael Cuddyer, who went 3/4 on the day (though he did commit his sixth error of the season). Here's a quick run-down of the Twins' chances to score in this game:
Second Inning: After a Justin Morneau leadoff homer, Torii Hunter singled but finally got caught playing his little "steal second while the pitcher's not looking" game. He sure doesn't look so slick doing that crap when he gets caught. Next, Jacque Jones hit a single to left, but for some reason felt he could stretch it into a double. He was gunned out by a mile. Alas, rather than two on with no outs, the Twins had no one on with two outs. Lew Ford would ground out to end the inning.
Third Inning: After Joe Mauer singled in the last run the Twins would score, Morneau walked to load the bases for Hunter with two outs. Hunter lined out to center.
Fifth Inning: After Shannon Stewart hit a lead-off single and stole second, Jason Bartlett was hit by a pitch. Mauer hit a towering pop-out to left that was deep enough to advance both runners. With one out, the Twins had two runners in scoring position with their 4 and 5 hitters coming up. Morneau quickly fouled out to third and Hunter grounded out to short.
Ninth Inning: With runners on second and third and two outs, Matt LeCroy pinch-hit and, for the second time in as many games, ended a ninth inning rally by striking out. Thank you, Mr. Clutch.
The most distressing thing about the missed opportunities listed above is that it wasn't because the guys at the bottom of the order were coming up and killing rallies. The Twins were in the types of positions they wanted to be in... they were getting their big sluggers in the middle of the lineup to the plate with runners in scoring position. The table was set and they just couldn't clear. Hunter, specifically, had a horrendous day. I can forgive him for getting caught stealing for his first time this year (although, Torii, wait for him to throw the pitch for God's sake), but the guy can't seem to deliver a clutch two-out hit if his life depended on it. He finished with four runners left in scoring position with two outs, which is a stat that is generally used to determine how a player peforms in the clutch.
I guess there's not too much else to say. The bullpen performed well, but it was too little too late. You just don't win games when your 4 and 5 hitters strand a total of 9 runners in a game. As for Cuddyer, YES he had three hits today, raising his batting average to a less-embarrassing .238. Still, these hits were all ground-ball singles that crept through the infield. Cuddy is still not hitting like he's capable of, and I'm still not completely ready to drop my Terry Tiffee campaign... but he's making strides.