Monday, July 24, 2006

Bring On the Sox

After an 11-0 slaughtering on Saturday night, the Twins rebounded in a big way to defeat the Indians 3-1 yesterday and leave Cleveland with a series victory. This hopefully gives them some momentum as they head into Chicago for a pivotal three-game series against the White Sox that will be by far the most important the Twins have played this year. The Sox lead the AL Wild Card race by three games and the Twins will enter Chicago with a chance to cut down that lead or even tie the Sox in the standings with a sweep. Whatever happens, one of these teams is going to make a statement.

Yesterday's victory was certainly an impressive one and a stark contrast from the previous night's massacre. On Saturday, the Twins sent out three of their worst pitchers (Scott Baker, Kyle Lohse and Willie Eyre) and the results were ugly. Yesterday, they sent out several of their best arms and as a result the potent Indians offense was thoroughly dominated. Five Twins pitchers combined to strike out 17 Cleveland batters, with 10 of those coming in five innings from starter Francisco Liriano. Liriano was devastating early, but ran into some trouble in the fourth and fifth innings, and as a result had to come out of the game after just five frames due to a high pitch count.

Fortunately, Ron Gardenhire had the luxury of protecting his young starter's arm because his bullpen was, as usual, phenomenal. Pat Neshek continues to look tremendous, as he came on in relief of Liriano and pitched 1 and 2/3 hitless innings, striking out two and walking one. In the seven innings he has thrown since being called up, Neshek has allowed just one hit, good for an .045 opponents' batting average. His success has made Jesse Crain look relatively expendable, and as the deadline approaches those Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee rumors are starting to swirl (not that I'm apt to buy into the Twins' involvement with either one). Following Neshek, it was Dennys Reyes, Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan looking like their usual dominant selves and slamming the door on the Tribe.

The Twins offense did nothing outside of the third inning, but the three runs they scraped together there were plenty on this day. Michael Cuddyer picked up an unconventional RBI by hitting a chopper up the middle with the bases loaded that shortstop Jhonny Peralta could do nothing with, and Justin Morneau followed that by singling in his 79th and 80th runs of the year. Joe Mauer went 2-for-2 with a couple walks on the afternoon to raise his average to .381. With each passing day, the possibility -- likelihood, even -- that Mauer is going win a batting title this year becomes more real.

Despite the rough spot on Saturday night, the Twins do look like a better team on the road. Even with the recent hiccups in Kansas City and Texas, the Twins are 10-6 in their last 16 road games, and now they head into a crucially important series in a stadium where they played very poorly earlier this season.

We're still in July, so it would of course be nonsensical to claim that the season hinges on this upcoming series. That said, with the Twins red-hot and the White Sox stumbling, this should be a really fun series to watch.