Thursday, October 05, 2006

Magic Missing

The Twins' Game 1 loss against the A's was a heartbreaker. Losing at home with your ace on the mound is always tough. Thus, the Twins came into yesterday's game needing a victory to head into Oakland with the series tied. It wasn't an elimination game, but it was the definition of a "must-win."

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Boof Bonser gave the Twins a solid effort on the hill, allowing just two runs over six innings, but once again the Twins failed to help him out by making countless mistakes at the plate and in the field.

No mistake was more grave than the one Torii Hunter made in the seventh inning. Dennys Reyes came on to pitch to Mark Kotsay with two outs and a runner on first. Kotsay hit a line drive to center that looked like it would drop in for a single, but Hunter for some reason decided to charge at it and make a diving attempt, coming up several feet short and allowing the ball to bounce past him and to the wall. Not only was Jason Kendall able to score from first, but Kotsay chugged all the way around to score on a rare inside-the-park home run. The two-run blunder by Hunter allowed the A's to promptly erase the two runs the Twins had scored in the previous inning to tie the game on home runs from Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau.
I don't want to be too hard on Torii, because I'm sure he is just sick with himself and there's no doubt that he'll be receiving plenty of criticism from other sources. Still, this is going to go down as perhaps the worst defensive play of his career. He exercised horrendous judgment; even if it was makable play (which it wasn't), it wasn't worth the risk with two outs and a lone runner at first base in a tie game. Hunter's play sucked every ounce of momentum out of the Twins after a big inning, and it would be easy to put the entire loss on his shoulders. I'm not going to.

The real culprit in this loss was once again the Twins offense, which was simply pitiful. Aside from the sixth inning, in which Cuddyer and Morneau led off with back-to-back homers, the Twins never had a baserunner with less than two outs, making a rally of any sort a daunting task. When they did manage to get a couple runners on with two outs, no one could step up and deliver a big hit, with Justin Morneau, Rondell White, Joe Mauer, Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto all leaving runners aboard with two outs.

Against Esteban Loaiza, who is likely the most hittable starter they will face in this series, the Twins could get nothing going. They tapped harmless grounder after harmless grounder, giving Oakland shortstop Marco Scutaro plenty of work by grounding out to him eight times in the game.

In the first two games of the series, the Twins hitters have been completely incapable of rallying for runs. Of the four runs they managed to score, three came on solo home runs. Not one player delivered a run-scoring hit outside of those homers, as the only other run in the series came on an RBI groundout. For a team that prides itself on a "piranha" type of play, with runners getting aboard and moving around the bases, that just can't happen. Perhaps the saddest thing in all of this is that they have been this offensively impotent in front of their home crowd. The thought of this offense trying to string together hits in an unfriendly opposing ballpark is frightening.

Back on Sunday, I wrote that the Twins appeared to be flattening out offensively, and the hitters seemed worn down after a long and difficult season. The offense looked horrible in the team's final homestand against the Royals and White Sox, and I feared that that slump might carry over into the playoffs. As it turns out, it has in a big way.

It was a magical season for the Twins, but now that magic seems to have gone missing. Very little has gone right in these first two games, and the Twins now find themselves on the brink of elimination just days after celebrating one of the most improbable division championships in the history of the league. Wherever that magic has gone, the Twins are going to need to recapture it and use it all in order to get themselves back in this series, as they now have to travel into Oakland and win against a couple very tough pitchers in Dan Haren and Rich Harden.

Sadly, it's pretty tough to see that happening.