Sunday, August 27, 2006

Wild Finish

Another huge team effort has now put the Twins into territory a few months ago seemed impossible: They not only lead the wild card by 1 1/2 games over the White Sox, but are within four games of the Tigers in the Central. How did they managed this? With contributions from all across the board.

Unlike Friday night, in which the bullpen carried the team with Torii Hunter providing a huge home run, yesterday, the bullpen actually failed. Juan Rincon allowed two runs in the eigth and Joe Nathan blew his save opportunity by giving up a huge, game-tying two-run blast to Jermaine Dye. Instead, the Twins did all the rights little things and got a few big hits along the way.

Hunter actually hit another home run last, giving a home run in four straight games, a career-first. However, what's great is each hit mattered for a different reason. Hunter's gave the Twins a four-run cushion again after Ross Gload homered in the bottom of the fourth.

Just as important were all the RBI hits the Twins got to chase Jose Contreras early. Rondell White's RBI triple got the scoring starting and was followed by two Jason Tyner RBI singles, a White RBI-groundout, and a Jason Bartlett run-scoring double. Even though Rondell only had the one hit, getting any production and especially RBIs from the DH spot is key for the Twins lineup since Jason Kubel has been slumping so terribly of late.

Naturally, the biggest hits came later. Nick Punto's sacrifice fly in the 9th was huge simply because that one run mattered an awful lot when Dye homered in the bottom of the inning. However, the smart base-running and fundamentals plays shouldn't be lost. Jason Tyner got on by an error and didn't waste it, quickly stealing second and making it to third on a Luis Castillo single. Castillo also stole second, though it wouldn't matter, but the Twins agressive and smart play late also set up the game-winning run in the 11th, much as it did Friday night.

Lew Ford led off the 11th with a single and moved to third on a Bartlett sac bunt and a Castillo grounder before Punto had the big RBI single. Not wasting at-bats meant the game and that's been a difference maker in the series. To make a point, the Twins only struck out six times yesterday and three of those were by Hunter and two were by Michael Cuddyer.

What's lost in all this is some brilliant pitching. Despite the 8-7 score, no one should forget Johan Santana's start. Santana did not have dominating stuff at all, only striking out one batter in the first five innings and giving up home runs to two guys who had a total of one home run between them coming in. (Gload and Sandy Alomar Jr.) However, he managed to have another great start and ended it perfectly by striking out Tadahito Iguchi with two men on to end the seventh.

Also, Pat Neshek and Willie Eyre helped save the game for the Twins. After Juan Rincon gave up a single and Dennys Reyes loaded the bases with two straight walks (he looked like pre-2006 Reyes, which is awfully scary), Neshek came in with a 2-0 count on Rob Mackowiak, as Reyes had thrown two balls to him before being removed. Neshek promptly got Mackowiak to fly out for a sacrifice, making the score 6-5, before striking out pitch-hitting A.J. Pierzynski with a 93 mph fastball after a long at-bat.

Eyre, on the other, pitched the 10th and 11th innings, having to face the top of the order in the 11th to get the win. Eyre hasn't been exactly outstanding this year given his 5.54 ERA, but he hasn't hurt the team (as win shares will show you) and he has a 1.76 ERA in August in 15 1/3 innings. Getting those last outs with no one else readidly available in the taxed Minnesota bullpen, Eyre was a key factor and should credit for his performance. Every team needs a "mop-up" guy and Eyre did a pretty good job considering.

The Twins now have a chance for a sweep and a 2 1/2 lead. Sweeping the White Sox in Chicago would likely be a heartbreaker for the Sox and would give the Twins tons of momentum heading to streamroll into series against the Royals and Yankees this next week. With Silva pitching, its initially tough to be confident, but these Twins seem to be able to pull out wins regardless.