Friday, August 26, 2005

Relax!

After a brief period of offensive competence, the Twins appear to be falling back into the anemic hitting trend that caused them to essentially drop out of the playoff race in June and July. After somehow winning a three-game series with the Athletics in which they scored only 5 runs total, the Twins' offense suddenly had a dramatic turnaround, averaging 6.1 runs per game over their next seven and going 6-1 over that span. Things seemed to be coming together. Now it appears that the Twins are falling back into bad old habits, going down 1-2-3 inning after inning, leaving runners aboard, and failing to execute in simple situations. In fairness, they did face three very good pitchers in that series against Chicago, so I guess we'll have to wait and see how the hitters fare against Texas' mediocre pitching before completely passing judgment, but it certainly seems that the offense is falling into the same patterns that put them in such a rut for a couple months.

I saw some subtle reasons for the rise in offensive productivity over that 7 game span against Chicago and Seattle last week, and it wasn't just the fact that Mashin' Matthew started belting the ball and Lew Ford hit dingers in three straight games.

All of it roots from the fact that the Twins players, regardless of what Michael "we were never out of it" Cuddyer might say, felt that the season was lost and the playoff were out of reach. As a result, it seemed like they weren't pressing as much; especially the younger guys. Guys were going to the plate and swinging the bat, rather than standing with the bat on their shoulder and praying for a walk. Hitters felt less pressure to come through with the big home run, because it simply didn't matter as much. None of the games really felt like must-win affairs, they went into Chicago last week and felt no intimidation or pressure, because hell, the White Sox were 15 games ahead of them.

Aside from the more relaxed approach, the Twins' feeling of being out of contention had another very positive effect, this one more from a coaching standpoint. The team became FAR more aggressive on the basepaths. The team seemed to adopt something of a "What have we got to lose?" attitude, and it payed off, as more guys were moving into scoring position and players were running home and scoring on plays where they otherwise might have been held at third. In that Chicago series, the Twins were running all over on AJ Pierzynski and the Sox pitchers, stealing 7 bases while being caught only twice. The Twins continued to run aggressively against the Mariners, swiping a couple bags and taking the extra base on every opportunity.

However, now that they are realistically back in the playoff picture, just a few games behind in the Wild Card race, the Twins hitters seem to be getting nervous again, and the pressure is causing mistakes and overly conservative play. Yesterday's 2-1 loss to the White Sox provides us with a couple of perfect examples. For one, in the second inning, Mike Ryan stopped at second on a Michael Cuddyer single where he easily could've moved up to third. The baserunning err cost the Twins a run, as Ryan would be thrown out at home on a Terry Tiffee single in the next at-bat. Another example came later in the game, when Cuddyer came up with the winning run on second. Cuddy worked the count to 3-0 against Sox closer Dustin Hermanson, then Al Newman gave him the green light. Cuddyer failed to see the sign, and took the next three pitches for strikes and went down looking. That type of cowardly, conservative play is the whole reason the Twins went into that giant slump, and they seem to fall back into that pattern every time they play in truly meaningful games. Oh, and guess how many stolen base attempts the Twins had in that entire home series against the White Sox? One, by Justin Morneau. He was thrown out.

If the Twins want their offense to get back to where it was during that seven-game stretch of phenomenal baseball that put them back into the race, it is imperative that the younger players start to relax and swing the bats when they get up to the plate. They need to run the bases aggressively, because with the type of speed and sliding technique that this team has, it is going to pay off more often than not. And when your hitters are so incapable of coming through with the big hit to drive in runners, every base counts.