With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning last night, all was well. The Twins were up 5-0, the Tigers were stumbling along as they have throughout much of the season thus far, and it appeared that the hometown nine were on their way to an easy victory to open their series in Detroit.
Then, Gary Sheffield reached first on an infield single to third base. It was no big deal -- a weak infield hit that did nothing to indicate that starter Nick Blackburn was not in control. But Sheffield's single was followed by another from Magglio Ordonez. Then another by Miguel Cabrera. Then a double by Carlos Guillen. Ron Gardenhire pulled Blackburn and inserted Matt Guerrier to stop the bleeding, but it was no use. Edgar Renteria drove an RBI single to right, but took too big a turn at first base on the throw home and ended up being tagged out. Nevertheless, when the inning was over, the Tigers had closed their deficit to one run.
Yet, the Twins struck back in the next inning, scoring four runs of their own to increase the lead back to five at 9-4. Again, the game seemed safe. Unfortunately, the Detroit bats had just begun their awakening ceremony, and they were nowhere near done yet. In the bottom of the seventh, Ivan Rodriguez drove a liner to deep right, and while trying to make a leaping catch, Denard Span had it pop out of his glove and over the wall for a solo homer. It was that kind of night for the Twins. Guerrier got three straight ground-outs to escape the inning, but the worst was yet to come.
In the eighth inning, Guerrier and Pat Neshek combined to surrender six runs on two singles, two doubles and two triples. To say that the Tigers hitters were locked in would be an understatement; it seemed that every pitch was being driven into one of the gaps, and it certainly didn't help that the Twins' inexperienced outfielders repeatedly gave Detroit hitters extra bases by taking bad routes and letting balls roll by them to the wall.
When all was said and one, the Tigers had an 11-9 lead. The Twins, demoralized, were set down by Todd Jones in the ninth, completing the toughest loss of the season so far.
The game marked the second time that Guerrier and Neshek have been absolutely pounded, which is more than a little concerning. In six innings this season, Neshek has allowed five earned runs; he didn't allow his fifth earned run until June 24 last season. I was optimistic that Neshek would bounce back from his rough second half last year after hearing that he'd made improved his health during the offseason and after seeing him dominate in the spring, but thus far he has just looked flat. The same goes for Guerrier, who holds a 9.53 ERA after being charged with four earned runs on eight hits last night over just 1 1/3 innings of work.
Being that Guerrier and Neshek were the team's most reliable relievers outside of Joe Nathan last year, this team could be in serious trouble if these issues aren't temporary. I'm still not at the point of panic with either pitcher, because last night they had the unfortunate task of facing a Tigers lineup that was just exploding. (I said in my post yesterday that I was "a little scared" about seeing the Twins face the battered Tigers, and this is exactly what I was talking about.) Here's hoping the two relievers can get on track, because this team simply not succeed if they cannot be relied on to get outs in close games.
I have one final beef, and it is with Adam Everett (a.k.a. Adam Neverhitt). During the disastrous eighth inning last night, Everett helped out the Tigers by committing an error on a routine ground ball, bouncing a ball in the dirt in front of Justin Morneau and helping to extend and inning which the Tigers had already led off with two straight doubles. Everett has a reputation as a defensive specialist who doesn't hit much, and he's certainly lived up to the latter part of that rep with a .185/.214/.222 hitting line thus far. Yet, the error last night (probably the most painful error I have seen a Twin make this year) was his third in this young season, and he's done little to dazzle me and make me believe his defensive proficiency can offset his utter worthlessness at the plate.
There's been talk that Everett has some shoulder problems, and if that's the case, it's difficult to really hold his fielding issues against him. Yet, if he's got a bad throwing shoulder, the impetus is on Ron Gardenhire to keep him out of the lineup. If he can't field up to the best of his ability, there is absolutely no reason he should be playing. There's plenty of blame to go around in a brutal loss like the one the Twins suffered last night, but putting competent and healthy players on the field in the first place would certainly help prevent big innings like last night's eighth.