Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sneaking Back Into the WC Lead

Let's face it. The Twins have not been playing their best baseball lately. This offense has been downright painful to watch for eight consecutive games and counting. Fortunately, while the Twins have sputtered a bit, their competition in the wild-card race has been no better. With the Twins squeaking by the Devil Rays 2-1 yesterday and the White Sox falling to Boston 3-2 in the tenth inning, the Twins moved back into first place in the wild-card standings by half a game.

It's always nice to see a victory, but troubling trends continued for the Twins. All their run production in the game came on one swing of the bat from Rondell White, who drove a two-run homer into the left field seats in the seventh inning. That is not exactly unusual for the Twins as of late. In their last eight games, they have scored 17 runs (ick) and 12 of those have come in on home runs. What that tells us is that the offense is not putting rallies together, and the so-called piranha hitters are not doing their jobs. Of course it doesn't help that Luis Castillo has been hurt and just returned to the lineup yesterday, but Nick Punto is slumping (.130 average over the last week) and Jason Tyner continues to do nothing but hit singles (has not drawn a walk since August 8; has just four extra-base hits in 166 at-bats this season). And then there's Joe Mauer, who collected a couple walks yesterday but went hitless, dropping his average to .346 on the season. Now, it's hard to complain too much about a guy with a .346/.427/.498 line on the season, but Mauer is slumping at just about the worst possible time and I think his impact on this offense is becoming very clear when you look at how badly the team is struggling to score runs without him getting on base.

As ugly as things have been on the offensive side for the Twins, the pitching continues to be very strong. Boof Bonser has looked like a completely different pitcher since his most second call-up to the big leagues, and that continued with yesterday's masterful outing in Tampa Bay. When he first came up in May, even when he had successful starts he was constantly working out of jams and clogging the basepaths. Yesterday he allowed only five hits over 6 and 1/3 innings and he didn't walk anybody, so even when he gave up a home run (which is another thing he's been better about since his latest call-up) it was only a solo shot and didn't hurt him too badly. He's been keeping the ball in the zone and he's been using his big breaking pitch to get strikeouts, and when he's doing both those things he can be a very effective pitcher.

Even though the Twins grounded into three painful double plays and once again looked helpless against a mediocre young starting pitcher, I did see some things from the offense that encouraged me yesterday. Castillo looked good in his return to the lineup, picking up a couple of hits. White had a very good day at the plate, doubling and walking to go along with the game-deciding home run. Torii Hunter continued his hot hitting with a well-struck double (and also made an excellent catch against the wall in center field which was extremely pleasant to see considering how poorly he's played out there as of late).

The Twins have now won 13 straight games against the Devil Rays and tonight Johan Santana is pitching, so it's a good bet that they will get the series-clinching victory even if the offense comes out stale against Jae Seo. Nevertheless, these hitters will need to find a groove and start putting together some rallies because the Twins have a very difficult homestand coming up in which they will play seven games against the Tigers and the red-hot A's.