Midway through yesterday's game, things were not looking pretty. It was a cloudy and rainy day in Yankee Stadium, and the Twins offense was in the middle of getting shut down by a mediocre-or-worse pitcher for a sixth consecutive game. This time it was Jeff Karstens setting down Twins hitters one after another.
Here's the story on Karstens. He was a 19th-round draft pick for the Yankees in 2003 who was on the fast track to the major leagues simply because he was a polished college pitcher, not because he was particularly talented. In 72 and 2/3 innings in Triple-A this year, Karstens posted a 4.33 ERA and 48:30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not horrible, but not the type of numbers that are generally going to translate to immediate major-league success. In the two starts he had made since being called up prior to yesterday's game, Karsten had posted a 4.63 ERA while walking four and striking out only three. Simply put, he's been completely mediocre since reaching the big leagues. He doesn't throw hard and he doesn't have great stuff.
Well, like Mark Buehrle, Mark Redman, Luke Hudson, Jorge de la Rosa and Cory Lidle before him, Karstens pretty much stymied the Twins hitters. He pitched seven innings, allowing just six hits and two runs while striking out one and walking one. Once again, the Twins were unable to string together hits and put up crooked numbers. Fortunately, after Karstens left the game, the Twins were able to jump on reliever Ron Villone with Justin Morneau driving a three-run homer into left field. Coupled with a great outing from Scott Baker (more on that in a bit), this was enough for the Twins to cruise to a 6-1 victory in a rain-shortened game. Still, another stagnant effort from the Twins offense against another sub par starting pitcher gives cause for alarm.
One would hope that the four-run eighth inning that the Twins put together will be the type of igniter that gets the offense going. There's no denying that hitting is contageous; 10 straight Twins hitters had been retired when Joe Mauer drew a walk in the eighth inning and the Twins followed it with four consecutive hits, including Morneau's dinger. This much is for sure: the Twins cannot afford to continue slumping on offense like they have for the past week.
Baker's start was encouraging to say the least. For whatever reason, he seems to have the Yankees' number. He held the Bombers to one run over seven innings in a start at the Metrodome early this season, and yesterday he was similarly effective, holding the Yankees to two hits over five innings. He did struggle with his control a bit at times, walking three, but got some big strikeouts and pitched enough to hand things over to the bullpen with the Twins in front. That's all we'll need from him for this next month.
The Twins got some other good news on the pitching front yesterday as Francisco Liriano threw a pain-free 12-minute bullpen session. I have not been optimistic about Liriano returning this season, and I'm still in a position where I won't believe it until I see it, but this is very encouraging news. Liriano threw in spikes and he threw his slider, and apparently there were no problems. He will throw batting practice on Wednesday and if all goes well he could head to Rochester for a rehab assignment after that.
Liriano's return is critical for the Twins' post-season chances, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that Brad Radke will not be able to return this year despite his desires. If the Twins can consistently get solid performances from Baker like the one they got yesterday it would help a lot, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Let's see how Matt Garza fares today in New York against this tough Yankees lineup, and let's see if the Twins can carry their offensive success from the end of yesterday's game forward and into Tampa Bay this week as well.