Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Good Heavens

The Twins' offense is ridiculously streaky. After scoring four or more runs in 12 straight games to end the month of May, they have now scored three or fewer in the five games they've played since. During that span, they've gone 1-4 and watched their record drop back below .500. The offensive woes were on full display last night in a 5-1 loss in Anaheim, as Angels starter Kelvim Escobar went the distance and held the Twins to just one run on three hits.

The Twins seemed to be effectively executing their gameplan against Escobar early on, working deep into some counts and drawing walks. But Escobar started cruising as the game went on. After surrendering a lead-off home run to Torii Hunter in the fifth which was followed by a couple runners reaching base, Escobar worked out of trouble. He gave up a lead-off single in the sixth, but eventually got Justin Morneau to ground into an inning-ending double play before retiring the last nine batters he faced en route to a fairly easy victory. The Twins went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position in the game and got zero hits from six starters in the lineup.

Meanwhile, Escobar had plenty of breathing room as the Angels' offense struck early and often against Twins starter Scott Baker. From an observational standpoint, Baker's outing didn't seem quite as bad as his line (5.2 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K). He didn't give up a big inning and he allowed just one home run; yet, the Angels' hitters just chipped away at him all game long before finally chasing him in the sixth inning. Since his first start of the season in Milwaukee in which he pitched into the ninth inning while allowing just two runs, Baker has posted a 9.00 ERA and 2.21 WHIP over three starts. Those numbers are nothing short of despicable. I'm certainly willing to give Baker more time to establish himself, but when combined with his awful 2006 campaign and his brutally bad numbers in Spring Training this year, it's tough not to look at Baker's recent performance as extremely discouraging. With Matt Garza lurking in Rochester and apparently heeding the Twins' advice to throw more off-speed pitches, one has to wonder how long Baker's leash is going to be at this point.

In a bit of encouraging news, Joe Mauer seems to be on schedule to return to the Twins' lineup in time for the start of their upcoming nine-game homestand which kicks off Friday night against the Nationals. That is very good news, if only for the fact that it will mean no more Chris Heintz. Maybe I've just become spoiled by enjoying the luxury of Mike Redmond as the team's backup catcher for the past few years, but Heintz brings absolutely nothing to this team. After going 0-for-3 last night, Heintz is now hitting .217/.280/.217 in 23 at-bats with the Twins, and what's more frustrating is his erratic arm. He made several terrible throws in last night's game and couldn't even get the ball to Morneau at first without bouncing it. As a result, the Angels tried running on him just about every chance they got. (Of course, Baker's slow delivery wasn't helping matters.) If Mauer experiences any more setbacks in his recovery or goes down with another injury later in the season, I certainly hope the Twins will look to a guy who actually has some upside to fill the backup catcher role behind Redmond. The player I'm specifically thinking of is Jose Morales, who leads the Triple-A International League with a .350 batting average and possesses a much stronger arm than Heintz. Morales is currently out with an injury but is expected to return to Rochester's lineup soon.

Mauer's return should provide the lineup with a boost, but there's no getting around the fact that this team is not going to get back into the habit of winning unless the guys in the middle of the lineup get back into the habit of producing. While Hunter has bounced back from his brief cold streak by homering in each of his past couple games, Morneau and Cuddyer continue to slump. The two combined to go 0-for-8 last night; on this road trip, the two have combined for five hits in 38 at-bats (.132 batting average) with zero extra-base hits and one RBI. Is it any wonder that the Twins have averaged just 1.8 runs per game during that span?

This afternoon the Twins will look to avoid a sweep as they send Kevin Slowey out for his second major-league start. His opponent will be John Lackey, who leads the American League in wins with nine and ranks second in ERA at 2.37. The Twins face a major challenge today, and some people are going to need to step up if they want to avoid leaving the West Coast on a five-game losing streak.