Thursday, August 31, 2006

Two In a Row

After Tuesday's insufferable loss to the lowly Royals, the Twins players, fans, and writers all tried to make excuses and paint the picture a little less bleak. After another loss that essentially followed the same pattern, it's getting quite tough to swallow.

I can't give too many "they are a good team" or "they have a pretty 'darn' good pitching staff"-style excuses. It's pathetic because it's so far from the truth. The Royals have by far the worst pitching staff in the big leagues. Their collective 5.69 ERA, .291 BAA, 177 HRs allowed, .844 OPS, 51% save percentage (lowest), 1.60 WHIP, and 5.54 K/9 (lowest) all rank worst in the American League.

Getting shut down by the likes of Luke Hudson (who pitched the worst game in the last century just a few weeks ago), Joe Nelson, Mark Redman, and Jimmy friggin' Gobble is just embarassing. For the record, Hudson recently recorded one out in an outing against the Indians while giving up 11 runs, 10 earned. His control was bad enough last night that he actually threw a ball way outside to the backstop.

Roy Smalley's reaction? "Just a BIT outside!" (By the way, I actually like Smalley better than Bert. At least he pleaded for Nick Punto to stop those stupid head first slides.) Yet, the Twins only drew one walk against him, from their game superstar Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer had three of the Twins six hits (Luis Castillo, who was unfortunately injured in the game and is out for a few days, had two and Jason Tyner had one) and drove in all the Twins three runs.

Cuddyer went 3-for-3 with two home runs, three RBI, a walk, and two runs scored. He's now hitting .280/.362/.518 on the year with 20 HR and 90 RBI. That sets him on a pace for 25 homers and 113 RBI. I think the Twins would be more than happy with 20-plus homers and 110 RBI or so and they should be.

Too bad Cuddyer's great night wasn't enough. And, like Tuesday night, the Twins sadly wasted another good outing from a young pitcher. This time, Boof Bonser struck out five of the first seven hitters he faced and ended up fanning eight in 5 and 1/3 innings while walking none, giving up seven hits and three earned runs.

The problem, however, obviously wasn't pitching. The Twins offense hasn't looked this bad since last year, despite leading the majors in hitting currently. Justin Morneau hasn't had a bad August (.301, 4 HRs, 22 RBI), yet he has only one home run in his past 11 games. Joe Mauer? Much worse. A .276 average in August isn't much to cry about, but he's hitless in his last 15 at-bats, has almost seen his slugging percentage dive below .500, and even his defensive play is lacking a bit.

Mauer, it appears, is wearing down and so is the team. If the Twins can't handle beating up young and inexperienced Royals pitchers, how are they going to beat the Yankees? Lucky for them, they won't be facing Randy Johnson (I realize he's no longer very good, but could the Twins beat him?), Chien-Ming Wang, or Mike Mussina.

The only real good news right now is that Johan Santana is on the mound today. If nothing else, that gives the Twins a great chance to win. That is, if they can score any runs.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Shut Down

Matt Garza pitched perhaps the best game of his young major-league career last night, but still came away with a loss as the Twins offense was unable to string together a single run against the lowly Royals.

Garza pitched 7 and 2/3 innings, and was extremely effective outside of a short stretch in the fifth inning in which he allowed three straight hits that brought in two runs. After those hits, Garza set down eight consecutive Royals hitters. In total, he allowed five hits and one walk while striking out seven.

Meanwhile, the Twins' offense made the Royals' "All-Star" Mark Redman look even better than Garza. Redman tossed a complete-game shutout, allowing just five hits and striking out three over nine innings. The Twins did not draw a single walk and they did not have one extra base hit. That's not the type of performance you want to have in your home park against a pitcher with a 5.50 ERA and a .302 BAA.

Now the Twins are in a position where they need to win the next two games or else they'll lose the series, and this was supposed to be a "gimme series" at home before they play three-game set in Yankee stadium in which I believe they will have a very difficult time winning a single game.

Today is another day, and the Twins still have a good chance of winning tonight and tomorrow and taking the series. Nonetheless, last night they wasted a very good outing from their rookie pitcher and they let themselves get absolutely shut down by a bad pitcher. When you're entering the stretch run in an extremely tight playoff race, that's not something you can really afford to do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wild Chance?

baseballThe Twins currently sit 1/2 game on top of the American League Wild Card standings, but with just over a month of baseball games left, is it possible that the Twins will actually win the Wild Card?

Oftentimes, the Wild Card winner is a team that blows through September with a ton of momentum. This is a good reason for why they often do well in the postseason. Take a look at recent Wild Card winners, such as the Florida Marlins (1997, 2003), the Angels (2002), the Red Sox (2004), the Mets (2000), the Giants (2002), and the Astros (2005). All these teams went to the World Series and four of them won them. (Red Sox, Angels, and the Marlins twice)

The point being that the Twins have had a huge run over the past three months, going 48-21 in their last 69 games. However, it's going to be awful hard to keep up such a high winning percantage (69.5%) for another month. Or is it?

Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday that the Twins may have a significantly "easier" schedule than the White Sox, their main opponent in the race unless the Red Sox, Angels, or Blue Jays sneak their way back into the picture. The Twins have the luxury of facing some weaker opponents, like the Royals, Indians, and Devil Rays. However, making assumptions based on overall records or even recent ones can be difficult, since there is some motivation to be a spoiler in September.

However, there is no "speculating" about the pitching situation. The Twins have a very unstable rotation. They have one great starting pitching in Johan Santana, a wreck in Carlos Silva, a dead shoulder on Brad Radke, a very raw Matt Garza, and big questions marks in the fifth starter. Boof Bonser has been solid, so he may well contribute plenty in September, but what about the others?

There is no way to know whether or not Francisco Liriano is coming back. However, even if he does, there is no guarantee he'll be effective. When he tried to come back earlier, he was hit very hard by the Tigers. The point is, starters can be very shaky after an injury and we are talking about a rookie here. He may be tenuious with his slider, pinching corners, and it may get him hurt bad.

Radke, of course, could give us anything as well. With a shoulder that's almost literally falling apart everytime he pitches, he could be brilliant in September or he may not start again ever. The questions don't get much easier beyond that. Silva, as mentioned yesterday, needs to be moved to the bullpen or the Twins may as well forfeit his starts. Garza could be huge down the strech, like Matt Cain last year, or he could struggle the way Liriano did last September. And if anyone gets replaced in the rotation, it's even more of a question. Scott Baker has had major issues this year and there is no telling if he'll ever get that fastball down in the big leagues.

Let's stop there. I am not meaning to try and get everyone's hopes down. The point is things could go either way. There is a certain amount of luck in each major league season. Last year, the numbers told us that the White Sox should have done worse, as well as the Twins, and the Indians should have won the division. But there are so many things in a major league season that are entirely unpredictable.

So, can the Twins win the Wild Card? Certainly, but it will take a combination of luck and continued great hitting and a relentless effort by the bullpen. The Twins simply cannot let up from here on out. Thus, I'd say the chances are around 50-50. Right now, the White Sox have had luck catch up to them. Their starters and bullpen that were so great last year are struggling. If that continues, the Twins should have a lovely opportunity presented to them. If they do make the playoffs, piecing together a 3-man rotation will be a new adventure in and of itself.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Weekend in Review

Well, it was a pretty darn good weekend for the Twins, even if it wasn't such a good weekend for me. I drove all the way out to Chicago, only to become extremely sick and be stuck in my bed for my entire stay, leaving me unable to attend any of the games. It did cheer me up a little to see the Twins win the series and leave Chicago with a slim lead in the Wild Card race and just five games behind Detroit for the AL Central lead.

The Twins continue to impress the hell out of me. This team that couldn't win away from home? They're 15-4 on the road since the All-Star break. Those Twins that simply couldn't compete against the tough AL Central competition? They've won seven of their last eight series against Detroit/Chicago/Cleveland. The Twins have been absolutely fantastic, yet as well as they've played and as fun as they've been to watch, I can't shake the feeling that they can't keep this up for the last month of the season.

I'm not optimistic about Francisco Liriano returning this season, and the fact that Brad Radke had to be pulled after just 30 pitches on Friday night is deeply concerning. If neither of those guys are able to come back this season, the Twins' rotation for the rest of the season would likely consist of Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Boof Bonser and Scott Baker; a group of pitchers who, as Jim Souhan says, "fall into three categories: Cy Young, Sigh Young, and Too Young."

Santana is great, but the rest of those pitchers are just too inconsistent. You have to wonder how much longer the Twins can continue to start Silva. After serving up three more home runs to the White Sox yesterday, Silva has now surrendered 33 on the season, tops in the Majors. His .340 opponents' batting average ranks BY FAR worst in the MLB among qualifying starters (the next-worst is Joel Pineiro at .321). His 6.50 ERA? You guessed it, easily the league's worst.

I want to resist getting down on Silva too much, but the fact is several times this year, he has stepped on the mound and halted momentum.Remember the series against Chicago in May in which the Twins slaughtered the White Sox in first two games at the Dome and then got out to a 7-0 lead against Mark Buerhle in the first inning?

If you recall, Silva was awful in that game, giving the White Sox eight runs back on their route to a 9-7 victory, and leaving with 8.80. We all thought such a high ERA couldn't last, but 6.50 isn't exactly that much better.Since July, Silva has basically followed a pattern: two bad or not-so-great starts and one good start. At this point, its hard to swallow those bad starts, even for an occassional win. The thing is, Silva did fine in the bullpen (giving up one run in seven innings). Because he's been a starter, he can be a long reliever, a mop-up guy, a spot starter, or anything else.

Obviously, the Twins lack options, but there are a few decent ones. Matt Guerrier could simply swap roles with Silva. Guerrier was a starter in the minors and came up as one on the Twins. With a 2.72 ERA, Guerrier has had a fine year out of the bullpen and could offer the Twins some good innings out of the back of the rotation.

There is Scott Baker. Baker has been a wreck at the big leagues this year, but he's doing just fine in the minors. After a loss today in Triple-A, he's 5-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 68 Ks and 25 walks in 83 2/3 innings. With those numbers, he's at least worth another shot. Otherwise, the Twins could possibly throw Willie Eyre in the mix or call up Mike Smith again, but that seems like a worse option that Silva.Essentially, Silva is probably a fine member of the clubhouse and we'd all love to see him do well, but the only place he has consistenly done well this year is in the bullpen.

Why not move him into a position where he can succeed? If you watched his start today, Silva was effective for the first few innings before his sinker got up and he starting giving up homers left and right. For the sake of the team and Silva, he needs to be moved.

Other notes:

* Lost in the ugly loss was a few defensive gems, mainly from Nick Punto. Twice Punto made outstanding plays with runners in scoring position to start double plays and get Silva out of trouble. If not for Punto's glove, the score could have been 10-1 or more.

* Ron Gardenhire's penchant for resting Joe Mauer on Sundays is getting awfully annoying. Instead of having Mauer in the game at DH and backup Mike Redmond in the seventh spot, where he should probably be, Gardy had White in the game. Keep in mind that Mauer is hitting .480/.567/.660 with six RBI in 50 at-bats as a DH. Thats significantly better than what White or Jason Kubel can offer and with a off day today and an important game against the White Sox, there was little reason to keep Mauer's bat out of the lineup.

The Twins are currently in a playoff position, but they'll have a tough time staying there over the final month of the season with 2/3 of the top of their rotation missing. Here's hoping that either Radke or Liriano (or both) can come back and pitch effectively down the stretch.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Wild Finish

Another huge team effort has now put the Twins into territory a few months ago seemed impossible: They not only lead the wild card by 1 1/2 games over the White Sox, but are within four games of the Tigers in the Central. How did they managed this? With contributions from all across the board.

Unlike Friday night, in which the bullpen carried the team with Torii Hunter providing a huge home run, yesterday, the bullpen actually failed. Juan Rincon allowed two runs in the eigth and Joe Nathan blew his save opportunity by giving up a huge, game-tying two-run blast to Jermaine Dye. Instead, the Twins did all the rights little things and got a few big hits along the way.

Hunter actually hit another home run last, giving a home run in four straight games, a career-first. However, what's great is each hit mattered for a different reason. Hunter's gave the Twins a four-run cushion again after Ross Gload homered in the bottom of the fourth.

Just as important were all the RBI hits the Twins got to chase Jose Contreras early. Rondell White's RBI triple got the scoring starting and was followed by two Jason Tyner RBI singles, a White RBI-groundout, and a Jason Bartlett run-scoring double. Even though Rondell only had the one hit, getting any production and especially RBIs from the DH spot is key for the Twins lineup since Jason Kubel has been slumping so terribly of late.

Naturally, the biggest hits came later. Nick Punto's sacrifice fly in the 9th was huge simply because that one run mattered an awful lot when Dye homered in the bottom of the inning. However, the smart base-running and fundamentals plays shouldn't be lost. Jason Tyner got on by an error and didn't waste it, quickly stealing second and making it to third on a Luis Castillo single. Castillo also stole second, though it wouldn't matter, but the Twins agressive and smart play late also set up the game-winning run in the 11th, much as it did Friday night.

Lew Ford led off the 11th with a single and moved to third on a Bartlett sac bunt and a Castillo grounder before Punto had the big RBI single. Not wasting at-bats meant the game and that's been a difference maker in the series. To make a point, the Twins only struck out six times yesterday and three of those were by Hunter and two were by Michael Cuddyer.

What's lost in all this is some brilliant pitching. Despite the 8-7 score, no one should forget Johan Santana's start. Santana did not have dominating stuff at all, only striking out one batter in the first five innings and giving up home runs to two guys who had a total of one home run between them coming in. (Gload and Sandy Alomar Jr.) However, he managed to have another great start and ended it perfectly by striking out Tadahito Iguchi with two men on to end the seventh.

Also, Pat Neshek and Willie Eyre helped save the game for the Twins. After Juan Rincon gave up a single and Dennys Reyes loaded the bases with two straight walks (he looked like pre-2006 Reyes, which is awfully scary), Neshek came in with a 2-0 count on Rob Mackowiak, as Reyes had thrown two balls to him before being removed. Neshek promptly got Mackowiak to fly out for a sacrifice, making the score 6-5, before striking out pitch-hitting A.J. Pierzynski with a 93 mph fastball after a long at-bat.

Eyre, on the other, pitched the 10th and 11th innings, having to face the top of the order in the 11th to get the win. Eyre hasn't been exactly outstanding this year given his 5.54 ERA, but he hasn't hurt the team (as win shares will show you) and he has a 1.76 ERA in August in 15 1/3 innings. Getting those last outs with no one else readidly available in the taxed Minnesota bullpen, Eyre was a key factor and should credit for his performance. Every team needs a "mop-up" guy and Eyre did a pretty good job considering.

The Twins now have a chance for a sweep and a 2 1/2 lead. Sweeping the White Sox in Chicago would likely be a heartbreaker for the Sox and would give the Twins tons of momentum heading to streamroll into series against the Royals and Yankees this next week. With Silva pitching, its initially tough to be confident, but these Twins seem to be able to pull out wins regardless.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Bullpen, Hunter, Chicago Fan Spell Huge Victory

The Twins are once again officially on top of the AL Wild Card race. With possibly their biggest win of the season, the Twins are a 1/2 game in front of the White Sox, 4 1/2 games in front of the Red Sox, and only five games behind the Tigers in the Central, who have now lost three straight.

Of course, its far less likely that the Twins will win the division now than take the Wild Card, since even a five-game deficit game be hard to overcome. Naturally, its quite possible, since the Twins have been hot and the Tigers have finally had some of their luck catch up to them. In order to secure this spot, the game had to be hard fought, full of clutch moments, and as nerve-racking as possible. And it was.

Twins starter Brad Radke, whom I praised yesterday for his long and enjoyable career. Last night, he only lasted two innings, throwing 32 pitches, not striking out a batter, giving up three runs on four hits, and not coming close to sniffing 90 on the radar gun. The Twins and Radke claim that the injury to his shoulder hasn't worsened, but there could be potentially heart-breaking news around the corner. However, everyone should keep in mind that only a few weeks ago, Brad had to leave a start against Detroit early after only 51 pitches because of his shoulder.

He may just need additional rest or, at worse, his career may be coming to a screeching hault. But enough about that speculation. The great news is that the Twins bullpen is so good, that they pulled out a victory regardless. The bullpen pitched seven innings, gave up seven hits, one run, struck out seven, and walked only one. The stellar bunch out last night was Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, Jesse Crain (who got the win with two spectacular innings of work), and Joe Nathan, who picked up his 27th save.

It doesn't merit much mentioned that the final out of the game came on fan interference, as it has flooded the ESPN airwaves. There isn't much to discuss, because its quite clear that for one, the right call was made, and two, Morneau clearly would have caught the ball. Even Ozzie admits.

Whats most pressing is the couple clutch hits the Twins had, including a monster home run from Torii Hunter. Torii now has five home runs in his last seven games, batting .348/.400/.957 over that period. He's .276/.348/.471 on the year, with 20 HRs and 68 RBI. In fact, he's hit .306/.352/.531 since the All-star break. Its hard to ignore his awful numbers with runners in scoring position (.256/.336/.395, .242/.319/.484 with two outs) or the 14 double plays he's grounded into, but he has certainly gotten hot at the right time.

The great thing is that last night, you can forget all that. With two outs and two on, after Nick Punto's home run put a run on the board and Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau followed with singles, David Riske was brought in to face Hunter. Riske threw Torii a low breaking ball, the kind he usually swings and misses at trying to pull it, and instead, Torii hits it the other way and crushes it opposite-field over the fence. With one swing, the Twins had a 4-3 lead.

A.J. went on to tie against Pat Neshek in the bottom of the inning, but Jason Bartlett came up big again against the Sox, hitting a single up the middle with two outs in the ninth to bring Lew Ford in and break the tie. Joe Nathan followed with a dominant inning outside of Scott Podsednik's single and the strange fan interference play that followed the Jermaine Dye popout for the last out.

Without a doubt, things now look great. With the Twins ace Johan Santana on the mound tonight, who doesn't feel confident about leaving Chicago with a lead in the Wild Card? How about 10 Ks, a huge win, an upset Ozzie, AJ slamming his bat in frustration, and sorrowful looks from all the White Sox players after our win?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Boof Gets it Right

After Matt Garza's fine performance on Wednesday night, Boof Bonser had to follow it up well, right? Well, of course, he too pitched a quality start, giving the Twins 6 2/3 innings while allowing seven hits and two runs on a two-run homer from Ramon Hernandez. Bonser struck out four and walked one.

Now, no one is going to say that a 3-4 record or 5.18 or 1.45 WHIP are great, but in his last three starts, Boof has at least given the Twins a good chance to win. Three runs in five innings or two in 6 2/3 is fine when you have such a great bullpen and an offense that has the ability to put up a few runs.

With that in mind, it certainly didn't hurt that the offense came alive against Kris Benson and the Baltimore staff that is only "better" than the Kansas City tragedy of a pitching staff. The Twins put up eleven runs, with their 3-6 hitters going an incredible 10 for 16 with all 11 RBI, 5 extra-base hits (two Mauer doubles, a Cuddyer triple, a Morneau home run, and a Hunter home run), and scored five runs along the way.

Cuddyer had the best night, going 4 for 4 with 4 RBI, a two-run triple, and raised his average to .276 along the way. After a great last week, Cuddyer has had 16 RBI in August and now is hitting .276/.361/.510 on the year with 18 HR and 86 RBI. Not too shabby seems like an understatement and of course, with a 4 for 4 night, he ended his small strikeout streak.

Having a outfielder driving in runs and hitting with this authority is another commodity the Twins seemed have missed since 1987 (I don't know that Mardy Cordova really counts, since he didn't do that much after his rookie campaign). He may finish with around 25 home runs and 110 RBI. Having two 100 plus RBI is great and it should be remember that our 3-4-5 guys currently have 60 home runs between them and 269 RBI.

Other than the middle of the order, table setters Luis Castillo and Nick Punto went 3 for 5 and 2 for 5 respectively. Castillo has been hot in August, batting .333 but with only five walks. Good thing that the most of the lineup, including Hunter and Castillo, is starting to heat up more with the Chicago series starting today. Hunter has hit four home runs in his last six games, giving him a .274/.346/.464 line on the year.

The slugging percentage isn't anything amazing, but at least the OPS is above .800 and the defense is cleaning up after a scary week since his return. Hunter is, as every Twins fan knows by know, a very streaky player and that can be a headache, but at least he's heating up at the right time. If he gets a few timely home runs in this weekend series, that could be the turning point on the year. Needless to say, we expect Mauer and Morneau to do great, but big contributions from Torii and Cuddy will change everything.

With Brad Radke on the hill tonight, things look a little brighter. Brad is 3-1 with a 1.67 in August and 5-2 with a 2.70 ERA since the break. Radke did pick up the loss in last weekend's series, getting hurt by poor Minnesota defense, but he pitched well and should do so again. Its on this note that I'd like to leave this point.

Its worth reminding Twins fans that we only have so much time left to watch this guy pitch and we should all remember just how great and wonderful the experience has been. Brad was one of the few reasons to pay attention to the Twins during the depressing years in the late 90s and he's been a great reason to pay attention in the competitive last five years.

His professional demeanor, compassion, intergrity, control, and beautiful, flawless delivery are all aspects of Radke I admire. If there is one guy in Minnesota who deserves a world championship, its Brad. I realize that KG is the popular choice, but he's a $25 million star. Brad is a guy who took less money to stick around twice and has never acted the way overpaid, selfish stars act today. He is a team player and he's given it all this year.

I know if the Twins make it to the playoffs, he'll pitch great. Like another past pitching star in Minnesota (Bert), Brad has never gotten the national attention he deserved, but he'll always be regarded well in Minnesota. Here's to another great start Brad and a great career.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Twins 4, Orioles 1

Matt Garza picked up his first major-league win last night, looking very good in a six-inning outing against the Orioles in a 4-1 Twins victory. One night after Carlos Silva served up five home runs, Garza held the Baltimore bats to five hits and one walk before handing things over the bullpen, which not surprisingly delivered three perfect innings. Garza was not dominant by any means (only one strikeout), but he kept the hitters off-balance and induced a lot of pop-ups and groundballs, and he was helped out by some terrific plays from the Twins defense. Garza gave up only one run, and it was unearned. After needing 100 pitches to get through five innings in his last start, he needed just 84 to get through six and probably could have pitched the seventh if not for the fact that the Twins' bullpen was well-rested and ready to go.

The Twins offense came around after a poor showing against Adam Loewen on Tuesday night. Facing Rodrigo Lopez, one of the few pitchers in the league on the same level of badness as Silva, the Twin' hitters collected 13 hits in six innings. In total, the Twins had 15 hits, including five doubles and a home run. The fact that they were only able to convert all those base-runners into four runs is a little disconcerting, but it was plenty to get the job done on this night. Michael Cuddyer went 3-for-5 with two doubles and two RBI, Torii Hunter homered and doubled, Jason Bartlett had three hits, and Justin Morneau picked up RBI #108 on the season.

The big dark spot in the offense last night was Jason Kubel, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm kind of excited at the thought of getting Rondell White back in the lineup. Kubel, who is now hitting .251/.291/.406 on the season, looks totally lost at the plate and cannot run at all. It is time for the Twins to think about shutting him down for the season and allowing him rest up and start thinking about 2007. It's looking less and less like he's going to make any progress this season with his knees the way they are.

And now I bid you all farewell for a few days. I'll be heading to Chicago tomorrow, and I won't be back until Sunday or Monday. I'll be at US Cellular watching the Twins and Sox face off on Friday night and possibly Saturday as well. I might have Internet access while I'm out there, but I doubt it, so I'll probably be back with a full report next week and in my absence Mr. Mosvick will be taking things over. Have a good weekend and enjoy the baseball!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Shell of a Pitcher

That's the best description for "pitcher" Carlos Silva right now, who in last night's game managed to give up an amazingly awful five home runs. It's hard to fathom, but Silva is once again the worst starting pitcher in the AL. He's a supposed groundball pitcher giving up loads of extra-base hits and home runs. Everytime he throws a fastball, he overthrows and seems to groove it right over the plate.

Take the hitters he gave up home runs to last night. Nick Markakis, who came into the game with eight home runs on the year, hit three off of Silva last night. Markakis has never hit more than 15 home runs in a professional season yet he managed to easily knock out three in his first three at-bats against Silva, along with the solo homers given up to Brian Roberts (don't let last year fool year, he isn't a home run hitter at all) and Corey Patterson.

Needless to say, in a bit of good luck for Silva, he was lucky enough not to have anyone on base when giving up those homers. His 6.45 ERA is beyond atrocious and it's depressing that the man is still a starting pitcher and one that the Twins are relying on heavily. But worse yet is allowing a OPS over .900 to opponents. At this point, I'd rather have Scott Baker and his homer-prone ways starting than Silva, since at least he has some potential and can strike people out.

Offensively, the game went just as poorly. Facing rookie pitcher Adam Loewen, who came into the game with a 6.12 ERA and 43 walks in 64.2 innings, the Twins looked pretty worthless. Loewen was a first-rounder in 2002 and has a good strikeout rate to go with some good outings, so it's not as bad as say failing against a guy like Scott Elarton, but no walks and seven strikeouts in eight innings with only four hits is pretty bad.

Only Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer managed to do anything offensively. The Twins seemed to come into the game with the notion of being very patient and taking a lot of pitches, which was a good strategy considering Loewen's high walk total on the season, but when Loewen continued to throw strike after strike without any change, the Twins were doomed. Also, sadly, Michael Cuddyer struck out swinging at a pitch that hit the dirt about five feet before the plate to begin a new strikeout streak just one game after ending his 12-gamer.

The good news is that Matt Garza's last start went fairly well, so he probably should give the Twins a much better chance tonight. The Twins offense cannot fail tonight though, as their mound "foe" is Rodrigo Lopez, who has a 6.03 ERA, a 1.55 WHIP, and has allowed 28 home runs. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Managing to Win

There has been a lot of talk about possible post-season awards for the Twins this year. As was discussed yesterday, Johan Santana is neck-and-neck with Roy Halladay for the AL Cy Young award. Despite his injury, Francisco Liriano may still have a shot at winning Rookie of the Year. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are fringe MVP candidates. Mauer and Santana both have a good shot at winning Gold Gloves. Well, I've got one Twins' post-season award candidate that not many people have been looking at, and that's Ron Gardenhire for AL Manager of the Year.

For pretty much the entire season, the baseball world has viewed Detroit skipper Jim Leyland as the runaway favorite for the Manager of the Year award. However, the Tigers are have struggled of late. Even after beating the White Sox last night, they have still lost 9 of their last 13 games and have seen their lead in the AL Central shrink to 5.5 games. Now, that's still a fairly sizable lead and I think it's early to be making doomsday statements, but the possibility that the Tigers could miss the playoffs is becoming more and more realistic. Kenny Rogers has fallen apart (1-3, 5.97 since the All-Star break) and Justin Verlander's arm is fatigued. The team is reeling, and if they fail to make the playoffs, it would be difficult to see Leyland being rewarded as the league's best manager.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire has done some very good things this year. We frequently get after him on this blog, and by no means has his decision-making been spotless, but it's hard to argue with the job he's done. The team has pieced together one of the great turnarounds in baseball history, while numerous young players are breaking out in a big way and a few veterans are having by far the best seasons of their previously mediocre careers. When so many players are doing this well, some credit has to be given to the coaching staff. And although I sometimes feel that he underuses Joe Nathan by restricting most of his appearances to ninth-inning save situations, it is clear that Gardy has handled the bullpen extremely well and is getting the most out his relievers.

Gardenhire has also seemingly gained the respect of not only his own players, but other players and coaches around the league. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article about another Ozzie Guillen tirade, Guillen gave the following quote about Gardy:
"That's why I love the guy next door,'' Guillen continued Saturday, pointing to the Twins' dugout and manager Ron Gardenhire. ''He doesn't give a [expletive]. He doesn't worry about this and that. You win, you kicked our butt. When they clinched in 2004, I was the first one to go over there and congratulate them because they beat us."
In a Pioneer Press article in late July, Charley Walters had the following Leyland quote:
"This has been no surprise to us at all," Leyland said of the Twins' remarkable comeback since early June. "We knew they would be back. They've got baseball players who play the game the way they're supposed to play, they've got great pitching and they've got a hell of a manager. This is going to be a three-team race, and next year, with Cleveland, it will be a four-team race."
Back in February, I wrote that the 2006 season would put Gardenhire on the spot more than ever before. I noted that "my opinion of the man will be greatly shaped by what he does in the upcoming season." Well, after a poor start, I have been mostly impressed by the job Gardy has done and I think he deserves a lot of credit for what this team has accomplished.

Despite a rash of critical injuries, an inconsistent back of the rotation that has turned into a revolving door for minor league pitchers, and a roster comprised of numerous young and inexperienced players, this manager is somehow managing to win. I think Gardy deserves some recognition for that. He has finished near the top in the Manager of the Year voting three times in his four-year tenure as the Twins' skipper (third in 2002, second in 2003, second in 2004) and it is entirely possible that this may be the year he captures the award once and for all.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Santana Continues Dome Dominance

A streak continued and another stopped in yesterday's big 7-3 win over the White Sox. Johan Santana picked up a win, giving him a 15-5 record on the year, including nine at home without a loss and making it over a year since he has lost at the Dome. On the other hand, Michael K-ddyer ended his season-high strikeout streak at 12 games while going 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a double.

Santana wasn't what you would call dominant yesterday, striking out only five White Sox batters and not showing his best stuff, but he only gave up six hits in seven innings and didn't walk a batter.

As it is near the end of August, now is the time to start discussing awards and possible victories for our hometown heroes. Santana seems to be in a two-man race for the Cy Young with Toronto's Roy Halladay, who defeated the Orioles yesterday to pick up his league-leading 16th win. Along with the 15-5 record, Santana has 192 Ks to lead the majors, and is first in the AL in BAA (.221), ERA (3.03), innings pitched (184.1) and WHIP (1.03). Santana ranks second in the AL wins with 15, and third in winning percentage at .750. Also, as usual, he's doing great in other, lesser-known stats, such as K/BB ratio (5.05, second in AL), quality starts (18, second in AL), 1.08 GB/FB ratio (only 25th in the AL, but up from 2004 and 2005), K/9 (9.37, second behind Scott Kazmir). Incidentally, his run support of 4.82 runs per game ranks 32nd in the AL, behind big names like Joel Pineiro, Rodrigo Lopez, and Paul Byrd.

Halladay, just as Johan's competition last year, only leads him in wins, by one (16), and winning percentage (.842). Naturally, Hallday has gotten extra support from his offense this year, getting 6.56 runs per game in support, 9th in the AL. In every other major category, Halladay is behind Santana. Halladay ranks third in the league in ERA (3.18), second in WHIP (1.10) and innings pitched (184). He doesn't even register on the strikeout leaders list, having only struck out 104 batters, good for a meager 5.09 K/9 rate. Of course, a 4.16 K/BB ratio is outstanding, but very few pitchers can have the control Johan does while striking out so many hitters.

Is Santana the front-runner right now then? If you listen to guys like Rob Neyer he is, but most of the media and voters love that all-important "win" stat. Right now, its a tight race. The hope is, if things stay on course, Johan will make it to 20 wins along with Halladay. If he can, the vote should follow suit to 2004, in which Curt Schilling had 21 wins, one more than Johan, but lost out because of how dominant Santana was. Right now, they are tied in ERA+ at 149 (a stat, which for those who don't know, incorportates ballpark factors and the league average) for tops in the AL. Keep in mind that it's been a hitter's year, with the league average ERA at 5.70 and a .271 league batting average.

Obviously, Santana deserving, but we have to wait another month. If Johan wins 20 and the Twins go to the playoffs, it should happen. With the Tigers dropping 8 of their last 11 games and having Chicago, Cleveland and New York as their remaining opponents for the month of August, the Twins' hopes look up. Tuesday the Twins start a series in Baltimore. Facing a team with little hope on the horizon, the Twins should take their opportunity to win some easy games.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sloppy D Results in Loss

Despite another solid outing from Brad Radke, the Twins fell victim to their own mistakes last night in a 4-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. Three of the four runs the Sox scored came in as the result of sloppy defensive plays by the Twins, and the misplays forced Radke to throw more pitches than he should have and wasted a pretty impressive outing in which he picked up six strikeouts over five innings.

Once again, the Twins offense was thoroughly dominated by a mediocre starting pitcher. This time, instead of Paul Byrd, it was Jon Garland holding the Twins to one unearned run and five hits over 7 and 2/3 innings. In fairness, there were several hard-hit balls that either went right at a fielder or that a Chicago player made a very nice play on, but the clutch hitting was not there last night.

Michael Cuddyer grounded into a double play to end a potential threat in the first inning, and then struck out in his final at-bat to extend his season-long strikeout streak to 12 games. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both went hitless. The Twins had only five hits over the course of the game, and they were all singles. It was an ugly effort, and they will need to improve this afternoon if they want to give Johan Santana a chance to win.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Only a Game Back

Once again, as it has over the last few weeks, that feeling of nausea creeps up and it seems like the Twins' season is ready to fall apart before our eyes. Then, as they have since June, the Twins pull it together and win a big game. That was last night, in quick summary.

The Twins started the day two games back in the Wild Card race, with the Boston Red Sox nipping on their heels. After the Bo-Sox delivered a historical bashing in a double-header against New York and victory over the White Sox by the Twins, they only have a game between them and the White Sox. And naturally, with an even bigger game today, who else is on the mound but Brad Radke.

Boy, does that sound good. Radke, who has been amazing despite the lingering pain in his shoulder, gives the Twins the best chance against Jon Garland and the White Sox, and with Johan Santana on the mound Sunday, a sweep could possible mean a season-changing series.

However, since that game has obviously not been played yet, let's look at last night's game. The victory once again went to Pat Neshek, who came in with runners on first and second and one out and got out of the jam easily. Neshek has been simply incredible since coming up from the minors. He has a 3-0 record, a 0.84 ERA, a .100 BAA, a 0.47 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings (that goes along with only 3 walks!). It cannot be emphasized anymore how valuable he has been to the club.

Boof Bonser started the game and his first few innings were great before he gave up a two-run shot to Jermaine Dye in the fourth and later a run-scoring single to Paul Konerko in the sixth. Bonser lasted 5 and 1/3 innings, struck out five, walked two, and gave up six hits and three runs. He didn't get the win, as the Twins didn't break the tie until the bottom of the sixth, but he pitched well enough to give the Twins a chance to win.

Offensively, the Twins had many heroes. Justin Morneau went 2-for-4 with two RBI singles, bringing his RBI total to 106 on the year. Morneau's RBI hit in the eighth off Neal Cotts was particularly fun because Brian Anderson reverted to old "Chicago White Sox-style defense" with his blooper-esque error, allowing another run to score. Nick Punto returned to the lineup with a bang, stealing a base and going 3-for-5 with an RBI. Of course, Torii Hunter had the big hit of the night, breaking the tie with a tie-breaking solo home run off of Chicago starter Freddy Garcia in the sixth.

I have to give it to Hunter and Garcia, because Garcia just wasn't very smart with Hunter. Hunter had two extra-base hits on the night against Garcia and in both cases, after failing with other pitches (or, in the first at-bat, after a breaking ball that Hunter flailed on), Garcia threw fastballs straight into Hunter's wheelhouse. If anything tells the story of why Garcia has a 4.87 ERA and has allowed 27 home runs this year, it's that. He has lost velocity on his fastball, but has not made adjustments and clearly is not pitching even close to the level of last year.

Needless to say, the Twins had a huge win last night and most everything went right for the them. With Radke on the hill today, I don't see a reason why that shouldn't continue.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Garza Shows Progress in Loss

Even in a 3-2 loss yesterday afternoon at the Metrodome, there was reason for optimism for the Twins. Matt Garza, making his second major-league start, showed tremendous improvement, going five innings and allowing three runs on five hits while striking out five and walking two. It wasn't a spectacular outing by any means, but after his disastrous debut, it was certainly encouraging. Garza struggled early and it took him entirely too many pitches to get through the first three innings, but he settled down in the fourth and fifth and retired seven of the last eight men he faced.

Some notes on Thursday's series finale against Cleveland:

* Garza may have escaped the game with only two runs allowed had Torii Hunter's suddenly limited range in center field not haunted the Twins yet again. In the second inning, Indians' shortstop Hector Luna drove a ball into the gap. Hunter took a terrible route to the ball and it went right past him to rattle against the wall, allowing Ryan Garko to score from first and Luna to cruise into third with a triple (Luna would score on a Joe Inglett sac fly in the next at-bat).

For the most part, Hunter has been a fairly average offensive player and the majority of his value has come from his outstanding defense in center field. Ever since he injured his foot this season, Hunter has looked like a shadow of his former self out in center, and yesterday he looked like a liability out there. He doesn't have nearly the range he once had out there and it is hurting the team.

* Indians starter Paul Byrd recorded three strikeouts in his nine innings of work yesterday, and two of them were of Michael Cuddyer. With his two K's yesterday, Cuddy has now struck out at least once in 10 consecutive games, tying a season high which he set from July 21-31. In honor of this illustrious run, we have added the K-ddyer Strikeout Streak to the right sidebar, and we will track how long Cuddy can make this streak last.

* Justin Morneau hit his 31st home run in his first at-bat to put the Twins on the board, and the two outs he made during his 2-for-4 afternoon were both 400+ foot line drives to center field which Grady Sizemore caught on the warning track. Not that I needed to tell you this, but Morneau is really freakin' strong.

* The Twins have a very exciting series coming up this weekend at the Dome. The pitching match-ups against the White Sox:
Tonight - Boof Bonser (2-4, 5.56) vs. Freddy Garcia (11-7, 4.78)
Saturday - Brad Radke (12-8, 4.43) vs. Jon Garland (13-4, 4.98
Sunday - Johan Santana (14-5, 3.10) vs. Javier Vazquez (11-7, 5.13)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Nice Night at the Dome

Well, it took 118 games, but last night, Nick & Nick finally made their first joint trip to the Metrodome for a Minnesota Twins game. Crazy, I know, but our conflicting schedules simply make it difficult to plan on getting out to a game on the same night. After parking in the sacred $4 lot and picking up an issue of Gameday Magazine (great work as usual, TG), Mr. Mosvick and I took our seats and were treated to a pretty darn good baseball game. Coupled with a pair of dollar dogs, it was an enjoyable experience despite the screeching child seated directly behind us.

At a glance, the 7-2 Twins victory might look like it wasn't much of a game, but that is certainly not the case. When previewing this series on Monday, I said that "my hope is that, win or lose, the games are more engaging than the ones the Twins played against the Blue Jays over the weekend." Sure enough, both games so far have been entertaining and close (and the Twins have won both, which just makes it that much better).

As has very frequently been the case this season, the Twins' offense stumbled along last night through the early portion of the game, wasting numerous opportunities before finally breaking things open in the late innings.

Luis Castillo was the big rally-killer for much of the game. Oddly enough, the second, fourth, and sixth innings all ended in the exact same manner: In each of those innings, the 8 and 9 hitters, Luis Rodriguez and Jason Bartlett, picked up back-to-back singles with two outs; and each time, Castillo stepped up and made an out to end the inning.

In the eighth inning, Jason Kubel delivered a leadoff single and Rodriguez drew a walk to put two runners on with no outs. Up steps Bartlett, and predictably, Ron Gardenhire puts on the bunt sign. This struck me as a very silly decision. First of all, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to take the bat out of the hands of a guy who was hitting over .360 and was 3-for-3 on the night. Second, Bartlett was to be followed in the order by Castillo, who had already left six runners on base in three at-bats, and then Lew Ford who was hitting .230. It was an instance of the manager playing things by the books despite the fact that under the circumstances it really made no sense, and it's the type of thing that drives me nuts.

Fortunately, in this case, it didn't hurt the Twins. Bartlett layed down a magnificient bunt and beat out the throw to first for his fourth hit of the game, and Castillo followed that up by hitting a chopper up the middle for an RBI infield single. It was the start of a five-run inning capped off by a Michael Cuddyer three-run homer that sealed the victory.

For his part, Carlos Silva was solid, going five innings and giving up two runs on five hits while striking out four and walking one. Around the start of the game last night, an anonymous commenter on this blog made the following observation: "Now, if we could just convince [the Twins' coaches] to have a little quicker hook on Silva/Bonser/Baker when it gets into the 5th/6th inning and they've been struggling. Too often they don't come out until after they've given up the big inning, instead of letting a Reyes/Neshek/Crain try and get the team out of the jam."

No doubt this person was happy with the way Gardy handled Silva last night. Though he wasn't in a jam persay (he had taken care of the Indians 1-2-3 in the fifth), Silva was at 94 pitches after five innings and he was getting to the point where he has struggled this season. Rather than sending Silva out again to try and squeeze another inning out of him, Gardenhire wisely handed things to his stellar bullpen and the decision paid off. Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier combined to give the Twins four innings of shutout ball, notching five strikeouts in the process.

Silva's outing was not amazing by any means, as he left the ball up in the zone at times and gave up some deep fly balls, but he kept the ball in the park and got some big strikeouts. It was exactly the type of outing the Twins need to get regularly from the back of their rotation: five or six innings good enough to keep the team in the game before the bullpen can step in and take care of the rest.

The last thing I want to talk about with regards to last night's game is the guy who got the win, Neshek. While sitting at the game, Mr. Mosvick and I both observed some similarities to the situation in which the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez came up in 2002. Now, of course, Neshek's call-up has come a lot earlier than K-Rod's did that year and Neshek is seeing a lot more action in the regular season (Rodriguez threw just 5.2 innings during the regular season, in which he racked up 13 strikeouts). Still, like Rodriguez, Neshek is entering a Wild Card race and is joining a staff that already features a solid bullpen and an established dominant closer. Also like Rodriguez, Neshek has a funky deliver and is absolutely baffling major-league batters. After entering last night's game and promptly striking out Ryan Garko to end a Cleveland threat, Neshek is now 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA and .092 opponents' batting average to go along with 30 strikeouts and three walks in 20 innings. If the Twins make the playoffs, can Neshek be the same type of dominant postseason force that K-Rod was for the Halos in 2002? It'd be interesting to see.

This afternoon, Matt Garza will make his second big league start, and we can only hope that he fares a little better than he did in his debut. He won't catch much of a break with the Indians offense, but if he can piece together a decent outing and pitch the Twins to a sweep, it would be very nice heading into a big weekend series against the White Sox.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Santana Carries Twins to Victory

Where would the Twins be without Johan Santana? Seems like a strange enough question, but just a few weeks ago, it seemed like everyone in the Twins world was ready to take Francisco Liriano over Johan. Santana had a few bad weeks and he didn't look like he had the old dominating magic Liriano was showing. But in last night's victory over the Indians, Santana had everything.

In eight innings pitched Santana walked only one, struck out nine, and gave up a measly three hits. For some reason, with 99 pitches, Ron Gardenhire decided against giving Johan a chance for a shutout. It's a disappointment to me, despite the fact I know they want to save his arm. If he goes over 110-115 pitches, fine, but when he is cruising, it should be his game to go out there and complete. That's the old-school way of baseball and it's one of the old aspects I truly miss.

Regardless, he was his nasty self. Instead of relying on his changeup, throwing it too many times, and getting knocked around some, Johan spotted his fastball and threw a lot more sliders. By doing so, he forced the Indian hitters to guess a lot more and thus, when he threw the changeup, they were not expecting it and could not sit on it. This is a good strategy. It's not like Santana has a weak slider or anything. He can throw that and the fastball and use that changeup in those strikeout situations, without ever giving a hitter the chance to time the change.

Of course, I don't want to come out and immediately suggest Johan can save this club. They are two games back in the Wild Card race behind the White Sox. Santana and Brad Radke are playing those savior roles and there is even a slim chance of seeing Liriano again, but I get nervous in every other game. Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, and a nervous Matt Garza don't intimidate opposing teams very much at all. That chance, therefore, relies a lot on the offense consistently producing.

Last night, the heroes were Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer. As usual, Cuddyer looked awful with no one in scoring position, hacking away, but suddenly, with runners on and a chance to give the Twins a bigger lead when it was 1-0 in the eighth, Cuddyer hit a two-run single. As for Mauer, a two-out RBI single in the third gave the Twins their first lead. Mauer also stole a base, walked twice, and sits with an ever-more-impressive .443 on-base percentage. Amazing.

Tonight, however, may not be as much of a cakewalk. If Silva is out throwing bricks to the Indians hitters, I can see a Travis Hafner, record-setting grand slam single-handidly breaking hearts. Please make that sinker sink, Carlos.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Gearing Up For the Tribe and Sox

The Twins got a much-needed day off yesterday, and there wasn't much in the way of news, leaving little to write about. The Twins have six important home games coming up in the next six days against the Indians and White Sox, and my hope is that, win or lose, the games are more engaging than the ones the Twins played against the Blue Jays over the weekend. The series wasn't just frustrating because of the Twins' ineptitude, the games were not much fun to watch because they were all pretty much laughers. This was especially disappointing considering how entertaining the games in Detroit were, particularly the series finale on Thursday.

If anyone has any interesting topics for discussion, feel free to open up in the comments section. Otherwise, check back in tomorrow for analysis of an important start for Johan Santana against the Indians.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Radke Stops the Bleeding

After three of the ugliest games the Twins have played this season since the awful 33-1 series against the Tigers, who would stop the bleeding? Brad Radke, of course. Old Reliable, just as he did against the Tigers last weekend, stepped up in a big game and pitched his heart out. (Or battled his tail off, in Gardy-speak.) Radke, who once held an ERA near 8 and was making us think about his sad retirement too early, has been tremendous as of late.

Since the All-Star break, Radke is 4-1 with a 3.32 ERA, a .248 BAA, a 1.00 WHIP, a 19:3 K/BB ratio in 38 innings and has come up with two big wins in August. After a scare just a few weeks ago with his shoulder, Brad has nearly taken back his ace role on the Twins staff. With Johan Santana being so human lately, Radke has stepped it up when it matters most, and that's with a shoulder that hurts so much he can't even play catch. If anyone out there has any question about Radke's heart and compassion for this game, those questions should now be answered. This man is all guts and plenty of glory right now.

As nice as it was to see Radke come through with another strong outing yesterday, it was even nicer to see the offense come around and put five runs on the board after scoring just one in the first three games of the series. Yesterday Mr. Nelson wrote that the Twins "need to get their top hitters like Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer back on track," and while Mauer didn't play yesterday, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer definitely came around. Cuddyer had a solo homer and a walk while Morneau, who had collected just three hits in his last 19 at-bats prior to Sunday, was 2-for-3 with two RBI to bring his impressive total to 103 on the year.

The recently maligned Jason Tyner had a big game for the Twins as well. Tyner picked up two extra-base hits in the game (a double and a triple) which were just his second and third in 114 at-bats on the season. That gives him a .316/.355/.351 line, which remains an empty batting average, but he certainly helped the Twins tonight.

Today is an off day for the Twins. Still 2 and 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race, the Twins have six more games in their homestand left starting Tuesday against Cleveland and ending with a weekend series against the White Sox. As the number of games remaining continues to shrink, each victory becomes more and more important. Every game they fall back destroys their fading chances to reach the post-season. They need to win both of these series to put themselves in good position. If there are any more series like this one against the Blue Jays, it's going to be ugly.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Another Dome Dud

Things are not pretty right now. After an excellent 6-1 road trip, the Twins have returned home and scored just one run over three games against the Blue Jays, who have not exactly been throwing top-of-the-line pitchers at them. During those 27 innings, the Twins have collected a total of just 18 hits and drawn a total of just five walks while striking out 19 times. They have gone 1-or-16 in scoring opportunities. In watching their at-bats over these games, it seems that the new-found plate discipline many Twins' hitters had seemingly discovered this season has disappeared. Last night, the Twins hit into six double-plays, and the saddest part about that is that it's the second time they've done it this year.

At this point, this offense is downright terrible, and there are a number of culprits. For one thing, Michael Cuddyer continues to show that he is not the answer in the cleanup spot with his absolutely wretched at-bats. I don't mean to be too hard on Cuddy, as his numbers are good and he has come up big in numerous situations for the Twins this year, but it seems like pitchers are adjusting to his guessing ways at the plate. Yesterday, Cuddyer took some of the ugliest swings you will see. He has struck out at least once in eight of his last nine games, and he had multiple K's in four of those games.

And then there's Justin Morneau. After having the most memorable night of his pro career on Wednesday night, Morneau is having a pretty forgettable series against the Blue Jays. Justin has gone 1-for-11 in this series with no RBI and no walks. Joe Mauer is also 1-for-11 in the series, and last night he grounded into his 17th double play of the year. Mauer is tied for fourth in the AL in GIDP (although the guys ahead of him are Miguel Tejada, Michael Young and Victor Martinez so it's not exactly bad company).

On Thursday and Friday the starting pitching was not good (although the bullpen continues to be exceptional), but yesterday the Twins wasted a solid start from Boof Bonser, who went 5 and 2/3 innings while allowing just three earned runs. Bonser struck out five and walked none, and pitched quite well aside from a bad pitch to Reed Johnson that ended up in the seats for a two-run homer.

Meanwhile, the White Sox won again, extending their Wild Card lead to 2 and a half games. I'm not panicking at this point, but I think that the putrid performance of the Twins' hitter in this series gives cause for concern. It is especially disappointing because they have been putting up these dud performances in front of some sizable home crowds.

The Twins need to get their top hitters like Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer back on track and they need to score some runs. Winning today with Brad Radke on the hill and salvaging one victory from this ugly series will be very important.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Disaster for a Debut

Right now, I'm in Washington D.C., out on a trip to see my brother. Last night, I went to a Nationals-Mets game and witnessed a fine pitching duel between Tom Glavine and Washington rookie Billy Traber. It was a matchup of finesse lefty pitchers, but Glavine made it interesting with seven Ks. It was a great experience to see a future Hall of Future still able to compete with a fastball that only reaches 87 mph, mixing that great changeup and baffling hitters after all these years. And of course, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes are all stars that are a delight to watch play.

As for the Twins, it was a long week that built up to a big disappointment. Matt Garza finally made his debut, but it wasn't as great as we all hoped it would be. Garza did great in the minors and put his first hitter away on three pitches. But the trouble came very quickly after that. He gave up an infield single to Frank Catalanatto before striking out Vernon Wells looking and walking Troy Glaus. With two men on and two outs, he gave up a big double to Lyle Overbay, with both runners scoring, before escaping the inning.

The rest of Garza's night followed the same path. In the second, he gave up a two-run shot to Reed Johnson, whom he struck out easily in the first, and a RBI single to Troy Glaus. In the third, it was a two-run home run from John McDonald that ended his night. McDonald, of course, is a career backup hitting .231, so it was like giving up a dinger to Juan Castro.

All in all, Garza got through only 2 2/3 innings, gave up seven runs, walked two, and struck out two. It was not pretty. However, Twins fans shouldn't despair and no one should give up on Garza. Making adjustments is part of the transition from the minors to the majors and Garza is no difference. Liriano was a huge outlier when it comes to prospects and we can expect Garza to improve plenty if we continue to give him starts. Everyone has to keep in mind that we are talking about a guy with much better potential than Boof Bonser or Scott Baker.

Another important to consider, of course, is that the offense has been putrid of late. The Twins have scored only five runs in the last three games. The noticeable difference in the games against Toronto is an absolute lack of patience. The Twins hitters, from Michael Cuddyer to Justin Morneau, helped Toronto starter A.J. Burnett by expanding the strikezone and not waiting or working counts at all. Its notable that Morneau and Torii Hunter went hitless in eight at-bats or that Justin is 1 for his last 12, but more notable is Jason Tyner.

Tyner is the ultimate representative of the "empty" batting-average. Tyner has a .294 average, but a .639 OPS to go with it. He has one extra-base hit (a double) for a .303 slugging percentage and six walks in 109 at-bats for a .336 OBP. He simply is no longer getting it done. He's 1 for his last 14 and has started to show his true colors. There is no way the Twins remain a contender if Tyner is in their starting outfield.

Of course, Jason Kubel isn't healthy and the other outfielders aren't getting it done, but I'd rather see Josh Rabe in the starting lineup. At least he has some power. For all this talk of Tyner's "speed," he hasn't stolen a single base all year. Even our MVP slugger Morneau has done that. Tyner isn't worth very much if his only contribution is a few base hits a week.

Today should be even more interesting. Boof Bonser, back from Triple-A, makes a start against Scott Downs. Bonser hasn't been very great and I'm not expecting much, but that offense really can't be this bad for a whole homestand, can it?

Blue Jays 5, Twins 0

A spotless start by Carlos Silva quickly transformed into another ugly outing last night. After pitching four hitless innings to start the game, Silva gave up a two-run homer to Bengie Molina in the fifth inning and was then tagged for three more runs in the seventh before being pulled.

The Twins had a chance to make a game out of it at one point. Down by two runs in the sixth inning, they put runners on second and third with one out for cleanup hitter Michael K-ddyer, at which point Cuddy predictably struck out. Justin Morneau followed this up with a feeble pop-out to Troy Glaus to end the Twins' only real threat of the game.

It was a disappointing loss, but then again, you can't win 'em all. I always hate to see the Twins get shut out, especially at home, but Jays' starter Ted Lilly pitched well. The more important news of the day had nothing to do with this game, but rather test results regarding the Twins' top rookie.

The results of the MRI on Francisco Liriano's elbow have been revealed... yet it's still tough to figure out what to make of his injury. It seems Liriano has no structural damage in his elbow, but rather what is described as "a mild chronic strain of his ulnar collateral ligament." It has also come to light that Liriano has soreness in his shoulder, which is potentially bad news. The Twins say they are "optimistic, but not totally confident" that Liriano will pitch again this season. Personally, I'd be very surprised if he did. With that said, I'll keep my fingers crossed because his return would give this team a huge boost.

For now, we will all have our eyes on another 22-year-old rookie. Matt Garza makes his major league debut tonight against A.J. Burnett.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

#30 Carries Twins to Wild Card Lead

It has finally happened. It's been 19 years in the making, but the Twins now have another guy with 30 home runs in a major league season: Justin Morneau. Facing a 3-2 deficit after a Brandon Inge two-run blast in the seventh against Johan Santana, Morneau came up with Joe Mauer on base (who had walked against a guy with one walk all year in Jamie Walker -- yes quite ironic) and one out with flame-throwing Joel Zumaya on the mound.

Zumaya had just struck out Michael Cuddyer on three astounding pitches. The first was a fastball clocked at 101 mph for a strike. The second was a nasty breaking ball at 82 over the outside corner. By the time the next 101 mph strike charged against the strikezone, Cuddyer looked absolutely helpless. So did the Twins. The Inge homer seemed to have really put a hole in their sails.

Up came Morneau, who was 0-for-3 on the night and was coming off a bad at-bat, having grounded into a double play to end a bases-loaded threat in the sixth inning. Morneau immediately redeemed himself. Zumaya threw another 101 mph fastball, this was out over the plate and around the shoulders. Morneau swung hard, got around on it, and blasted it high into the air and out it went. Gone was the Detroit lead. Gone was the pressure of hitting the 30th home run. In one swing, Morneau broke that curse over the Twins, gave Santana a win, pushed the Twins to a 1/2 game lead in the Wild Card standings, became the fourth Canadian (Larry Walker, Matt Stairs, and Jason Bay are the others) to hit 30 home runs, and also became the first Twin since Gary Gaetti in 1987 to collect 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

Simply put, it was a spectacularly exciting and uplifting moment for both the Twins and Morneau. To look and see that the first baseman has a .322/.376/.604 line with 30 HR and 101 RBI is amazing. Knowing that all this is for real is even better. Morneau isn't just an MVP candidate; right now he is the AL MVP. Why? Morneau has more game-winning hits (16) now than Big Papi, who has 15. Unlike Ortiz, Manny, Thome, Dye, Jeter, Giambi and other MVP candidates, Morneau doesn't have a slugger hitting behind him or a Jeter in front of him. Michael Cuddyer's done a fine job, but he isn't that great. And the Twins have four hitters in their lineup (Bartlett, Tyner, Castillo, Punto) with a combined four home runs this year.

Morneau is the Twins' only legitimate power threat and his presence and offensive numbers this year have powered the Twins to being a contender. Yes, Mauer gets on base, has an amazing average, and is a great catcher, but the man who hits the 3-run blast and drives in Mauer wins more games. (Although, according to win shares at The Hardball Times, Mauer has two more win shares due to his defense)

Simply put, a guy with this power, average, and clutch ability cannot be overlooked. Right now, it has to be Morneau for me. (If anyone's curious, it's Albert Pujols again in the NL, with Carlos Beltran right behind him.) However, besides gushing over Morneau's incredible season, the Twins did a get a big contribution from Santana tonight as well.

Yes, he gave up the two-run dinger, but home runs are really Santana's only weakness. He was much more dominant last night against a very good lineup for the Tigers. He struck out 10 Tigers, walked two, and gave up only four hits. The whole pitching staff did great, striking out 13 total, while giving up only the four hits. Joe Nathan came in the game to shut the door in the ninth, promptly striking out Magglio Ordonez on a nasty slider.

After the bad news this week, the last two starts have been a complete joy to watch. The idea that Radke and Santana could lead this staff and team to the playoffs didn't seem too likely after the news on Francisco Liriano, but after two great starts against the Tigers, things are looking up. Boston and Chicago are sliding and the Twins have the one player those other guys don't still: Mr. Morneau.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Radke Puts Twins Back On Track

After a devastating Monday in which the Twins not only were blown out once again by the Tigers but also learned that they will likely be without their best starting pitcher for the remainder of the season, it would have been tough to blame the team for coming out with a flat effort last night. The Twins' starter, Brad Radke, has reportedly been pitching with a bad shoulder and he entered last night's start with a 10.32 ERA in three starts this season against the Tigers.

Instead, Radke came out and pitched an outstanding game. His peripherals were not overly impressive (9 H, 1 BB, 2K over 7 IP) but the results were: he held the Tigers scoreless outside of a two-run second inning and gave the Twins' offense the chance to scrape together four unanswered runs and pick up their first victory in eight tries this year at Comerica Park.

It's hard not to have a lot of respect for Brad Radke. He struggled down the stretch quite a bit last year, but not once did I ever see him coming up with excuses. Not until after the season was it revealed that Radke was pitching through excruciating pain in his right shoulder. This year, I've heard reports that Radke again is pitching with considerable pain in that shoulder, but those reports haven't come from Brad; I've never seen him blame a bad outing on an injury.

Going into the 2005 season, many baseball analysts felt that the Twins' rotation sported the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball, with Radke and Johan Santana both coming off excellent 2004 campaigns. With Francisco Liriano gone and Carlos Silva struggling, the pressure will be on the Radke/Santana duo to carry the Twins' rotation through the rest of the season. If the Twins want to have any hope of making the post-season (and succeeding once they get there), Radke will have to be consistent and Santana will have to dominate. Radke did his part last night, and if Santana can do the same tonight and push the Twins to a series victory in Detroit, I think there will be some reason for optimism.

Meanwhile, the rotation continues to transform around those two. Liriano is headed for the 15-day disabled list, while phenom prospect Matt Garza has finally been called up and will likely start against Toronto on Friday night.

In a way, I feel sorry for Garza because I think the way Liriano performed this season is going to cause a lot of fans to set unrealistic expectations. I have talked to a number of Twins fans the past couple nights who have expressed a sentiment similar to, "Well as long as Garza comes up and pitches like Liriano, we should be fine." I am a big Garza fan, he has been dominant in the minors and I think he's going to be a very good major league pitcher over the course of his career, but if you expect him to come up and post a sub-2 ERA and strike out hitters like Francisco was, you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment. Liriano was having an incredible and unprecedented season, and it's hard to imagine Garza duplicating that production even with his scorching fastball.

With all that said, I'm excited to see the kid pitch. Whether we like it or not, his success is going to be crucial to the Twins' post-season chances. It's a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old in his first full season of professional baseball, but unfortunately that's just the way it has come to be.
"It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me," Garza said of his latest promotion. "I just don't want to have to do it again. I want to stay and not go anywhere."
Here's hoping you do stay. Welcome to the big leagues Matt.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Update: Garza is called up

As expected, Matt Garza has been called up from Triple-A and Matt Smith, the journeyman starter who struggled against the meager Royals on Sunday, was sent down. Garza will likely start this Friday against Toronto, matching up against A.J. Burnett.

No word yet on whether or not Liriano has been placed on the DL, but its likely a matter of time. At this point, I would assume Boof Bonser is recalled but who knows. At least there is something to be excited about, if only a bit.

The Highest of Highs and the Lowest of Lows

After the four-game sweep of the Royals, we as Twins fans and I'm sure the Twins themselves were feeling good. It was, after all, a pretty thorough defeat of a terrible team. However, the news after last night's game couldn't have been worse. Francisco Liriano, it seems, is still hurt and probably in a worse way than you or I would like to know.

When you read words like "Liriano, 22, seemed on the verge of tears, and his voice crackled as he described the pain, pointing to the inside of the elbow this time, beneath the muscle and possibly in the joint" and " 'I couldn't even throw the fastball, slider, changeup anything....It bothered me every pitch I threw,' " there is definitely reason to worry.

Liriano did not look like half his normal self last night. Though his slider still had bite and his fastball was hitting 96, he looked uncomfortable and unusually mortal, giving up a career-high 10 hits while striking five and walking none in his four innings of work. Seeing him taken out after only 67 pitches was a definite indication that an issue was at hand.

A few days ago, I reflected on my feeling that such an issue for Liriano was quite possible. I wrote that:
Its clear the torque Liriano puts on his elbow with each hard-breaking slider is doing damage to his elbow and forearm area. It may only be a matter of time before he faces major problems. He may be okay for now, but winning the Rookie of the Year (*cough cough* Kerry Wood) isn't worth ruining a career. I don't wish to jump to any conclusions, but in retrospect, the Twins caution with Liriano may be a good thing.

It's likely that Liriano's delivery and mechanics will eventually need altering. It's a choice between a great season and possible playoff success and a good long career. Sure, if Liriano loses some bite on his slider due to alterations of his mechanics, he'll get hit a little harder, at least at first, but more reliance on a great fastball with movement and a good changeup (one that can be great with Santana sitting on the bench waiting to help out) isn't such a bad thing. Anyway, the fact is that Liriano probably will eventually have to rely less on the slider regardless.

There is a long list of pitchers whose careers fell apart for similar reasons or had to change their pitching to compensate (think John Smoltz, or our own Scott Erickson). It seems to me that the Twins will probably go the cautious route, as most of their decisions this year point to the future and not going to the playoffs anyway. Even this year, the staff could simply try and persuade Liriano to rely more on his fastball and changeup. But who knows if that will happen?
Obviously I had no semblance of a clue this would actually happen, but the possibility was always there. This represents a huge issue for the Twins, because Liriano's future is now clearly at stake. Reading the words "out indefinitely with a left elbow injury" just killed me. It all but destroys the Twins' hopes of going to the playoffs. Yes, they still have their core of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Johan Santana, but with the shaky backend of their rotation they needed the two top-line starters to do make it this far and they need them to go all the way.

This team probably can't rely too much longer on retreads like Jason Tyner, Josh Rabe, Mike Smith, Boof Bonser, Willie Eyre and others. It's true that Matt Garza will almost certainly be called up now, but will it make a difference? There is no way to know how Garza will do under such immense pressure, especially after throwing more innings than he ever has in his professional life.

The point is that the Twins just lost a huge reason why they were in the playoff race in the first place and it's hard to imagine they can go too much farther without the guy we've come to call Franchise. Even if they did somehow make it to the playoffs, they will go with a Santana, an older and constantly pain-striken Brad Radke, and a very mediocre Carlos Silva. Suddenly their staff is not so intimidating.

The good news, of course, is that even if the Twins fail to make it to the playoffs, the future still looks bright, even if Liriano isn't a significant part of it. Who knows what will happen with him. At best, this could be purely muscular and he could possibly come back this year. At worst, he could need Tommy John surgery and never be heard from again. Regardless, this is why the Twins are so protective of their pitching depth. They still have a pool of deep pitching talent ready to help them contend the next few years with Santana, Mauer, Morneau and Co. on board.

So, despite this depressing news, the future is not grim the way it is in Washington, Kansas City, or Pittsburgh.

And, yes, I realize a game happened last night. But the ugliness of that game, Jesse Crain's four-walk performance, and Morneau and Mauer's continued great hitting were all outshadowed by this news. Let's just hope Radke's arm doesn't fall off tonight.

Monday, August 07, 2006

From Mendoza to MVP Candidate

In the middle of May, Justin Morneau was struggling. He was hitting for mediocre power, he was striking out too much, and -- as he was for the entirety of the 2005 campaign -- he was helpless against left-handed pitchers. This blog had taken to playfully calling him Justin Mendoza, in honor of his batting average which sat just a few points above the dreaded .200-mark.

To say Morneau has turned his season around would be quite the understatement. Not only has Justin reversed all the aforementioned negative trends, but as a 25-year-old he is putting together one of the great offensive seasons in club history, and also putting himself in position to be a serious contender for the American League MVP honor, which a Twins player has not captured since Rod Carew in 1977.

With his three-run jack on Saturday night, Morneau is now just one homer away from breaking the Twins' nearly two-decade 30-HR drought. That he is hitting for good power is not particularly surprising (this is what most people were expecting last year), but the high average is. While Morneau has shown ability to hit for power in the big leagues, the batting average has never really been there. He entered the 2006 campaign with a .248 career average in 876 major-league at-bats. Even though he went 1-for-5 yesterday (with one of those outs just inches short of becoming HR #30), he's still hitting .321/.376/.599 on the season.

Morneau would have a very difficult time overcoming David Ortiz for the MVP award, for a number of reasons. Ortiz leads the majors in home runs and RBI and has delivered about 50 game-winning hits for the Red Sox this year. Also working in his favor are the facts that he plays in a large market in Boston and that many people believe he should have won the award last year. A couple other names that have frequently popped up as AL MVP contenders are Derek Jeter and Jermaine Dye, but both are great hitters in incredibly stacked lineups. If you want to talk about truly valuable players, Ortiz and Morneau are the guys who carry the load for their teams.

If it comes down to Morneau and Ortiz, Justin does have a few things going in his favor. For one thing, he plays a defensive position. Voters tend to value that quite a bit; a full-time designated hitter has never won the MVP award and it is probably the reason that Alex Rodriguez took home the honor rather than Ortiz last year. Also, Morneau has powered the Twins' lineup this season in a big way. He has nearly twice as many home runs as any other player on the team, and he has 98 RBI in a lineup that has only one other player with more than 60. Ortiz has been great, but he's also got Manny Ramirez and his .319/.429/.633 line hitting behind him in the lineup. In fact, Ramirez has arguably been a better hitter this year than Ortiz, he just doesn't receive the same type of media glamour because he doesn't deliver the dramatic hits. And while Ortiz does have an impressive collection of walk-off home runs, let's not forget that Morneau has delivered quite a few game-winning hits himself this season.

Of course, I don't expect the voters to see it that way. If things continue to go the way they are, Ortiz will probably win the MVP this year. With the 58 HR and 161 RBI he's currently projected to produce, I wouldn't be too upset about it. Still, the fact that Morneau can legitimately put his name in the conversation when he was hitting .206 on May 9 is pretty remarkable.

Meanwhile, the Twins continue with their unbelievable run. Once totally incapable of winning games away from home, the Twins have won nine of their ten road contests since the All-Star break after sweeping the Royals in four games in Kansas City. Their road recent success will now be put to the test big-time as they head into Detroit where they have been outscored 47-8 in six losses this year.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Royals Flushed

Well, once again, the Twins demolished the Triple-A team of the Central division, the Kansas City Royals. The Twins were once again helped by an incredibly 14 Royal walks (most for the Twins since 1976 against -- yup -- the Royals) adding up to 26 in the past two games. As a note to the Royals, you usually can't win when your starter walks nine batters in less than five innings of work.

Needless to say, despite allowing no hits through 2 2/3 innings of work, the five walks Runelvys Hernandez had issued at that point quickly caught up to him when Justin Morneau launched a pitch just over the right-field fence with two men on. Morneau, after a 1-for-4 day and two walks, now has 29 HRs, 97 RBI, a .323 average, and a .983 OPS. Incredible. He is patient enough to get his pitches, he walks when he has to, he also seems to come up with runners on, and he is far and away the Twins MVP this year up to this point.

Of course, with all those walks, the offense didn't stop there. Things got so out of control for the Royals staff that Nick Punto went hitless but managed three RBI, with a bases-loaded walk and two sacrifice flies. Three players -- Joe Mauer, Punto, and Jason Kubel -- had three walks each, with Jason Tyner and Morneau each collecting two apiece. All the walks added up to easily explain the Twins ability to score 14 runs with only 12 hits.

The best part of the evening was seeing two of the "lighter" Twins hitters have the multi-hit nights. The only Twins players with more than one hit were Jason Bartlett and Luis Castillo. Castillo went 4-for-6 with 3 RBI and Bartlett went 3-for-5 with two RBI. The simple lesson is that when a pitching staff walks 34 batters in 3 games, they don't tend to win too many games. The Royals are a mess and couldn't make a game of it even with a mediocre Carlos Silva on the hill (10 hits, only one K in 6 1/3 innings pitched with three earned runs) continuing to serve up home runs.

Don't forget Twins fans that it's August and Silva has a 6.37 ERA, a .334 BAA, has allowed 22 home runs, and a 1.56 WHIP. The only reason his ugly July (6.67 ERA, 45 hits in 28 1/3 innings) was ignored was because of his 3-1 record due to the massive offensive run the Twins were on over the month. Silva is an awful pitcher still and if he has trouble with a Royals team like this, there should be no reason for him to pitch in a contender's rotation.

Same goes for today's starter, Triple-A veteran Mike Smith, who is lucky enough to pitch against guys that should be in his league. Hopefully the offense doesn't let up. With another 10 walks, why should it?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Twins 8, Royals 5

Here's how I imagine it went down:

The ninth inning roles around, and a few players in the Twins' dugout look up at the scoreboard and realize that they are on the verge of losing to the Kansas City Royals. The Twins' leadoff hitters in the ninth, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer, think to themselves, "Hold on a second... this is the Royals." Mauer and Cuddyer promptly deliver back-to-back solo homers to tie the game.

Then, in the tenth inning, they realized they couldn't wait another six innings before scoring again, so once again, after a Jason Bartlett single and walks to Mauer (intentional) and Cuddyer, Bartlett scored on a wild pitch, Morneau was intentionally walked for his fourth free pass of the game, Torii Hunter gave the Twins some cushion with a two-run single before Joe Nathan easily closed the door on the Royals' offense for a save and a Twins win.

Some notes on last night's game:

* It's the second half, and Johan Santana is not dominating, which is an unusual thing to see. After a great first half, Santana has looked very human since the All-Star break, and last night's game was no different. After three innings, Johan had already struck out six Royals hitters and the Twins had already handed him a 3-0 lead. It looked like Santana was in position to easily cruise to his 13th victory of the season.

Instead, the Royals got to Santana in the bottom of the fourth as he gave up four runs on four singles and a couple of walks, giving Kansas City the lead. Santana settled down after that inning, setting the Royals down 1-2-3 in both the fifth and sixth innings before leaving the game, but the damage was done. Santana's recent control problems are distressing. He never issued more than three walks in a game prior to the All-Star break, but since then he has done it twice in five starts, and he issued three last night. After posting an incredible 1.05 ERA in June, Santana's ERA was 4.74 in July and now he's stumbled out of the gates in August. Here's hoping Johan can transform back into the dominant force he has been in the second halves of the last two seasons, because the Twins need him more than ever right now.

* Of course, the Twins' offense didn't help Santana out much. Despite giving up four runs to the inferior Royals lineup, Johan should have easily gotten the win, but the Twins left the bases loaded three times. The Twins' 2006 offense is starting to look a lot like the 2005 offense, stranding numerous runners on base with bad at-bats and frustrating double-plays.

* Here are a couple good examples of why that is happening:

In the fifth inning, Royals starter Mark Redman was struggling. After giving up a double to Nick Punto, Redman issued walks to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (in the game, the Royals pitchers walked 12 Twins hitters total) to load the bases with two outs. Redman had five walks at that point, so obviously he was having a tough time with his control. Up comes Torii Hunter, who swings at the first pitch and grounds out to the shortstop. Hunter's tendency to help out a struggling pitcher with his ugly at-bats is not exactly the sign of a veteran leader.

Jason Tyner would do the exact same thing two innings later. The Royals loaded the bases with a couple of walks, and Tyner came up and swung at the first pitch to ground into an inning-ending double play. You'd think that guys like Tyner and Hunter who have been playing baseball for so long would be a little smarter than that, but apparently not.

* Morneau has been doing a lot of great things this year, and his three-run double with two outs in the third inning last night was huge. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his night, in my mind, was his ability to lay off tough pitches and draw walks against two left-handed pitchers. Prior to last night's game, Morneau had drawn just six walks against southpaws, and in 2005 he drew just eight all season. To see him do it twice in one game was extremely pleasant. Most enjoyable was the second, against reliever Jimmy Gobble, which came in an at-bat in which he quickly fell behind 0-2.

* It seems that Boston's Jon Papelbon might win the AL Rookie of the Year award by default this year. His two main competitors for the honor, Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander, are both battling arm injuries. Liriano missed his last start due to a sore forearm (that is hopefully nothing more serious than that), and now Verlander will miss his next start because of "arm fatigue," which is probably not a good sign for the Tigers.

* I'll end this post on a good note. Matt Garza made his fifth start for the Rochester Red Wings last night and delivered seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and one walk while striking out 11 as the Red Wings won 8-0. Garza now has a 1.85 ERA in five starts at the Triple-A level, along with 33 strikeouts and just 7 walks. But yeah, I'm sure Mike Smith has a better chance for success in the big leagues right now.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Triple-A Fun

In what should hopefully be expected of a playoff contender, the Twins easily defeated the Kansas City Royals, that now resemble a mediocre Triple-A team at best. Granted, even I can admit that what new GM Drayton McClane has done since coming from the Atlanta Braves organization has been impressive; he's gotten rid of old retread veterans (Tony Graffinino, Matt Stairs, Elmer Dessens, Mike MacDougal, etc) for prospects for some potential, mainly the pitching the organization lacks so badly.

However, by doing so, the current product left on the field doesn't look so pretty. This was clear tonight, with the numerous mis-plays by the Royals and the two errors by their new shortstop who is so unknown, doesn't have a page on him. Besides looking pathetic with their gloves, their starting pitching Jorge De La Rosa could not find the strike zone from the very beginning.

De la Rosa is a 25-year-old Mexican pitcher who still looks as raw as an 18-year-old rookie. He's a lefty with a hard fastball and a curve that has plenty of movement, but he has no control. He is the kind of pitcher the Royal organization could really use, and there, the trade with Brewers (giving up Graffinino) was probably a smart one by McClane. However, De la Rosa needs time in Triple-A to work on his control. The problem is he basically is already there. After a good first start against Texas, De la Rosa walked four Twins in 1 and 1/3 innings and threw 54 pitches (half were balls) before being removed with a 3-0 deficit.

The Twins were smart and waited patiently while De la Rosa walked Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer in the first before, with two outs, Justin Morneau knocked one in with a single and Torii Hunter another with a double. By the second inning, De la Rosa's control was non-existent and Todd Wellemeyer was brought in. After Michael Cuddyer grounded out and Luis Castillo was forced out at home, Morneau once again came up big with runners on, hitting a single to bring in two before Cuddyer scored on a Blanco mental error. Basically, Morneau was undoubtedly the hitting hero of the night. The pitchers were De la Rosa, Wellemeyer, and Leo Nunez, who despite getting two double plays (nothing new for the Twins, with 10 in the last three games), showed lack of control as well by hitting two Twins hitters in essentially the same spot.

The best part of this game, other than picking up a needed win against a sad team, was seeing Brad Radke throw eight good innings and show no signs of his lingering shoulder issues. With the news on Francisco Liriano's arm soreness, Johan Santana's recent string of mediocre starts, the failures of Boof Bonser and Scott Baker, and the call-up of a Triple-A lifer, it was easy to get down on this team pretty easily the last few days. But it's comforting to know Radke still can be effective, as he got 14 straight Royals out at one point, struck out six, walked one, and gave up only four hits.

Granted, against the Royals, those are numbers to get too excited about, but knowing that Radke is healthy enough to be effective and get his fastball at least in the 88-90 MPH range is important. Radke is a key factor down the stretch and no Twin fan can honestly tell me that they wouldn't love to see Brad go out in a Twins uniform by pitching a few more brilliant playoff starts. That would be the perfect ending to a nice career for a guy who certainly did a lot for this franchise. Don't forget that Radke had two, not just one, chances to bolt this organization for big money and he spurned it for a chance to finish his career as a Twin and to win a ring here.

By no means am I predicting the Twins make the playoffs, but merely stating the importance of seeing Radke have a good game. The best thing now that can happen for the Twins is to get good news on Liriano. The only problem is that even if they get good news, Liriano's future is now up in the arm. Its clear the torque Liriano puts on his elbow with each hard-breaking slider is doing damage to his elbow and forearm area. It may only be a matter of time before he faces major problems. He may be okay for now, but winning the Rookie of the Year (*cough cough* Kerry Wood) isn't worth ruining a career. I don't wish to jump to any conclusions, but in retrospect, the Twins caution with Liriano may be a good thing.

It's likely that Liriano's delivery and mechanics will eventually need altering. It's a choice between a great season and possible playoff success and a good long career. Sure, if Liriano loses some bite on his slider due to alterations of his mechanics, he'll get hit a little harder, at least at first, but more reliance on a great fastball with movement and a good changeup (one that can be great with Santana sitting on the bench waiting to help out) isn't such a bad thing. Anyway, the fact is that Liriano probably will eventually have to rely less on the slider regardless.

There is a long list of pitchers whose careers fell apart for similar reasons or had to change their pitching to compensate (think John Smoltz, or our own Scott Erickson). It seems to me that the Twins will probably go the cautious route, as most of their decisions this year point to the future and not going to the playoffs anyway. Even this year, the staff could simply try and persuade Liriano to rely more on his fastball and changeup. But who knows if that will happen?

Of course, for now, if he is healthy, me and the rest of the Twins nation will be glad to see him on the mound. With that said, lets hope that Johan can righten his ship against the Royals as he begins August. He had a July that saw him go an un-Santana-esque 3-1 with a 4.74 ERA, with 40 hits and 12 walks allowed in 38 innings with only 36 Ks. Granted, the K rate isn't terrible, but Santana was not at all his dominating self. The numbers look awfully close to how Santana did in April (1-3, 4.45 ERA, 34 hits, 10 walks, and 28 Ks in 32 2/3 innings), so let's hope his August and September are just like his May and June. (3-1, 2.72 ERA, 5-0 1.05 ERA respectively.) Too bad Johan has a 4.61 ERA against the Royals so far this year. Lets hope he improves on that as well.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


The Twins absolutely crushed the Rangers on Monday night by a score of 15-2, and then went on to be outscored 19-2 in a couple of blowout losses on Tuesday night and yesterday afternoon. Much of this was thanks to poor outings from young starters Scott Baker and Boof Bonser, as well as complete ineptitude from the offense against a mediocre Texas pitching staff. Yesterday's was perhaps the most frustrating game of the season for the Twins' offense, as they collected 12 hits and drew five walks but managed to convert all those base-runners into just two runs as they hit into a mind-numbing five double plays (as well as a strike 'em out/throw 'em out in the third inning). The Twins have now lost two consecutive series at home, after having lost just one all season previously.

I am fully confident that the Twins have enough talent on their roster to make the post-season, but I don't think they will. Why? This team has been horribly mismanaged from top to bottom all season long, and still this trend shows no signs of stopping.

The Twins dug themselves into a seemingly inescapable early-season hole thanks in large part to bad decisions by the Twins' brain-trust. Starting Juan Castro and Tony Batista for two and a half months despite the clear presence of superior options cost the Twins greatly on both the offensive and defensive ends. Ron Gardenhire's hesitation to remove Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva from the rotation and insert Francisco Liriano was another ugly mistake. Sending Jason Kubel down after a tough first week left the team with no real alternatives when Rondell White couldn't put things together.

In mid-June, after the organization finally caved in and turned things over to the youth, the Twins started rattling off wins at a staggering rate, and did the unthinkable by putting themselves back in the playoff picture. And now, with the season on the line, Gardenhire and Terry Ryan continue to make decisions that prevent the team from having the success it needs to have.

Is Matt Garza ready to pitch in the majors? I'm not sure. His strikeout rate has gone down since he arrived at Triple-A, which might suggest that the hitters are catching up with him; but at the same time, he's still only allowed 16 hits and seven runs in 27 innings in Rochester (good for a 2.33 ERA and .176 OBA). This kid is dominating in the highest level of the minor leagues. One thing that is almost certain is that Garza would have a better chance of helping the Twins win than Baker or Bonser, both of whom continue to prove that they are not ready to pitch in the majors at this point, and yet the team continues to throw those two out there in important games. Who knows how Garza's stuff will translate to the big leagues, but he would at least have an immediate advantage in that most clubs haven't been able to scout him much yet. The fact that Terry Ryan continues to mess with Bonser, Baker and Silva while leaving his best pitching prospect in the minors is tough to stomach. Now, with Bonser having predictably struggled again yesterday, the Twins sent him back down, but not to bring up Garza. No, instead they called up Mike Smith, a journeyman who the Twins brought in from the Phillies minor league system in the past off-season. Smith is having a decent year in Triple-A (3.52 ERA in 125.1 IP) but that is to be expected considering he's almost 30 and has logged nearly 500 innings at the Triple-A level in his career. Is he going to be the answer for the back end of the Twins rotation? I would venture to guess no.

Letting the 23-year-old Garza season in the minors for a while would be acceptable if the Twins were not in playoff contention, but when you're in a situation where you need to be winning ball-games, you've got to go to the guy who is most likely to give your team a chance to win, regardless of his age. If the Twins can't win games when Liriantanke is not on the mound, they are going to be in serious trouble for the rest of the season, particularly if Liriano's injury is more serious than the team is letting on.

Another issue that continues to hold the Twins back is Gardenhire's aggravating inflexibility with the batting lineup. When is he going to get Michael Cuddyer out of the cleanup spot? There is no reason that Justin Morneau should not be hitting in the four-spot for the Twins, if not every day than at least against right-handed pitchers. Cuddyer is hitting just .231 against righties this season, making it very easy for opposing teams to pitch around Joe Mauer without much risk. Meanwhile, Morneau is being robbed of opportunities because Cuddy so frequently strikes out in front of him. The excuse that Gardy continues to use for his current arrangement is that he doesn't want two lefties hitting back-to-back in the middle of the order, but that notion is completely discredited by the fact that both Mauer and Morneau are hitting southpaws extremely well this year.

It really seems to me like winning is a second priority to the Twins' management right now, which is a sad thing considering the team is within games of a wild-card spot. Hopefully the Twins can overcome the obstacles set by their own manager and GM and make a return to the post-season, but the odds are unfortunately stacked against them thanks to their own mistakes.