Tuesday, September 30, 2008

South-Side Showdown

Baseball is a crazy game. Over the course of a nine-inning (or more) contest, just about anything can happen. A good pitcher can lack his best stuff and get knocked around by a weak lineup. A dominating cleanup hitter can go 0-for-4 and strand seven runners on base. A typically reliable bullpen can blow a five-run lead in the late innings. In any given game, it is not always the case that the best team wins.

That's why playoff contenders are sorted out over a long 162-game season. And it's why the road to the World Series is made up of five-game and seven-game series rather than single-elimination matches. Heck, sometimes even this system fails to produce a champion that could widely be considered the best team in the league. But this is the way baseball is designed; like panning for gold, this sport's regular season and postseason act as a methodical process of sorting out the top teams over the course of many games.

That won't be the case tonight. Tonight, the Twins and White Sox face off in a single play-in game that will decide the fate of each team's season. Win and you're in. Lose and go home. It goes against everything that baseball represents, but somehow, it seems oddly fitting for these two teams in this season.

As I wrote prior to the series at the Metrodome last week, the Twins and White Sox are in many ways mirror images of one another. Looking past the fact that the Sox are one of the most prolific home run hitting teams in the league while the Twins are one of the least, we find some almost eery similarities. With 162 games in the books, the teams are both 88-74. Both are 53-28 at home and 35-46 on the road. Both teams have a Pythagorean win/loss record of 89-73, indicating that neither team has been more "lucky" than the other. Both teams posted a 43-29 record against AL Central opponents. Minnesota scored an average of 5.1 runs per game while allowing an average of 4.9; Chicago scored an average of 5.0 runs per game while allowing an average of 4.8.

The Twins have won 10 of 18 head-to-head match-ups, but both teams have had their high and low points. I'm guessing you all remember the dominating four-game sweep that the White Sox laid on the Twins in their homepark back in June, and I'm quite positive you all remember the exhilarating three-game sweep the Twins pulled off when the Sox came to the Dome last week. It has been a season-long, back-and-forth slugfest, with neither team proving itself superior and neither team ever building much of a lead in the standings. I'm reminded of a moment late in The Dark Knight (a movie I've seen something like five times now), when the Joker -- hanging upside down and grinning psychotically -- tells Batman, "I think you and I are destined to do this forever."

Well, no more. Tonight's game is decisive. Whichever team wins this single game claims definitive victory in this riveting AL Central race. And, to be honest, I don't like the Twins' chances tonight. The game is being played in Chicago thanks to an arbitrary coin flip, and the Twins will be sending out Nick Blackburn, who is 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA on the road this year. The Sox, meanwhile, will start a tough left-hander in John Danks, though it's worth noting that he's going on three days' rest.

Tonight's game is going to be intense. To say it is like a playoff game is underselling it, because the majority of playoff games are not literally "must-win," as tonight's game is for both teams. As much as the realist in me says a major uphill struggle for the Twins, another part of me will focus on the fact that anything can happen. We've been reminded of that fact again and again this season.

Monday, September 29, 2008

As Good As It Gets

Sure, it would have been nice if the Twins could have taken care of business at home against the Royals over the weekend and locked up a playoff spot. But by dropping a pair of games while the Indians took two of three at U.S. Cellular, the Twins remained a half-game ahead of the White Sox and set up some serious late-season drama.

Today the Sox will play a makeup game against the Tigers in Chicago. If they lose, the Twins will capture their fifth AL Central title of in seven years. A win would force a one-game playoff between the Twins and White Sox in Chicago to decide which team will move on to face the Rays in the ALDS.

There are a number of ways to put a negative spin on the current situation. With the Indians helping out in Chicago, all the Twins needed to do to seal up a playoff spot was win two games from the lowly Royals at home. Now they have to count on the Tigers to beat the Sox in a game that is only meaningful to one team. And if that doesn't happen, the Twins will be forced to go into Chicago -- where they are 2-7 this year -- and throw Nick Blackburn in a decisive play-in game. It'd be tough to like the Twins' odds in such a match-up. And if they do find their way into postseason play, the Twins would be a supreme underdog against any opponent they face, having won only 88 games and sputtered here in the final month of season (with the very notable exception of that series against the White Sox).

But, you know what? I can't help but love the way things are playing out. Following the game between the White Sox and Tigers today is going to be extremely exciting, and if things don't work out we'll have a whopper of a game on our hands for tomorrow night. And while the Twins would certainly be the underdog in a first-round series against the Rays, I'd take the a three-man rotation of Baker/Liriano/Slowey (if healthy) against Tampa Bay or any other playoff opponent. And we can't forget that the Twins are the third-highest scoring team in the American League. And that bullpen? It's been downright solid over the past week or so.

I'll be cheering wholeheartedly for the Tigers today, but the game won't be nearly as nerve-racking as it would be if the Twins were a half-game behind the Sox and facing elimination. If Detroit can step up and play spoiler and push the South-Siders out of the picture, great. If not, the Twins will have their chance on Tuesday.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One Half Game

In this season, who would have ever thought that a victory as big as last night's would come down to an exceptional performance from the bullpen, highlighted by a guy with a 5.96 ERA and a 23-year-old with six innings of major-league experience? Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising. After all, this has been a year of unexpected contributions for the Twins. But now this crazy season has led the Twins here: half a game out of first place with four left to play, and in position to overtake the division lead with a win tomorrow night.

Bouncing back from a pair of rough starts (which, it should be noted, both came on the road against solid offenses), Blackburn tossed five innings of two-run ball in the biggest game of his career. He was hardly dazzling, as indicated by the eight hits and two walks allowed, but he squirmed out of some sticky situations and handed a lead over to the bullpen.

And there we stood. In what amounted to a must-win game, the Twins were looking to their bullpen -- a unit that has been the bane of every fan's existence all year -- to protect a one-run lead for four innings.

Ron Gardenhire hardly went the conventional route. No Matt Guerrier. No Jesse Crain. No Dennys Reyes. Instead, he called upon Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser and Jose Mijares to bridge the gap to Joe Nathan. And you know what? The plan worked splendidly. The four relievers combined for four innings of one-hit, shutout ball, fending off the Sox and carrying the Twins to victory despite the offense's inability to add any insurance runs.

Gardenhire deserves signficant credit for the way he's managed in this series. He went against his better judgment in Game 1, playing Jason Kubel over Michael Cuddyer despite Cuddyer's far superior career numbers against Javier Vazquez. That move played huge dividends, as Kubel went on to have a monster night and lead a power attack from the Twins offense. Last night, Gardy went with an unconventional cast of relievers -- three guys who weren't members of the bullpen at the onset of the season -- to pitch perhaps the three most important innings of the season up to this point. And all three came through in flying colors.

The play of the game, though, came in the ninth inning after all three of those hurlers had put in their work. With Nathan on the hill trying to slam the door, A.J. Pierzynski ripped a line drive into the left-center field gap. Off the bat, this ball seemed unquestionable destined to fall in for at least a double. But as the camera flashed to that outfield, Carlos Gomez came streaking across the screen. Somehow, someway, Gomez reached up and snagged the liner in full stride. Considering the significance and the degree of difficulty, I can say without hyperbole that it was one of the very greatest catches I have ever seen.

Which is funny, because just about an hour earlier, I'd been a guest on Seth Stohs live podcast (which you can listen to here, if you're so inclined) and in response to a question about Gomez and his 2009 outlook, I made an emphatic point that a great deal of the center fielder's value was tied up in his phenomenal defense. It seems like poetic justice that just a few innings later he reinforced my point by making such a fantastic, perhaps season-saving catch.

Just an awesome game. And tonight the Twins can finish their improbable rise to first place by completing the sweep. They'll get a much more favorable match-up with Kevin Slowey squaring off against Gavin Floyd. And, in a devastating example of poetic injustice, I won't be able to watch it. Nor any of what figures to be a colossally important series against the Royals this weekend. For this morning at 6:10 am I will be boarding a plane and, as the Dropkick Murphys would say, "shipping up to Boston." It figures that when the four most exciting regular-season games in my memory take place, I'll be thousands of miles away on a trip I planned long ago. But I'll be keeping a watchful eye from the East Coast, and I'll be back with a full report on everything come Monday morning.

The Twins have muscled their way right back into the thick of the race with a couple magical games at the Metrodome over the past two days. But the journey is far from over, and now is not the time for complacency to set in. They need to maintain the fire that they've shown over the past two games, both tonight and over the weekend.

I will return from Boston on Sunday evening. I sure hope there will be some more Twins baseball for me to watch.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One Down, Two To Go...

The Twins finished the first step in their mission to overcome the White Sox last night, and in rather convincing fashion. Scott Baker tossed seven innings of one-run ball in perhaps the biggest game of his entire career while Jason Kubel bashed two homers and a triple as the Twins pounded the South-Siders 9-3 in their series opener.

It was a promising start to this crucial series, but tonight the Twins face a much more difficult challenge with Nick Blackburn facing off against Mark Buehrle. Blackburn has struggled in his last two starts and holds a 6.14 ERA in four starts against the Sox this year, but he has pitched quite well at home. Hopefully the latter trend holds up and the Twins can find a way to get to Buehrle, who has historically pitched well against them.

Round 2, tonight, 7 p.m.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Twins/White Sox: The Big Series

The time is upon us. A series that many had circled on their schedules at the beginning of the season is here, and the implications are huge. Win zero, season over. Win one, season (almost certainly) over. Win two, decent chance. Win three, driver's seat. It's as simple as that.

And now, for your reading pleasure, here are some excerpts from this series' Twins Dugout Splinters, which I wrote up for GameDay Magazine yesterday. Please pick up a copy of the (cheap!) program if you get out to a game this week!


Chasing the Same Thing

Entering the season, this is exactly the type of scenario a team asks for. It’s late September, and the Twins control their own destiny. They have a shot at the postseason, and if they truly want it they can take it.

OK, the situation is not ideal. They trail the White Sox by 2.5 games, and even if the Twins win all six remaining games on their schedule, they could still miss the playoffs. (The White Sox could sweep the Indians in their final series, then beat the Tigers in a makeup game, then force a one-game playoff against the Twins to determine the division winner.) Still, the Twins will be in decent shape if they can take two of three in this series – that would put them 1.5 games out going into their final series against the Royals. They’d be in very good shape if they can sweep this series, as that would put them a half-game in front and would put pressure on the White Sox to keep pace despite having a tougher match-up (Cleveland) in the season’s final series.

Asking for a sweep, or even a series victory, against the White Sox is a tall order. They are a good baseball team, and the three starters who the Twins are throwing in this series have not performed well versus the South-Siders this year. Against the Sox, Scott Baker is 0-1 with a 5.73 ERA in two starts, Nick Blackburn is 1-2 with a 6.14 ERA in four starts, and Kevin Slowey is 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA in three starts. Yet, all three of these hurlers have pitched exceedingly well at home (Baker: 3.28 ERA, Blackburn: 2.92 ERA, Slowey: 3.08 ERA) and these Twins in general have just played good ball at the Metrodome, with a 49-26 record here.

For all their differences, the Twins and White Sox really aren’t all that different. Obviously, their overall records are very similar. Their home/road splits are nearly identical. The Twins rank third in the AL in runs scored; the White Sox rank fifth. The Twins rank seventh in team ERA; the Sox rank sixth. Both teams rely on strong starting pitching, and both have dealt with some serious bullpen issues. In 13 head-to-head games this year, the Twins have won seven and the White Sox have won eight. These two clubs are about as evenly matched as they come, and that’s what makes this series truly intriguing.

What’s Working

The Twins’ chase of the White Sox in the AL Central will not be the only exciting race for Minnesota baseball fans to follow over the final week of the season. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are working on capturing their own individual titles, and unlike the Twins in the quest for the division crown, these two enter the last week as frontrunners in their respective races.

Entering play on Monday, Mauer led the American League in batting average at .330, with a relatively sizable lead over his nearest challengers, Dustin Pedroia (.324) and Magglio Ordonez (.323). Mauer won’t lead the major leagues in batting like he did in 2006 (Chipper Jones of the Braves entered the week hitting .362), but for a 25-year-old catcher to own two AL batting titles would be pretty amazing.

Meanwhile, Morneau may be on his way to becoming the AL RBI king, as his total of 128 leads Miguel Cabrera (125) Josh Hamilton (124). It seemed for much of the season that Hamilton would run away with this honor – he had driven in 103 runs through his first 100 games – but his pace has slowed considerably and Morneau has been a run-producing machine since the All-Star break.

The Twins haven’t been playing particularly well as of late, but the M&M boys have been doing everything within their power to carry the load. In the month of September, Mauer is hitting .391 and Morneau has knocked in 20 runs in 19 games. With the season winding down, the Twins are locked in a tight race for the division title while one of their stars aims for the batting title and another has legitimate MVP aspirations. Something about all this seems vaguely familiar…

What’s Not Working

That the Twins find themselves with a realistic shot at a playoff berth can be attributed in no small part to the offense, which has been the highest-scoring unit to grace the Metrodome since 1996. But this success has also had a lot to do with the unexpectedly strong contributions from the young and inexperienced pitching rotation. All five of the team’s current starters entered this season as relatively unknown quantities, and all five have proven themselves to be quality major-league pitchers.

But here, late in the season, this pitching staff is starting to crumble. Twins’ pitchers have posted a 6.19 ERA over the team’s past six contests entering the Chicago series, and this normally consistent rotation had gone five consecutive games without a Quality Start prior to Francisco Liriano’s outstanding performance on Sunday.

It’s possible that this group is going through a rough stretch. We’ve seen that before; remember the four-game series in Chicago back in June? But it’s also possible these guys are worn down. That’d be understandable, given that not one had put together a full season at the major-league level prior to this year, but if that’s the case it doesn’t bode well for the team going into this final week – or into the playoffs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

For All the Marbles

On Thursday, I wrote that the Twins would have to keep pace with the White Sox over the weekend in order to have a shot at capturing the division during the final week of the season. I guessed that this would mean taking three of four from the Rays, and while the Twins weren't able to do that, a series split got the job done with the Sox dropping their final game against the Yankees on Thursday night and then losing once in Kansas City over the weekend. And now it all comes down to this.

This late-September Twins/White Sox series is one we've been eyeing for much of the season. Tomorrow, it begins. And the Twins, trailing by 2.5 games in the AL Central, cannot afford to simply win this series. Going into the final series of the season with a 1.5-game deficit forces them to rely on way too many lucky events falling into place. If the Twins want to make the playoffs, they need to sweep the White Sox and take over first place. That's a tall task, especially considering that they won't have Francisco Liriano going in the series, but they do have one major factor playing into their favor.

The Twins will be playing at home, in front of large enthusiastic crowds. This is when we've seen this team at its best this season. They can put their road woes behind them because all six remaining games will be played in the comfort of their own park.

It's go time. Buckle up.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Line

The Twins had their 2-5 hitters go 8-for-15. The offense managed to scrape together four runs on 10 hits and three walks against Cy Young shoe-in Cliff Lee. Justin Morneau drove in runs in the clutch. The Twins battled back from a two-run deficit to tie the game in the seventh. All of this, and they still couldn't find a way to win. For as soon as the Twins had tied the game, the Indians rallied right back with two runs in the bottom half of the inning to bury them.

There were a multitude of ugly aspects to last night's game. The offense went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 13 runners. Scott Baker continued a trend of starting pitchers coming up short when needed most. Matt Guerrier once again looked horrible and utterly overmatched by every hitter he faced. (Seriously, when is Ron Gardenhire going to get the picture that Guerrier CANNOT be counted on to get people out in tight situations?) Joe Mauer threw a ball clear into right field when trying to throw out a runner at second, and Denard Span compounded the error by failing to scoop the ball as it slowly rolled toward him.

As much as I'd love to go off on an angry rant about this team choking away the season by inventing new ways to lose on a nightly basis, I find myself speechless. Really, I'm more disheartened than angry as I watch these games slip away night after night.

Now, let's not get carried away here. Even after losing last night, the Twins remain 2.5 games behind the White Sox, who lost to the Yankees. The Twins now head to Tampa Bay for four games against the Rays, while the Sox finish up one more game against the Yankees and then head to Kansas City for three games against the Royals. I'm going to go ahead and say that in order to have a shot at the postseason, the Twins must not lose any ground in the race before their series against the White Sox before the two teams face off in the Metrodome starting next Tuesday. And in order for that to happen, I think they need to win at least three of four in Tampa Bay. The Rays are a great team and they've been damn near unbeatable at home, so taking it to them at Tropicana Field is a tall task to say the least. But the Twins could prove a lot by finding it within themselves to take this series.

The Twins aren't out of it yet. The playoffs are still very realistically within reach. But if this team intends on playing in October, now is the time to prove they want it. It's time for these kids to grow up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Out of Gas

Last night's was a game the Twins needed to win. They'd lost the first game in Cleveland, the pitching match-up favored them heavily, and the next games will present a brutal challenge, as the Twins face perhaps baseball's best starter in Cliff Lee tonight and then head to Tampa Bay for four games against a playoff team.

Despite getting an awful outing from Francisco Liriano, the Twins managed to put themselves in position to win last night, rallying back from an 8-1 deficit to take a 9-8 lead in the eighth inning. But, as has been the case so often late in this season, the Twins couldn't finish off an opponent that they had on the ropes, and ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion as Eddie Guardado sent the game to extra innings by surrendering a homer in the eighth and Joe Nathan ended up giving up a walk-off three-run bomb to Victor Martinez in the 11th. In combination with a White Sox victory, the loss pushed the Twins 2.5 games out of first place with 11 left to play as they enter a stretch of five games they'll have a hard time winning. It's very possible -- perhaps even probable -- that by the time the White Sox come to Minnesota for a three-game series in six days, the Twins will be nearly eliminated from postseason contention.

As much as we want to tell ourselves that this team wasn't even expected to compete, and this season has been an unexpected treat up to this point, seeing the Twins slide into obscurity here during the final stretch is awfully tough to watch. Last night's comeback was fun to watch, but it almost seemed inevitable that they'd end up taking a loss.

The Twins were a great story this year -- an upstart group of inexperienced youngsters defying the odds and outplaying high-priced division rivals. But now they seem to be running out of gas down the stretch, unable to close out the amazing wins that watermarked the middle months of their season. Perhaps it's something we should have seen coming.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blind Loyalty

When Michael Cuddyer suffered a fractured foot after being hit with a line drive during a rehab stint in the minors in early August, it seemed time to chalk 2008 up as a lost season for the right fielder. The best-case scenario had Cuddyer returning with just a few weeks left of the season, and with no minor-league seasons still going on, he wouldn't be able to get back up to speed at a lower level before joining the team. The success experienced by Denard Span after replacing Cuddyer in right field made it seem all the more likely that Cuddyer was done contributing this season.

Yet, for whatever reason, the Twins have been aggressively pushing to get Cuddyer back into action here in the final weeks of the season. He came on as a pinch-hitter in games on Saturday and Sunday, and just a day after saying that Cuddyer was not an option to start because he couldn't run on his foot, Ron Gardenhire inserted him as the starting designated hitter last night. My question is, why?

Prior to his pinch-hit appearance in Saturday's game, Cuddyer had not taken a major-league at-bat since late June. As aforementioned, he wasn't able to go on a minor-league rehab stint before returning to the team this time, so he hasn't experienced live game action since he hurt his foot. He's gone 1-for-5 and hasn't looked good at the plate. He can't run well because his foot is still bothering him. Furthermore, Span has done an excellent job of filling in in right field while Randy Ruiz has been solid as a right-handed bat off the bench. There is essentially no reason to be giving at-bats to Cuddyer at this point other than blind loyalty and commitment to his newly minted contract. With the Twins a game out of first place with 12 games left to play, their priorities should be arranged a bit differently.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Still Slipping

Yesterday's game was the type that is truly painful to watch. The Twins get another very strong outing from their starting pitcher, only to have the offense blow repeated opportunities to score against bad pitchers and then to have the game slip away at the hands of the bullpen in extra innings.

Francisco Liriano recovered from some early struggles to turn in some a very good outing, going eight innings and allowing just two runs. (If you're interested, you can read a lot more of my thoughts on Liriano's outing, as well as the dilemma over how to use him down the stretch, at my Daily Dose column at Rotoworld today.) But the Twins offense could not take advantage, going 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and scoring just twice in five innings against starter Brandon Duckworth, who entered the game with a 6.50 ERA, 1.93 WHIP and 5-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings on the season.

Justin Morneau delivered a clutch two-out hit with a runner on third in the first inning to bring home the Twins' first run, but from that point forward, watching the offense struggle mightily at home against a bad team was a frustrating practice.

In the second, the Twins put runners on second and third with one out. Carlos Gomez drove in a run with a single to right field, tallying the Twins' second run of the game and setting up a possible rally with runners on the corners and just one out. Unfortunately, the rally quickly fizzled when Gomez was picked off at first and Denard Span struck out to strand Brian Buscher at third. In the sixth, Joe Mauer hit a leadoff single and Morneau followed with a single of his own, putting runners on first and second with nobody out, but a Jason Kubel struck out and Mike Redmond grounded into a double play to end the inning. The next inning, the Twins put a pair of runners on with two outs, but again failed to capitalize when Alexi Casilla (who has been making horrible contact much of time) fouled out to third base. In the eighth, Mauer reached second on a two-base error to lead off the inning, but the Twins' 4-5-6 hitters failed to bring him home.

And with the offense fledgling, the bullpen let another game slip away. After Joe Nathan tossed a 1-2-3 ninth, the rest of the relief corps could not contribute even one scoreless inning against this Royals offense. Matt Guerrier gave up two straight singles, and on came Dennys Reyes with the task of retiring lefty David DeJesus, which he failed to do as DeJesus delivered a go-ahead RBI single to right. That was plenty for Joakim Soria, who set the Twins' suddenly punchless hitters down in order in the bottom of the inning.

Let's have no illusions: this loss should be blamed almost completely on a hideous offensive performance against a pitcher they should have had a field day against. But the bullpen is what has me feeling the most despair. I just don't see how it's possible that the Twins can make the postseason, much less succeed there, when the non-Nathan sector of the bullpen is so incapable of finding even a modicum of effectiveness. We keep waiting for these guys to turn it around, but it's not happening. No one has been able to work into a sustained groove. Guerrier can't get people out. Opponents are OPS-ing over 900 against Reyes since mid-August. Jesse Crain has a 6.75 ERA over his past 14 appearances. Boof Bonser alternates between looking utterly dominant and giving up long home runs, and can hardly be counted on. Craig Breslow has been the bullpen's most effective non-Nathan reliever, but Ron Gardenhire for some reason seems extremely hesitant to go to him in high-leverage spots.

If the bullpen can't pull it together during the 10-game road trip that opens tonight in Baltimore, the Twins could be toast by the time they return to the Metrodome. That's a scary proposition.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Taking Care of Business

With Kevin Slowey tossing seven innings of one-run ball while Jason Kubel and Alexi Casilla chipped in with solid contributions on offense, the Twins easily coasted to a 7-1 victory over Kyle Davies and the Royals last night.

The Twins have now won consecutive games for the first time since they beat the Angels twice in a row to start their 14-game road trip. It's been a brutal stretch, but the Twins are back to playing good baseball and seem to be regaining confidence. This comes at a good time, as the White Sox seem to be losing steam thanks to injuries and tough competition. The Sox finally snapped Toronto's lengthy winning streak last night to remain a game ahead in the division, but had to fend off a late Jays rally that nearly tied the game.

The Twins' play as of late has been quite frustrating, but they've stayed very close in the race and are poised for a very exciting final three-week stretch. A sweep-clinching victory this afternoon with Francisco Liriano would be huge, because the Twins are preparing to embark on another extruciating road trip. All we can hope is that they take care of business on that trip a little better than they did on the last one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Good Day

Well, yesterday went about as well as it possibly could have. The Twins defeated the Royals convincingly in their series opener at the Metrodome, while the White Sox lost both games of a double-header and also probably lost Paul Konerko for the season. Two months ago, losing Konerko wouldn't have been a particularly big deal, but he had really turned it on lately with a .356/.474/.656 line since the beginning of August. With Carlos Quentin and Joe Crede both already likely out for the season, this offense could pack a lot less punch down the stretch. You never want to celebrate injuries like this, but there's no denying that the Twins have a much better shot at the postseason with those three unavailable to the Sox.

The Twins took care of business yesterday, and need to do so once again tonight with Kevin Slowey facing off against Kyle Davies. If all goes well, the Twins could find themselves tied for first place at the end of the day. That'd be a pretty nice 48-hour turnaround.

I love meaningful September baseball.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Crunch Time

As many of you have probably noticed, posting has been a bit thin around here as of late. Mr. Mosvick has been dealing with interviews and all sorts of other law school related stuff down in Virginia. Meanwhile, I've been handling a move into a new place (which left me without Internet for a while) and have also been dealing with a heavier workload than ever over at Rotoworld as many of the site's baseball writers switch over to football coverage. Things have been hectic.

Of course, the Twins' play has not exactly inspired me to go out of my way and write about them. After a poor road trip in which the team blew lead after lead and failed to gain ground on the White Sox, the Twins dropped two more winnable games at home against the Tigers this weekend, losing another game in the standings and falling to 2.5 games out with 19 left to play.

They Twins have their work cut out for them. They're not closing out games and the White Sox keep pulling off these improbable victories (thank you K-Rod, for choosing such an appropriate time to blow a save on Saturday). Yet, all is not terribly grim. The Twins open a three-game series against the Royals tonight, while the White Sox battle through a four-game set in Toronto against a hot Blue Jays team. The Twins MUST take care of business in this series against KC, because afterward they launch another difficult road trip -- this time a 10-gamer that will take them through Baltimore, Cleveland and Tampa Bay -- and if things don't go well during this stretch the much-hyped series against the White Sox on September 23-25 might not end up carrying a whole lot of meaning.

Here are some notes as we enter this intense final stretch...

* For a second consecutive start on Sunday, Glen Perkins was staked a relatively comfortable lead only to watch it disappear in the middle innings. In his previous start, Perkins allowed the Blue Jays to close a four-run gap to one by surrendering back-to-back homers in the fifth inning. On Sunday, he coughed up a 4-2 lead in the sixth inning by allowing the Tigers to go homer-double-single-double-flyout-walk before being removed with one out and the go-ahead run on second. Craig Breslow entered and immediately allowed that runner from second to score, giving the Tigers a lead they would not relinquish.

We have long expressed concern on this blog that Perkins seemed like the most likely among the Twins' group of young starters to see some regression as the season went on. He has now surrendered four-plus earned runs in six of his past nine appearances (though he has sprinkled a pair of eight-inning shutout performances in there), and has given up 11 home runs during that span. His issues seem especially prominent in the later innings. This may be a result of opposing lineups adjusting to Perkins the second or third time through the order, or it may be a result of Perkins wearing down as the game goes on. The latter explanation wouldn't be terribly surprising, since Perkins has now totaled 175 2/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors this year, which is foreign territory as he's never come anywhere close to throwing that many innings in a pro season before.

* Bobby Korecky, Philip Humber and Jose Mijares are up to help the Twins bullpen, but they haven't been called on much up to this point. Korecky and Humber have each made on appearance (and neither were impressive) while Mijares has yet to take the hill for the Twins.

With nearly every reliever in the Twins' bullpen struggling, one might suggest that the team might as well hand the ball to these inexperienced hurlers, each of whom finished strong in their respective minor-league campaigns. Yet, as Korecky and Humber displayed when they were both shelled in Thursday night's game against the Blue Jays, these guys are just as capable of getting knocked around as any of the veterans in the pen. What this team needs is for Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Dennys Reyes to buckle down and start reliably getting some outs.

* American League MVP candidates have been dropping like flies. With potential front-runners Ian Kinsler and now Carlos Quentin likely to miss the rest of the season, Justin Morneau's chances at capturing the award for a second time in three seasons greatly improve. While his home run total isn't terribly impressive, Morneau is hitting for a very good average and has been a run-producing machine, as indicated by the three four-RBI efforts in his past seven games. If the Twins can rally and win the division while Morneau continues to do his thing over the final three weeks of the season, I think Morneau's chances of winning the MVP are very, very good. Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton have both had a tremendous offensive seasons but may see their consideration wane due to the Rangers' unimpressive placement in the standings. Dustin Pedroia, who leads the league in hitting, should also be a top contender. Cliff Lee, a shoe-in for the Cy Young, should also get some MVP votes. The fact that the Indians have been disappointing certainly has nothing to do with him.

* On a final note, I'll mention that last Thursday's column was the 1,000th post on this blog. Hooray us!

Friday, September 05, 2008

You Ain't Got No Alibi, You Ugly

Childish chants are the only thing I can conjure up to direct at the Twins right now.

I hate to take an overly negative tone, but this past set of games with the Blue Jays was, without a doubt, the worst series I have seen from the Twins all year. On Tuesday, they took a big early lead, only to throw it away by giving up a bunch of home runs. On Wednesday, they played perhaps their worst defensive game of the season and blew two late leads. And last night, they got out-and-out demolished in a game they barely showed up to play.

Is this really the type of play we can expect from this team during a playoff race? I'm glad the Twins have performed well enough to put themselves in this position, but they are playing some horrible, horrible baseball right now. They're truly lucky to still be within a game and a half of first place in the division.

The Twins return to the Metrodome tonight, and they are really going to need to kick their play up a notch to revive some faith among the fanbase. This road trip was as ugly as many feared it would be, but thanks to some uninspiring play from the White Sox the Twins remain in the thick of the AL Central race. If they can't pick up the pace in their home stadium, this fortuitous opportunity will go to waste.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Another opportunity lost

There was some mystery to the Twins offense last night. Whats the mystery here? The mystery is discovering how the Twins offense managed to score five runs against the Blue Jays last night, in a loss nonetheless, without a single extra-base hit. One run can across on a wild pitch, another on a sacrifice fly, and one more on a two-out single by Delmon Young. In total, though, the Twins had nine singles and two walks, but still seemed lucky to get the five runs they did, even though their two stolen bases also helped them.

Of course, while the offense didn't pack too much punch in providing a solid amount of run support, the pitching staff's failure may be the bigger story of the loss. In a game in which a win would have given the Twins the lead in the AL central, the pitching staff was the true culprit, allowing 17 hits and three walks for a total of 20 baserunners while giving up seven runs. Therefore, the pitching staff was also somewhat lucky in that they didn't manage to give up more runs, helped by the Blue Jays offense leaving seven baserunners in scoring position with two outs.

Five of the Blue Jays hits went for extra-bases, including three home runs, two off of starter Glen Perkins, who did not look very good at all. Perkins' line is quite ugly: 5 innings, 10 hits, 4 earned runs, one walk, and one strikeout. In other words, Perkins was constantly putting on baserunners, getting hit hard, and was not showing any dominance at all. This may be somewhat closer to the real Perkins fans should expect, since his season stats are anything but impressive.

Sure, Perkins has a 12-3 record, but anyone reading this site knows that we do not consider a win-loss record to be that helpful in evaluate a pitcher's success, his future potential, or his efficiency. In 136 2/3 innings, Perkins has given up 160 hits, 20 home runs, and 62 earned runs (for a 4.08 ERA) while striking out 64 and walking 34. The walk rate is fine and above average, but a strikeout rate of 4.31/9 is terrible and a 1.39 WHIP is bad as well.

Fans should note that Perkins' xFIP (expected Fielding Independent Pitching) is 4.94, well above his current ERA, which that Perkins has certainly be lucky and regression towards the mean should not be surprising. In fact, if there is one young pitcher he seems bound to disappoint fans, at least somewhat, its Perkins, because he has the worst peripherals of anyone in the rotation and stats like xFIP suggest that fans should lower their expectations. Unfortunately, it comes at a bad time, as the Twins have often been in close games like yesterday's lately that they have lost.

Of course, I cannot put the blame purely on Perkins' woeful starting pitching. Boof Bonser also gave up a two-run home run in relief and Matt Guerrier continued to get beaten around, giving up three hits and a run in just 2/3 innings. (In fairness, he had 5 1/3 scoreless innings before last night, so he hasn't been utterly hittable of late, but his second half regression is hardly a secret) But the remedies to continue winning are simple and hard at the same time: the Twins need more consistent punch and the offense isn't going to win many games without hitting extra-base hits, but the pitching staff also needs to do its job more consistently. Its too bad, then, that it still appears that in some instances, fans may need to lower expectations and face some stubborn realities.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Holding Their Own

On August 4, the Twins built an early six-run lead against the Mariners, only to watch their opponents score 10 times in the seventh inning to take an 11-6 lead, which ended up being the final score in a disappointing loss. Since that game, the Twins have gone 15-10. That's pretty good. A lot of those wins have been lopsided, but that certainly has not seemed to be the case with the losses, has it?

Let's take a closer look at each of those 10 losses...

Aug. 5: 8-7 loss to Mariners
The Twins led 7-6 entering the bottom of the eighth inning before the Mariners rallied for a pair of runs against Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan to take the lead.

Aug. 10: 5-4 loss to Royals
The Twins led 4-2 entering the bottom of the eighth inning before the Royals rallied for a pair of runs against Guerrier and Dennys Reyes to tie the game. The Royals eventually won in the 12th inning on a Tony Pena RBI single off Craig Breslow.

Aug. 12: 9-6 loss to Yankees
Twins trail late, but get a big three-run homer from Delmon Young in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game and send it to extra innings. Eventually the Yankees to Guerrier in the 12th inning with a pair of homers.

Aug. 18: 3-2 loss to Athletics
Twins trail 3-0 in the eighth inning, but cut the deficit down to one when Joe Mauer hits an RBI triple and scores on a throwing error. Unfortunately the Twins' rally ends there and they come up a run short.

Aug. 23: 7-5 loss to Angels
Twins fall behind 6-1 early on, but battle back with a four-run fifth inning to close the gap to one. Once again, their rally comes short and the Angels add another run to claim a two-run victory.

Aug. 24: 5-3 loss to Angels
Twins claim early 3-0 lead, but the Angels score five unanswered runs over their final three innings, three of those against the Twins' bullpen.

Aug. 25: 4-2 loss to Mariners
Twins lead 2-1 entering the bottom of the ninth, but the Mariners rally for a run against Joe Nathan to tie the game and eventually win on Adrian Beltre's 11th-inning two-run homer off Jesse Crain.

Aug. 26: 3-2 loss to Mariners
Twins fall behind by two runs early on, but battle back to tie the game in the sixth, only to have Scott Baker give away the lead in the next half inning. Mariners hold on to win by a run.

Aug. 28: 3-2 loss to Athletics
Game is tied at 2-2 entering bottom of the ninth, but the A's are able to manufacture a game-winning run against Breslow and Crain.

Aug. 30: 3-2 loss to Athletics
Twins lead 2-1 entering bottom of the ninth, but the A's put a pair of runners on against Nathan with no outs. When Ryan Sweeney tries to bunt the runners over, Nathan attempts a throw to third that sails into left field, allowing both runs to score and giving the A's a win.

So what do these losses tell us? Well, obviously, we see that the bullpen has a lost a LOT of games for the Twins this month. If the relievers had done a remotely decent job of protecting slim leads, the Twins could have easily won several more games, which would perhaps put them in the driver's seat in the AL Central.

But let's look past the negatives. Without exception, each of these losses has come in an exceptionally close game. That's a 25-game stretch -- nearly a full month -- without ONE SINGLE decisive loss. While the competition hasn't usually been great, the Twins have not been totally outplayed on a single occasion since August 4. That's truly impressive.

What we also see is that even when the Twins have lost, they have been receiving great performances from their starting pitchers. In only two of these 10 games did a starting pitcher receive a loss, and in both instances that pitcher still delivered a Quality Start.

The bullpen is obviously a big issue, and if the past 25 games are any indication, it's really the only thing holding the Twins back from being an unstoppable winning machine. Hopefully the addition of September call-ups Philip Humber, Bobby Korecky and Jose Mijares can ease the load for this relief corps and make the Twins' bullpen more effective overall. If that happens, and the rest of the team can play the same way in September that they did in August, there's no way the White Sox will be able to keep pace.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Meet the September Call-Ups

Each year, as the calendar rolls forward to September, each team receives additional roster spots which are generally used to bring up prospects and add depth for the final month of the season. This year, the Twins have elected to bring up pitchers Bobby Korecky, Philip Humber, Jose Mijares; infielders Matt Tolbert and Matt Macri, outfielder Jason Pridie and catcher Ryan Jorgensen.

Some of these names aren't terribly exciting. We're all pretty familiar with Tolbert and Macri since they both have spent time with the club this year. Jorgensen is a light-hitting catcher and minor-league veteran brought up to provide depth behind Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond. Jason Pridie, the center field prospect acquired as part of the Matt Garza trade, got off to a terrible start in Rochester but has rebounded and should be interesting to watch when he manages to get into the lineup, which likely won't be often with the Twins' already crowded outfield situation.

But the three pitchers being brought up should prove the most useful. It's no secret that the Twins' bullpen has been stretched thin in recent weeks, so any help is obviously welcome. Korecky spent time with the team earlier this year and posted very good numbers in Triple-A. He could be an instant upgrade over Jesse Crain, who has really struggled lately. Humber was horrible during the first half, but seems to have flipped a switch since around the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see his highly touted curveball in action.

The lefty Mijares may be the most intriguing of the bunch. He has electric stuff but has frequently struggled with his control and missed much of this season after fracturing his elbow in a spring car accident. He has pitched only 8 2/3 innings above Double-A, so this is going to be very new territory. We'll see how he handles it.

The Twins have been needing some help lately, and finally it's here, albeit in the form of a group of unproven and inexperienced youngsters. This team has counted on surprise contributions to get to where they are at this point, so why not a few more?