Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Can't Go Wrong

Yesterday just looked like one of those games the Twins were not going to win. At the end of the seventh inning, the Athletics led 5-3 and the Twins hitters had ended three consecutive innings on double-plays. Out came Nick Punto to lead off in the bottom of the eighth. He singled, but the way things were going, it appeared that would only set up Joe Mauer for another rally-killing DP. Fortunately, a wild pitch from Joe Kennedy eliminated that possibility. Then Mauer drew a walk. Up came Michael Cuddyer, who ripped a pitch to right-center field for a run-scoring ground-rule double. With the Twins down 5-4, in stepped Justin Morneau with no outs and runners on second and third. The result was blissfully predictable...
Justin go boom.

Not quite a home run, but a two-run double off the left field wall that gave the Twins their first lead of the night and propelled them to their fifth consecutive victory. Morneau, who was featured in a front-page article on ESPN.com yesterday as Phil Rogers' top choice for AL MVP this year, added to his credentials for the award with yet another game-winning hit. He now has 120 RBI on the season to go along with a spectacular .324/.379/.583 line.

Not to be forgotten is Cuddyer, whose double set up Morneau's heroic hit. In the past I have blasted Cuddyer as a guy who folds under pressure, but he's certainly shut me up this season, coming through numerous times in clutch spots with last night just adding to the list. Cuddyer has hit .312/.412/.580 with runners in scoring position this season and has posted a .944 OPS in "Close & Late" situations. And as much as we've yearned to see Morneau back in the cleanup spot, instances like last night remind us how it can pay off to have Cuddy hitting between two lefties, as Oakland had to leave in the left-handed Kennedy to face Cuddyer with two on and no outs so he would match up with Morneau in the following at-bat. Cuddy has crushed southpaws to the tune of .302/.383/.550 this year, and last night he flashed his excellent power against them in a big spot. Plus, he's cut down on his strikeouts lately which has prompted us to remove the "K-ddyer Strikeout Streak" meter from our sidebar.

Matt Guerrier didn't look too great in his start, giving up three runs on four hits over four innings, but he didn't let the game get out of hand thanks to some clutch RBI hits from Jason Tyner that kept things close. Guerrier might get another start on Sunday, but I think the Twins would be wise to return him to the bullpen and get Matt Garza back into the rotation. Garza's been off-and-on since his call-up, but he has dominant stuff and I think he has a better chance to pitch deep into a game than Guerrier does on any given day.

Speaking of pitching deep into games, don't expect Francisco Liriano to do so today in his first start back from injury. Liriano is on a 60-pitch limit, and since he hasn't thrown in a major-league game since August 7 it stands to reason that he'll struggle a bit with his control at times as he shakes off the rust. I'd be surprised to see him pitch more than three or four innings, which would be fine with me as long as he feels good and pitches relatively well. Garza and Scott Baker will be available for long-relief, so if the offense can continue to cruise I feel pretty good about the Twins' chances of picking up a series sweep and finishing 6-0 against Oakland at the Metrodome this year.

As if all that wasn't enough, the White Sox fell in extra innings to the Angels last night (thank you Chone Figgins), giving the Twins more breathing room in the wild-card race as they remain 1.5 games behind the Tigers, who defeated the Rangers. On top of that, Brad Radke played catch yesterday and apparently felt pretty good. I would rate the chances of a Radke return this season as highly unlikely, but then again I didn't think there was much chance of Liriano returning either so what do I know? This team has been surprising me non-stop for about four months now, so I guess it would almost be fitting if they won the division and announced a playoff rotation of Santana-Radke-Liriano in October.