Monday, July 07, 2008

Rally On

Yesterday's game was the type that really makes you believe in a team like the Twins. Cliff Lee has been close to unbeatable this season, and was having his way with the Twins lineup through the first five innings as the Indians jumped to a 3-0 lead. A triple by Denard Span in the sixth yielded the Twins' first run, but as stingy as Lee had been in the game, it seemed unlikely that the Twins would be able to add much more unless they could get to the shaky Indian bullpen.

Yet, the Twins were able to get after Lee in the seventh inning, scoring three more times to take a 4-3 lead. The rally was far from explosive, but it was very much the type of inning that this offense has come to thrive on. The inning started off with a Craig Monroe walk (patience was a big key in this series for the Twins, who drew eight free passes in Saturday night's win). Then, Delmon Young hit a harder grounder to third that turned into an infield single when Andy Marte was unable to cleanly field it. Brendan Harris' sharp single to right in the next at-bat loaded the bases for a suddenly hot Nick Punto, who delivered a line drive single back up the middle to score Monroe and close the Twins' deficit to one run. Next, Span turned in perhaps the biggest at-bat of the game, working a five-pitch walk to force in Young and tie the game at three. Carlos Gomez's RBI ground-out in the following at-bat gave the Twins a lead, which was made permanent by the bullpen, and propelled them to their 18th win in the past 21 games.

Nowhere in that series of events do you see a game-breaking extra-base hit. Instead, the comeback was made possible by a combination of patience, luck and timely hitting, all of which have become trademarks of this surprisingly effective offense. The hitters on this team consistently put together poor at-bats early in the season and -- in turn -- many struggled to reach base with much regularity as the team posted a poor .305 on-base percentage in April. Since then, however, the offense has managed a very respectable .347 on-base percentage. This increase has been due to a variety of factors -- an increase in team batting average, improved discipline from players like Young and Jason Kubel, and the addition of Alexi Casilla.

In particular, it's nice to see young players putting together good at-bats. The lineup still features some free swingers (chiefly Gomez and Young), but Casilla and Span are capable of working deep into counts consistently. And regardless of your feelings about Punto, he's another guy who generally works the count and sees a fair number of pitches. Most see Punto as nothing but a stopgap at short and view the position as one that the Twins need to improve for the second half, but is it all that unthinkable that Punto could put up numbers this year similar to the ones he posted in 2006? And with the way he's excelled defensively at shortstop, wouldn't that basically make him a better version of what the Twins hoped to be getting in Adam Everett this year? I'm not all that sure that Punto isn't an adequate answer at shortstop for this team at present.

Tonight the Twins embark on a road trip which will prove to be a great test, as they play the Red Sox in Boston for three games and then head to Detroit for a four-game set against the Tigers. With a 32-18 record at the Metrodome, the Twins have proven that they can win at home, but they remain below .500 on the road and have pitched far worse in other ballparks (3.35 ERA at home, 5.39 on the road). This road trip would be an opportune time to reverse that trend, but doing so will by no means be easy.

8 comments:

Andrew Kneeland said...

Great job, Nick. Actually, Minnesota will play a four game series in Motown after the three game Boston series.

These next seven games could really make or break this young team. If we can sweep Boston, we will be 2.5 games ahead in the Wild Card, or ahead in our division. I find it hard to believe that the Twins will miss post season play this year, as I firmly believe that Tampa can't play the way they're playing forever. They should fade leaving the AL East to Boston and the Wild Card to Minnesota.

But here's to a division title first and foremost, right?

Dwade said...

Its hard to figure out how good Punto really is. He has had three years of regular playing time: one poor (2005), one very solid (2006), and one ABYSMAL (2007). I think he's close to a .250-.260 hitter than the .290 he put up in 2006 and is close to putting up now.

As Punto sees more playing time, which he will provided he stays healthy, I suspect he will regress towards his mean, but I don't expect him to dip too far below .250 or so. If he can stay in that .240-.260 range and play stellar defense, then I think he can be an asset to this team.

Nick N. said...

Great job, Nick. Actually, Minnesota will play a four game series in Motown after the three game Boston series.

Oops, fixed that. Thanks.

These next seven games could really make or break this young team. If we can sweep Boston, we will be 2.5 games ahead in the Wild Card, or ahead in our division. I find it hard to believe that the Twins will miss post season play this year, as I firmly believe that Tampa can't play the way they're playing forever.

Sweeping the Red Sox in Fenway will be an exceedingly difficult task. We can't take for granted the fact that the Twins have been playing some pretty bad teams lately. Boston has been extremely tough to beat at home this year (31-10!) and the Tigers certainly hold their own in their home park as well. To be honest, I'd be satisfied if the Twins won four of these seven games.

Its hard to figure out how good Punto really is. He has had three years of regular playing time: one poor (2005), one very solid (2006), and one ABYSMAL (2007). I think he's close to a .250-.260 hitter than the .290 he put up in 2006 and is close to putting up now.

Here's my thing about Punto in 2005: he was playing pretty damn well after taking over the starting job at second base when the Twins finally pulled the plug on Rivas. On June 2, Punto was hitting .293/.351/.423 -- roughly what he's doing right now -- but then he got hurt and missed a month. He was never the same after returning from the injury, hitting a 2007-esque .214/.279/.295 the rest of the way out.

Maybe the injury was still bothering him, or maybe that stretch and the entire 2007 season are just evidence that he can get into prolonged slumps. Either way, he's doing well right now and 2006 at least proves that he's capable of maintaining a reasonable level of production over an extended stretch of time. The thing is that even if his hitting drops off, he can still be a valuable member of the lineup because he's playing excellent defense at a more important position than he was in '06.

TT said...

he hitters on this team consistently put together poor at-bats early in the season

The Twins have had no problem scoring runs all along. They have been among the league leaders in runs scored for most of the year. The problem has been their pitching and defense. I think the Boston series will be a real test of whether the rotation has now jelled or just had a hot streak against relatively weak teams.

Nick N. said...

The Twins have had no problem scoring runs all along. They have been among the league leaders in runs scored for most of the year.

They averaged 3.8 runs per game in April. Not good.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

A .347 on-base isn't just solid. That is great! If the Twins had hit like that all year, they would be third in the AL.

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