Thursday, April 19, 2007

Holding On

The Twins entered last night's contest with the Mariners faced with the daunting task of trying to defeat a young phenom who had been nearly perfect in his previous two starts. That phenom was Felix Hernandez, a supremely talented 21-year-old who had started his season by tossing 17 shutout innings. Last night, however, King Felix was not sharp. Luis Castillo and Jason Tyner started the game with back-to-back singles, and then Joe Mauer walked to load the bases with no outs. Castillo came in on a wild pitch, and then Michael Cuddyer scored Tyner on a groundout to second. Then, while pitching to Justin Morneau, Hernandez suddenly had to come out of the game. The Mariners described Hernandez's issue as elbow tightness and said that he was pulled from the game for precautionary reasons. I wish him the best, but I must admit that when he came off the mound the two words that came to my mind were "Francisco Liriano."

So the Twins had jumped off to a hot start and the Mariners' stud starting pitcher had left the game after recording just one out. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Twins' offense to put together a monster game against Seattle's relatively weak bullpen. Unfortunately, that would not be the case on this night. Lefthander Jake Woods came in to replace Hernandez, and he did allow Mauer to score on a Mike Redmond single. He then allowed a couple more runs in the second inning on a two-run single by Morneau, but after that the Twins' offense would flatline. After escaping the second inning on a pop-out by Redmond, Woods faced the minimum number of hitters for the next two innings, erasing a Castillo single by getting Tyner to ground into a double play. In the fifth, Woods pitched around a lead-off double by Cuddyer, getting Morneau, Redmond and Jason Kubel all to fly out. He then delivered a 1-2-3 sixth and finished with the following line: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 1K. Not bad at all for a youngster making a spot appearance out of the 'pen. Woods was followed by George Sherrill and Julio Mateo, who combined for three perfect innings.

In summary, here's what the Twins' offense did in the first two innings: 5 R, 4 H, 4 BB, 0 K. Here's what they did in the last seven innings: 0 R, 2 H, 0 BB, 2 K. It was frustrating to watch the Twins hitters regress from the patient approach they showed over the first couple innings to the inept form they showed for the rest of the game, making easy out after easy out.

Since the Twins' offense disappeared after the first couple innings, it was up to Carlos Silva and the Twins' bullpen to fend off the Mariners for the remainder of the ballgame. Fortunately, they were up to the task. Silva pieced together another great start. He was phenomenal through the first five innings, allowing just three hits and a walk and keeping the Mariners off the scoreboard. He ran into some trouble in the sixth, when Ichiro and Adrian Beltre reached on singles and later scored on a three-run homer by Richie Sexson. Silva came out to pitch the seventh and again got himself into trouble, putting two runners aboard with one out. Once again, the Twins' bullpen came up big. After Dennys Reyes came in and gave up a single to Ichiro to load the bases, it was Matt Guerrier who entered the game and became the unlikely hero, striking out Beltre and then getting Jose Vidro to line out on a great play by Morneau at first to escape the inning unscathed and maintain a two-run lead.

After Juan Rincon tossed a scoreless eighth, Joe Nathan came in to pitch the ninth. And what a wild ninth it was. With two on and two outs, Vidro drove a single into right field, scoring Jose Lopez from second. Then, inexplicably, Beltre tried to come around and score from first. Cuddyer had bobbled the ball a bit when trying to scoop it up, but he still got it into the infield in plenty of time for Castillo to send the relay throw home and throw out Beltre by several steps for the game's final out. It was a horrible base-running mistake by the Mariners, reminiscent of Carl Crawford's doozy at the Metrodome last week.

The season is still young, but it's tough not to be perturbed by Nathan's lack of dominance early on. Since taking over as Twins' closer, Nathan has been pretty much the complete opposite of the guy he replaced, Eddie Guardado. While Guardado had a reputation for putting fans on edge by seemingly always getting himself into a jam when he came in for a save, Nathan has done a terrific job of keeping runners off the basepaths. In his past three seasons as Twins closer, Nathan compiled a miniscule WHIP of 0.92. In seven innings this season, however, he has allowed 13 hits and two walks in seven innings, good for a 2.14 WHIP. Like I said, the season is young and I am fully confident that Nathan will soon return to his dominant form of years past, but it's certainly odd to see him struggling like this as he's generally been pretty automatic for the Twins.

Thanks to Beltre's base-running guffaw, the Twins hung on for a series-clinching 5-4 victory. Today Johan Santana will be taking the hill against Jarrod Washburn as the Twins look for their second sweep of the season. You may be depending on Mr. Mosvick for the next several days, as I am taking off this afternoon for Kansas City. I'll be attending the Twins/Royals game at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday night; I'll try to blog about the experience but I'm not sure whether or not I'll have Internet access so the recap may have to wait until next week. If that ends up being the case, I'm sure Mosvick will take good care of the site while I'm gone.

Have a great weekend!