The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. This has been the case throughout recent years, and will likely remain true as long as they continue to emphasize pitching to contact and swinging for singles.
Last year the Twins went 3-6 against the Blue Jays, and over the offseason the front office only increased its emphasis on the aforementioned dynamics, so I hardly expected the team to fare well in its season-opening series against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
Still, I don't think anyone was anticipating the sort of hideous effort the Twins put forth in their first two games of the season. After a winter full of bad news, things had finally started to come together at the end of spring training for this group. Everyone had finally gotten healthy just in the nick of time, and the majority of key players had looked extremely sharp in exhibition play.
It seemed as though this team was ready to jump out of the gates and take some people by surprise. Instead, the Twins were blown out 13-3 on Friday and held to one hit in a 6-1 defeat on Saturday. They looked stunningly bad in every aspect of the game: starters failed to complete even five innings, defenders blundered repeatedly, relievers allowed deficits to grow, and hitters looked totally clueless.
The Twins salvaged the series by squeaking by in a 4-3 win yesterday, but it's tough to be encouraged by much of what we saw on opening weekend. Some thoughts:
* The short-term reaction to yesterday's game is to be relieved that the Twins escaped Toronto with a win. The long-term reaction is to be perturbed by how shaky Joe Nathan looked in closing out the victory.
Nathan entered with a two-run lead after Denard Span homered in the top of the ninth to provide some extra breathing room. That insurance run would prove crucial, as Nathan labored through his first save chance since 2009, allowing one run on two hits and two walks while throwing 31 pitches (only 15 of them strikes). Two of the outs Nathan recorded were line drives tracked down by sprinting outfielders at the warning track.
Facing the Blue Jays in Toronto in his first official outing since Tommy John surgery is certainly a tough assignment so I'm tempted to cut Nathan some slack, but what's most worrisome is the actual quality of his pitches. His fastball, which regularly sat in the mid-90s prior to surgery, topped out at 91 mph and on occasion failed to even reach 90. His breaking pitches, snappy and precise prior to surgery, registered in the low 80s and bounced before reaching home plate multiple times.
Nathan is only 12 months removed from having a ligament replaced in his elbow, and for most pitchers it takes longer than that to fully regain velocity and command. If his work in spring training and Sunday's regular-season debut are any indication, those capacities haven't returned yet for Nathan. It's not clear whether he can be effective in the closer role -- or even a late-inning relief role -- without them.
* The Twins have shown a lot of confidence in Nathan throughout his recovery process.
During the offseason, they let Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all walk as free agents, trusting that the departures would be largely offset by Nathan's return.
After Nathan struggled through spring training, posting a 9.72 ERA with more walks than strikeouts, the Twins continued to show confidence in him by awarding him the closer role despite Capps' almost flawless performance in Grapefruit League play.
Yesterday came Ron Gardenhire's boldest vote of confidence yet. Nathan had loaded the bases and thrown over 30 pitches in the bottom of the ninth, and the Jays had left-hander Adam Lind stepping into the box. Dusty Hughes was warm in the bullpen, ready to relieve the beleaguered closer, but Gardenhire remained in the dugout, leaving Nathan on to face Lind.
That confidence paid off, as Nathan induced a weak grounder to first to end the game, but one is left asking: should Nathan continue to pitch this way, how long will Gardy's confidence remain intact?
* In his final plate appearance yesterday, Tsuyoshi Nishioka stood with the bat on his shoulder with two strikes and watched at least two pitches from Rauch clip the strike zone. Fortunately for him, home plate umpire Paul Schrieber was apparently feeling generous and Nishioka ended up on first base with a walk rather than in the dugout with his sixth strikeout in three games.
The Japanese import has looked out of his element against major-league pitching early on. At the plate, he's been tentative, seemingly unaware that umpires at this level will call strikes on the edge of the zone. Many of the balls he put in play over the weekend came on weak contact created by defensive swings.
Regardless of all the enthusiasm created by a superficial spring training hit streak, a slow start should be the expectation for Nishioka. As with any rookie playing in the majors for the first time, he must adjust to a learning curve, and the transition is made more difficult by a new culture and -- in many ways -- a new style of playing the game.
* As one of his most avid supporters, I take no pleasure in saying that Francisco Liriano looked dreadful in his season debut on Saturday. His results weren't quite as disastrous as Carl Pavano's dud on Opening Night, but Liriano was able to work through only 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on four hits (two homers) and five walks while striking out three. Only 44 of the southpaw's 90 pitches met the strike zone. No one is going to be blaming this one on bad luck.
I'm not terribly concerned about Liriano's shoddy command; that's not uncommon for power pitchers early in the season (see Jon Lester's debut for the Red Sox). More alarming was the lack of bite on his pitches. His fastball sat several ticks lower than we typically saw it last season and was ineffective in setting up the slider, which itself was inconsistent in location and velocity.
When he's on top of his game, Liriano makes a living on mixing mid-90s heaters with biting sliders -- overpowering pitches that often miss the zone but induce a lot of whiffs. This style could be referred to as effectively wild. When the offerings are lacking as they were on Saturday afternoon, there's nothing effective about his wildness.
* Pavano was absolutely crushed on Friday night, but here's a fact to keep in mind. In his third start last year, the veteran righty allowed seven runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings against the Royals (yes, the Royals). He followed that up with four straight quality starts in which he pitched at least seven innings. Pavano is susceptible to the occasional bombing, but he should be fine going forward.
* The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. Have I said that before? Well it's a bitter truth as the club now heads to New York for a four-game series against the Yankees.
With no break in sight (the Twins don't have an off day until the 11th), the back end of Gardenhire's bullpen is worn down. The team's been very vocal about protecting Nathan's arm early in the season, and he threw a lot of pitches yesterday. Meanwhile, Jose Mijares and Matt Capps have appeared in consecutive games. It will be interesting to see how the manager deploys relievers over the next couple days, especially if he faces tight late-game situations.