Friday, September 01, 2006

Saving Grace

So, can the Twins win one game in New York this weekend? Initially, it doesn't look so good. The Twins will be throwing three starting pitchers with ERAs north of 5, their offense is slumping badly, and the Yanks are fresh off of taking two of three from the Tigers.

This is a time of the year for the Twins where each game is of crucial importance. They enter play tonight trailing by half a game in the Wild Card standings, while the White Sox head into KC to face a Royals team that just got done shutting down the Twins offense over a three-game series at the Metrodome. I don't think the Sox bats are going to show the same type of ineptitude against the Royals' arms, so the Twins could easily find themselves in pretty a bad position come Monday morning.

For their part, the Yankees won't be throwing their top starters this weekend, but the guys that will be pitching -- Cory Lidle, Jeff Karstens, and a yet-to-be-named pitcher on Sunday -- are certainly no worse than the starters the Royals threw this week. The Twins offense has been nothing short of pitiful for the past three days. They were shut out by Mark Redman on Tuesday, and Wednesday could not get a single run across outside of a pair of Michael Cuddyer home runs. Yesterday was more of the same. Rondell White hit an early solo homer, but then the Twins bats shut down. They loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth inning, but got were able to get only one run out of the situation as Torii Hunter grounded into a double play and White followed with a strikeout.

Fortunately, they were able to win and salvage a game in what was a series we'd probably like to forget about. Johan Santana pitched extremely well, picking up his 16th win of the season (matching his 2005 total) by pitching seven innings and allowing just one run (an Angel Blanco solo homer that just cleared the left field wall) while striking out 11 and walking one.

The most impressive portion of Santana's day came at the very end of his outing. He came out to pitch the seventh inning just after the Twins had scored the go-ahead run in bottom of the sixth, giving him a 2-1 lead and a chance to pick up the win. Emil Brown put a serious dent in that plan by leading off the inning with a double and moving up to third on a groundout. With one out and the tying run on third, Johan was approaching 100 pitches and it looked like he might be out of gas. However, after issuing a walk to John Buck, Santana was able to settle in and strike out Jeff Keppinger and pinch-hitter Mark Grudzielanek and escape the inning unharmed. That's the type of Johan we're used to seeing in the second half, and that's the one we're going to need to see every five days in September for the Twins to have a chance.

Of course, the fact that Santana pitched well is not surprising, and in fact the Twins' pitching during this series against the Royals was quite good. And in fact, I think there's a good chance that Scott Baker and Matt Garza will deliver at least decent outings this weekend when they pitch on Saturday and Sunday. It's the offense that we should all be worried about right now, which seems to be reverting to its 2005 form at the worst possible time.

Help might be on the way, but there's nothing to get too excited about. The Twins completed a trade with the Cubs yesterday, acquiring veteran slugger Phil Nevin for a player to be named later. Nevin, a righty, has hit .245/.321/.456 on the year so far with with 21 HR and 64 RBI between the Cubs and Rangers. He's been a good hitter at times in his career and his 21 homers -- which be tied for second on the Twins -- are enticing, but at 35 his best days are behind him and it's unlikely he'll have a huge impact down the stretch for the Twins' offense. Nevertheless, it's tough to imagine him being much worse than White.

Meanwhile, the Twins made their September call-ups yesterday. The Twins announced that they will be adding a third catcher (Chris Heintz) and an additional pitcher (Scott Baker), both of which were expected, but the third player announced was a surprise. The Twins will bring up infielder Alexi Casilla, who they acquired an off-season trade with the Angels that sent relief pitcher J.C. Romero to LA. The 22-year-old Casilla has surpassed expectations in the minor leagues, hitting a combined .318/.385/.398 and stealing 50 bases between Ft. Myers and New Britain this season, but I didn't expect to see him in a Twins' uniform this soon. No doubt he'll fit right in with all the speedy singles-hitters already present in the Twins' lineup.

While Nevin and Casilla might provide a slight jolt to the lineup, that's not what's going to turn things around for this offense. In order for the Twins to win a game or two from the Bombers this weekend and to play well down the stretch, it is imperative that they get Joe Mauer to find a way out of his slump and they'll need their little speedsters like Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett to get on base and wreak havoc. If the Twins start the month of September by losing two games in the standings to the White Sox, these Piranhas might find themselves belly-up very quickly.