Saturday, June 30, 2007

Walking to Victory

Over the course of last night's game, the Twins eventually scored 11 runs. Before that, their most impressive feat came with five walks and six runs against young gun Justin Verlander. After facing a similar pitcher the day before in A.J. Burnett, the Twins were prepared to employ a strategy of patience. The best example of this was in the set up to Joe Mauer's grand slam, as Jason Tyner (!), Luis Castillo, and Jason Bartlett all walked in front of him to set up the big blast.

The fact that the Twins managed to walk against Verlander isn't impressive on its face, as Verlander has walked 39 hitters in his 102 innings this year. What's impressive is that, considering how good Verlander has been this year, the Twins managed to score six times against him and force him out of the game after five innings. In his previous four outings, including his no-hitter, Verlander gave up only 16 hits and four runs in 28 innings while striking out 35. Clearly, managing six runs against him was a high feat for the Twins offense and Mauer's home run was the obvious standout play.

The great news is that all of this offense came in support of Johan Santana, who picked up his ninth win. Santana wasn't great yesterday, as he did not consistently have control of his dominant changeup and was forced to live off the fastball, but he still managed six strikeouts in six innings while giving up only one run and one walk and lowering his ERA to 2.76. It's too bad that he gave up a home run to Placido Polanco, who is an overrated player in many circles (especially by Dick and Bert, who tried to compare him to Edgar Martinez in a moment of classic FSN broadcoast ignorance). Polanco hits for a good average and is a solid player in the field, but lacks any power or speed to make him a potent force.

With last night's start, Santana ends a very good June, in which he had a 1.98 ERA with 33 Ks in 41 innings. He had only a 3-2 record, evidence of his lack of run support that was alleviated in fine fashion last night. With a 9-6 record, a 2.76 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and 120 strikeouts, Santana is on his way to competing for another Cy Young. He'll just have to compete with thus far amazing Dan Haren for the rest of the way.

* On a final note, I'll once again remind everyone that the Twins fan gathering is today at 2:30 at Park Tavern in St. Louis Park. We'll be getting together to enjoy the young pitching match-up of Andrew Miller and Kevin Slowey.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Splitsville (Plus LOTS of Notes)

Through three innings, yesterday's game had the makings of a blowout loss for the Twins. They trailed the Blue Jays 5-2, Carlos Silva had already given up five hits and a walk, and Toronto starter A.J. Burnett was cruising with six strikeouts. From that point on however, it was all Twins. Torii Hunter led off the bottom of the fourth with a home run, the first of six unanswered runs the Twins would score over the final five innings as Silva faced just one batter over the minimum from the fourth through the seventh before giving way to the bullpen, which slammed the door with two perfect innings in an 8-5 Twins victory.

Silva's overall line (7 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) was not good, but it was very encouraging to see him settle in and shut down the Blue Jays after a rough start, and it was even more encouraging to see the Twins provide him with some run support for a second consecutive outing. The Twins have been shut out four times this season with Silva on the mound, and they've scored three or fewer runs behind him on four other occasions. In his last two starts, they've scored a total of 19 runs.

In his first game back in the lineup after missing several games with a bruised lung, Justin Morneau went 0-for-3 with a walk and an RBI groundout. Hunter ripped a two-run home run in the fifth inning to put the Twins ahead. It was his second home run of the game and his 17th of the year. Jason Bartlett had a great day at the plate, reaching base three times and hitting his second home run of the year while also stealing a pair of bases. He is now 15-for-15 on the year on stolen base attempts.

And now, a Friday smorgasbord of other notes on the Twins and their minor-league affiliates:

* The Twins recalled Matt Garza from Triple-A yesterday, sending down third-string catcher Chris Heintz to make room on the roster. Garza will start one of the games of the Twins' double-header against the White Sox a week from today, and he'll pitch out of the bullpen up until that point.

Garza has had an up-and-down year in Rochester. He's posted a 3.62 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, numbers that are solid but not spectacular. He has struck out 95 batters in 92 innings, but he has frequently struggled with his control, issuing 31 walks over that span after handing out just 32 free passes in 135 2/3 minor league innings last year. Hopefully he can work with Rick Anderson to refine his command at the major-league level, as a lack of control was one of his biggest problems once he reached the big leagues last year.

It's unclear what will happen with Garza after he pitches next Friday. Silva and Bonser have posted solid numbers overall, and Baker is coming off a fantastic outing on Tuesday night that he'll be looking to build on. Kevin Slowey has really struggled to keep the ball in the park, so I suppose that if Garza comes up and pitches well it could be Slowey who heads back to Rochester.

* Joe Nathan picked up his 15th save yesterday with a 1-2-3 ninth inning that included a pair of strikeouts. While his overall numbers are good, Nathan just hasn't been his usual lights-out self this year. He's converted 15 of his 17 save opportunities with a 2.36 ERA, but it's disappointing to see him allowing a .267 opposing batting average after keeping that number below .200 in each of the past five seasons. In 34 1/3 innings this year, Nathan has allowed nine earned runs and 35 hits while striking out 39. In 68 1/3 innings last year, he allowed 12 earned runs and 38 hits while striking out 95.

* Joe Mauer went 0-for-4 in last night's game and 3-for-18 in the four-game series against the Blue Jays. After batting .452 last June, Mauer has batted just .237 this June and has watched his average drop from .353 to .303.

* While Garza was the one to get the call-up, there's another starter pitching for the Twins' Triple-A affiliate who is raising some eyebrows. Nick Blackburn entered last night's game without having allowed an earned run in his last 34 1/3 innings. After tossing seven scoreless frames against the Durham Bulls in a 12-0 Red Wings victory last night, Blackburn has run that streak to 41 1/3 innings. He now holds a 1.57 ERA.

Blackburn is definitely a prospect worth getting to know at this point. He started the season in Double-A, where he went 3-1 with a 3.08 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 38 innings. Being that the right-handed Blackburn is 25 and has a big frame at 6'4", 230 lbs, the Twins wanted to see what he could do at the next level so they promoted him to Rochester. After coming out of the gates with a 4.99 ERA over his first three starts in Triple-A, Blackburn has put together an absolutely incredible run. Over his last five starts, he is 5-0 with a 0.00 ERA, having allowed just 28 hits and one walk over 39 innings to go along with 21 strikeouts. The stretch includes two complete game shutouts.

Suddenly, Blackburn finds himself very much in the mix for a spot in the big-league rotation should Slowey or Garza (or Baker or Bonser for that matter) falter.

* The Nationals acquired Levale Speigner from the Twins through the Rule V draft during the offseason. After seeing him post mostly horrible numbers over first few months of the season (his painful victory over Johan Santana and the Twins aside), the Nationals decided that they'd like to send him to the minors. In order to do so, they had to offer Speigner back to the Twins. The Twins accepted, but then sent Speigner back to the Nats just a few days ago in a deal that brought minor-league outfielder Darnell McDonald to the Twins organization.

A 28-year-old career minor-leaguer who is currently spending his sixth season in Triple-A, McDonald is far from a hot prospect. Yet he is a good addition for a Twins organization that is very thin on outfield depth in the minor leagues. He immediately took over the No. 3 spot in the Rochester lineup. After going 2-for-8 with a pair of doubles in his first couple games with the Red Wings, McDonald went 3-for-5 with a double, a home run and five RBI in last night's game.

* First-round draft pick Ben Revere has gotten his professional career off to a strong start, batting .360 with five RBI and two stolen bases over his first six games in the Gulf Coast League.

* I received this note via e-mail yesterday and thought I would pass it on to our readers:

Thought this might be of interest to your Nick & Nick's Twins blog readers: Lutheran Social Service of MN is partnering with the Minnesota Twins to raise funds for our homeless youth services, and one of the ways we're raising dollars is by auctioning the opportunity to throw out the Ceremonial First Pitch before the July 13 Twins-A's game, which happens to be "LSS Night at the Twins." The auction is now on EBay, and will continue through July 7. Fans can also buy tickets for this game through LSS, and part of the proceeds goes to homeless youth services - for more info.

Here is a link to the first-pitch auction.

Or they can do a search on EBay for "Ceremonial First Pitch."

Jay Kelly
* Yesterday's victory was a much-needed one for the Twins, as they are about to embark on an extremely difficult nine-game road trip. Tonight, they begin a three-game series in Detroit against the first-place Tigers. The Twins will have a very tough time scoring runs this weekend, as they take on three young studs in Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller and Jeremy Bonderman. After Detroit, the Twins head straight to New York for a three-game set against the Yankees, and then finish their pre-All-Star schedule in Chicago with three games against the White Sox. The Yankees and White Sox may not be playing their best ball this season, but it would be foolhardy to think that either series will be easy.

* As a final reminder, many Twins fans and bloggers will be meeting at Park Tavern in St. Louis Park tomorrow to watch the Twins/Tigers game at 2:55 p.m.

Whew. Have a good weekend!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Singled Out

I really don't think I'm going to be the first person to say this, but Scotty Ullger almost certainly does not do any research for his job. He has to be the most ill-prepared third base coach around. Last night isn't exactly the exception to the rule. Of course, he made a poor decision regarding Justin Morneau last Friday. However, there were also recent plays were he thought it was intelligent to send runners and challenge such great arms as Jeff Franceour and now Vernon Wells.

Twins fans love their Gold Glove center fielder Torii Hunter, but it's not a stretch to say Wells is a superior defender now. In the third inning, Ullger thought it wise to test his arm by sending Michael Cuddyer, who is not the greatest base-runner around, home from second on a Jason Kubel single. Greg Zaun blocked the plate well to get Cuddyer out, but the throw was there in plenty of time. Holding Cuddyer would have loaded the bases with one out for Mike Redmond. The Twins came away from that situation with only one run, which ended up costing them in an eventual 5-4 loss.

Clearly the loss can't be burdened on only Ullger's shoulders, but this isn't new and it's something that continues to be glossed over. Instead of questioning Ullger's decision, Dick and Bert and everyone else would rather talk about the great play by Wells and Zaun. Of course they made a great play, but Wells is a great defender and Zaun isn't a terrible backstop worth underestimating. Ullger should have been let go well over a decade ago, so there is no doubt that Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan love him for some reason. Thus, sadly things aren't about to change.

Naturally, there are plenty of other reasons for the Twins loss. The largest would have to be the offense's inability to get extra bases on even one of their 11 hits in the game. That's right, 11 hits, 11 singles. As a result, the offense left a total of six runners in scoring position with two outs, including two by Torii Hunter. Beyond the Twins' 11 hits, the Blue Jays also helped out with four errors in the game. Yet the Twins could only manage to squeak out four runs and couldn't take advantage of numerous opportunities, which is sad considering how hittable Towers has been this season.

Besides the offense, Boof Bonser had what can be best described as a ugly start. In six innings, he gave up seven hits and five earned runs while walking two and striking out only two, bringing his ERA up to 4.65. The worst part was watching Bonser give up a two-run blast to Zaun. The Blue Jays' catcher had a good year last year, but it was a career year largely out of place with regards to his career track, and this season he is hitting only .227. He might be hitting behind Frank Thomas, but much like the Twins lineup, it is more a result of lack of depth than anything else.

The bad news for the Twins is that it will be difficult for them to come out of the series with a split. Carlos Silva was great his last time out, which according to his pattern means he won't be so great this afternoon and his opponent A.J. Burnett has terrific stuff that has baffled Twins hitters in the past. Unless they can manage to hit themselves past first base, it's tough to see them getting a victory in the series finale.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

BaKKKKKKKKKer's Brilliance

Last night's game was a good one to catch in person at the Dome. It had some of everything: a terrific outing by both starters, a dominant showing by the Twins' bullpen, a Ron Gardenhire ejection, tons of strikeouts by Twins pitchers, a pair of (likely intoxicated) female fans running onto the field, and a 12th-inning walk-off single with the bases loaded to give the Twins a 2-1 victory.

The winning hit came off the bat of Jeff Cirillo, who was pinch-hitting for Jason Tyner against left-hander Brian Tallet after an intentional walk to Mike Redmond had loaded the bases with two outs. A guy standing a couple rows behind me saw Cirillo walk up to the plate and said, "Jeff Cirillo?!!" in a tone of voice that can only be compared to Jim Mora's during his famous "Playoffs" rant. My buddy turned around and said, "Would you rather have Tyner going up there?" The guy responded with a smug, "Uh, yeah." Of course, subbing Cirillo for Tyner was a good decision, especially against a lefty reliever, and it paid off as Cirillo dropped a blooper into shallow center just in front of a diving Vernon Wells to lift the Twins to victory and even the series at a game apiece.

Of course, the late-game heroics would not have been possible if not for some brilliant work by the Twins' pitching staff. Scott Baker, who recently nearly lost his spot in the rotation by putting together a stretch of ugly outings following a strong debut, was in the zone like I've never seen him before. Through the first seven innings of the game, Baker allowed just three hits while striking out nine and walking none. He started the eighth inning with a walk and a single, prompting acting manager Scott Ullger to remove him from the game. The Blue Jays managed to get one of those runners in on a sacrifice fly, but Baker finished with an extremely impressive line nonetheless: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K. He did an especially great job of suppressing the big boppers in the middle of the Jays' lineup; Matt Stairs, Troy Glaus and Frank Thomas combined to go 1-for-9 with five strikeouts against Baker. In his last two starts, Baker has lowered his ERA from 7.33 to 5.77.

The Twins bullpen backed up Baker's great start with five excellent innings. Dennys Reyes, Pat Neshek, Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon combined to allow zero base-runners over five frames while racking up six strikeouts (all from Neshek and Nathan). In total, the Twins' staff allowed four hits and one run over 12 innings while walking just one and striking out 15. It was one of the better collective pitching performances I've seen.

Credit must be given to the Toronto pitching staff, which pieced together a heck of a game in their own right. Starter Shaun Marcum delivered eight innings of one-run ball, allowing six hits and one walk while striking out two. He lowered his ERA to 3.13 for the season and is holding opposing hitters to a .202 batting average. The Jays' bullpen was very effective for three innings before Tallet finally gave up the winning single to Cirillo in the 12th.

The Twins' offense didn't look great, but we'll give some credit to Marcum and the Toronto bullpen in this one and hope that Justin Morneau's return (which apparently could be within the next few days) can help provide a jolt.


For those who didn't make it to the last blogger/reader get-together back in April (and for those who did as well), there will be another one taking place this Saturday at Park Tavern in St. Louis Park to watch the Twins take on the Tigers. The game starts at 2:55 p.m., but we have a reservation under the name Nick Mosvick for 2:30 in case anyone wants to show up a bit earlier. Both of us Nicks will be there, and other bloggers scheduled to attend at this point include Aaron Gleeman, Howard Sinker and Corey Ettinger. I suspect some others will be adding their name to the hat as well over the next few days. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blue Jays 8, Twins 5

In what may have been a surprise to many, the Twins managed five earned runs against Roy Halladay yesterday and, even more surprisingly, still unfortunately lost. The Twins offense wasn't too great, getting only eight hits and grabbing two of those runs on a fifth inning blunder by Halladay and catcher Greg Zaun. However, the offense did enough to put the Twins in position to win.

Obviously, the Twins pitching is where things truly went wrong. Starting pitcher Kevin Slowey wasn't particularly great, giving up five runs, with four of them earned, in five innings of work. Although he had a pretty good debut, Slowey now has started five games and managed to get past the sixth inning in none of them. Two have been good starts and three have resulted in four or more runs allowed in 5 1/3 innings or less. Worst of all, Slowey allowed two home runs on the night, giving him a total of nine allowed in only 27 1/3 innings. Giving up a dinger every three innings is certainly not a positive trend.

None of those are great signs for the future. However, Slowey did show a couple good signs last night: he had no walks and he had five strikeouts. A 15/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 1/3 innings isn't fantastic, but it is pretty good for a rookie and it shows that while Slowey is struggling at times, he is showing signs of improvement. For those who might think that Slowey is doing what the Twins were afraid he'd do (at the beginning of the season, when they imagined he couldn't do any better than say Sidney Ponson or Ramon Ortiz), it is important to take notice the areas in which Slowey is doing well.

Of course, Slowey did not pitch the Twins into a loss, but rather left the game with a tie of 5-5 after five innings. It was Matt Guerrier who gave up the big two-run home run to Matt Stairs to give the Jays the lead again. Naturally, it's quite difficult to get on Guerrier too much, as despite the three runs he allowed last night, he still has a 2.00 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP, a .181 BAA, and only two home runs allowed in 45 innings.

The conclusion here appears to be that it's difficult to blame anyone for the loss, but clearly the Twins pitchers didn't quite do their job. The offense wasn't great, but they posted enough runs against Halladay, a very good pitcher, to get a victory. Thankfully, Guerrier is not likely "falling back to Earth" and Slowey is showing signs of improvement. Let's just hope that Scott Baker, whose last start was decent enough, continues to show improvement and work the ball inside. Otherwise, we might see Frank's No. 500 too soon.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Around the AL Central

The Twins have been playing some good ball lately. After beating the Marlins 7-4 yesterday to capture their second consecutive series victory, the Twins have won nine of their last 13 games. They managed to amass 18 runs between Saturday and Sunday's games without Justin Morneau even in the lineup. Yet, despite all this, they still sit 6.5 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.

The Tigers have been playing incredibly well lately. They are clicking on all cylinders. Yesterday, 22-year-old right-hander Andrew Miller delivered six shutout innings in a 5-0 win over the Braves. The victory was the Tigers' seventh straight and it completed a sweep in which Detroit pitching allowed just one run over three games. In the month of June, the Tigers have gone 15-5 while averaging 7.7 runs per game. With the recent return of Kenny Rogers and the emergence of the outstanding rookie Miller, the Tigers have a scary good rotation to complement a stellar offense. This is a very strong team and at this rate they'll be almost impossible to catch.

Catching the second-place Indians and competing for the Wild Card may be a more realistic goal. After losing yesterday to drop their weekend series against the Nationals, Cleveland fell two games behind Detroit for the division lead and are now 4.5 games ahead of the Twins in the division standings. The Indians are a good team and they're not spiraling by any means, but they also don't have the juggernaut roster that the Tigers have. The hope is that by the time the Twins play the Indians again in late July, they will be able to pick up some meaningful victories.

And then there are the White Sox, whose fifth straight loss at the hands of the Cubs yesterday provoked their general manager, Kenny Williams, to say, "Something's got to happen. I'm tired of watching this ... Change needs to happen and change is going to happen. When that happens, I don't know." The Sox have lost 17 of their last 21 games and now find themselves 14.5 games out of first place. The Twins might be sitting pretty far behind the first-place slot in the division, but at least they've given themselves a comfortable lead over the two bottom teams. There has been some talk that the White Sox, now dangerously close to falling behind the Royals and into last place, may become sellers around the trading deadline.

Anyway, a few notes on yesterday's win over the Marlins:

* There's been a lot of talk about the Twins making a move to bring in a power hitter. Now it's starting to look like the answer to their slugging woes may be right under their noses in the form of ace pitcher Johan Santana. After tripling in yesterday's game, Santana now sports a .714 slugging percentage for the season. Minuscule sample size be damned, this guy can rake!

* Of course, despite driving in a run with his first career three-bagger, Santana did more damage with his arm than with his bat. Following up a complete-game shutout against the Mets in his last outing, Santana delivered six strong innings against the Marlins, surrendering just one earned run on five hits and a walk while striking out eight. Could Santana be settling into his typical mid-season groove?

* Not to be outdone by Santana's power display, Joe Mauer ripped two homers in yesterday's game. The bad news is that they came against Byung-Hyun Kim, who generally serves up a lot of homers to left-handed hitters. The good news is that Mauer pulled both home runs over the right field wall. He also very nearly hit a home run in Saturday night's ballgame, so there is definitely some evidence that his power stroke is starting to come around. It's good to see Mauer heating up after slumping in the first few weeks after his return from the disabled list. Since his hot hitting has coincided somewhat with his return to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, don't be surprised if Ron Gardenhire keeps him there once Morneau returns.

* Jason Kubel doubled in yesterday's game and is now slugging .545 this month.

* Pat Neshek allowed a solo home run to Miguel Cabrera in the eighth inning. It was the first run Neshek has allowed since May 26. Prior to that, he had not allowed one since April 19. If he gives up one run per month for the rest of the season, I'll be happy.

* Next up: a four-game homestand against the Blue Jays.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sweet Seventeen

The Twins offense, as most fans can attest by now, is almost always hairsplittingly inconsistent. The series against the Mets was the latest reminder of how quickly the Twins offense can come to a grinding halt. Last night's game was a reminder of how fast the offense can picked itself back up given the right opportunity.

That opportunity came in facing Josh Johnson. Last year, Johnson was a rookie sensation, going 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA and 133 Ks in 157 innings. Johnson's impressive campaign came alongside those of Dan Uggla, Anibal Sanchez, and Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez. In his two starts back, Johnson has struggled to find the strike zone. In his first start of the year against the White Sox, Johnson gave up nine hits and four walks in 3 2/3 innings. In last night's start, he followed that pattern, giving up eight hits and three walks in only three innings of work.

Thankfully, the Twins made not only Johnson,but also Wes Obermueller and Renyel Pinto victims of their offensive onslaught. While they posted seven runs against Johnson, they also got nine hits in fivetotal innings from Obermueller and Pintowhile scoring four more runs. In total, the Twins had seventeen hits, with Jeff Cirillo picking up four and Jason Kubel and Torii Hunter getting three each.

While Hunter's near-cycle was a standout for some (he was only missing the home run) and it was also important for the Twins to get Cirillo's bat going (In five games since June 15th, Cirillo has raised his batting average from .207 to .284), seeing Kubel go 3-for-4 with two RBI, three runs scored, and a walk is likely the most encouraging offensive performance in the victory. Kubel is now hitting .250/.300/.396, which obviously is nothing too special, but he has slowly been working his way up after a forgettable start and his approach at the plate as of late has been significantly better. Watching Kubel go with the ball and knock singles to the opposite field isa sign that he is on his way back to the form that made him such a dominant hitter in the minors and majors in 2004.

As usual, it is hopeful to think that the Twins have finally got their offense going with this scoring output. However, there is a chance today with Johan Santana facing Dontrelle Willisthat the Twins will participate in yet another pitching duel. While Willis has a 4.90 ERA this year, which has given rise to the theory that the league has caught up to his deceptive delivery,the Twins have never seen him before and lefties with such funky motions do not bode well for the Twins.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Painful Night

It would seem obvious that the pain of last night's game mostly alludes to Justin Morneau's injury. As Joe Christensen reports, Morneau suffered a bruised lung after a home plate collision with Florida catcher Miguel Olivo in the eight inning. Morneau tried to run into Olivo, but he was stopped in an awkward collision when he appeared to hit Olivo's shoulder. Morneau did score the tying run, but after spitting up blood on the bench, Morneau was wheeled out of Dolphin Stadium on a stretcher with an oxygen mask on.

The bad news for the Twins is that Morneau will be withheld from playing for the rest of the weekend, which means there will be a giant hole in the middle of the Twins lineup. Without Morneau, the Twins only have two hitters with consistent power in Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer. The Twins will likely have to put Hunter in the cleanup spot and, assuming things stay similar to last night's lineup, Hunter's "protection" will come in the form of Jeff Cirillo, who is likely to spell Morneau at first for the next few games.

Hopefully, Ron Gardenhire gets smart and puts Jason Kubel, who continued his better hitting as of late with a pinch-hit RBI double, in the fifth spot. It should be noted that other than Morneau, Hunter, and Cuddyer, Kubel is the only other hitter on the Twins roster with more than one home run. If Kubel is not in the lineup, the Twins might be in line for a long weekend. Of course, there is some good news about Morneau, as he does not have any broken bones and likely will be able to return in only a few days.

Sadly, Morneau's injury was the only "pain" experienced for the Twins last night. It was painful to watch Juan Rincon continue to fall from grace before our eyes. Following the top of the eighth, in which the Twins tied the score, Juan Rincon quickly gave the lead back to the Marlins by giving up a hard-hit home run to Hanley Ramirez.

Of course, there isn't anything too embarrassing about giving up a home run to Ramirez, who has put up a more-than-impressive .320/.380/.503 line with 10 home runs to follow his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2006. Still, Rincon's ERA has quickly risen to 4.56 and he has continued to show that Gardy should easily trust Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier over Rincon in tight situations. It has become quickly apparent that Rincon either needs to be traded or needs to be permanently moved to a position in which he cannot hurt the Twins very much.

The Twins certainly had a chance to win last night's game, but a victory today may be more difficult without the reigning MVP in the lineup. Of course, the Twins may have a chance if the Carlos Silva vs. Josh Johnson match-up turns into a pitching duel.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Series Preview: Twins/Marlins

Coming off a strong finish in New York, the Twins now head south to take on the Florida Marlins in a three-game series. The Twins/Marlins match-up is an interesting one in that both are perceived as scrappy small-market teams that are able to compete thanks to young talent and smart management. The reality is that Minnesota is essentially a mid-market team at this point, boasting a team payroll of about $71 million that ranks them 19th in the major leagues. The Marlins' team payroll is much lower at around $30.5 million, ranking them 29th, and they have only five players on their roster making over $1 million this season (the Twins have 14).

And yet, those Marlins continue to compete. They are in fourth place in the NL East, but they sit just 4.5 games behind the division-leading Mets with a 35-38 record. The Marlins are able to accomplish this thanks to a dazzling collection of young talent. Hanley Ramirez, whom the Marlins acquired from the Red Sox in the Josh Beckett trade, is following up his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2006 with another fine season in '07. Through 70 games, Ramirez is batting .321/.381/.497 with 18 doubles, three triples and nine homers to go along with 22 stolen bases. Second baseman Dan Uggla, who is also coming off an outstanding rookie season, is hitting for big power with 28 doubles and 13 home runs, but he's batting just .261 and has been strikeout-prone. Miguel Cabrera has been spectacular as usual, posting a .994 OPS with 16 home runs and 52 RBI. Third baseman Aaron Boone is a guy who has been mentioned in some Twins' trade rumors; he is having a resurgent season with a .286/.390/.427 line.

This series will match up a couple very good young teams, but the Twins have a more talented roster and they have some favorable pitching match-ups. This could be a good opportunity for the Twins to pick up a sweep on the road and pick up some steam in the AL Central as we head toward the All-Star break.

A breakdown of the pitching match-ups this weekend:

Tonight: Boof Bonser (5-3, 4.33) vs. Scott Olsen (5-6, 4.89)
The Twins can't seem to escape facing these tricky left-handers. Olsen is a better pitcher than his numbers show, but he's been very up-and-down for the Marlins this season. The 23-year-old has struggled with his control, issuing three or more walks in nine of his 15 starts. If the Twins can show the same type of patience against him that they did against Oliver Perez on Wednesday, they should be able to wear him down and get to the Marlins' mediocre bullpen early. The key for Bonser will be to attack opposing hitters and try to get through at least the sixth inning.

Saturday: Carlos Silva (4-8, 4.20) vs. Josh Johnson (0-1, 9.82)
Silva has gotten the worst run support of any pitcher in the major leagues so far this season. The Twins offense needs to step up and score some runs behind him. Don't be deceived by Johnson's inflated ERA; he just made his first start of the season against the White Sox on Monday and had to shake off some rust as he was knocked around for eight runs (four earned) over 3 1/3 innings. Don't forget that Johnson was a strong RotY candidate last year, when he went 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA and .236 BAA. As for Silva, if his recent pattern means anything, he's due for a good game. His last four starts:
6/2 @ Athletics: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
6/8 vs. Nationals: 3 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
6/13 vs. Braves: 9 IP, 8 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
6/18 @ Mets: 6 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K

Sunday: Johan Santana (7-6, 2.91) vs. Dontrelle Willis (7-6, 4.90)
Santana and Willis are both left-handed aces who have posted a 7-6 record on the season, but that's about where the similarities end between these two. Santana is on top of his game and coming off a complete-game shutout against the Mets on Tuesday. Willis lasted just one inning in his last start against the White Sox, and his numbers on the season are far from overwhelming. Since going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA as a 23-year-old back in 2005, things have gone steadily downhill for Dontrelle. In '05, Willis threw 236 1/3 innings with 170 strikeouts and 55 walks. In '06, he threw 223 1/3 innings with 160 strikeouts and 83 walks. This season, he's on pace for 215 innings with 149 strikeouts and 98 walks. His batting average against has gone up from .243 in '05, to .274 in '06, to .285 so far this year. Perhaps the rest of the league has adjusted to that funky delivery? For what it's worth, the Twins have never faced him before.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Baker Stays Afloat in the Big Apple

New York, New York
I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps
And find I'm a number one, top of the list
King of the hill, a number one
Frank Sinatra - New York, New York
Despite his struggles elsewhere, it seems that Scott Baker has always been at his best when playing New York teams during his young major-league career. In two starts against the Yankees last season, Baker went 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA. Against all other opponents, he went 3-8 with a 7.19 ERA. Flash forward to this season. Baker entered last night's contest against the New York Mets sporting a 1-2 record and 7.33 ERA, and there were some indications that he may have been pitching for his spot in the Twins' rotation. Baker stepped up with a very solid outing, delivering five innings of two-run ball against a strong Mets lineup. He allowed seven hits and no walks, striking out three. He wasn't dazzling, but he made the pitches he needed to make, and just one of the seven hits he allowed went for extra bases (a first-inning double by Paul Lo Duca).

Meanwhile, four scoreless innings from the bullpen and six runs of support from the offense turned Baker's solid outing into a 6-2 victory. Dennys Reyes got the first two outs in the sixth, and then the Twins busted out their big G.u.N.N. (Guerrier-Neshek-Nathan) to finish the job.

It was really nice to see the Twins come away with a victory last night because on paper it seemed like a game that was destined to be lost. While the Twins were sending the shaky Baker to the mound, the Mets were sending out their left-handed ace, Oliver Perez, who entered the game with a 2.93 ERA and .205 BAA. Perez has always had good stuff, but throughout the course of his career his biggest weakness his been his control, and the Twins took advantage by drawing five walks and forcing him to throw 110 pitches before chasing him after 5 1/3 innings.

Even though the Twins went just 3-for-16 in scoring opportunities over the course of the game, they got timely extra-base hits from Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer, which accounted for five of their six runs. Clearly, the Twins should have scored more than six runs in this game, but fortunately that proved to be enough thanks to the good work from Baker and the bullpen.

After getting blown out on Monday night, the Twins bounced back to outscore the Mets 15-2 over the next two games and take the series. There were plenty of encouraging sights in last night's game, from the offense's six walks and five extra-base hits to the bullpen's four scoreless innings following a couple shaky outings. But perhaps the most encouraging sight of the night was seeing Baker take the mound in a high-pressure situation and deliver five strong innings to ensure his spot in the rotation for at least a couple more games. On this night in the city that never sleeps, Baker was king of the hill.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Santana Achieves a First

Johan Santana has done many things in his career, winning two Cy Youngs, striking out 200+ batters for three straight years, winning the pitching Triple Crown, and wowing the whole baseball world with his world-class changeup. However, in that time, he's never thrown a shutout with only one strikeout. In fact, Santana hasn't struck out just one hitter in a start since his first start in 2004, in which he pitched only four innings.

Of course, despite the fact that he only struck out one, he still has 106 on the year, but it does now seem plausible that Santana may not win his fourth straight strikeout title. Strange as it is, without having his normal strikeout stuff, Santana was about as dominant as he ever has been. Carlos Silva seems more like the kind of pitcher to throw a shutout with only 92 pitches and to strike out only one while walking none, but Santana did it against the Mets last night in a 9-0 victory.

If anything, this game only adds to Santana's growing legacy. He can be the kind of guy to strike out 14 batters when he has absolutely filthy stuff and he can still shut down a strong lineup even if he doesn't have it. That's an indication of the pitching intelligence and feel that Santana has, which is clearly quite high. That combined with the fact that many of the Mets batters have never faced Santana led to a very quick game. Not being familiar with Santana meant that many needed to take a "hack-away" strategy in dealing with Santana, which may be indicated by the 17 fly ball outs.

In total, Santana gave Twins fans something a little new by getting through a lineup quickly and effectively without strikeouts. However, such a dominant pitching performance wasn't the only accomplishment on Santana's plate. Santana also went 1-for-4 at the plate with a walk and his first career double. As a hitter in interleague game, Santana has always given the Twins some of the best swings amongst their pitchers. Perhaps they consider slotting him in the DH spot when they return to AL play.

Aside from his own offensive contributions, Santana was surely happy to finally get some offensive support from a Twins lineup that was anemic on Monday night. Nine runs was more than enough for Santana, as the Twins finally beat around a mediocre pitcher that they needed to knock out in Jorge Sosa. That gives Santana a 7-6 record and a 2.91 ERA in the middle of June, hopefully setting him up for another one of his famous second-half runs.

Unfortunately for the Twins, they may have more troubles on their hands today, as they take on lefty Oliver Perez and send Scott baker to the mound at least one more time. The Twins have struggled against lefties this year. Not only is Perez a southpaw the Twins have not seen before, but he has also been one of the better pitchers in the NL, going 7-5 so far with 76 strikeouts in 83 innings and only 63 hits allowed. Needless to say, the Twins will need a strong outing from Baker and some more offensive help, even with their big bopper Santana not in the lineup.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Disturbing Trends

Things have been ugly lately for the Twins, and they certainly didn't seem to be getting better in last night's 8-1 thrashing by the Mets at Shea Stadium. New York starter John Maine dominated the Twins lineup, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings, while the Twins' pitching staff got beat around for eight runs on 15 hits. The only real bright points in the game for the Twins were a few nice defensive plays, but even those were overshadowed by some very poor ones. Overall, it was an atrocious effort for the Twins, highlighted by some discouraging individual performances. Let's take a look at some of those now.

* For a second consecutive day, Juan Rincon was awful. After letting the Brewers back into what should have been a blowout Twins victory on Sunday by allowing three earned runs in one innings, Rincon gave up three more earned runs (and a fourth unearned run) to the Mets yesterday to essentially put the game out of reach for the Twins. Rincon started the eighth inning by giving up a home run to the Mets' No. 8 hitter Ricky Ledee. He then allowed a single to Jose Reyes (who stole second). After Paul Lo Duco reached on Jason Bartlett's 13th error of the season, Rincon surrendered back-to-back doubles. He then intentionally walked Carlos Delgado and left the game with the bases loaded and just one out. Fortunately, Pat Neshek was able to limit the damage and escaped the inning with just one more run scoring.

Rincon's stock has dropped dramatically over the past year or so. There was a time when he was one of the league's most dominant setup men, teaming up with closer Joe Nathan to provide a devastating 1-2 punch in the eighth and ninth innings. Between 2004 and 2005, Rincon posted a 2.55 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Over 159 innings between those two seasons, Rincon allowed just 115 hits while striking out 190. Last year, he posted a 2.91 ERA, but there was some clear regression in his peripherals and his numbers during the last two months of the season were ugly. Those struggles have carried over into this season. After his hideous performances in the last two games, Rincon sits with a 4.50 ERA and .303 BAA. He is now, at best, the fourth-best reliever in the Twins' bullpen, and his abilities to miss bats and avoid home runs have seemingly disappeared. Rincon had been looked at as a valuable trading piece for the Twins considering their deep bullpen, so it is very disappointing to see him fall off the charts he way he has.

* Joe Mauer, who went 0-for-3 with a walk in last night's game, has collected just seven hits in 37 at-bats (.189) since returning from the disabled list and sliding into the No. 2 spot in the lineup. During that span, he has seen his batting average drop from .353 to .309. He's struck out four times while drawing just three walks, and is now slugging just .432 despite his solid batting average. As a team, the Twins are struggling to collect extra-base hits, and Mauer is a guy who needs to step up in that department.

* Mauer's partner at the top of the order has also been slumping lately. Luis Castillo went 0-for-4 in last night's game, dropping his average to .313. Since collecting three hits in the Twins' series opener against the Braves, Castillo has gone just 3-for-25 (.120) in his last six games. As a guy who doesn't walk much and almost never gets an extra-base hit, Castillo needs to rely on a high batting average to maintain his value as a lead-off hitter. While a .313 average might seem pretty good at first glimpse, it hides a relatively unimpressive .356 on-base percentage and a downright horrible .343 slugging percentage. In short, if Castillo isn't batting .335, he's not a particularly strong player anymore.

* Carlos Silva's up-and-down season continued with a disappointing outing last night. After pitching perhaps the best game of his career in a complete game shutout of the Braves last Wednesday, Silva came out and gave up four runs over six innings last night in New York. From a results standpoint, that's not all that bad, because the Mets have a very strong lineup, but suffice to say that he was fortunate that only four runs scored. In his six innings, Silva allowed 10 hits and two walks for a total of 12 base-runners.

* Nick Punto went 0-for-4 in the game and is now hitting .225/.317/.293. I've been sticking up for Punto all season and continually arguing that, despite his terrible batting average and complete lack of power, he was a serviceable player at the bottom of the lineup as long as he continued to draw walks and steal bases in bunches. Well, in his last 10 games, Punto has drawn just one walk and stolen just one base while striking out five times and batting .226.

At this point, the majority of the players in the Twins lineup are slumping and the pitching staff has really not been too overwhelming outside of Pat Neshek. The Twins play 16 of their next 20 games on the road, with many of those coming against some pretty good teams. Unless some of these players can get their acts together, the Twins could very easily find themselves out of legitimate contention by the time this stretch of games is done.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Another MVP Hit

Justin Morneau is now one of five. That is, one of five players since 2000 to have three walk-off home runs in a season. That's a list that also includes Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, and Alex Rodriguez. Pretty prestigious company, even if Alex Gonzalez is the final name on the list. Every month this year, Morneau has come up with a clutch bomb to win a game, the first coming against Tampa Bay in April and the second being a more memorable three-run walk-off shot against the Chicago White Sox.

For all the talk of "clutch" players like Derek Jeter, Morneau's name doesn't seem to come up quite enough. Even though he's hitting around .200 in "close and late" situations, Morneau still has had three memorable blasts that have seemingly come just when the team needed them. And there was no better time than yesterday, when Morneau stepped into the box in the ninth inning in a game that many Twins fans (and perhaps players) probably felt ready to give up on.

Why? The Twins managed to put together a 9-2 lead, getting even Lew Ford and Jason Tyner (better known as "Spare Parts") into the action. The Twins subsequently let that lead slip rapidly, as Juan Rincon gave up three eighth inning runs and Joe Nathan gave up two ninth inning runs, including a ridiculous Prince Fielder inside-the-park home run that should have been ruled a single with a three-base error by Lew Ford, who lost the fly ball in the ceiling.

If Morneau was the MVP of the game, Ford was possibly the LVP. Ford's bat did do something in the game at least, as he had a two-run double in the Twins' big fifth inning and a total of four on the night. However, his defense in center, where he replaced Torii Hunter (who left the game with a bruised hand) was unsightly. He not only made a major error on the Fielder play, but he helped give the Brewers a tie with a terrible throw to the plate on Craig Counsell's sacrifice fly in the ninth. Even if Hunter's defense has slipped, his arm is still plenty powerful and accurate and there's no way he makes the same mistake Ford does in that situation.

Of course, it's hard to heap all the blame of Ford's mistakes when the bullpen still wasn't too good. Nathan didn't deserve the earned run for Fielder's so-called home run, but he did allow three singles outside of that to load the bases. In fact, despite his 2.45 ERA, it's June and Nathan has allowed 32 hits in 29 1/3 innings for a .281 OBA and with the nine walks he has allowed, a 1.40 WHIP. To be fair, Nathan did strike out two batters, but it is worrisome that his unusual numbers have continued into June. As for Rincon, the bad outing only adds to the notion that he hasn't been the same since 2005.

In fact, the only good pitcher last night was Matt Guerrier, who threw 1 2/3 no-hit innings with three strikeouts. Twins starter Kevin Slowey had a usual outing for himself, giving up eight hits (not a huge surprise given that he's around the plate) to go with four walks and three home runs. It's good news that Slowey struck out four in 5 1/3 innings, but the walks and home runs are at least somewhat troubling.

What does this all lead up to? Despite a laundry list of mistakes, the Twins managed to get a win and avoid a sweep at home thanks to the bat of their MVP. It almost seemed like Morneau was ready to go up to the plate and carry his team to victory, even after such a disheartening comeback by the opposing team.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Two to The Brew

Back in May, the Twins went into Milwaukee and took the first two games of a three-game series. Now, just less than a monht later, the Brewers have exacted their revenge, coming to the Metrodome and winning their first two games with relative ease.

Last night, the bullpen was not at its sharpest. Boof Bonser pitched a solid game, lasting into the seventh inning while only allowing two runs, but he came out of the game with two runners aboard and reliever Matt Guerrier allowed them both to score on the first pitch he threw. Bonser's line still wasn't horrible: 6.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 7 K. Unfortunately, it ends up as a loss.

The Twins' biggest problem in this game was not a less-than-spectacular bullpen performance, it was another inept offensive showing. The Twins were unable to put together a good game against yet another mediocre starting pitcher. Tonight it was Dave Bush, who entered the contest with a 5.70 ERA. He held the Twins to two runs on five hits over 6 1/3 innings. The Twins' pitching wasn't great, but it also wasn't horrific tonight. If the bats had done their job, this would have been a winnable game.

As it stands, the Twins will enter this afternoon's game looking to do what the Brewers did to the Twins in Milwaukee: capture the final game of the series after losing the first two.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Field Day

As you might have guessed from the titular pun, Prince Fielder had a good part in bashing the Twins around last night in the Metrodome, where the Brewers took the first of the weekend series 11-3. Fielder, along with Geoff Jenkins and rookie sensation Ryan Braun, took their aggression out on Scott Baker and Ramon Ortiz, pummeling each pitcher with a total of 15 hits.

You might recall that Baker's best start and really his only good one this year came against the Brew Crew in May, when he went 8 1/3 innings for his only win of the year. Since then, he has given up 30 hits and 20 runs in just 18 2/3 innings. In other words, he's been positively ugly and clearly the situation did not improve last night.

Baker did strike out six Brewers and showed some good stuff at times, but he made the same mistakes in a different game, as he continues to have trouble pitching inside at all and rather shows a stubborn adherence to the outside corner. The results included the Jenkins grand slam in the third that put the Twins behind for good. Currently, Baker holds a 7.33 ERA and it's anyone's guess how much longer he stays in the rotation before he is replaced by Matt Garza.

Of course, there is another potential replacement -- at least in the mind of Ron Gardenhire -- who also got knocked around last night, which should continue to keep him out of the running. Ortiz was obviously terrible as a starter after a hot April, but he hasn't faired much better in relief. As a reliever, Ortiz so far has allowed 18 hits and eight runs in 13 innings, while striking out only five batters. It would be worse if we hadn't come to expect this sort of thing from Ortiz.

The only real positives to come out of the game were the solo home runs of Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. It's nice to see Morneau hit a low pitch out to the opposite field and increase his homer total to 19 (good for second in the league still), but it's even better to see Kubel display some power again, as his bat is slowly starting to show more signs of life. Otherwise, you can't say too many positive things about managing just five hits against Claudio Vargas and Brian Shouse.

Lucky for the Twins that they face Dave Bush tonight, who owns one of the league's worse ERAs at 5.70. Then again, there is a good chance Bush will go Jason Simontacchi on the Twins offense.

Friday, June 15, 2007

History Repeats Itself

Back on October 27, 1991, the Twins and Braves played the final game of a series at the Metrodome. Two great pitchers faced off and a pitcher's duel ensued. In that late October game, which happened to be the deciding Game 7 of one of the greatest World Series of all time, Atlanta starter John Smoltz pitched his heart out and delivered 7 1/3 shutout innings only to watch the game slip away with a late walk-off hit for the Twins. Smoltz was dominant, pitching into the eighth inning and never allowing the Twins to mount a significant threat, but in the end he found himself in the dugout watching his hard work go to waste as unlikely hero Gene Larkin knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning to clinch a World Championship for the Minnesota Twins.

Last night's sweep-clinching victory for the Twins was astonishingly similar in some ways to that incredible ballgame, which took place over 15 years ago. Last night, the Braves' starter was Tim Hudson. Like Smoltz, Hudson delivered 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and a walk while inducing 15 ground balls from the Minnesota lineup. Unlike Smoltz, Hudson left the game with a lead, 2-0, but Hudson would similarly have to watch that lead turn into a loss as the Twins rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to capture a 3-2 victory.

The improbable rally began when Luis Castillo singled against Braves' closer Bob Wickman to lead off the ninth. In the next at-bat, Joe Mauer grounded out to short, with Castillo moving up to second safely because he was stealing on the pitch. Up next was Michael Cuddyer, who stepped up and delivered a game-breaking triple down the left field line. Aaron Gleeman poked fun at me last year for chiding Cuddyer's inability to deliver meaningful hits early in the season, and I can look back now and say it was fully deserved. The statements I made back then have subsequently proven to be some of the dumbest I have made in my life, as Cuddyer has stepped up again and again in clutch situations to deliver huge hits. I don't recall many that were as big as last night's; by tripling in Castillo, Cuddyer was able to cut the Twins' deficit to one while putting himself on third base representing the tying run with one out. Justin Morneau came up and hit a grounder to first which was mishandled by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which brought Torii Hunter to the plate with runners on the corner and one out. Hunter's task was to hit the ball out of the infield, but he did almost exactly the opposite by tapping a slow dribbler to third. Fortunately, Atlanta third baseman Yunel Escobar's throw to the plate sailed high, allowing Cuddyer to score the tying run while Morneau moved to third and Hunter moved to second.

And then it was up to another scrappy bench player to come through with the winning hit. Mike Redmond may not have been as unlikely a hero as Gene Larkin, but he delivered in similar fashion, smashing a line drive to left field for a game-winning base hit. While the stakes were much lower in this mid-June interleague game, Redmond's teammates rushed the field with the type of excitement and joy on their faces that came across those of the 1991 team when Dan Gladden hopped gleefully across home plate with the winning run.

For his part, Johan Santana wasn't exactly in Jack Morris form, but he pitched well enough to keep his team in the game and make possible their late comeback. The Braves handled Santana in much the same fashion as many other opponents have this year; working deep into counts and forcing him to throw a fairly high number of pitches. The Braves drew three walks off Santana and forced him to throw 109 pitches over seven innings despite the fact that he allowed just two runs on five hits. Still, Santana was effective, striking out nine and pitching around the walks to piece together a good outing. Santana did surrender a home run, marking the 11th time in 14 starts this year that he has allowed at least one, but as long as he continues to uphold a 3.19 ERA and .225 BAA, you won't find me complaining.

I wasn't old enough to truly appreciate the magic that took place back in '91, but I do remember that series helping to spark my love of baseball, and games like last night's are the reason that love continues to exist.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Silva's Gem

Two encouraging things happened in last night's game. For one, the Twins offense did well against a good younger starter in Chuck James and showed a rare display of power with three home runs. Secondly, Carlos Silva also pitched a great game, earning a complete-game shutout and his fourth win of the season. Today I'll talk a bit about the second one.

In his last start, Carlos Silva wasn't particularly pretty against the pathetic Washington Nationals offense. In that start, he gave up nine hits and seven runs in three innings and looked like Silva v. 2006. Last night, he certainly looked like version 2005, throwing the Twins' first shutout since Johan Santana shut down the Oakland Athletics on August 12, 2005. In nine innings last night, Silva allowed eight hits, struck out two, and walked none while posting a 15-9 GB/FB ratio. Certainly reminiscent of his best 2005 season.

Such a performance should leave Twins fans hopeful. After all, Silva has now lowered his ERA to a perfectly respectable 4.07 ERA, despite his 4-7 record. Of course, it should be pointed out that even with last night's performance, Silva hasn't yet solved his major problem in 2007: inconsistency. Silva has had six starts this year in which he has thrown five innings or more and given up two or less runs. He has also had seven starts in which he has given up three or more runs, with two starts in which he gave up seven runs and one in which he gave up five. In April, he had a 3.10 ERA. In May, he had a 5.28 ERA. So far, in June, he has a 3.60 ERA.

In looking at his numbers so far, Silva's performance does not look like his 2005 season and certainly not his 2006 season. Instead, his performance has been reminiscent of his 2004, when he was 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA overall. Silva showed similar inconsistency in 2004. While he had a 1.72 ERA in September, a 3.76 June ERA, and a 4.02 April ERA, he also had a 5.46 ERA in July, a 5.14 ERA in May, and a 4.98 ERA in August.

Currently, Silva has been a little better than he was in 2004, as his ERA is lower and he has allowed a .288 BAA, versus .310 in 2004. He also is striking out a few more batters, as his 3.62 K/9 rate is his highest since he was a reliever in 2003. Therefore, if this is the Silva we get the rest of the year, he will be doing far more than many, including myself, expected of him. He likely will never repeat his impressive 2005 season, but even if he is inconsistent, he can be a fine contributor to the team over the course of the season and will be more than worth the $4 million we are paying him this year (considering that money that was shelled out to pitchers like Jeff Weaver). This is precisely what he showed that last night.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Drive Home, Slowey

Pitching in front of a home crowd for the first time in his major-league career, Kevin Slowey picked up his second big-league win last night as the Twins coasted to a 7-3 victory on the strength of a solid six-inning performance from their rookie righthander. Slowey maintained great poise in front of the Metrodome crowd, as he limited the Braves to two earned runs on a pair of solo homers. A third run scored in the sixth due to a Jason Bartlett error. Slowey was highly efficient, issuing no walks and needing just 79 pitches to get through six frames. His performance wasn't entirely encouraging, as he did give up several deep line drives that forced his outfielders to retreat, but in the end he once again pitched well enough to win, providing a welcome change from the man he replaced in the rotation.

Meanwhile, the Twins' offense pieced together a very solid performance, forcing Braves starter Kyle Davies to throw a lot of pitches before chasing him with a five-run inning in the fourth. The Twins added a couple more runs against the Atlanta bullpen to seal the deal. The ability of the Twins hitters to work deep into counts was impressive; Braves pitchers threw 158 pitches over eight innings while Twins pitchers threw 126 pitches over nine innings. The key for the Twins' offense in this game was getting production from players outside of the middle of the lineup. Luis Castillo, Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto combined for seven hits, which helped pave the way for RBI hits from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter.

The bullpen was once again effective, receiving three scoreless innings from the formidable G.N.N. combo (Guerrier/Neshek/Nathan, or as I like to call them, "Good Night Now"). After delivering a 1-2-3 eighth inning with a strikeout last night, Pat Neshek now holds a 1.16 ERA and is holding opposing hitters to a .118. He has racked up 37 strikeouts over 31 innings while allowing just 12 hits (!) and 11 walks. That's good for a 0.74 WHIP. Neshek has been just about as dominant as humanly possible, and if he continues to pitch like this I think there's a good chance he could receive All-Star consideration.

On another note, I attended an informal blogger luncheon at Joe Senser's Restaurant in Bloomington yesterday. Among those in attendance were John Bonnes (Twins Geek), Trevor Born (Twins Junkie), Joel Thingvall (of, Seth Stohs, Aaron Gleeman, Howard Sinker and Corey Ettinger. It was a good time and there was some talk of putting together another get-together for Twins fans on Saturday, June 30 for the Twins/Tigers game. Details are a bit hazy at this point, but one possible location would be Park Tavern in St. Louis Park. We'll post more info here as it becomes available. If you missed out on the last blogger/reader get-together, I would definitely recommend attending the next one because it's quite enjoyable to hang out with a bunch of nerdy Twins fans and watch the game.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Trading For Ty?

With the off-day yesterday, I find myself with little to write about. The Twins are coming off three consecutive series losses and are badly struggling to score runs. While this offense has occasionally been able to score some runs in spurts, they've generally had a difficult time gaining any consistency and it's pretty clear that at least one addition will be necessary if the Twins want to compete for a postseason spot.

There's some talk buzzing around about a potential trade that would bring Tampa Bay's Ty Wigginton to Minnesota. Wigginton is a 29-year-old third baseman who bats from the right side and doesn't make a ton of money, so he would fit several needs for the Twins. As a hitter, he's been fairly average throughout the majority of his career, but he has a bit of power which would obviously benefit a Twins' lineup that is frequently incapable of producing multiple extra-base hits in a game. Wigginton holds a career line of .265/.323/.447 in just over 2,000 at-bats, and he is currently hitting .263/.306/.458 with 11 homers and 33 RBI for the Devil Rays.

I think Wigginton would be a solid addition. Aside from third base, which is considered his natural position, he can play first and second. The problem is that he doesn't play particularly well at any of these positions, so the ideal scenario might be for him to step in as the regular DH while occasionally spelling Nick Punto or Justin Morneau. Wigginton's career slugging percentage (.447) does not speak of a man who possesses a ton of power, but he showed his potential in that department last season when he hit 24 homers and slugged .498 over 444 at-bats for Tampa Bay. This year he has already hit 11 home runs, which would rank him third on the Twins behind Morneau and Torii Hunter. Wigginton doesn't possess much patience at the plate and won't hit for a great average, but his ability to hit the long ball would make him an asset in the bottom part of the Twins' lineup. He's making $2.7 million this year and still has a couple years of arbitration eligibility remaining.

By adding Wigginton and making him their regular DH, the Twins would fill a major hole in their lineup. Wigginton is not a spectacular hitter and wouldn't necessarily be looked at as a long-term solution for the DH spot, but he would provide an improvement over the current rotation of Jeff Cirillo/Jason Tyner/Mike Redmond and he would add much-needed strength to the Twins' lineup against left-handed pitchers.

The big question is this: what would it cost to obtain Wigginton from the Rays? With a 5.49 team ERA (worst in the majors), Tampa Bay is in need of pitching, and the Twins have a lot of it. It's possible that the Devil Rays would want a major-league ready starter such as Scott Baker or Carlos Silva; they might also do the deal for a solid minor-leaguer such as Brian Duensing, who currently boasts a 2.37 ERA in three starts for Class-AAA Rochester after being promoted there from Double-A recently. Whether it would be wise to part with affordable major-leaugue pitching or a promising young lefthander like Duensing in order to obtain Wigginton is debatable, but there is no arguing the fact that this offense needs an upgrade and it is unclear whether or not better options than Wigginton will realistically become available before the trading deadline.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Win Doesn't Equate To Breakout

People say that over time, luck inevitably evens out. In other words, a team like the Twins with talented players can't keep losing to the hapless Washington Nationals and having things not go their way. Thus, yesterday, the Twins got a major call going their way and finally managed to salvage a victory against the Nationals and avoid what would have been a terribly embarrassing sweep at home.

That call, of course, was on Dmitri Young's two-run, first inning homer. After it was originally ruled a home run by first base umpire Ron Kulpa, Ron Gardenhire protested and Kulpa conferred with the rest of the umpires, overruling the original call and calling it a foul ball. Instead of being down 2-0 in the bottom of the first, the Twins did not have to come from behind and took advantage.

In the bottom of the first, the Twins scored three runs, with RBI singles from Jason Bartlett -- who was replacing Joe Mauer in the second spot -- and Torii Hunter, as well as an error-aided run scoring play off of a single by Mike Redmond. Despite scoring those runs, no one should jump to the conclusion that the Twins offense is back. As the first shows, the Twins scored runs, but mostly with singles.

Of the 15 hits the Twins had, only two were extra-base hits and those were both doubles. Therefore, it's no surprise that the Twins scored only six runs on all those hits, with two of them unearned with help of sloppy Nationals defense. The hitting stars for the Twins were one surprising one (Jason Bartlett) and one not-so-suprising (Torii Hunter). Bartlett and Hunter went a combined 6-for-9, with Bartlett picking up two RBI. That certainly counts as an important development, as before yesterday, he was hitting .125 in his last 24 at-bats.

Thankfully the Twins, despite a very uneven start from Boof Bonser, got great pitching from their bullpen to secure a victory. In no surprise, the bullpen gave the Twins four scoreless innings from the usual suspects Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, and Joe Nathan, a group that has quickly become perhaps the best 1-2-3 (or 7-8-9 depending on your perspective) bullpen tandem in the game.

What doesn't neccessarily bode well for the Twins is the series against the Atlanta Braves that starts Tuesday. It is very troubling that the Twins lost 2 of 3 to the Nationals and although the Braves haven't been quite the team their were in April, they are still a winning team that may pose a challenge to the Twins and their young pitchers. Last year, the Twins used their interleague series to help get them on track, as they went 16-2. Clearly, time is running out on the 2007 Twins to really start getting going and if yesterday's game was any evidence, things are changing fast enough.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Now That's Bad

This Twins' offense has had some ugly moments this year. But last night's game was BY FAR the lowest of all lows. Washington starter Levale Speigner entered last night's game with a 9.10 ERA on the season, including 14.45 as a starter. In four starts this season, he had never lasted more than four innings and never given up fewer than four runs or seven hits.

Not until he met the Twins lineup.

The Twins managed ONE RUN on TWO HITS last over SIX INNINGS last night. Let those numbers sink in for a minute. Speigner entered last night's game with 14 strikeouts and 19 walks over 28 2/3 innings on the season. The Twins struck out three times and walked just once over six frames. Opponents had pieced together a .355/.432/.500 line against Speigner prior to this game; last night the Twins batted .100/.142/.250 against him.

I've been standing behind this offense through all of its slumps, continually claiming that these players are too talented to be playing so poorly and insisting that the runs will start coming. Games like this cause me to lose a lot of faith. Levale Speigner is a Rule V draftee who is only in the majors because the team has no choice but to keep him there or lose him. At no point during this season has he looked like he belongs in the big leagues, but that changed last night. Last night it was the lineup he was facing that looked like it had no right to be playing in a major-league ballpark.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

National Failure

Despite what seemed to be an important victory over the Angels Wednesday, the Twins managed to lose to one of the worst teams in baseball last night in what was nearly a blowout loss. Sadly, if not for Ramon Ortiz's six solid innings and a late three-run home run by Jason Kubel, the box score might have looked significantly uglier.

Ortiz's relief outing was a particular bright spot, as he followed Carlos Silva's ugly start. In three innings, Silva gave up nine hits, seven runs, and two walks while striking out only one. The Nationals, in all fairness, do have some good hitters, as Dmitri Young has been a good hitter so far this year (never mind the defense), Christian Guzman has been hitting over .300, and Ryan Church and Ryan Zimmerman are budding young stars. However, Silva wasn't giving up groundballs through the hole, but rather lots of well-hit balls and line drives.

Ortiz, on the other hand, threw one less pitch then Silva but went six innings, handling his mop-up role by giving the Twins some solid innings and giving the bullpen a rest. In those six innings, Ortiz gave up six hits and one run while striking out three and walking none. I'm not going to claim some great turnaround for Ortiz because of a mop-up job against the Nationals, but he certainly took care of business gave the Twins a chance as much as possible.

With that said, really the only offensive play that stood out for the Twins was Kubel's three-run home run. After the Twins had been pathetically shut down for six innings by Jason Simontacchi, Kubel hit a Morneau-esque blast to the upper deck in right field, giving more hope that Kubel is ultimately breaking out of his early season drought. As for the Twins, they managed 10 hits, but didn't score until the late innings, as they gave up opportunities early on. The other good news, despite the loss, is that Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter both went 2-for-4, with Hunter picking up an RBI. Both Morneau and Hunter struggled through the last road trip, so it would be very good news if they both started hitting again.

Good thing for the Twins that Johan Santana is on the mound today, taking on former Twins farmhand Levale Speigner. Speigner has been awful this year and only recently was placed in the rotation. On the year, he is 1-2 with a 9.10 ERA and a 2.20 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings, having given up 44 hits and 19 walks while striking out only 14. When Speigner entered the rotation from the bullpen, he had a 3.77 ERA, but since then, he has made four starts and given up 23 runs in 14 1/3 innings. In other words, this should be a guaranteed victory for the Twins. Should be...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Draft Analysis, Notes and More

The Twins haven't had much success using first-round picks to draft position players out of high school in recent years. The selection of Joe Mauer in 2001 has obviously worked out, but in the three following drafts the Twins used first-rounders on Denard Span (2002), Matt Moses (2003) and Trevor Plouffe (2004). All three of those guys have been slow to develop and none rate as great prospects right now. I like the chances of their 2006 first-round pick, Chris Parmelee, to buck that trend (see below), but even he is struggling a bit right now in Low-A ball.

The Twins went with yet another high-school position player as their first-round pick in yesterday's draft, selecting center-fielder Ben Revere out of Kentucky's Lexington Catholic HS with the 28th overall pick. At 5'9" and 155 lbs, Revere is a diminutive left-handed batter known for his running ability. The scouting report states that Revere is "a below-average hitter with a very pull-conscious swing" who has "no power to speak of." He reportedly has a ton of speed and projects as an above-average defender in center field. In other words, Revere looks like nearly an exact clone of the Twins' first-round pick from five years ago, Denard Span.

Baseball America says the following about Revere:
A few months after Revere starred as a defensive back, receiver and kick returner on Lexington Catholic's 3-A state championship football team as a junior, he won a state championship with the baseball team. His father John played football and baseball at Eastern Kentucky, and his brother J.R. played both sports at Georgia Southern, winning a I-AA national title as the Eagles' quarterback in 2000. A four-year starter in baseball, Revere has a career .487 batting average and a state-record 27 triples. He has struck out 19 times in 433 high school at-bats. The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder opened eyes at last year's East Coast Showcase when he turned in the best 60-yard-dash of the event (6.28 seconds) and showed some pop at the plate. While his speed is his best tool, Revere has a sound approach at the plate and a knack for turning on fastballs and pulling them with authority. He gets good extension in his swing and projects for average power as a pro. He needs to refine his bunting and use the whole field more effectively. Revere's speed could allow him to become a plus defender in center field, but presently he makes mistakes that he can usually outrun. He needs to improve his reads and could take better routes to the ball. He has a below-average arm. Revere is considered signable in the top five rounds, and should easily find a suitor by then.
Revere seems like an athletic kid with a good shot at eventually reaching the majors, but the last thing the Twins need is another piranha-type player to stock their system with. He was also a major reach in the first round. This was a disappointing pick in my mind.

After selecting Revere at 28, the Twins didn't have another pick until the 92nd slot, when they used their second-round pick to draft Danny Rams, another high-school bat who projects as a catcher or first baseman. His power potential is significantly better than Revere's. According to BA, Rams' raw power grades out as a 70 on a 20-80 scale, which is extremely good. He also reportedly has a strong arm which, helps his potential to play catcher as a pro. You can read a bit more about Rams here.

In the third round, the Twins selected Angel Morales, an outfielder from a Puerto Rican high school. At 6'1" and 175 lbs, Morales is skinny and quick, possessing some great defensive skills. There are some questions about his plate approach and his ability to develop into a quality hitter, but he's still only 17 and has plenty of room to improve. I've actually seen him compared to Carlos Beltran.

In the fourth round, the Twins went with Reggie Williams of a California high school. Williams played a lot of outfield and shortstop in high school, but apparently projects as a third baseman in the pros. He bats and throws lefty.

With their fifth and final pick in yesterday's portion of the draft, the Twins drafted their first pitcher, Nathan Striz out of Santa Fe Catholic HS in Florida. A 6'2" righthander, Striz throws in the low 90s with a sinker/slider combo.

To recap, it was an interesting first five rounds for the Twins. They went with five high school kids who all have a lot of development ahead of them before they'll be ready to make a real impact. The Twins claimed that their strategy would be to take the best player on the board, but I have a hard time believing they couldn't have done better than Revere with that No. 28 pick. I do like the selection of Rams in the second round though; I think he has some very solid power potential, which this organization is sorely in need of. Since all of the players taken in these first five rounds are in the neighborhood of 18 years of age, don't look for any of them to be donning a Minnesota Twins uniform for at least four or five years.

Today, the final 45 rounds of the draft take place. Let's hope the Twins can nab a few sleepers like they did last year.

* While we're on the subject, let's take a look back at last year's draft and see how the Twins' first five picks have come along in their first year of professional baseball (followed by some of those aforementioned sleeper picks).

1st Round (20): Chris Parmelee - OF
Parmelee put up some solid numbers in the pitcher-friendly Gulf Coast League last year, but this season he has struggled this season in Beloit, batting just .233 with 50 strikeouts and 18 walks in 172 at-bats. The good news is that he's only 19, and he's been showing steady improvement in his plate discipline and power over the course of the season.

2nd Round (64): Joe Benson - OF
The Twins took another high school position player in the second round. Benson is an extremely athletic kid who broke in with a decent half-season in rookie-ball after being drafted last year, and I felt he had a good chance to have a breakout year this season. Unfortunately, Benson has struggled mightily in Beloit, looking much worse than Parmelee. In 48 games, Benson is hitting just .193/.286/.298 and has fanned 42 times in 161 at-bats. His numbers improved a bit from April to May, but he entered yesterday's game in an 0-for-11 slump.

3rd Round (96): Tyler Robertson - LHP
At 6'5" and 220 lbs, Robertson is a big young lefthander with some serious upside. He pitched fairly well in rookie-ball last year, and after missing most of the first two months of this season with an injury, he's made a couple appearances for Beloit within the past 10 days. In his most recent outing, he tossed three innings out of the bullpen, allowing no hits and just one walk while stirking out five. This kid has a good arm.

4th Round (119): Whit Robbins - 1B
Robbins, a Georgia Tech product, was the first college player the Twins took in the '06 draft. He jumped straight to Beloit after signing last season and posted an impressive .304/.421/.482 line, showing some great patience with a 22/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Robbins has maintained some decent patience in Ft. Myers this year, drawing 28 walks in 53 games, but he's batted just .228 with no home runs in 171 at-bats.

4th Round (126): Garrett Olson - 3B
The Twins added Olson, another college player, with their second pick in the fourth round to add some depth to their shaky third base situation. As it would turn out, the selection of Danny Valencia later in the draft would better suit this task (see below), but Olson had a decent debut in Elizabethton last year and his posted a .261/.320/.360 line in Beloit this season.

8th Round (246): Brian Dinkelman - 2B
The Twins nabbed Dinkelman in the eighth round out of a small Illinois college, and he's proved to be a solid addition over his first full season. In 46 games of rookie-ball last year, Dinkelman batted .298/.338/.420 with four homers and 32 RBI. This year, in Beloit, he's earned a Midwest League All-Star appearance by batting .274/.364/.432 while going 7/7 on stolen base attempts.

14th Round (426): Jeff Manship - RHP
Manship was my favorite pick in the '06 draft. He was a great college pitcher at Notre Dame but dropped in the draft due to injury concerns. Manship probably should have started this season at Ft. Myers, but instead he started one level lower in Beloit and he has dominated the competition.

19th Round (576): Danny Valencia - 3B
Like Manship, Valencia was a good college player in a major program (Miami) who the Twins were lucky to get as late as they did in the draft. Valencia has done nothing but impress since becoming a pro, posting an .870 OPS in rookie-ball last year and currently batting .304/.381/.515 with 10 HR and 31 RBI in 194 AB. Valencia will represent Beloit as an All-Star, along with Dinkelman and Manship (and three others).

* Moving away from the draft theme, the Twins are set to activate Joe Mauer from the disabled list and he is expected to start and bat second tonight. Traveling back to Rochester to make room for Mauer is lefty reliever Jason Miller, who put together a couple good outings and one unbelievably awful one in his short time with the Twins.

Miller's departure leaves Carmen Cali as the sole lefthander out of the Twins' bullpen. Cali has done a fine job in six appearances so far, but his history suggests that it may not last long. I have to wonder how long it is going to take the Twins to call up Ricky Barrett from Rochester. I wrote an article for the April issue of GameDay Magazine in which I profiled four prospects who I deemed as likely candidates to come up and play a significant role for the Twins over the course of the 2007 season. Those four players were Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Alexi Casilla and Barrett. All four of those guys have seen action with the Twins except Barrett, who certainly seems deserving. Barrett has posted a 1.45 ERA over 18 2/3 innings in Rochester, posting a 20/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .167 batting average.

* Speaking of players who are doing well in Rochester, how about that Matt Tolbert? The Red Wings' second baseman got off to a smoking hot start this season, hitting .340/.407/.553 in April. I was skeptical of how long he'd be able to keep that up because he had not been a big-time prospect in the past and had never been a great hitter in his prior minor league seasons. Yet, Tolbert kept it going in May, posting a .370/.444/.537 line before going down with an injury mid-way through the month. He returned a few days into June and picked up right where he left off. Since returning to Rochester's lineup from his injury, Tolbert has batted .526/.571/.842 in five games. On Wednesday night he went 5-for-5 with two doubles, and last night he went 2-for-4 with another double and a stolen base. This kid is just cruising.

On the season, Tolbert is batting .383/.449/.592. with three homers, eight doubles and four triples. He's posted a solid 17/13 K/BB ratio. A switch-hitter, he's had success from both sides of the plate, hitting .370 as a lefty and .387 as a righty. Before this season, Tolbert wasn't really on the Twins' prospect map, but he's put himself there in a hurry with his torrid first couple months. The 25-year-old may be next in line for a call-up should Luis Castillo or Jason Bartlett get injured.

And now, to look ahead. The date is June 8, and the Twins' record sits at 29-29. Last year at this time, their record was 26-33. They're closer in the standings to a playoff position than they were last year at this point, but they still aren't too close. The bad news is that this year there is no Francisco Liriano to step into the rotation, and no Juan Castro or Tony Batista to replace. The good news is that the Twins' current rotation is filled with five guys capable of putting together a good performance each time out, and the offense is only going to get better.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Inconsistent Offense Continues

That title probably sounds bad, but I wanted to avoid any title that included the word "piranha" in it. Being that I'm utterly sick of that ridiculous trend, maybe I'll just call them the "little guys" or maybe the infielders-who-don't-have-a-lick-of-power. Either way, they made major offensive contributions in yesterday's win over the Angels, combining with Michael Cuddyer to lead the way.

Why inconsistent? For the simple reason that the Twins have become pretty set in a pattern over the last few weeks, as discussed by fellow blogger Nick Nelson in yesterday's post. For a few days or even a week, the Twins will score runs, and then follow it with what happened in the previous five games. For reference, before putting up eight runs in yesterday's victory, the Twins had gone 1-4 and scored a total of nine runs in those five games after scoring seven in a victory over the White Sox last Wednesday.

The biggest standouts in the Twins' victory yesterday had to be Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. Both went 1-for-4 in the game and came into the game with slugging percentages below .300 (though Punto didn't raise his above .300 sadly) before they both hit significant home runs. Punto's home run was a three-run blast off of John Lackey in the fifth to give the Twins a 5-4 lead. It is impressive that Punto's first home run of the year came off of Lackey, as Lackey had given up only five home runs on the year coming into the game and a total of 32 since the beginning of the 2005 season.

As for Bartlett, his home run came in the ninth inning with the Twins clinging to a 6-5 lead, giving them a 7-5 advantage before Cuddyer added an RBI single, giving Joe Nathan a comfortable lead and allowing him to pick up his 13th save with relative ease. Speaking of Cuddyer, he also homered off of Lackey in the fourth inning to give the Twins their first runs of the game when they were down 4-0 and appeared to be headed towards a fifth straight ugly loss. In total, Cuddyer went 3-for-4 with three RBI and a walk on the day, raising his line to .298/.379/.478 after he had collected only three hits in his previous 19 at-bats.

Of course, lost in the offensive outpouring was Kevin Slowey's first major-league victory (despite a so-so performance) and another amazing bullpen performance, with four innings of no-hit work. Those were great things, but the Twins have gotten good pitching lately with no hitting to speak of. Good news for the Twins that they are back at the .500 mark and looking at a series against the pathetic Washington Nationals with Joe Mauer hopefully returning to the lineup Friday. Hopefully, thats enough to really get this offense on track.

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.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

No Miller Time

With a score like 16-3 and with a total of 23 hits by the opposing team, you aren't left with too much time to consider the offensive woes that continued last night. Yes, Jered Weaver stifled the Twins for seven innings, allowing a one run on Torii Hunter's solo home shot, but that clearly isn't the story. Considering such a terrible overall pitching performance, it's often hard to pinpoint who to blame for the loss.

Of the four Twins pitchers who pitched last night, only Pat Neshek didn't give up a run. Boof Bonser departed from his recent hot streak by giving up 12 hits and 6 earned runs over 5 1/3 innings while only striking out one hitter. Bonser didn't walk anyone, but he also gave up two home runs, after three straight starts without giving one up. Ramon Ortiz came in to replace Bonser, but Ortiz was just as horrible and hittable in relief as he was as a starter in May, as he gave up four hits, two runs, and a walk in 1 2/3 innings while throwing just 21 strikes on 38 pitches.

Though both Bonser and Ortiz were pretty bad, neither was even as unwatchable as Jason Miller. Miller had a few scoreless appearances after his recent call-up, but he showed the kind of batting practice stuff he has in full view last night. Miller managed to get only one out while walking two, serving up two home runs (including a grand slam), giving up of seven hits, and surrending a grand total of eight runs. Suddenly, his ERA sits at 18.00. Yikes.

FSN announcers Bert and Dick tried to make it seem as if things weren't going Miller's or the other Twins pitchers' way, suggesting that "everything was falling for the Angels," as if they were getting bloop hit after bloop hit. However, when you walk two batters, give up three doubles, and give up two home runs, you are clearly getting hit very hard. Consider this: in the 1/3 inning Miller pitched, he gave up more extra-base hits to the Angels then Bonser did in 5 1/3 innings.

While I believe that Bonser will bounce back, the performances of Ortiz and Miller clearly indicate the holes the Twins have currently in their bullpen. As long as Ortiz is pitching in blow-out games as a mop-up guy, I won't be concerned about him getting knocked around every few days. However, while it isn't clear what Miller's role is yet, this game should make it apparent that he can't be trusted to get out important outs. While Carmen Cali isn't close to a dominant lefty, he might offer a better lefty arm out of the 'pen then Miller seems to be able to.

It may seem that I'm being a bit harsh on Miller. Its true that he has a 3.34 ERA in 517 2/3 minor league innings with 507 strikeouts. Miller also had a 1.30 WHIP in that time, mainly due to the 199 walks he also administered. Miller may be useful in good time, but he has not shown particularly great stuff since being called up. More than suggesting that Miller isn't much of a pitcher, it's more notable to notice that the Twins bullpen has been left with only a few reliable options in Neshek, Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and usually Juan Rincon. That, of course, is more than many bullpens have, but it still means that things might get dicey now and then when the team has to call on Ortiz, Miller, or Cali for that matter, who will most likely get knocked around sometime in the near future.

Unfortunately for the Twins, things won't get significantly easier in tonight's game. With youngster Scott Baker on the mound facing off against Kelvim Escobar, who has a 6-3 record and a 3.00 ERA this year, things seem to be in Angels' favor. Good news for the Twins and their fans that they probably won't be giving up 16 runs against tonight.