Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cuddyer, Perkins Stand Out in Close Loss

Just a few years ago, Glen Perkins was pitching for the Minnesota and was a fantastic left-hander. Let me clarify; that's the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Now, the Stillwater-native is up pitching for his hometown team. Last night, in a disappointing loss, Perkins pitched 3 2/3 innings, gave up one hit, walked none, and struck out five.

He was charged with a run, but it was Dennys Reyes who was brought in with two outs in the ninth that gave up an RBI single to A.J. Pierzynski, so it wasn't all Perkins' fault. Perkins looked great. He was throwing a fastball ranging from 91-95 MPH, moving it all over the plate and hitting the corners, while mixing in a slider and a nice curveball.

Mainly, its worth noting that he struck out Pierzynski and Jim Thome twice. Clearly, Perkins would be of good use in the Twins bullpen during the playoffs. The natural question is who he replaces on the 25-man playoff roster. Silva is a possibility, but it's highly unlikely that management would actually do that. Willie Eyre certainly hasn't earned a spot on the postseason roster. Also, a utility player, like Luis Rodriguez, could be left off.

Needless to say, Perkins has given the Twins something to think about over next few days. Other than him, Michael Cuddyer was about the only other positive element in the game. Cuddyer went 2-for-4 with three RBI and his double in the ninth scored two to give the Twins a great chance at a tie or winning the game. Having Cuddyer swinging a hot bat heading into the playoffs will be huge, especially since Justin Morneau has slacked a little recently.

Overall, Boof Bonser and the whole lineup had a down game. Bonser gave up three home runs, a bad sign since it looked like he might have gotten over his one major weakness. Joe Mauer had an off night and the rest of the lineup didn't look so great against Freddy Garcia, who has had a very subpar season outside of his two recent one-hit, eight-inning starts.

Obviously, the worst part is that the Royals had an incredible comeback against the Tigers to come back and beat them in extra innings. Already, the Twins have had their chance to take first and missed it. Today, the Twins put Matt Garza on the mound. Let's hope he can continue to show the progress he has made as we get closer to the playoffs.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Shouldering the Load

No one knew what to expect when Brad Radke took the mound last night. This wasn't a situation like Francisco Liriano's comeback a few weeks ago. When Liriano returned, there was reason to believe that he had recovered from his elbow injury. In this instance, everyone knew that Radke's shoulder was extremely screwed up and wasn't going to improve much. Nevertheless, each Twins player (including Radke) had to cross their fingers and hope he could make it through five innings without his arm falling off.

Well, he did. In fact, Radke pitched pretty darn well. He tossed five innings, allowing just thee hits and one unearned run. He issued two walks, but erased them both with double-plays. Radke was efficient, needing just 57 pitches in the game and throwing mostly strikes despite the pair of walks. He proved himself to be the definitive option for game three of the ALDS, if he is healthy enough to make a start. Of course, that is a big if. Radke might feel some signficant soreness in his shoulder over the weekend, and if that's the case, he probably won't be able to throw in the playoffs, regardless of how badly he may want to. Still, if he can pitch, it would give the Twins a major edge. Radke is a professional and he knows how to pitch, which he proved that last night. Granted, it was the Royals, but it was his first start since August 25 and he made it with a bum shoulder.

Despite his impressive and encouraging performance, Radke did not provide the lasting memory of the night. No, that would be a late exhilarating comeback by the Twins which put them in a tie for first place in the AL Central with three games remaining. The Twins offense looked totally stagnant for most of the game, going scoreless for the first eight innings. Then, with two outs in the ninth, they finally put a run on the board, with Joe Mauer taking a solo shot to left field for one of the season's most dramatic home runs of the year. Mauer's 13th homer tied the game 1-1, and in the bottom of the 10th Jason Bartlett knocked a base hit over Joey Gathright's head with Justin Morneau on third to give the Twins to victory. With the Tigers losing 8-6 against Toronto, the Twins put themselves in first place in the division for the first time all year.

Winning the division will still be a daunting task, as Detroit hosts the lowly Royals this weekend while the Twins will face the White Sox. If the Tigers lose their series against KC while the Twins take two of three against the Sox, the division is ours. Of course, that's a fairly tall order, so the Twins will just have to bring their game against Chicago and hope that Detroit falters at home.

It all starts tonight, with Boof Bonser getting his final post-season tune-up against Freddy Garcia. If the Twins want to win the division, this is pretty much a must-win; however, if the goal is simply to keep their starters healthy and continue to prepare for the playoffs, let's just hope Bonser looks good and the offense makes more of a solid effort than they did against Luke Hudson last night.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Silva Out

With last night's ugly start, it would seem there is now little to no chance that Carlos Silva will make an appearance as a starting pitcher in the playoffs. For the Twins, that's a good thing. I understand that maybe Silva is a good guy in the clubhouse and his teammates want to stand by him, but for the sake of winning, Silva is better served in the bullpen as a long reliever. With that said, if Brad Radke is hurt and the Twins need a game four starter (which presumes they are ahead 2-1 in the series, if it is an elimination game they have to go with Johan), the Twins should take Silva over Scott Baker, provided he has a leash of around 60 pitches or 3-4 innings of work.

Want proof? Check out the following lines: .284/.311/.517, .285/.317/.438, .309/.340/.486, .341/.358/.623, .404/.423/.489. That's Silva opponent lines in his first inning of work, pitches 16-30, innings 1-3, innings 4-6, and innings 7-9. Clearly, early on, Silva can at least be decent and help the team out. Once he is out there for a few innings, though, he explodes and homers start to fly off opponent bats. All you had to do was watch last night's game to know that.

Thus, if he is limited to just a few innings per outing in the postseason and perhaps even as early as this weekend, Silva can be useful to the team. However, his worth as a starter is gone. We know that Santana, Boof Bonser, and Radke (if he's healthy enough), will make up the post-season rotation. If necessary, it looks like Matt Garza will get the nod as the third starter, which is good news. Garza has the stuff and the poise to win in big games, but Silva appears to flop the moment the pressure is on.

Naturally, more than just Silva's outing contributed to a loss last night. Here's the recap:

* Torii Hunter hurt himself late in the game, fouling a pitch off his foot. When he tried to continue his at-bat, he flailed at strike three and fell to the ground, as he couldn't even put pressure on the feet. This could be potentially devastating news, as Hunter's bat has carried the team through September and his defense has been significantly better in recent weeks.

* For whatever reason, the ineptitude against Mark Redman continued. Granted, the Twins scored three runs and weren't shut out this time, but one of those came with some help from Shane Costa's Manny-ish defense in right field and for all the strikes Redman threw, the Twins didn't do very much at all against him. Redman allows a .305 BAA average, but he also has a 1.34 GB/FB ratio, so a lot of ground ball hits are expected. To the Twins credit, they got some of those hits, but not nearly enough to put any big innings together.

* Nick Punto continues to play stellar defense at third, especially with a downright amazing play late in the game last night. He went 2-for-4 last night, though his strikeout against Redman was particularly frustrating since he (a la 2005) watched a fastball go right down broadway.

* Joe Mauer went 2-for-4 last night with an RBI double and a nice bunt hit, raising his average to .350. With Robinson Cano sitting at .343, there are still no guarantees, but Mauer looks like he is in good position to become the first AL catcher to win a batting title. As a note, Mauer and Mike Redmond also can make history by being the first pair of catchers to hit .340 on the same team, if you consider 175 at-bats as a cutoff line. In 1930, Bill Dickey and Jimmie Reese hit .339 and .346 respectively, but Dickey only played in 109 games (154 game schedule at the time, obviously) though Reese had 188 at-bats. As far as I can tell, that is the only pair to come close.

* Juan Rincon, though he pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings, still looks shaky. In ninth inning he put two runners aboard with one out on a walk and HBP, but then was lucky enough to catch a sharp liner back up the middle and turn it into a double play. Still, he did not strike anyone out. With a 1.35 WHIP, Rincon has simply allowed too many baserunners this year. At this point, I would assume Gardy takes Neshek, Reyes, or even Crain over Rincon in the eighth inning of a close game. Hopefully that's true because he should.

* Today, Brad Radke makes his return to the pitching mound. In some ways, I feel like I did when Francisco Liriano came back; I'm glad to see it, but very nervous because of the injury he has. However, Radke is done after this year and as a fan, I want nothing more than to see this guy pitch a fine game and grab some glory in the playoffs. All I can say is that I don't think I can recall anyone being as tough or determined in my days of watching baseball. Amongst all the primadonnas and high-paid self-loving sluggers, Radke is someone to admire, as he has stuck with a small-market team and has played through what is undoubtedly excrutiating pain. I only have these words: thank you, Brad. You're one-of-a-kind and this whole state will miss you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cruise Control

Early in last night's game, the Twins looked like they were still a little groggy from partying the previous night. Johan Santana was knocked around in the first few innings and the offense looked flat. Still, the Twins were able to win the game in the same fashion have for much of the year. Santana settled in and dominated, and the offense scraped together enough for a comeback victory.

In what was probably his last start of the regular season, Santana put up a nice line (8 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 5 K, 0 BB). If Santana's season is over, his final numbers are very impressive: 233.2 IP, 19-6, 2.77 ERA, 245:47 K/BB, 0.99 WHIP, .216 BAA. Despite a bit of rockiness in his past couple starts, he looks good to go for the post-season and should give us some confidence in Game 1, regardless of the opponent.

Joe Nathan entered the game with a one-run lead in the ninth and caused a scare by loading the bases with one out, but he came back with two big strikeouts to slam the door. Another guy that is comforting to have around entering the playoffs.

With the win, the Twins kept pace with the first-place Tigers, who beat the Blue Jays 4-3. It's not particularly likely that the Twins will be able to overtake the Tigers, as they would need to win two more games than Detroit over the next five days, but it's certainly possible.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's a Clinch!

It's been a pretty unbelievable ride. At the end of April, things looked absolutely dismal for the Minnesota Twins. They were below .500, the Tigers and White Sox were both streaking to great starts, and things were not pretty. The off-season acquisitions of Tony Batista and Rondell White didn't look so good and the fact that Juan Castro was starting regularly at short was the clearest mistake any baseball observer could ever see.

Fast-foward to last night. The Twins blew out the Royals to lock up a playoff spot and eliminate the defending World Champs. The Twins also moved within one game of idle Detroit for the division. Torii Hunter knocked out his 30th home run, giving the Twins two 30+ HR guys in the same season after nearly 20 years without a single one. Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer both have broken the 100 RBI mark, and Hunter still might. Morneau continues to cement himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, with a .324/.380/.570 line with 34 home runs and 129 RBI. Joe Mauer has a very good chance at winning the batting title, a first ever for an AL catcher. Boof Bonser has emerged as a strong pitcher, Matt Garza is contributing, and Pat Neshek is looking nasty in the pen.

How many of these things could we have predicted? Not too many. Before the season, it seemed optimistic to predict that Morneau would hit .270 and drive in 100 runs, or to guess that Mauer would bat over .310. It seemed like wishful thinking to guess that Francisco Liriano would outpitch not only every other rookie in the league, but every other pitcher period. It would have been simply ridiculous to assert that Nick Punto would play everyday and bat .300 and that Jason Bartlett, who looked sloppy in the field and at times clueless at the plate last season, would start 93 straight games while hitting .315 and developing into one of the league's most spectacular defensive shortstops. You certainly would have surprised some people if you said Boof Bonser would have a significant impact on the Twins' chances.

But in one night, just about the whole season was summed up. Bonser pitched very well against Kansas City, going 6 2/3 innings and giving up just one run while walking two and striking out five. As usual, the Twins bullpen was lights out, represented by Dennys Reyes (another wholly unpredictable pitcher who emerged for a huge contribution), Neshek, and the great Joe Nathan. Of course, shutting down Kansas City isn't a huge victory, but their offense has been better of late and the fact that Bonser now has a 4.15 ERA is more than impressive.

If there was any question, it has now been answered: Bonser is definitely the number two starter for the playoffs behind Johan Santana. Even if Brad Radke's return on Thursday is not legitimate (and the guess here is that it is more of an honorary send-off in front of the home crowd), there is no way the Twins should consider Carlos Silva as one of their three playoff starters at all. Matt Garza is a superior option and so is Radke if he can pitch at all.

The offense came up big last night as well. Hunter, as mentioned before, hit #30, smoking a ball to center field to drive in his 94th and 95th runs in the seventh inning. Before the year started, there wasn't much to expect from Hunter other than good defense, around 25 homers, and a .270 average. After getting hurt and seeing his defense suffer, many in the blogsphere, including this site, started to believe that there was no way the Twins should pick up Hunter's $12 million option for 2007.

Although as a 32-year old center fielder, it may still be questionable, Hunter has shown with his great play during this crucial stretch that he's worth keeping around for at least another year. His defense, including a great play last night, has been much better of late and a .280/.340/.495 line on the season is very good. But a .333 average with 9 HR and 26 RBI in September, just when the team looked to be tailing off a bit, has been on of the biggest contributions in the route to the playoffs for the Twins. Morneau is definitely the offensive MVP, but Hunter has been huge down the strech and having two guys with 30 home runs is extremely refreshing for a franchise that has sorely lacked legitimate power hitters for so long.

There are many statistical ways to discuss all these great accomplishments, but nothing explains it better than the feeling of being a Twins fan right now. This season has been up and down, but since the start of June, is has been the most enjoyable time for me as a Twins fan that I can remember since winning the World Series in 1991. Being six years old at the time, it's not exactly a perfect memory, but it was still exciting as a kid to see Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris have some of the greatest games in World Series history.

At this point, it's once again easy to get down on the Twins and suggest that they have no chance in the playoffs, especially with the daunting Yankees in their way. Heck, Gary Gilette does it practically daily at ESPN, though he'll likely be upset to hear another Twin fan complain. However, as everyone who has observed the playoffs in recent years knows, Wild Card teams can do some damage (Angels, Marlins, Red Sox were WS winners) because they often come into the playoffs with a lot more momentum than teams like the Yankees or Mets, who haven't had much to play for in September. (See last night's Mets game. They didn't even look like they were trying at all.)

Of course, the Twins still do have a very realistic chance to overtake the Tigers and win the division, but making up two games with only six left to play is a fairly tall order.

Whether it's against the Athletics or against the Yankees, and whether it's at home or away, the Twins have a great chance to advancee past the the first round of the playoffs. Now that they are in, I just can't wait to sit down and enjoy this talented, exciting young team play in October.

Congratulations, Twinkies. You've earned it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

End of the Road

In their final road game of the regular season, the Twins downed the Orioles 6-3. The victory pushes the Twins' road record to 42-39, which is fairly impressive considering how horribly they struggled away from the Dome early in the season. The Twins' much improved play away from home has been a major factor in their rise to contention and an almost certain post-season berth, since they've continued to be one of the toughest teams in the league to beat at home.

The win in Baltimore brings the Twins' magic number down to two, so they will have a chance to clinch a playoff spot tonight with a win over the Royals coupled with a White Sox loss in Cleveland. Some various notes:

* The race for the AL batting title should be a fun one to follow over the final week of the season. After going 3-for-5 at the plate yesterday, Joe Mauer increased his average to .347, giving him an eight-point lead over Derek Jeter. Robinson Cano, who is hitting .341 on the year, is just a few plate appearances short of the requirement and will probably have his name entered into the race by the end of today's action.

* After nearly hitting a grand slam in his second at-bat, Phil Nevin ripped a two-run homer to right-center field in the eighth inning off Russ Ortiz, increasing the Twins' lead from one to three and essentially sealing the victory. Nevin has played sparingly since being acquired from the Cubs, but when he's been in the lineup he's shown the ability to hit the ball pretty hard (and also the ability to miss pretty hard).

* Ron Gardenhire used seven pitchers in yesterday's game. After Matt Garza was pulled with two outs in the sixth inning, Gardy used nearly his entire bullpen, sending in Juan Rincon for one out, Dennys Reyes for another one, Pat Neshek for two, and then Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan for an inning each. Glen Perkins came in to pitch to Jay Gibbons in the eighth, but was pulled immediately after giving up a single to him.

Some have criticized Gardy for his trigger-happy bullpen management in the second half of the season, but it's hard to argue with the results. Yesterday, the six Twins relievers held the Orioles scoreless for 3 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and no walks while striking out three. Furthermore, no reliever threw more than 12 pitches in the game.

* The Twins were pretty active on the basepaths in this series. In their three games with Baltimore, the Twins attempted nine steals, which is somewhat surprising considering the Orioles' catcher (Ramon Hernandez) is one of the few in the league that might have a better arm than Mauer. The Twins went 5/9 on SB attempts.

* SBG says he doesn't care about baseball's post-season awards anymore, citing Chicago skipper Ozzie Guillen's comment that he might vote Tony Batista for 3B Gold Glove as evidence the awards have lost any validity they might have once had.

I'm afraid I can't agree with that sentiment. While I often disagree vehemently with the way the voting turns out, I can't help but care quite a bit about who the awards go to. It's tempting to stop giving a hoot when you see a guy like Bartolo Colon win a Cy Young over a Johan Santana, but the fact is that the nation's perception of baseball's player are greatly shaped by the awards they win. After Santana retires and is being considered for the Hall of Fame, one of the main things voters will look at is how many times he won a Cy Young award. (Santana might be a bad example, since he'll be a shoe-in if he continues to pitch like he has so far; however, this is the case with fringe players. Look at Bert Blyleven... you think he'd have any trouble breaking the barrier if he had a couple Cy's on his shelf?) The same goes for position players with Gold Gloves, MVP's, etc. These awards are an integral part of Major League Baseball, and that's what makes it all the more frustrating when you have a debacle like the one that occurred in the AL Cy Young race last year, and what's likely to happen in the MVP race this year with Jeter a clear favorite.

What's your opinion on post-season awards? Do you care anymore?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Magic Number at Three

After a another bad loss and a terrible pitching outing from Carlos Silva on Friday, the Twins needed to get back some momentum going into their likely trip to the playoffs. Torii Hunter and an error after a strikeout helped the Twins to another key victory.

Scott Baker, who started for the Twins, didn't give the Twins an outing to be excited about at all. He only managed to get through 3 2/3 innings, giving up seven hits and four runs (three earned), while only getting one strikeout. As usual, the Twins bullpen came and shut 'em down.

Matt Guerrier (who gave up one run, but managed to get the win), Glen Perkins, Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, Jesse Crain, and Joe Nathan went 5 1/3 innings giving up five hits and striking out three, with only Guerrier walking two men. Joe Nathan came in for a scoreless ninth and picked up his 34th save of the year. With the save numbers down and after becoming such a sure-thing, many have seemed to forget about Nathan having a career year.

His ERA (1.71) isn't as good as his 2004 ERA (1.62), but he has been incredibly unhittable with impeccable control. He has given up only 35 hits in 63 1/3 innings (.158 BAA), with 87 strikeouts and 13 walks. That leads to an incredible 0.76 WHIP, a 12.36 K/9 rate, and a 6.69 K/BB ratio. Those are all career-highs and all jaw-dropping numbers.

Hitting-wise, Hunter was once again at the forefront. In the fifth inning, with the game tied at 4-4, Torii came up with two outs and Michael Cuddyer on first before launching an Erik Bedard pitch into the bleachers. Along with a Cuddyer strikeout in the third that led to three runs on a Ramon Hernandez throwing error and a Justin Morneau single that followed, the Twins managed to grab one more win closer to the playoffs.

The RBI was Morneau's 126th, which ties him for second on the all-time Twins RBI list with Harmon Killebrew, who holds the record of 140 from his 1969 MVP season. Of course, as we all know, Morneau is only 25 and could have any number of 140+ RBI years ahead of him. The only real disappointment of the game is that the 19 hits the Twins had only amounted to eight runs, two being unearned.

The 10 men the Twins left on base is a sign of their continued offensive struggles of late still coming out in a victory. If anything, the best sign out of this is Rondell White's 4-for-4 night that has brought his season average to .244.

After the struggles of Baker and Silva in the last two games, let's hope that Matt Garza, who is on the hill today against fellow rookie starter Adam Loewen, has a much better game and continues the progress he has made of late, mainly with his good effort against Boston on Tuesday.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cause For Concern

I must say that last night's game has me a little perturbed.

It's not so much the result of the game, a 7-3 loss that pushes the Twins another game behind Detroit in the AL Central. That I can live with, because 1.5 games is not a major deficit, and the White Sox lost yet again to further help secure a guaranteed post-season spot for the Twins.

It wasn't even another inept performance for the Twins offense against Daniel Cabrera that has me concerned. The Twins hitters managed just one run on four hits in the first six innings against Cabrera, striking out seven times during that span. They did break through for a couple runs in the seventh, but it was still a highly unimpressive performance. Cabrera now has a 2.31 ERA in two starts against the Twins this year compared to 5.34 against all other opponents. This isn't exactly a new trend. Last year, Cabrera posted a 1.35 ERA in two starts against the Twins. For whatever reason, the 6'7" righthander has had the Twins' number, and that trend continued last night. Still, the Twins won't have to face Cabrera again this season and won't have to face him in the playoffs, so there's no reason to get too stirred up about that.

What has me worried is the performance of two players, both pitchers. Those players are Carlos Silva and Juan Rincon.

Silva looked absolutely awful. He didn't give up three homers to Nick Markakis this time around, but he did get shelled for five earned runs on 10 hits over 5 2/3 innings. Silva's performance was worse than his line, as he gave up several hard-hit line drives and his defense bailed him out on several occasions. The dud performance is extremely disappointing, but Silva seemed to be settling into a groove and it looked like he might be able to carry some momentum into the post-season. Now he's simply reminded us that there's no way to know what to expect when he takes the mound and on certain days he's going to get absolutely crushed. Silva was slaughtered by the Yankees in his one career post-season start, and if he has to face them in the playoffs again this season, I can't say I'll have much faith in his ability to carry the team to victory.

Rincon turned in another ugly performance last night, adding to what has been a fairly miserable stretch for him. In one inning, Rincon allowed two earned runs on four hits. Now, after posting a 5.23 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP in August, he holds a 5.58 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP in September. Rincon had strung together six consecutive scoreless appearances prior to last night's game, but he still had not looked like his usual dominant self during that stretch and it's becoming pretty clear that something is not right with him. The Twins have a deep bullpen, but Rincon was a key member of that corps and if he can't get himself back on track for the playoffs the Twins lose a major weapon in the late innings.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Can't Win 'Em All

Just a few days ago, local headlines were making statements like "Morneau wins MVP duel with David Ortiz" and other conglomerations of headlines that suggested Ortiz had just about lost it. Well, in response, Ortiz has absolutely crushed three balls in the last two games, including taking Johan Santana and Matt Guerrier deep last night.

By doing so, Ortiz took surpassed Jimmie Foxx's 69-year-old Boston record of 50 homers from his 1938 MVP season. Ortiz now has 52 home runs and 132 RBI. Of course, won't win the MVP, but his season now ranks among the top for designated hitters and he's now hit the most home runs ever by a DH, despite the fact that Jim Thome (52, 2002) and Mark McGwire (52, 1996) probably should have been DHs.

However, Ortiz's blast and some Santana struggles probably mean that Johan has no shot at the MVP anymore. Justin Morneau may still, but he'll need a great last week to beat out Derek Jeter. Santana didn't have a terrible start, but five innings, six hits, four runs (two earned), three walks, and three strikeouts isn't exactly a Johan line. The last two starts, he hasn't had his dominating stuff at all, which may be of some concern.

If Johan continues to struggle down the strech, the Twins may end up resting him for the playoffs, since they are now pratically guaranteed a spot in the postseason (the White Sox lost again last night). However, I don't really think Santana will struggle and I'm sure he'll be up to the task of beating Kansas City and Chicago in his last two starts.

Offensively, the Twins shot nothing but blanks against Josh Beckett. Morneau had a hit, while Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter each went 2-for-4 and Jason Bartlett went 2-for-3. However, the rest of the lineup produced just one hit and the team left a total of seven runners on. The fact that the Twins didn't walk against a guy who has the fift-most walks in the league (73) and didn't homer against a guy nearly as easy to take deep as Carlos Silva (34 home runs allowed) is depressing.

Of course, since the White Sox and Tigers both lost, it isn't a huge loss for the Twins and it's pretty tough to go 6-0 on the year against such an offensively talented team, even if they have struggled terribly of late.

Speaking of Silva, tonight he and the Twins start a weekend series at Camden Yards against the Orioles. (Let's not speak of that tragedy. What a wasted beautiful ballpark!) Hopefully, he can reduce the home run rate allowed to Nick Markakis. Otherwise it could be another long night at Camden.

Tonight, the Twins face a guy similar to Beckett, except with considerably worse control: Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera has a league-high 99 walks in only 132 innings, an incredibly bad walk rate. He has struck out 144, though. In his one start against the Twins this year, he walked six, struck out five, and gave up five hits in six innings, yet gave up no runs. Let's try and switch that trend tonight.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bonser Buries Boston

I've really come to enjoy watching Boof Bonser pitch. He was rough around the edges when he first came up in May, but last night's start in Boston provides a great example of how far he's come. Bonser attacked hitters, throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count. He mixed up his pitches and changed speeds masterfully. Bonser showed a level of poise and confidence that is highly uncommon for a 24-year-old rookie making his first start in legendary Fenway Park.

The result was Bonser's sixth victory of the season. He delivered seven innings of two-run ball, allowing seven hits while striking out five and walking none. He was efficient, working quickly and needing only 81 pitches to complete the seven innings of work. Boof did allow a solo home run to David Ortiz, but it was the first he's given up in three starts. In fact, while giving up home runs was at one point a major problem for Bonser (he allowed seven in his first four starts), he's cut down considerably as of late. In his past five starts, he has allowed only two.

Bonser seems to be taking after Mr. Santana, putting together a big second half and pushing the team to victory in seemingly each of his starts. The Twins have now won six of the last seven games Bonser has started, and he seems to be improving each time out. While his ERA, which now stands at 4.36, might not be anything spectacular, it's solid and also pretty impressive when you consider that it was at 5.67 on August 3.

Of course, Bonser wouldn't have been able to pick up the W if not for another late explosion from the offense. The Twins hitters made Red Sox starter Curt Schilling work hard, forcing him to throw 104 pitches over five innings; however, they were unable to capitalize and scored only one run against him. Getting Schilling out of the game early was crucial though, as it allowed the Twins to get plenty of at-bats against Boston's weak bullpen. They jumped on Craig Hansen in the eighth, knocking him around for four runs on three hits and a walk. That put the Twins on top 5-2, and they added three more runs against Bryan Corey in the ninth to seal the deal.

Torii Hunter initiated the scoring spree with a three-run shot over the Green Monster in the eighth. Hunter has been absolutely insane over the last month, with 13 home runs and 30 RBI in his last 31 games, and he has watched his line for the season shoot up to a very respectable .275/.336/.483 with 28 HR and 90 RBI. Hunter has always been an extremely streaky player, but he's on perhaps the biggest hot streak of his career right now, and it's coming at a crucial time for the Twins as they look to lock up a playoff spot and overtake the Tigers in the AL Central. Of course, he's still as impatient as ever at the plate (two walks in 77 plate appearances this month), but right now I'm more than willing to look past that and embrace the incredible power surge he's having. If Torii can carry this hot streak into the playoffs, the Twins become a much more dangerous team with legitimate power threats 4-6 in the order.

With the Tigers defeating the White Sox, the Twins remain a half-game back in the division, but their lead in the wild-card standings increases to 5.5 games. That's a huge lead with only 11 games remaining (10 for Chicago), and with the way these teams are playing it is starting to look increasingly likely that the White Sox will have been eliminated from playoff contention by the time they roll into the Metrodome for the final series of the season. That would be a shame for me, since I have tickets to that series and was looking forward to some playoff-type baseball, but it would be great for the Twins as it would potentially allow them to rest up their starters in preparation for the ALDS (assuming that they're not still neck and neck with Detroit in the division race).

As it stands, the Twins are now 5-0 against the Red Sox this year and tonight they send out Johan Santana as they look to complete a season sweep. Taking the hill for Boston will be Josh Beckett. The Red Sox can't be feeling too good about giving up stud prospects Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez to acquire Beckett in the off-season. He has posted a 5.02 ERA for Boston while Ramirez and Sanchez have both pieced together phenomenal rookie seasons for the Marlins. Surprisingly, the oft-injured Beckett has remained healthy all season and he's set career highs in games started and innings pitched, but he simply hasn't been as effective as in the past. His strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is up. Let's see if the Twins can take advantage of this lop-sided pitching matchup and give the Red Sox the dagger to the heart.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Garza Impresses Again

Just over a month ago, a lot of people across the blogging community were discussing the possible call-up of Matt Garza. He had dominated Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A and was on the cusp of the major leagues. Many started making the standard reference to the episode of Adam Johnson from 2001 and 2002.

As many recall, Johnson was drafted second overall in the 2000 draft and sped through the minor leagues. He posted a 2.47 ERA in 69 1/3 Single-A innings with 92 Ks, a 3.82 ERA in 110 Double-A innings with 113 Ks, and a 5.70 ERA in 23 2/3 Triple-A innings with 25 Ks. The talent never translated to the bigs, though he was clearly rushed. In 2001, he posted an 8.28 ERA in 25 innings and followed that with a 47.25 ERA in 2003, giving up seven earned runs in 1 1/3 innings. Johnson left the organization shortly thereafter.

Of course, Garza was far more dominant at all minor league stops than Johnson was, striking out more batters, showing more control, and giving up less hits. Garza has a 5.40 ERA so far in the bigs, having given up 48 hits and 26 runs in 41 2/3 innings while striking out 31 and walking 18. He has a 2-5 record. Naturally, those aren't phenomenal numbers to write home about, but like Boof Bonser, watching him pitch recently tells a different story.

For one, he wasn't helped last night by Jesse Crain, just like Bonser in his last start. More importantly, Bonser and Garza are both getting better right when they need to, as they'll be keys to any Twins post-season success. If you payed attention to Garza yesterday, you probably noticed a few big changes.

For one, he stopped trying to throw 96 on every pitch. Instead, he started following the "Anderson" routine. Using a two-seamer on the inside corner coming in around 90-91 mph, getting strikes before working his change-up and slider into the mix. When he needed to, he would pump a 93-96 mph four seamer high or on the outside corner as an out pitch. This worked very effectively against David Ortiz, as he blew a fastball by him in the sixth inning for a strikeout.

By utilitizing more two-seamers, Garza is better able to control the damage against him. In such big losses as against New York (4/9 GB/FB ration) and the bad start in Oakland recently (3/5), Garza gave up way too many flyballs. In his best starts, like yesterday (6/7) and his 5 2/3 innings in support of Liriano last week (10/6) , Garza has either had more ground balls or kept the ratio mild. There is first start, against Toronto, that is an outlier (6/6 ratio), but I think the point is, the more Garza controls the zone, utlilizes the two-seamer on the inside corner to bust lefties and to get groundballs, the more effective he'll be with his other pitches and in general. The results haven't been spectacular and no one wants another Jesse Crain-like strikeout to groundball pitcher translation, but if he keeps it up, he can strike out plenty while getting a lot of ground balls and keeping the ball in the park, a la Francisco Liraino.

What I see is a major transition for Garza. When he first came up, he threw way too many four-seamers high in the zone and didn't use his breaking stuff enough. Now, he is quickly transitioning, adjusting, and learning on the job. With Garza on the right track, he gives the Twins another excellent option for their playoff rotation or bullpen. Needless to say, Garza's progress has been excellent, despite whatever the overall numbers might suggest.

As for the rest of the game, the offense certainly broke out against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Jason Bartlett hit a three-run jack, Torii Hunter had a two-run home run for his 27th, and Justin Morneau went 5-for-5 with two doubles and a RBI. Once again, he completely destroyed the platoon the Red Sox attempted against him. In three at-bats against Red Sox left-handed relievers, Morneau went 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI. His RBI single in the ninth off of Javier Lopez was particularly impressive, as he fought back after going to an 0-2 count quickly and wound up taking a pitch over the shortstop into left field. His .326 average is amazing, but so is his ability to consistently hit left-handers now.

Today, Boof will take the mound. As with Garza, the hope is he can continue to progress, becoming more of a pitcher that will only help the Twins post-season chances more and more.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And the Youth Shall Set You Free

It's been a spectacular season up to this point for the Minnesota Twins, and if anything it's shown us that experience and veteran leadership might be a tad overrated. The outstanding performances of young players who have stepped up and gotten the job done begs the following question:

Will the success of the Twins in 2006 finally change the long-standing hesitance of Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire to put trust in their talented organizational youth?

When the Twins parted ways with Juan Castro and Tony Batista in the middle of the season, it appeared to many that the team was ready to concede 2006 in order to audition some young players for 2007 and beyond. They inserted Jason Bartlett at shortstop and planned to institute a Nick Punto/Terry Tiffee platoon at third. Considering that none of these three players had a career batting average exceeding .238 entering this season and Bartlett had been somewhat raw defensively in his rookie season, it looked like it might be a rough transition.

Rather than dragging the team down with their inexperience,however, the presence of these two--along with young pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Pat Neshek and Matt Garza--has reinvigorated the team and miraculously pushed them back into playoff contention. Bartlett, who had struggled mightily in his first full season in '05, has been phenomenal both offensively and defensively. He's hit .326 while turning in numerous fantastic plays at shortstop. Punto had several years of experience prior to this season, but had never really been a regular starter and had very little experience playing third base. He stomped out any talk of a platoon by hitting .374 in July while providing steady defense at third, utilizing his quick reflexes to snag hot grounders that Batista simply waved at.

And those pitchers? Neshek has come up and given the Twins 32 2/3 innings of dominant baseball, baffling hitters with his unique delivery. Even though he's struggled in a few outings and has had some home run troubles, Neshek holds an impressive 2.48 ERA and has struck out 47 hitters while walking just six. Garza struggled initially, but he's given the Twins some good outings and he's certainly looked better (and been less of a pain in the arse) than Kyle Lohse when he was here. And then there's Bonser. He came up from the minors to make his major league debut in May, then after a while he was sent back down, and now he's back up and pitching quite well. Bonser's numbers (5-5, 4.52 ERA, .272 OBA, 71/22 K:BB) might not jump out as any better than average, but consider these facts: in his brief major league career, he's never given up more than five earned runs in a game and he's never given up double-digits in hits. Bonser has had some bad outings, to be sure, but let's not forget that guys like Silva and Lohse were giving up 7-9 ER in some of their April starts, and Boof is still learning to pitch in the big leagues. Most importantly, Bonser has posted a 2.37 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in three September starts, all Twins victories (and that ERA is inflated a bit by the fact that two earned runs were charged to him when Jesse Crain came in and gave up a three-run homer last week). Bonser is coming up big when the teams needs him most, establishing himself as a reliable starter in the absence of Liriano and Brad Radke.

Now, a rotation that features Bonser and Garza (21 career starts combined) is looking more intimidating than one that features Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina (518 career wins combined). Guys like Bartlett and Liriano, who Ryan refused to trust at the beginning of the season, have carried the team while high-paid veterans like Luis Castillo and Torii Hunter have played decidedly more of a supporting role.

Next year and in the years following, there will be more choices to be made as another influx of young talent nears ML readiness. Will Ryan be ready to name Jason Kubel the starting left fielder at the beginning of the season? Will Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey get a look next spring, or will Ryan seek an overpriced veteran in the off-season to round out the rotation?

However this season ends, I think the Twins' braintrust would be wise to carry away an important lesson from what has taken place and show more willingness to give a chance to young players that look ready to make an impact in the big leagues. If Ryan and Gardy haven't seen it this season, then they simply haven't been paying attention.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Baker Steps Up

Scott Baker has had quite the interesting year. Against the New York Yankees and their powerful offense, he is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and .128 BAA. He also had two quality starts against the meager offenses of the Royals and Devil Rays. Against all other opponents, he came into yesterday's start with a 2-7 record and a 7.84 ERA.

Baker's start yesterday came against the Indians, against whom he was previously 0-2 on the season, having allowed 18 hits and 9 runs in 9 2/3 innings. Not exactly pretty. Yesterday, however, his style seemed to revert, looking like the Yanks were in the opposing dugout.

Baker pieced together a quality start, going six innings, allowing one run on six hits, while striking out three and walking two. The big stat that stands out is the four double plays that Baker got the Indians offense to hit into. That certainly shows that Baker is getting his fastball down in the zone and not elevating it in key situations. Though the ERA is still alarming at 6.33, one good start goes a long way. Right now, the situation for the Twins feels like Cy Young, Carlos Silva, and the Young Guns. However, after this weekend, things might look a little better.

Though Cleveland is without should-be MVP candidate Travis Hafner, they are still a potent offense to be reckoned with. Outside of Santana, Minnesota's other three starters (Boof, Silva, Baker) allowed only five total runs in the 18 2/3 innings they pitched. With road series against Boston and Baltimore ahead, knowing that the Twins may be able to rely on some pitchers outside of Santana is huge.

If anything, this is a momentum-builder for the playoffs. The main issue right now and the feeling in many fans, including myself, is that the Twins will probably make it there, but outside of Game 1 and 5, how are the Twins going to win with no Liriano and possibly no Radke? The answer is that the Twins young players continue to surprise and excite. Bonser, Silva, Baker, and Garza give the Twins options and ones that are currently working. This team may after all have a chance in the playoffs, even without a great deal of pitching experience.

However, Twins fans should also thank the terrible Indians defense for the win yesterday. With three errors and two unearned runs, it certainly helped out the offense along with starter Paul Byrd's lack of control. Minnesota's big guns (Cuddyer, Morneau) didn't do much at all, but Torii Hunter, Phil Nevin (he's still alive!), Jason Tyner and Nick Punto managed to come up with big hits following the opportunities Cleveland gave them.

Today is the last off day of the season, with a series at Fenway beginning tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Silva Shines as Twins Win

So what if C.C. Sabathia has dominated the Twins for much of his career? So what if he's having an excellent 2006 season? So what if Carlos Silva's ERA entering the game was north of 6? On this night, it didn't matter, because the Twins were determined to a pick up a victory in the aftermath of an extremely disappointing loss on Friday night.

The 4-1 victory was a convincing one. The Twins scored four runs on 14 hits, getting a very solid performance (7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K) from Silva, his third in a row. The bullpen delivered two scoreless innings, with Joe Nathan tossing a hitless ninth on his way to his 33rd save of the season. The Twins went just 1/11 in scoring opportunities, but got a key home run from Torii Hunter and received some clutch RBI hits despite an 0-for-5 day from their offensive MVP Justin Morneau.

Silva's last three starts (20 IP, 11 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K combined) have been extremely encouraging. He has looked like Silva Version 2005, which is the best thing we could hope for. Over those three outings, he has induced 36 ground-ball outs (60% of the outs he's recorded), which leads me to believe he might be feeling that sinker again. Carlos is not a dominant pitcher by any means, but if he can continually force opposing batters to hit the ball on the ground he will be in good shape, because Nick Punto has shown some great range at third base while Jason Bartlett and Luis Castillo have formed a formidable duo up the middle.

Today the Twins will be looking for a series victory, but Scott Baker is going so it's tough to predict what kind of outing we'll get. Baker certainly has the stuff and the poise to have success in the majors, but for whatever reason he has had a tough time putting it together this year. Let's see if he can take a step in the right direction this afternoon against Paul Byrd.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Missed Opportunities Spell Loss

Last night, the Twins had many opportunities to put across enough runs to put a win up against the Cleveland Indians in support of Johan Santana, but they stuttered and failed to ever gain a lead. When individually added up, the Twins hitters left 24 men on base, 11 as a team. That's way too many against a Cleveland staff with a 4.53 ERA and a bullpen that has been wildly inconsistent for some time.

Part of the problem, of course, was that Johan wasn't exactly Johan yesterday. He had plenty of Ks (7), threw eight innings, and walked only one, but he gave up four runs, three earned. His only really problem was a couple well-hit balls and a two-run homer off the bat of Ryan Garko. Of course, considering he's given up 23 this year, it isn't a surprise. Homers have always been his Achille's Heel.

But seeing that his ERA barely went up (2.75 to 2.77) and he now has 237 Ks, he's still Johan and the Cy Young hasn't exactly switched hands. It's just the Twins could have done a better job scoring runs when they had the chance.

They had the bases loaded with no outs in the fourth and scored twice, but one was lucky (Justin Morneau's RBI single off of Joe Inglett's glove) and the other was off of a Rondell White double play. Not pretty stuff. The ninth inning was a similar story; bases loaded, no outs, two runs on a ground-out and a sacrifice fly. They got the job done, but no big hits with the opportunities they had.

Not breaking the game open meant a loss, though luckily the White Sox lost. With Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia on the hill today, who knows what will happen. The Twins have had their luck against him this year, and their starter Carlos Silva isn't exactly sparkling. Let's hope they can get it done, but we may be lucky to get a split here.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Notes

Last night's game was a very long one, but in the end it was worth it as the Twins picked up a 9-4 victory over the Indians in the series opener. With the win, the Twins gained a half-game in the standings against idle Chicago and Detroit. They are now just one game behind the Tigers for first place in the division, while they lead the wild-card race by a full two games. Some notes:

* The Twins had a total of 18 at-bats with runners in scoring position. EIGHTEEN! Even though they scored nine runs, they only went 3/18 in those scoring opportunities.

* Rondell White had another nice game last night, going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and a solo homer. White's numbers (.231/.261/.357) are still far from respectable, but he has hit the ball pretty well since returning from his demotion. I'm not saying I am in favor of the Twins bringing him back next year, but I can definitely see them doing it at this point.

* Jesse Crain sure earned himself a victory last night. He entered the game in the sixth in relief of Boof Bonser, who had pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball but had put a couple runners on while watching his pitch escalate over 100. Crain entered with a three-run lead, and it took him only one pitch to give it up, as Andy Marte slammed his first offering to center field for a game-tying three-run homer. Fortunately, the Twins quickly jumped all over Cleveland's horrendous bullpen, scoring five runs over the next three innings and allowing Crain to pick up the W.

The Twins' usually reliable bullpen has been letting them down a bit lately. Certainly nothing to get overly worried about, but it is worth keeping an eye on. The success of the 'pen is going to be extremely important over the last batch of games with this makeshift rotation carrying the Twins down the stretch.

* It looks like Francisco Liriano does not have any structural damage in his elbow, which may or may not be seen as good news. The MRI results were the same as the ones first taken back in August, and obviously things didn't work out too well after that. It's possible that a full off-season of rest will allow Liriano to come back at full strength for Spring Training next season, but I'm not so sure about that. The team still may want to consider surgery and/or adjusting his mechanics to take stress off the young lefty's elbow.

* I've been reading some new-ish Twins blogs lately and I've really been enjoying them. Pulling a Blyleven features some pretty humorous and insightful conversation logged during games between a couple guys. is dedicated entirely to Ron Coomer (worst Twins' All-Star ever!), so that's plenty right there to make me a regular visitor. Battle Your Tail Off is a very nicely designed site with a lot of content -- though I wish they updated their Twins blog a little more often. And finally, there's Twins Without Spin... this site's actually been around for a while and I don't know why I haven't been reading it up until this point, but author Mr. Baseball No. 1 updates frequently and he's got some great analysis plus lots of pictures. Definitely one of the more well-written Twins blogs around.

I've added all these links to our sidebar and definitely recommend checking them out regularly.

* Speaking of the sidebar, we've added an About This Blog page there as well. Basically it's just intended to let new readers, as well as our regulars (AKA our immediate family), know what this blog is about and what we hope to accomplish. So that's that. Not very interesting, I know.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Franchise Faded

Yesterday's game represented a little bad and some awful news. I went to the game myself, thinking that I would catch Francisco Liriano's great comeback and see the start of something special again. Instead, I was treated two brief innings of excellent work before Liriano left the game abruptly just a few pitches into the third. Right away, I knew that the news could not be anything good.

The news following the game was very bad: Liriano is done for the year and the words "Tommy John" were thrown around. As most of you are aware, Tommy John is ligament-replacement surgery and usually takes over a year to recover from, at least. Many pitchers who have it never return and some are never as effective as they were before it (Ryan Dempster, Joe Mays are some relevant examples).

It isn't a death sentence by any means, but Liriano may not be around next year at all. It's hard to tell. But what the Twins organization should know by now is that Liriano cannot continue to pitch the way he has and be injury-free. His mechanics are rough and the snapping of his elbow upon unleashing his great slider is the kind of action on a forearm that ruins elbows.

If he is going to come back and be a successful pitcher, he'll have to change his delivery motion and likely either rid himself of his slider or find a different way to throw it. It is, of course, quite difficult to know whether or not the Twins are thinking of this, but they should be. It's good that they have shut him down for the year now, but they may have wanted to be more cautious before.

When there is elbow pain in a pitcher's throwing arm, you have to consider the pitcher. A power pitcher like Liriano who throws a lot of breaking balls needs to be treated a certain way. Without his slider, he may not be as confident, so the plan of simply asking him to throw less sliders and throw more fastballs and changeups sounds a lot easier then it is in action.

A Chicago White Sox player, it seems, predicted this himself. Matt Thornton, who went through the same thing as a minor leaguer in 2002 and had Tommy John surgery, had this to say in the Pioneer Press:

''You hate to see it happen, but I could tell that it probably would just because of what I went through myself,'' Thornton said. ''I could tell by his motion, by the stress he puts on his elbow, that it was a recipe for disaster.

''You can rest and throw on the side all you want, but you will never truly test it until you get out there and throw at game speed.''

Thornton had no idea what Liriano's injury was or how serious it was, but he wasn't optimistic.

''Once the muscle starts wearing down, the stress goes on the ligament, and that can only hold it for so long,'' Thornton said. ''I hope it's not the case, but if it is, we'll next see him in 2008 and he'll be throwing 105 because I came back with an extra 5 miles per hour on my fastball.''

Needless to say, this news sends a depressing wave through the organization and fanbase, but I am in no way surprised. When he first injured himself, I suggested that the Twins be cautious and consider revamping his delivery to take pressure of the young pitcher's left elbow. Now, with Liriano likely more hurt than he was before, they may have to do that anyway.

As for the game itself, it was a definitely a pitcher's duel, even without Liriano. His replacement, Matt Garza, did a fine job relieving him, giving up only one run in his 5 2/3 innings of work, allowing eight hits while striking out four and walking one. He wasn't terribly dominant, but he was effective and had much better control of his pitches, utilizing his slider and his changeup a lot more.

However, due to Danny Haren, a Twins sweep was not to be. The young Oakland right-hander, whom the A's got in the Mark Mulder deal two years back (doesn't that trade look great now?), simply dominated the Twins offense. In eight innings of work, he gave up only three hits, while striking out seven and walking one. Haren had a few wild pitches, but overall, he showed great control and constantly had the Twins hitters fooled on his breaking pitches.

Of course, I can't just let the Twins offense go. Ron Gardenhire's management wasn't particularly great yesterday, especially his lineup construction. Joe Mauer, for instance, is hitting .446/.537/.661 as a DH and .363/.454/.561 against righties, yet for whatever reason was held out of the lineup with Jason Tyner back in as DH. Ignoring the fact that Tyner is quite possibly the worst choice for a DH ever (a singles hitter with absolutely no power who fields well), Gardy's penchant for sitting Mauer basically every series during the day game is just plain annoying at this point.

Sitting on the the league's best hitters instead of DHing him as much possible is simply dumb. There is no excuse for it and without him, we had this lineup out against Haren today:

1. Castillo 2B
2. Punto 3B
3. Redmond C
4. Cuddyer RF
5. Morneau 1B
6. Hunter CF
7. Rabe LF
8. Tyner DH
9. Bartlett SS

Collectively, everyone but Redmond, Cuddyer, and Morneau went 0-for-20. When facing a good pitcher, a good team, and being in the middle of a pennant race, it occurs to me that you may want to have every advantage possible on your side. That means utilizing Phil Nevin in pinch-hitting spots whenever possible and DHing Mauer when he's not catching, resting him at most once a week.

Today, the Twins start a series against the Cleveland Indians with Boof Bonser on the hill. Sadly, at this point, Boof is basically the Twins second-best pitcher. Let's hope he continues his late magic.

We'll have to hope that the Twins can continue to play as well without Liriano over the final few weeks of the season as they have since he first went down on August 7. There's no reason to think they can't, but still the thought of watching Liriano pitch this year was extremely exciting and the major concerns that have now come up regarding his future are truly depressing.

Here's hoping you're ready to go for Spring Training 2007, Frisco.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Can't Go Wrong

Yesterday just looked like one of those games the Twins were not going to win. At the end of the seventh inning, the Athletics led 5-3 and the Twins hitters had ended three consecutive innings on double-plays. Out came Nick Punto to lead off in the bottom of the eighth. He singled, but the way things were going, it appeared that would only set up Joe Mauer for another rally-killing DP. Fortunately, a wild pitch from Joe Kennedy eliminated that possibility. Then Mauer drew a walk. Up came Michael Cuddyer, who ripped a pitch to right-center field for a run-scoring ground-rule double. With the Twins down 5-4, in stepped Justin Morneau with no outs and runners on second and third. The result was blissfully predictable...
Justin go boom.

Not quite a home run, but a two-run double off the left field wall that gave the Twins their first lead of the night and propelled them to their fifth consecutive victory. Morneau, who was featured in a front-page article on yesterday as Phil Rogers' top choice for AL MVP this year, added to his credentials for the award with yet another game-winning hit. He now has 120 RBI on the season to go along with a spectacular .324/.379/.583 line.

Not to be forgotten is Cuddyer, whose double set up Morneau's heroic hit. In the past I have blasted Cuddyer as a guy who folds under pressure, but he's certainly shut me up this season, coming through numerous times in clutch spots with last night just adding to the list. Cuddyer has hit .312/.412/.580 with runners in scoring position this season and has posted a .944 OPS in "Close & Late" situations. And as much as we've yearned to see Morneau back in the cleanup spot, instances like last night remind us how it can pay off to have Cuddy hitting between two lefties, as Oakland had to leave in the left-handed Kennedy to face Cuddyer with two on and no outs so he would match up with Morneau in the following at-bat. Cuddy has crushed southpaws to the tune of .302/.383/.550 this year, and last night he flashed his excellent power against them in a big spot. Plus, he's cut down on his strikeouts lately which has prompted us to remove the "K-ddyer Strikeout Streak" meter from our sidebar.

Matt Guerrier didn't look too great in his start, giving up three runs on four hits over four innings, but he didn't let the game get out of hand thanks to some clutch RBI hits from Jason Tyner that kept things close. Guerrier might get another start on Sunday, but I think the Twins would be wise to return him to the bullpen and get Matt Garza back into the rotation. Garza's been off-and-on since his call-up, but he has dominant stuff and I think he has a better chance to pitch deep into a game than Guerrier does on any given day.

Speaking of pitching deep into games, don't expect Francisco Liriano to do so today in his first start back from injury. Liriano is on a 60-pitch limit, and since he hasn't thrown in a major-league game since August 7 it stands to reason that he'll struggle a bit with his control at times as he shakes off the rust. I'd be surprised to see him pitch more than three or four innings, which would be fine with me as long as he feels good and pitches relatively well. Garza and Scott Baker will be available for long-relief, so if the offense can continue to cruise I feel pretty good about the Twins' chances of picking up a series sweep and finishing 6-0 against Oakland at the Metrodome this year.

As if all that wasn't enough, the White Sox fell in extra innings to the Angels last night (thank you Chone Figgins), giving the Twins more breathing room in the wild-card race as they remain 1.5 games behind the Tigers, who defeated the Rangers. On top of that, Brad Radke played catch yesterday and apparently felt pretty good. I would rate the chances of a Radke return this season as highly unlikely, but then again I didn't think there was much chance of Liriano returning either so what do I know? This team has been surprising me non-stop for about four months now, so I guess it would almost be fitting if they won the division and announced a playoff rotation of Santana-Radke-Liriano in October.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Offensive Coming-Out

Sunday's victory over the Detroit Tigers was one of the more memorable games of the year. That had a lot to do with Johan Santana's stellar pitching performance, but more importantly, the 12 runs scored suggested a possible reawakening of the offense. Last night certainly backed that up.

The Twins scored nine runs against the Oakland A's and went on to win 9-4, pushing them to an 84-59 record and 1.5 games behind the idle Tigers. With 84 wins, the Twins have now surpassed last year's 83-79 record. Last night's lineup certainly wasn't reminiscent of that team.

The Twins offense produced a total of 14 hits and four walks, striking out only two times. The middle of the order (3-6 hitters) went 7-for-17 with six RBI, two homers, and a double. Michael Cuddyer was the big star, going 2-for-5 with a two-run home run in the fourth and a bases-loaded double in the eigth.

Cuddyer is now hitting .277/.356/.511 with 37 doubles, 5 triples, 22 home runs, and 98 RBI. He'll likely end up with around 100 runs scored, 25 homers, 110 RBI, and around 70-75 extra-base hits. That's a pretty impressive season, especially considering that this club was almost ready to give up on him (admittedly along with me and my fellow blogger) before the year and that he only had 49 at-bats in April.

There were, of course, other important bats that came alive that will be key down the stretch. Joe Mauer went 1-for-3 but reached three times as he walked and was hit by a pitch. Mauer continues to heat up in September, as he has a hit in his last six games (9-for-21) and is hitting .355 for the month so far. If he can keep it up, he'll have no problem keeping up his .350 average and likely winning a batting title. More importantly, when Mauer is able to consistently get on base, it's clear that the Minnesota offense flows much better, giving Cuddyer and Justin Morneau more opportunities to drive in runs.

Torii Hunter is also doing well lately. He's hitting .318 in September with a .545 slugging percentage, after hitting his 24th home run last night and now has 77 RBI. He projects a .273/.336/.470 line with 28 HRs and 88 RBI if he keeps up his pace. Considering he has been injured much of the year and spent time on the DL, that's a pretty good year for Torii. I am still not sure how I feel about a multi-year contract for Torii, but it is certainly a good thing when Hunter heats up right when the team needs it.

However, the most important guy to start heating up is Carlos Silva. Though his improvement in his last two starts (including last night's victory) may be misleading since it has come against two particularly weak offenses (Oakland and Tampa Bay), it is nonetheless good to see. Last night, he threw seven innings, giving up five hits and a solo homer to Frank Thomas while striking out one and walking one. It would be good if he can be another stable starter during the playoff push, but once again, if he can't cut it in his next start, he needs to be jettisoned in favor of Matt Garza, who actually has the potential to dominate big lineups.

Tonight, Matt Guerrier takes the hill for his first start of the season, which may mean a lot of bullpen innings. Joe Nathan may not be available after needing 36 pitches to pick up his 31st save last night, so it should be interesting to see what happens if another save situation arises. Whatever the case, this much we know: another offensive output like last night would definitely be helpful.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Triple Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hustling to Victory

Just two days ago, I wrote some fairly cynical predictions on this blog about the playoff chances of the Twins. As I wrote in the comments, I felt that the team still might go to the playoffs, but there looked like little hope they could advance. Last night, a few things changed that outlook, but not offensively.

The offense of the Twins still looks sluggish, despite the nine runs they scored in Friday night's victory. To be fair, Detroit starter Nate Robertson looked pretty good against the Twins, with a good breaking ball and plenty of inside fastballs right on the corner. Joel Zumaya came in to replace him, once again throwing 100 mph fastballs with ease. There are a lot offenses that have and would struggle against that.

Still, leaving the bases full twice with one out is just poor execution. The only reason the Twins scored period is a good batch of luck and some good hustle. In the second inning, Michael Cuddyer singled. Justin Morneau followed up with a hard chopper to second that almost had a chance for an infield hit. Instead, Omar Infante missed the ball completely and it rolled into right field. Magglio Ordonez took some time getting to it and by the time he did, Cuddyer had scored and Morneau hustled into third. Torii Hunter quickly followed up with an RBI single.

There was nothing after that, but thanks to Boof Bonser and the bullpen they still managed to win the game and at least ensure a tie in the series. However, with Johan Santana on the mound today, a series victory is quite possible. Bonser threw seven innings, gave up only one run and five hits, walked two, and struck out five. Overall, he pitched an incredible game against a good offense.

He too managed to get the Tigers offense to look pathetic, forcing them to leave the bases loaded as well. And after he left, the bullpen had no problems closing the door. Both Pat Neshek and Joe Nathan were their usual dominant selves. Essentially, great pitching, luck, and a little hitting won the game.

Sadly, if the offense continues this way, it's still difficult to see success in the playoff future. Morneau has remained hot in September, hitting .379/.455/.655 so far. However, Joe Mauer, Cuddyer, Hunter, Luis Castillo and those infamous "piranhas" along with new guy Phil Nevin need to help out as well. Morneau does his best work with runners on, but that won't matter much if no one is getting on in front of him consistently.

Tomorrow, with Santana on the mound, the Twins could end up only two games behind Detroit and remain in the wild-card lead, with Francisco Liriano's return around the corner (Liriano pitched well in a rehab start at Triple-A last night, tossing three hitless innings while striking out four and walking one). That would give the Twins their two dominating pitchers, as well as one rookie who continues to advance (Bonser), another one the right track (Garza), and two who hopefully won't even appear in the postseason (Silva and Baker).

Now, if the offense can just come alive consistently, with series against the A's, Cleveland, and Boston right around the corner, it would be time to really get excited about the postseason.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

M&M Boys Lead Offense To Victory

The Twins offense has been dormant for over a week now, and that has had a lot to do with the struggles of their two biggest hitters, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Last night, Mauer went 3-for-4 with a walk while Morneau drove in three runs as the Twins won 9-5 over the Tigers.

Matt Garza struggled a bit in his start. He had trouble throwing anything other than his fastball for strikes and as a result he walked four and allowed four earned runs on five hits over 4 and 2/3 innings. He also flashed some good stuff, striking out six hitters during that span, but overall it wasn't a particularly impressive outing. Fortunately, the bullpen was lights-out (except for Juan Rincon, who gave up a run on two hits and continues to struggle) and the Twins coasted to victory thanks to an offensive outburst against Detroit starter Wilfredo Ledezma.

It was nice to see Mauer pick up three hits, as it was his first multi-hit game since August 24. Suddenly, he's hitting .320/.469/.480 in September and his "slump" isn't looking so bad. Meanwhile, Morneau now has 118 RBI, placing him second in the AL behind David Ortiz.

Tonight will be a big test for Boof Bonser. He has pitched well as of late, but if he can push the team to victory against this tough Tigers squad he will give the Twins a good chance for a series win as Johan Santana pitches tomorrow afternoon.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Lost Cause?

It's getting to one of those points with the Twins again where it's hard to write anything new about their spiraling disaster of a situation. The Twins have no offense to speak of and a rotation made up of a Cy Young winner, an explosive disaster, and three rookies. I hate to say it, but with every game like last night's, it gets less and less likely that the Twins will have a post-season birth.

After being impotent as an offense for two out of three games against the unintimidating staff of the Devil Rays, they now have to face Detroit's great pitching staff. Last night was no off-night, as they had Justin Verlander on their hands. With Francisco Liriano and Jonathon Palpelbon hurt, it looks likely that Verlander will win the AL Rookie of the Year award. He's now 16-7 with a 3.19 ERA, which throws him in the Cy Young mix as well.

Verlander looked hittable for periods of the night, but the Twins did their best to resist. Despite eight hits off Verlander in seven innings, with two walks by Justin Morneau, they scored just one run on a Michael Cuddyer home run. Otherwise, every time a runner was on, it seemed like the same result: double-play. The guilty? Torii Hunter, the usual suspect, Jason Tyner and Jason Bartlett.

You can't fault Bartlett too much, since he is hitting .336, but why was Tyner in the lineup as a DH? Is Ron Gardenhire losing his mind? Okay, so he was 2-for-4 last night and carries a .310 average, but it's the emptiest .310 average around, with a .337 OBP and .345 slugging to go along with it. A guy with five total extra-base hits on the year in 174 at-bats and 12 RBI was DHing. Once again, why did we even trade for Phil Nevin?

Personally, and I think a lot of fans would agree, I'd rather see Nevin at DH. Sure, he strikes out plenty, but he also walks and at least he's a threat with a bat. You can't put someone in the DH spot that can't even hit a home run. Even Mike Redmond is more of a threat there and at least he doubles occassionally. Needless to say, sitting Nevin for four games after trading a relatively valuable pitching prospect in Adam Harben for him is beyond annoying. It's completely ridiculous.

If the Twins want to have any hope of pulling out of this series and staying alive in the wild-card race, they need all the big bats they can have. You have to hope that Matt Garza will have a much better start tonight, but will it matter? The Twins need to seriously break out of their slump and if you have a game plan that involves Tyner DHing and a starting pitcher leaving because of "stomach ailments," you need to re-evaluate.

This team looks like it's fading fast. They may get Liriano back next week, but if their offense can't turn things around substantially, it won't matter.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sweep Slips Away

After six innings, it appeared that the Twins were well on their way to their 15th consecutive victory over the Devil Rays and a big sweep heading into an important homestand. However, a rare breakdown by the Twins' bullpen cancelled out a similarly rare impressive outing by Carlos Silva.

The Twins offense was once again pitiful, picking up just three hits over six innings against Rays starter Jason Hammel. The rookie Hammel entered with the following numbers: 0-2, 6.86 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 11:11 K/BB. Opponents had rocked him to the tune of .316/.404/.513 before he shut down the Twins for six innings, holding them scoreless outside of a Joe Mauer solo home run. After hitting the ball hard and putting up eight runs on Tuesday night, it appeared that maybe the Twins had broken out of their team-wide offensive funk, but last night they were worse than ever. It was downright painful to watch.

So while one might be tempted to blame the loss on Silva for asking to be removed from a game he was dominating after just 59 pitches because of an "upset stomach," or to blame Pat Neshek for coming in and allowing back-to-back home runs that put Tampa Bay on top, my frustration for this loss is squarely with the Twins offense which continues to look completely hopeless against inexperienced and otherwise unimpressive rookie pitchers.

As a result of the heart-breaking loss, the Twins missed an opportunity to move within three games of the losing Tigers and also allowed the White Sox to move back within half a game in the wild-card race. Some notes on the game and on some other (less depressing) Twins-related news:

* I don't want to be overly harsh, because I really have no idea what Silva's specific condition was (apparently he vomited soon after being removed), but I find it rather ironic that in a season where his teammate Brad Radke has pitched more than 157 innings through a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, Silva had to exit last night's game after six innings with a very low pitch count because his stomach hurt. It's unfortunate, because Silva was well on his way to his best outing of the season, as he had allowed just one hit over six innings while inducing ground-balls and double-plays like the Silva of old. Then again, it's tough to be too critical because really there was no way to predict that the Twins' typically stellar bullpen would collapse and let what looked like an easy victory slip away.

No word yet on whether or not Silva's illness was related to watching the Twins' hitters flail away against Hammel for six innings.

* Speaking of the bad night for the bullpen, Juan Rincon had another poor outing and has not pitched well at all as of late. Rincon posted a 5.23 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in August, and now he's started out September by allowing six hits and three earned runs over two one-inning appearances while walking one and striking out none. For the season, Rincon's ERA is now up to 2.95 and opponents are hitting .273 off of him, which is not very good for a reliever. I've read that Rincon has been bothered by a sore groin, which might have something to with his struggles, but whatever the case, Rincon has been looking worse and worse while Jesse Crain has been looking better and better. Which one would you go to at this point in the eighth inning of a tie game?

* Good news keeps rolling in regarding Francisco Liriano. The rookie phenom pitched in a simulated game yesterday and apparently felt no pain while using all of his pitches. The plan is now for Liriano to throw 40-45 pitches in a rehab start for Rochester on Saturday before rejoining the Twins' rotation to start next Wednesday against Oakland. If Liriano is able to start four more games for the Twins down the stretch, I will be feeling a lot more optimistic about their chances of making the playoffs and even moreso about doing some damage once they get there.

* Another spectacular outing for Johan Santana on Tuesday night has folks buzzing about his great chances to bring home the AL Cy Young this year, but I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more talk about Santana's chances in a race that Mr. Mosvick touched on at the end of his post yesterday: the AL MVP race.

David Ortiz has been a front-runner for much of the year thanks to some staggering power numbers, but his team is probably not making the playoffs. Derek Jeter remains a top candidate thanks a .344/.420/.485 line for the first-place Yanks. It appears increasingly likely that Jeter will win a batting title this year as Mauer's average continues to slip, and if that happens I think the voters will give Jeter the award. Still, Santana should not be overlooked.

The last time a starting pitcher won the MVP award was 20 years ago, when Rogers Clemens carried the Red Sox to the '86 playoffs by going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 254 IP. Santana's numbers this year might not end up being that pretty, but he could win 20-21 games with an ERA under 2.80 to go along with 250+ strikeouts. Plus, you have to look at his role on this team. Santana has been the one stable member of a rotation that has seen more than its fair share of turmoil. Scott Baker and Boof Bonser have shuttled between the big leagues and the minors. Radke stumbled out of the gates before having a period of great success, but is now on the shelf possibly for the rest of the season. Liriano has been out since August 7 and may or may not return with success this season. Silva has gone from ranking fifth in the AL in ERA in 2005 to being arguably baseball's worst starting pitcher in 2006. Through all of this, Santana has battled through aches and blisters and pitched well all year long. The Twins are 25-5 (.833) in games started by Santana, and they've won the last 11 games he's started. That means that even when he's not getting a decision, he's still putting the team in position to win.

To some degree, I can understand the the hesitation of MVP balloters to give their vote to a player who plays only once every five games. Still, I think it would be hard to argue that any single player has been more crucial to his team's ability to stay in the post-season race than Santana, and I would be surprised if the Twins make the playoffs and he doesn't get a considerable number of votes.

* Here are the pitching matchups for the four-game series against the Tigers which opens tonight at the Dome:

Tonight: Justin Verlander (15-7, 3.27) vs. Scott Baker (4-7, 6.55)
Friday: Wilfredo Ledezma (2-2, 2.38) vs. Matt Garza (1-4, 5.88)
Saturday: Nate Robertson (12-11, 3.93) vs. Boof Bonser (4-5, 4.83)
Sunday: Jeremy Bonderman (11-7, 4.02) vs. Johan Santana (17-5, 2.84)

The Twins will face three more young pitchers in this series, but these ones are actually good. I'd be lying if I said these next four games didn't frighten the heck out of me. Let's hope the offense can come alive.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cy Won?

After putting up perhaps his most dominating performance of the season against the Devil Rays yesterday, Johan Santana just might have locked down his second Cy Young award. In every possible way, Johan has been the best in the league and he has, when the Twins have needed it most, stepped up and led this team.

If the Twins go to the playoffs, don't just thank Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Johan Santana has done as much if not more to keep this team in the race. (I realize looking at win shares that this is not necessarily true, but if you count in his defense and his ability to lead by example and in the clubhouse, it's not so absurd. Neither Justin or Joe are quite the outspoken leader Johan is.) In this sense, it's quite conceivable that Johan could be a MVP candidate over our M and M boys.

The main statistical support for this comes from the fact that the Twins are 25-5 (.833 winning percentage) in games in which Johan starts. The last time a team won like that behind a starter, it was a .900 winning percentage (.900) behind Randy Johnson for Seattle in 1995. For comparison's sake, Johnson won the Cy Young that year, going 18-2 in a strike-shortened season with a 2.48 ERA along with 294 strikeouts in 214 and 1/3 innings and only 159 hits allowed. That isn't bad company for Santana, considering Johnson is one of the best starting pitchers ever.

Johan now leads the major leagues wins (17), WHIP (0.99), strikeouts (219), ERA (2.84), and OPS (.615) and is second in BAA (.215). Keep in mind, that's MLB, not just the American League. In such a huge offensive year in the AL, Santana has put incredible numbers up while leading the Twins to victory after victory.

Another reason the Cy Young is his is that his closest competitor, Roy Halladay, has way too much ground to make up even though there is a decent chunk of the season remaining. Halladay pitched a fine game against Cleveland last night (7 IP, 9 Ks, one earned run allowed in a game the Blue Jays bullpen lost) to bring his ERA to 3.22 with a good win total at 16, but it's the other stats the he loses on. His WHIP (1.09) is good, but that's more a product of his impressively low walk total (32) than his dominance. He only has 126 Ks (not even in the top 20 in the AL) and has allowed a .249 BAA. Even if he wins one more game than Johan on the season, it likely won't be enough to sway voters away from Santana's staggering lead in most every other category.

I know what you might be thinking: Santana was considerably better than Bartolo Colon in almost every category last year, but that didn't stop voters from handing the award to Colon due to his extra wins. However, like in the 2004 Cy Young race against Curt Schilling, Santana's dominance has been so much greater that it will be hard for the voters to ignore just because of a one win differential.

As for last night's game? Other than Johan's eight inning, two hit, 12 K performance that baffled the Tampa Bay hitters, there was also some good hitting to get excited about.

With some help from a terrible Tampa Bay defense, the Twins scored eight runs to easily defeat the Rays. With a few hard hits from Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins offense looked a lot more alive, which is good news considering Carlos Silva is on the mound tonight.

* One extra note: Part of the idea of this post was suggesting that Johan may be a legitimate MVP candidate over Morneau or Mauer. What is interesting is the last time a pitcher had such a good year in a huge offensive season, he was a big MVP candidate as well. That was Pedro in 1999 (and 2000, for that matter), but he didn't manage to win, as two writers even left him off the ballet because "they couldn't justify giving the award to a starting pitcher." Interestingly, one of those writers was apparently our own LaVelle Neal (who I've met briefly and is a pretty nice and interesting guy) along with the New York Post's George King, according to Rob Neyer. I wonder how much of a chance Santana really has or if he'll make much of a mark on the ballots even.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sneaking Back Into the WC Lead

Let's face it. The Twins have not been playing their best baseball lately. This offense has been downright painful to watch for eight consecutive games and counting. Fortunately, while the Twins have sputtered a bit, their competition in the wild-card race has been no better. With the Twins squeaking by the Devil Rays 2-1 yesterday and the White Sox falling to Boston 3-2 in the tenth inning, the Twins moved back into first place in the wild-card standings by half a game.

It's always nice to see a victory, but troubling trends continued for the Twins. All their run production in the game came on one swing of the bat from Rondell White, who drove a two-run homer into the left field seats in the seventh inning. That is not exactly unusual for the Twins as of late. In their last eight games, they have scored 17 runs (ick) and 12 of those have come in on home runs. What that tells us is that the offense is not putting rallies together, and the so-called piranha hitters are not doing their jobs. Of course it doesn't help that Luis Castillo has been hurt and just returned to the lineup yesterday, but Nick Punto is slumping (.130 average over the last week) and Jason Tyner continues to do nothing but hit singles (has not drawn a walk since August 8; has just four extra-base hits in 166 at-bats this season). And then there's Joe Mauer, who collected a couple walks yesterday but went hitless, dropping his average to .346 on the season. Now, it's hard to complain too much about a guy with a .346/.427/.498 line on the season, but Mauer is slumping at just about the worst possible time and I think his impact on this offense is becoming very clear when you look at how badly the team is struggling to score runs without him getting on base.

As ugly as things have been on the offensive side for the Twins, the pitching continues to be very strong. Boof Bonser has looked like a completely different pitcher since his most second call-up to the big leagues, and that continued with yesterday's masterful outing in Tampa Bay. When he first came up in May, even when he had successful starts he was constantly working out of jams and clogging the basepaths. Yesterday he allowed only five hits over 6 and 1/3 innings and he didn't walk anybody, so even when he gave up a home run (which is another thing he's been better about since his latest call-up) it was only a solo shot and didn't hurt him too badly. He's been keeping the ball in the zone and he's been using his big breaking pitch to get strikeouts, and when he's doing both those things he can be a very effective pitcher.

Even though the Twins grounded into three painful double plays and once again looked helpless against a mediocre young starting pitcher, I did see some things from the offense that encouraged me yesterday. Castillo looked good in his return to the lineup, picking up a couple of hits. White had a very good day at the plate, doubling and walking to go along with the game-deciding home run. Torii Hunter continued his hot hitting with a well-struck double (and also made an excellent catch against the wall in center field which was extremely pleasant to see considering how poorly he's played out there as of late).

The Twins have now won 13 straight games against the Devil Rays and tonight Johan Santana is pitching, so it's a good bet that they will get the series-clinching victory even if the offense comes out stale against Jae Seo. Nevertheless, these hitters will need to find a groove and start putting together some rallies because the Twins have a very difficult homestand coming up in which they will play seven games against the Tigers and the red-hot A's.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Twins Baked

Going into this last weekend, the general concensus on this site was that things might not go so well for the Twins. Having Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, and Matt Garza start meant a lot of inexperience, some awful pitching, and some frustration was in store.

Considering the Yankees were playing well coming in and that Johan Santana, or for that matter Brad Radke or Francisco Liriano, weren't starting, taking one out of three games realistically isn't terrible. That isn't what was perplexing about the weekend. The problem was that the Twins played so terrible in their two losses, it brought up some interesting questions.

If the Twins do go to the playoffs, it will be as the Wild Card and they'll have to play the Yankees. It's not entirely clear that the Twins would get beat the way they did this weekend, but the point is simple: Even with Johan starting and likely winning a game, they realistically will probably only win one other game, if that.

What we saw this weekend was a struggling lineup that couldn't do very much at all. Beyond Justin Morneau, who went 5 for 11 with a home run and four RBI in the series, the Twins couldn't get very much at all. That argument may helped proved what an MVP Morneau truly is, but the rest of the lineup was awful during the weekend.

Joe Mauer has struggled so much lately that his slugging percentage is now only at .500. That sounds pretty good, but considering his statistical heights this year, its a significant drop. Mauer had only one hit in nine at-bats this weekend. The top of the order has been terrible as well. Yesterday, Nick Punto and Luis Rodriguez went 0 for 8 yesterday at the top of the order.

Needless to say, when it breaks down, the Twins have a lot of young, light-hitting guys who have to be hitting over .300 to be offensively productive players. Beyond Morneau and Cuddyer, the Twins don't have much for power. I don't really count Torii Hunter into the equation because he's so streaky, its hard to know what kind of factor he'll be in a playoff series. (And for that matter, his defense was very subpar all weekend and gave us further proof that he may not be the same center fielder he was before)

The Twins will have one big test this week. They have a three-game series starting today in Tampa Bay before a four-game series in Detroit. Hopefully they won't have the same issues they had against Kansas City's terrible staff, because they can't count on the White Sox continuing to loss as a means of staying in the race.