It's easy to be impressed by the results of the Twins' four-game series in Tampa Bay this week. They went on the road to face arguably the best team in baseball and came away with a split. They rebounded from tough losses in the first two games of the series to gain big victories in the final two, building momentum as they travel to Cleveland and Chicago for the final two legs of their current road trip.
It's less easy to be impressed by the way they achieved those results. On Wednesday night, the Twins let a one-run lead slip away in the ninth inning, wasting a brilliant start from Scott Baker and forcing a 13-inning marathon before finally managing to pull off the victory. Today, Kevin Slowey and the bullpen crumbled late in the game as the Rays erased a 6-0 deficit before the Twins, again, were able to scratch out a late victory.
It was tough to watch the Twins allow a pair of games they'd been in complete control of slip away late. But these are the types of games that are extremely difficult to win on the road, especially against a fantastic team like the Rays, and the Twins do deserve a lot of credit for managing to finish the job in both the final two contests in this series.
They probably won't experience the good fortune of having a routine pop-up hit off a cat walk and land in the middle of the infield to score the winning run if they face the Rays again in the playoffs, but the Twins did play neck and neck throughout this series with a team that is tied for the MLB lead in victories. The Twins received gritty pitching performances in the first two games, losing on both occasions only because their offense was stymied by a very good starter, and more importantly they received dominant performances on the road from Slowey and Baker in the final two games. Those two have struggled immensely when pitching outside of Target Field this season, so for both to step up against a great team in a statement series like this speaks volumes about how far they have come and helps legitimize their recent success against weaker lineups.
In the spirit of assigning credit (and blame) where it is due, here are some other notes on the series in Tampa:
* There was plenty of head-shaking after newly acquired Matt Capps coughed up his first big save situation for his new team on Wednesday, as he came in with a 1-0 ninth-inning lead and allowed the tying run to cross the plate, but anyone who watched the game can hardly hold Capps accountable for the blown save.
Evan Longoria led off the ninth inning by hitting a fly ball to left field. It was a ball that most left fielders around the league would have caught in the air, and at worst it should have been smothered for a single, but Delmon Young awkwardly slid into it and kicked it back toward the infield, allowing Longoria to move into scoring position as the tying run with no outs. He'd eventually score.
The muffed play by Young was just one of many miscues in a game that was easily the ugliest of the season from a defensive standpoint for the Twins outfield, as he and Denard Span failed to track down numerous catchable balls. Miraculously, the Twins still only allowed one run in 13 innings -- all the more reason to praise Baker and the bullpen for their outsanding work in the game -- but Wednesday night's contest spotlighted something that has been a subtle issue for this club all year long: poor outfield defense is costing the Twins' pitchers.
With his minimal range and terrible instincts in the outfield, Young seems destined to become a designated hitter within the next few years. He probably should be one already. Keep that in mind when this premature MVP talk starts bubbling up.
* I have to admit, I have taken quite a liking to Jason Repko. His stellar play in the outfield has been a breath of fresh air in light of the issues mentioned above, and it doesn't hurt that his bat has been red-hot when he's gotten into the lineup, racking up a .319/.385/.617 hitting line with three homers and five doubles in 55 plate appearances.
I've enjoyed Repko's play so much that on Wednesday night I jokingly started using a #Repko4MVP hashtag on Twitter, though the gag seemed a little less silly yesterday when Repko was a crucial contributor in the Twins' victory.
Obviously he won't continue to hit like this, but a solid .274/.336/.433 hitting line in the minors (including .289/.357/.461 in Triple-A) suggests that there's no reason he can't keep his bat afloat, and if he's able to do that while maintaining his rangy defense in the outfield, he figures to be a useful piece for the Twins down the stretch.
Just maybe not an MVP. Yet.
* Speaking of unsustainably hot recent performances, I'd be remiss not to mention the play of Drew Butera, who has now started five consecutive games at catcher with Joe Mauer's shoulder aching. In those five games, Butera has gone 4-for-15 with a homer and a double while performing well defensively.
The "hot streak" has raised Butera's overall hitting line .205/.237/.341, which borders on palatable for a defensive specialist in the majors. However, before anyone starts getting keen on the idea of keeping Butera in the lineup more regularly even after Mauer's shoulder has healed, keep in mind that the kid has a long (LONG) history of not hitting in the minors.
Soon enough, he'll go back to being a massive liability with the bat, and -- as the first two games of this series against the Rays helped illustrate -- that's something the Twins can ill afford against contending clubs with good pitching staffs.
* J.J. Hardy has been on a tear since the All-Star break, and after going 3-for-4 in yesterday's contest he's hitting .270/.310/.398 on the season. The average MLB shortstop has hit .264/.322/.371 this year, so Hardy's production is firmly above average for his position. When accounting for his spectacular defense, Hardy has been a very good contributor for the Twins this season in spite of his wrist issues; meanwhile, while his defense in the outfield is missed, Carlos Gomez has essentially made zero strides offensively in Milwaukee. Looking like a nice trade for Bill Smith.
* Has there been a more enigmatic player than Alexi Casilla over the past few years? An apparent breakout season in 2008, when he hit .281/.333/.374 as a 23-year-old while helping the Twins mount a late charge for the AL Central crown, was followed up by an absolutely abysmal season in '09. Casilla has spent much of this season on the shelf, but he's returned to fill in at second with Orlando Hudson on the shelf and has performed admirably, using a combination of plate discipline in speed produce solid offensive numbers much like he did in '08.
His defense has also looked spectacular at times, most notably on the play that ended today's game, when Casilla ran about 20 feet to his left to track down a grounder and threw to first while twirling in mid-air to retire the speedy Carl Crawford.
During his career in Minnesota, I have seen Casilla track down some seemingly unreachable ground balls, yet UZR pegs him as a very poor second baseman, with a -9.7 rating in close to 2,000 MLB innings at the position. It strikes me that, like with his offense, Casilla's inconsistency on defense is mostly mental. The kid clearly has enough talent to be playing in the big leagues, but seemingly has a tough time staying focused. Whatever he's doing right now, hopefully he is able to keep it up until Hudson returns and beyond.