Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nerves + Sloppy Play + No Offense = Game 1 Loss

If anyone decides to pin yesterday's Game 1 loss on Johan Santana, they are either terribly mistaken, blind, or plain dumb. Santana pitched a very good game against the A's yesterday, going eight innings and striking out eight while allowing five hits, two runs, and a walk.

His defense certainly didn't help him. Nick Punto made some outstanding plays over the course of the game, including getting tangled with the chainlinks near the dugout on a great foul ball catch. Other than that, the list of mistakes is long: Rondell White's subpar play, helping the second run in with his slow feet on Marco Scutaro's double, and showing his non-existent arm, Michael Cuddyer's botched play on a carom off the wall that stretched a Nick Swisher single into a double, and Jason Bartlett dropping the ball on an easy double play to help load the bases in the seventh and forcing Santana to throw far more pitches than he should have in the inning.

Also, you can't really blame Santana or Jesse Crain for how good a hitter Frank Thomas still is. Forget the .270 regular season average. For one, he had a terrible April because he was still recovering from the painful surgery he had in his foot, not to mention getting used to metal permanently lodged in it. He hit 20 second half homers, drove in 68 runs in that time, and hit nearly .300. He hit a good Santana changeup out down the left field line and later took a 96 MPH sinking inside fastball from Crain out for a solo shot. Neither was a particularly bad pitch, but Thomas is so powerful that he managed to take them out anyway.

If anything, the mistake was not being more careful with the A's best hitter. In the playoffs, there is plenty of reason to pitch around a weak lineup's best hitter. The Padres made a similar mistake in pitching to Albert Pujols yesterday, and Pujols made them pay with a home run and two RBI. The comparison isn't that much of a strech, since Thomas was the best hitter on the 90s. (Best hitter, not player, mind you. Bonds was the best player.) There was no reason to give him anything near the strike zone if they could avoid it.

However, the general issue was nerves. Not for Santana, but for the rest of the Twins. Barry Zito was wild with his pitches from the start, but the Twins hitters helped him out as much as they could. No one other than Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer drew a walk and most didn't work the count very much at all. Despite being wild and unable to control his fastball, Zito threw only 33 pitches in the first three innings.

Because of that, it took the Twins 4 2/3 innings to get a hit and they didn't get on the board until Rondell White homered in the seventh. Despite all the mistakes, the Twins had chances but failed to capitalize. Jason (or "Josh," according to Jon Miller) Bartlett doubled to lead off the eighth, but the Twins were unable to bring him home. Michael Cuddyer tripled on a fly ball that Milton Bradley lost in the lights to start the ninth, but the next three batters were retired to end a rally attempt. Cuddyer scored on an RBI groundout, but the Twins still came up short.

Not following a good game plan, being nervous and overly aggressive, and expecting a magical eighth or ninth inning comeback in every game is terribly unrealistic. This is the playoffs. Oakland has a good bullpen and despite his 11 blown saves, Huston Street is a formidable closer. There aren't any Scott Dohmanns or Bruce Chens here to mercilessly beat around.

Now, don't get me wrong. By no means are the Twins done or anything. But they need to get serious fast and lose the nerves. Playing at the Dome is a huge advantage they need to exploit. Also, the recent managerial moves are downright ridiculous.

Are you going to tell me one bad start should mean no Matt Garza on the postseason roster? Carlos Silva is starting Game 4? The completely immobile Jason Kubel makes the team over fleet-footed Alexi Casilla? I like Glen Perkins, but Kubel should have stayed home. He doesn't help the bench at all. Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but Silva really didn't have a great game Sunday. To the contrary, he looked very shaky and he is possibly the worst pitcher to send out against the A's. Guys like Thomas and Swisher will eat him up for line drive after line drive.

Not keeping Garza was an awful move. Despite his last start being not-so-great, he is a superior option to Silva. The only place Silva is useful is long relief. At this point, I'd take Perkins over him. The best news I can give fans right now is that Esteban Loiza starts today and with his mediocre stuff, hopefully the Twins bats can come alive. This is going to be a big, big start for Boof Bonser.