Monday, September 11, 2006

Triple Threat

Looking for a series win against the only team standing in front of them in the AL Central, the Twins handed the ball to their ace Johan Santana and asked him to carry them to victory. Santana did just that, delivering 6 1/3 scoreless innings while allowing just two hits and two walks. 11 of the 19 outs he recorded came by the way of strikeout. Santana looked as good as ever in a big-game situation, further strengthening his case for AL MVP during a season in which no American League hitter has put up jaw-dropping numbers to carry their team to October. Meanwhile, Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay had to leave his game in the first inning after being hit in the pitching elbow with a line drive, which may or may not cause him to miss some time. Halladay remains stuck at 16 wins and also trails considerably in almost every other category, and since he is Santana's main competition for the AL Cy Young, it's looking like Johan has that award pretty much locked up with his 18-5 record, 2.75 ERA and .212 opponents' batting average. Santana also reminded us yesterday that he is a top candidate for a Gold Glove, as he made an acrobatic play to retire Brandon Inge on a bunt.

While Santana was busy proving that he is a triple-threat in the awards department, the Twins offense provided three triples as they ran the bases aggressively and piled up hits in a 12-1 route of the Tigers. The Twins pulled to within two games of Detroit in the AL Central, which would have been unthinkable for the first four months of season, and a White Sox loss increased the Twins' lead in the wild-card race to a game and a half.

Losing three straight games after taking the series opener only adds to what has been a woeful stretch for the Tigers. They have lost 13 of their last 18 games. They've won only one series out of their last 10, and have now lost five in a row. What's happened to the Tigers can only be seen an ugly collapse, but it's still premature to pronounce the team dead. They have a pretty soft schedule from here on out, as they face only one contending team (a three-game set in Chicago starting a week from today) and 10 of their remaining 18 games are against Kansas City and Baltimore. The Twins and Tigers are done playing each other this season, so whether or not the Twins will be able to win the division is out of their hands to some degree.

The 12-run outburst for the Twins was nice to see, and just about every player got in on the action. Joe Mauer shook off his recent slump and had a very nice series against the Tigers, finishing up the series with a pair of doubles and a couple RBI yesterday and pushing his batting average back up to .350. Nick Punto went 4-for-5. Justin Morneau had a pair of singles and scored twice. Torii Hunter went 3-for-4 and looked like his old self on the base-paths, creating a run in the second inning by running aggressively. The Twins were able to score six earned runs against Jeremy Bonderman despite the fact that he had some pretty nasty stuff, and that was extremely encouraging considering how much they've struggled to get anything going against starting pitchers over the past couple weeks.

After completing their series victory over the Tigers, things don't get a whole lot easier for the Twins as Oakland comes to town for a three-game series starting tonight. The Athletics have played very well lately and have taken a commanding lead in the AL West. Here are the pitching matchups for the series:

Tonight: Carlos Silva (8-13, 6.30) vs. Joe Blanton (15-10, 4.66)
Tuesday: Matt Guerrier vs. Kirk Saarloos (7-7, 4.68)
Wednesday: Francisco Liriano (12-3, 2.19) vs. Dan Haren (13-11, 3.95)

Those first two games are up for grabs. Who knows which Silva we'll see tonight, and Guerrier -- who has pitched fairly well out of the bullpen this year -- is making his first start of the season in place of Scott Baker. Of course, the most intriguing game should be the finale, when Liriano makes his much-anticipated return to face Haren. All eyes will be on Liriano's elbow, and it should be interesting to see how willing he is to use his slider and how effective it is.

As it stands, the Twins are in very good shape and yesterday's victory was perhaps the biggest of the season. Santana improved his standing in three award races, while the Twins' offense banged three triples and helped push the Twins to their third straight victory. I guess good things come in threes. How about three more victories over the A's, starting tonight?