Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Series Preview: Twins/Indians

After averaging 2.7 runs over their past 10 games, the Twins busted out for 16 against the Tigers on Sunday night, salvaging a victory to cap off what was a disappointing homestand. Now the Twins will hit the road for what will be a tough week and a half, as they play nine games in nine days against the Indians, Brewers and Rangers. Today we'll take a look at the first of those three series which kicks off tonight in Cleveland.

The Indians have been outstanding this year, boasting a 21-14 record which places them second in the AL Central behind the Tigers. Most would agree that Indians underperformed last year, largely because their bullpen frequently struggled to hold leads. That 'pen has shown marked improvement this year, which has been a major factor in their terrific play. On the surface, it appears that their new closer Joe Borowski has been a disaster, as he holds a 9.00 ERA and 1.73 WHIP on the season. However, those numbers are a bit misleading. He blew a save against the A's on Sunday when he surrendered four earned runs while recording just two outs; he also had a horrendous outing against the Yankees in mid-April in which he allowed six earned runs over 2/3 of an inning. If you take those two duds out of the equation, Borowski has posted a 3.29 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP to go along 18 strikeouts over 13 and 2/3 innings, and he's racked up 12 saves on the season. Meanwhile, the rest of the bullpen has been quite good. Fernando Cabrera, who struggled quite a bit last season, holds a 3.24 ERA and 24/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 16 2/3 innings. Tom Mastny has posted a 3.31 ERA and with 15 strikeouts and two walks over 16 and 1/3 innings. Rafael Betancourt has posted a 2.45 ERA and has issued just one walk over 14 2/3 innings. Former Twin and lefty specialist Aaron Fultz has held southpaws to a .130 batting average while posting a 2.25 ERA over 12 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, the offense has been solid. The Indians are averaging 5.29 runs per game (compared to 4.51 for the Twins); they trail only the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers in runs scored. Grady Sizemore, who both Mr. Mosvick and myself picked as our AL MVP favorite in our preseason predictions, has cooled off considerably after a hot start and is batting just .238, but he's still drawing plenty of walks (as evidenced by his .381 on-base percentage) and he's 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts. In short, he could give the Twins some trouble. Travis Hafner was a huge pain for the Twins in a two-game series at the Dome earlier this season, when he reached base seven times in 10 plate appearances with a homer and double. Overall, his average and slugging percentage are down a bit from his career levels, but he's clearly still a major threat. Victor Martinez is hitting very well, Ryan Garko has emerged as a very good hitter, and Trot Nixon has done well offensively.

The Indians have been extremely tough to beat at their home park this season, where they are 11-3, and the Twins have not generally played very well lately. All of this would seem to indicate that the Twins have their work cut out for them, but hopefully the offense can pick up where it left off on Sunday and the Twins' arms can hold down the Tribe's powerful offense. A preview of the pitching match-ups:

Tonight: Ramon Ortiz (3-3, 3.80) vs. Paul Byrd (2-1, 2.84)
Both these guys seem to be pitching over their heads. Ortiz entered this season with a 4.85 ERA and 1.42 WHIP; those numbers are currently at 3.80 and 1.11. Byrd entered the season with a 4.32 ERA and 1.31 WHIP; he's currently at 2.84 and 1.29. Byrd has been hittable this year but he's gotten the job done when it's counted. Opposing hitters have batted .411 against him with nobody on base, but just .140 with runners aboard. That's not likely sustainable and it indicates that his ERA is probably artificially low. Left-handed hitters have had some real success against Byrd, batting .313/.374/.478. The 36-year-old right-hander doesn't issue many walks, but that shouldn't be a problem for the Twins' hacktastic lineup. This is a guy the Twins should be able to score some runs against. Look for big games from Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. Ramon Ortiz is looking to bounce back from back-to-back rough outings. This isn't a great lineup to try and do it against, but I think he'll pitch well enough to win.

Wednesday: Carlos Silva (2-3, 3.00) vs. C.C. Sabathia (5-1, 4.02)
The Twins have been awful against lefties this year, and Sabathia is one who has always given them trouble. In his career against the Twins, Sabathia is 6-4 with a 3.85 ERA in 17 starts. This year, Sabathia has struck out 58 and allowed just 10 walks over 53 and 2/3 innings, but he's also given up nine homers already -- three times as many as Silva. Speaking of Silva, I wrote last Friday about how impressed I've been with the way he's pitched up to this point, but it's tough to see him dominating a lineup filled with tough left-handed hitters like Sizemore, Hafner and Nixon.

Thursday: Johan Santana (4-3, 3.35) vs. Fausto Carmona (4-1, 3.12)
I was infuriated on April 24 when the Twins last faced Carmona and managed just two runs over 7 and 2/3 innings, but the 23-year-old righthander seems to have used that outing as a springboard for success. He entered that start against the Twins with an 0-1 record and a 6.97 ERA, but in three starts since he's gone 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA. The kid is extremely hot right now, while Santana has been good but not amazing. If those trends continue, this could be a tough game for the Twins to win.

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It's not time to panic by any means. It's mid-May and the Twins are just a game below .500. Things will get better eventually. Sidney Ponson is gone, and guys like Joe Mauer and Rondell White should give the lineup a kick when they eventually return. The key right now is to be competitive and stay afloat during this tough stretch in their schedule. The next few series aren't "must-sweeps," and in fact they're not really even "must-wins." But if the Twins go into Cleveland and Milwaukee and get utterly dominated, it's going to be time to step back and consider whether or not this is a team that can really compete for a postseason spot. If not, Terry Ryan might want to make some calls to gauge interest on guys like Torii Hunter, Luis Castillo and Ramon Ortiz.