Justin Morneau was in MVP form last night, scoring the game's first run on a solo homer in the second inning and then bringing in the last three with a walk-off blast in the bottom of the 10th to push the Twins to a 7-4 victory in their series opener against the Chicago White Sox. Morneau's 2 HR, 4 RBI performance was very nice to see considering how badly he'd been slumping lately and how few home runs the Twins have gotten from their hitters this season (Morneau's second-inning dinger ended a string of nearly 200 consecutive homerless plate appearances for the Twins). The other big offensive performer for the Twins was Torii Hunter. Although he went just 1-for-4, his one hit was an RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the eighth that tied the game and made the extra-innings victory possible. Hunter picked up his 22nd RBI and extended his hitting streak to 22 games.
Despite Hunter and Morneau's heroics, I think the real story of this game was the fact that Ron Gardenhire flat-out out-managed Ozzie Guillen. I've long felt that Guillen is the most overrated manager in all of baseball, still living off his team's 2005 World Series championship and receiving little national criticism for the fact that his team is grossly underperforming. Guillen did nothing but confirm my perceptions last night, as he made some truly boneheaded decisions late in the game that helped his team to a loss.
Guillen's first mistake came in after the seventh inning, when he elected to remove starting pitcher Javier Vazquez from the game. Like most mediocre starters the Twins have faced lately, Vazquez was cruising, having allowed just four hits and a walk with seven strikeouts through seven innings with the only damage coming on Morneau's solo homer. Unfortunately for the White Sox, Vazquez had thrown 107 pitches through those seven innings, and since 100 pitches seems to be the magic number for starting pitchers these days, Guillen decided to pull him. It was a bad decision that ended up hurting the team, but it was also a move that most major-league managers probably would have made so one can't hold it against him too much.
Guillen's bullpen management following Vazquez's removal, however, is indefensible. As usual, Guillen went through his relievers at a ridiculous rate, using five pitchers after pulling Vazquez. Only one of those relievers recorded more than one out. In the end, this left the White Sox with no southpaw to bring in against Morneau in the tenth.
Some of Guillen's in-game decisions were also bizarre. In the ninth inning, he elected to intentionally walk Nick Punto (who entered the game batting .229/.308/.314 and hitless in his last nine at-bats) to get to Jason Bartlett (who entered the game on an eight-game hitting streak and batting .318 over his last 13 games). The move didn't end up hurting Guillen, as Bartlett lined out sharply to right fielder Jermaine Dye to end the inning, but it was the first time Punto has ever been intentionally walked in his career with the Twins and it was certainly an obscure situation in which to do it.
The mistake that did come back to bite Guillen was his decision to intentionally walk Hunter in the tenth. At first blush, it doesn't look like a bad decision; the Twins had a runner in scoring position with one out and Hunter has been raking this season. However, because Guillen had no lefties remaining in his bullpen, putting Hunter on meant that Morneau would get a chance against righthanded reliever with runners on unless Michael Cuddyer hit into a double play. Cuddyer fouled out, and Morneau came to the plate and mashed a game-winning homer into the upper-deck off Nick Masset.
While Guillen baffled me with some dubious decision-making, Gardenhire made some smart choices that may have made the victory possible.
The move that most impressed me was Gardy's decision to send out Joe Nathan for the ninth inning in a tie game. In the past, the Twins' manager has shown a reluctance to use Nathan in anything other and than a save situation, and in home games that go to extra innings he has kept Nathan in the 'pen for later use while allowing lesser relievers to blow the game. Last night, Gardy seemed to have learned his lesson. When the Twins tied the game in the bottom of the eighth and set themselves up for an extra-innings affair, Gardenhire did precisely what a manager should do in such a situation: he began using his relievers in descending order of quality. Basically, here's what I'm saying: when a game gets into an extra-innings situation, the bullpen's job is to keep the opposing team from scoring for as long as possible until the offense can score a run and win the game. In order to accomplish this task, it makes sense to use your best relievers first. In the past, Gardenhire has not seemingly realized this, as he would go to pitchers like Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier in order to save the closer and set-up men for later innings that often never materialized. Last night, Gardy sent out Nathan to take care of the ninth (which he did, with a 1-2-3 inning) and then sent out arguably his second-best reliever in Juan Rincon to take care of the tenth (which he did, pitching around a walk to take care of business). In the tenth inning, Gardenhire had his next-best reliever, Pat Neshek, warming up and ready to take over for Rincon if needed. This is the correct way to manage your bullpen in an extra-inning affair, and hopefully something Gardenhire will continue to do in the future.
Because Gardenhire didn't send out Crain to surrender a home run or Dennys Reyes to litter the bases with runners, the game made it to the tenth inning and Morneau was able to put an end to it. And while the offense was still far from effective (their performance against Vazquez was in fact quite pitiful) and Boof Bonser was a bit shaky despite some solid overall numbers, the Twins were able to come away with a victory and now have a good shot at clinching the series tonight with Ramon Ortiz taking the hill against the 0-4 rookie John Danks.