After six innings, it appeared that the Twins were well on their way to their 15th consecutive victory over the Devil Rays and a big sweep heading into an important homestand. However, a rare breakdown by the Twins' bullpen cancelled out a similarly rare impressive outing by Carlos Silva.
The Twins offense was once again pitiful, picking up just three hits over six innings against Rays starter Jason Hammel. The rookie Hammel entered with the following numbers: 0-2, 6.86 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 11:11 K/BB. Opponents had rocked him to the tune of .316/.404/.513 before he shut down the Twins for six innings, holding them scoreless outside of a Joe Mauer solo home run. After hitting the ball hard and putting up eight runs on Tuesday night, it appeared that maybe the Twins had broken out of their team-wide offensive funk, but last night they were worse than ever. It was downright painful to watch.
So while one might be tempted to blame the loss on Silva for asking to be removed from a game he was dominating after just 59 pitches because of an "upset stomach," or to blame Pat Neshek for coming in and allowing back-to-back home runs that put Tampa Bay on top, my frustration for this loss is squarely with the Twins offense which continues to look completely hopeless against inexperienced and otherwise unimpressive rookie pitchers.
As a result of the heart-breaking loss, the Twins missed an opportunity to move within three games of the losing Tigers and also allowed the White Sox to move back within half a game in the wild-card race. Some notes on the game and on some other (less depressing) Twins-related news:
* I don't want to be overly harsh, because I really have no idea what Silva's specific condition was (apparently he vomited soon after being removed), but I find it rather ironic that in a season where his teammate Brad Radke has pitched more than 157 innings through a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, Silva had to exit last night's game after six innings with a very low pitch count because his stomach hurt. It's unfortunate, because Silva was well on his way to his best outing of the season, as he had allowed just one hit over six innings while inducing ground-balls and double-plays like the Silva of old. Then again, it's tough to be too critical because really there was no way to predict that the Twins' typically stellar bullpen would collapse and let what looked like an easy victory slip away.
No word yet on whether or not Silva's illness was related to watching the Twins' hitters flail away against Hammel for six innings.
* Speaking of the bad night for the bullpen, Juan Rincon had another poor outing and has not pitched well at all as of late. Rincon posted a 5.23 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in August, and now he's started out September by allowing six hits and three earned runs over two one-inning appearances while walking one and striking out none. For the season, Rincon's ERA is now up to 2.95 and opponents are hitting .273 off of him, which is not very good for a reliever. I've read that Rincon has been bothered by a sore groin, which might have something to with his struggles, but whatever the case, Rincon has been looking worse and worse while Jesse Crain has been looking better and better. Which one would you go to at this point in the eighth inning of a tie game?
* Good news keeps rolling in regarding Francisco Liriano. The rookie phenom pitched in a simulated game yesterday and apparently felt no pain while using all of his pitches. The plan is now for Liriano to throw 40-45 pitches in a rehab start for Rochester on Saturday before rejoining the Twins' rotation to start next Wednesday against Oakland. If Liriano is able to start four more games for the Twins down the stretch, I will be feeling a lot more optimistic about their chances of making the playoffs and even moreso about doing some damage once they get there.
* Another spectacular outing for Johan Santana on Tuesday night has folks buzzing about his great chances to bring home the AL Cy Young this year, but I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more talk about Santana's chances in a race that Mr. Mosvick touched on at the end of his post yesterday: the AL MVP race.
David Ortiz has been a front-runner for much of the year thanks to some staggering power numbers, but his team is probably not making the playoffs. Derek Jeter remains a top candidate thanks a .344/.420/.485 line for the first-place Yanks. It appears increasingly likely that Jeter will win a batting title this year as Mauer's average continues to slip, and if that happens I think the voters will give Jeter the award. Still, Santana should not be overlooked.
The last time a starting pitcher won the MVP award was 20 years ago, when Rogers Clemens carried the Red Sox to the '86 playoffs by going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 254 IP. Santana's numbers this year might not end up being that pretty, but he could win 20-21 games with an ERA under 2.80 to go along with 250+ strikeouts. Plus, you have to look at his role on this team. Santana has been the one stable member of a rotation that has seen more than its fair share of turmoil. Scott Baker and Boof Bonser have shuttled between the big leagues and the minors. Radke stumbled out of the gates before having a period of great success, but is now on the shelf possibly for the rest of the season. Liriano has been out since August 7 and may or may not return with success this season. Silva has gone from ranking fifth in the AL in ERA in 2005 to being arguably baseball's worst starting pitcher in 2006. Through all of this, Santana has battled through aches and blisters and pitched well all year long. The Twins are 25-5 (.833) in games started by Santana, and they've won the last 11 games he's started. That means that even when he's not getting a decision, he's still putting the team in position to win.
To some degree, I can understand the the hesitation of MVP balloters to give their vote to a player who plays only once every five games. Still, I think it would be hard to argue that any single player has been more crucial to his team's ability to stay in the post-season race than Santana, and I would be surprised if the Twins make the playoffs and he doesn't get a considerable number of votes.
* Here are the pitching matchups for the four-game series against the Tigers which opens tonight at the Dome:
Tonight: Justin Verlander (15-7, 3.27) vs. Scott Baker (4-7, 6.55)
Friday: Wilfredo Ledezma (2-2, 2.38) vs. Matt Garza (1-4, 5.88)
Saturday: Nate Robertson (12-11, 3.93) vs. Boof Bonser (4-5, 4.83)
Sunday: Jeremy Bonderman (11-7, 4.02) vs. Johan Santana (17-5, 2.84)
The Twins will face three more young pitchers in this series, but these ones are actually good. I'd be lying if I said these next four games didn't frighten the heck out of me. Let's hope the offense can come alive.