- Twinkies get their a**es handed to them by the Yankees in 10-2 loss
The Wild had just dropped
a must-win game against Colorado and had put forth one of their most
lackluster performances to date. The team had just lost seven of its
past ten games, and were just barely clinging to the slimmest of
playoff hopes, and had only managed to score one lousy goal against the
worst team in the Western Conference in a snoozefest of a game. When
asked why his team put forth such a piss-poor effort with so much on
the line, then-coach Jacques Lemaire replied:
“Maybe this is the team we have.”
this, ladies and gentlemen, is your 2009 Minnesota Twins. OK, maybe
they’re not as bad as last year’s Wild team, but they are pretty much
in the same boat. They haven’t won more than two games in a row since
May 24th, and their longest winning-streak of the season is only four
games. They are currently looking up at the Tigers and the White Sox,
even if it is only by 2.5 games. They will likely get swept at home by
the Yankees, and then have to deal with a red-hot White Sox team before
the All-Star break. The team could certainly use help in the bullpen,
and they could really use a middle infielder who can hit, but aren’t
likely to get anything done at the trade deadline. The Twins have
always preferred to sit on their hands and hope for the best, while
waiting to make their biggest moves during the offseason (if then).
And to be honest, I don’t have a great deal of faith in Bill Smith’s
ability to make trades. His track record so far has been pretty disappointing.
Twinkie Town did a good job breaking down Scott Baker’s horrible performance last night,
and it appears as though he’s still having problems with his
mechanics. His breaking pitches were flat, his fastballs weren’t as
fast, in short, it’s a miracle that he only gave up five runs against one of the most potent lineups in the American League. It had been suggested by some of the commenters
on the Star Tribune site that Baker was awestruck by the Yankee lineup,
that he felt intimidated by them, but I don’t think that was the case
at all. Scotty had actually been quite successful against the Yanks in
his career, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA (small sample size, I know).
Besides, Baker had the same issues in his last start in Kansas City, in
which he needed 117 pitches to get through five innings, and I doubt he
was awestruck by the Royals’ All-Star lineup. That the Royals only
scored one run against him says a lot about their offense (namely that
they can’t even buy runs at this point).
- In meaningless award news…
Justin Morneau has indeed declined an invitation
to defend his title in this year’s Home Run Derby, citing a need to
rest up for the second half of the season as his reason for choosing
not to participate. Joe Mauer hasn’t been asked, but Gardy thinks he would win it if he were.
Joe Nathan has been named the DHL Delivery Man of the Month. I mentioned in my previous entry
that Nathan is having one of the best seasons of his career, but I also
want to mention that he’s only walked one batter in his past 11.2
innings, while striking out 18. He’s given up only four hits
in that period. That’s about as good as it gets. No wonder
he’s the only reliever in the bullpen (and one of the few on the staff,
actually) who doesn’t give me heartburn.
- Stephane Veilleux signs with Lightning
I’m a little sad to see Steph go since he’s been with the team for so long, even though he was basically just a fourth-liner. He loved playing in Minnesota and being part of the Wild organization, even after they put him on waivers simply to prove that he wasn’t as valuable as he thought. Still, when rookie sensation Cal Clutterbuck pretty much took over his duties on the checking line, it was pretty clear that this would be Steph’s final season with the team. At least we will always have this:
- Nick Blackburn pitches his third complete game of the season in Twins’ 6-2 win
However, even though Blackburn is putting up some of the best numbers of his career, it’s still way too early to declare him the team ace (or talk about extending his contract). He wasn’t much better than average last season, and his poor peripherals suggest that a good deal of his success this season is probably due to luck. Coming in to yesterday’s game, Blackie had a very good 3.10 ERA, but his 1.67 K/BB ratio and 2.3 BB/9 rate are at career lows. I wrote elsewhere that if those numbers don’t improve, he will likely finish the season with an ERA much closer to his 4.98 xFIP. The good news, though, is that some of his peripherals have indeed been improving. While his 1.80 K/BB ratio is still rather low, and he still gives up a lot of hits, his BB/9 rate has been steadily declining the past few months (from 3.08 in May to its current 1.00). A lot of it has to do with the fact that his fastball is nasty. The velocity tops out at around 91 mph but the movement on it has been absolutely filthy, and as long as he can sustain that kind of break on his fastball, his strikeout rate should start to improve. Blackburn will likely keep rolling through the second half of the season (and hopefully the playoffs).
- Twins once again send three representatives to the All-Star Game
Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan are all set to represent the
Twins in the ASG. Kevin Slowey probably had a good chance of joining
his teammates in St. Louis, if he hadn’t gone down with a wrist injury
(he is supposed to have an MRI on it today. UPDATE: it is just a strain. He was treated with a cortisone shot and should resume throwing in a few days). You could probably make
the case for Nick Blackburn too (Joe Nathan did), since he is sporting
a 2.94 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, but I have no problem with the likes of
Justin Verlander and Mark Buerhle getting the nod instead. I’m not
going to get into a huge debate over who got snubbed and who didn’t
deserve a starting spot, there’s already plenty of that on the
internets. I don’t think there are many glaring oversights on either
team, other than maybe Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter (who should be
starting), and the ASG isn’t something I get all worked up about
Justin Morneau has indicated
that he will probably decline an invitation to the Home Run Derby, if
asked. It’s probably just as well. His tendency to fade down the
stretch probably doesn’t have anything to do with participating in the
HR Derby, but why take that chance? Anyway, this way people won’t get
mad at him for beating a much-flashier superstar. Again.
Mauer is making his second consecutive start in the ASG, and his third
career appearance. Even after missing the first month of the
season, he’s still far and away the best catcher in the AL. Although,
5 of the 31 “greatest minds in baseball” think that Victor Martinez
should have been the starting catcher. That’s right, a guy batting
.303/.382/.506/.888 while making half of his starts at first base
deserves to be the starting catcher, while the guy batting .389/.465/.648/1.113
should be on the bench. Yes, let’s give all of the voting power to
these people, clearly the fans are too stupid to get it right.
Nathan is also quietly having one of the best years of his career. His
last blown save came against the Yankees on May 15th, and he hasn’t
surrendered a run since. Not an unearned run, not an inherited runner scoring,
nothing. His 2.40 xFIP, 6.14 K/BB ratio, 11.6 K/9 rate, and 1.9 BB/9
rate as well as 1.35 ERA and 0.750 WHIP are all at or near
career-bests. He’s been getting hitters to chase pitches outside the
strike zone a little more, which has made him extremely effective even
when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
- Twins hit four homers and lose anyway
ZOMG, this is the most unclutchiest lineup ever!!!11!! I mean, for the most part, clutch hitting has a lot more to do with luck than skill. In general, even the greatest hitters will fail more often than not with runners in scoring position, that’s just how the game works. It sucks, it’s frustrating, but that’s just the way it is. Which is why I find this article in the Star Tribune so irritating. To suggest that the problem is that the Twins are relying too much on the long ball and not speed or sacrifice hits (i.e., Twins baseball) is ridiculous. The power hitters in the lineup have been remarkably productive, with Joe Mauer batting .421/.490/.738, Justin Morneau .324/.398/.524 (which is pretty good, considering that he’s been in a slump recently), Jason Kubel .315/.377/.546, and even Michael Cuddyer is starting to pick things up, hitting .281/.360/.518 with 10 homers. Joe Crede has been kind of an exception since he has a paltry .228 BA and .303 OPB, but he also has a .451 slugging percentage and is on pace to hit 20+ homers this year, so he isn’t really part of the problem, either. The real problem has been the lack of production from the bottom of the order, and it has been all season. The Twins certainly aren’t lacking speed in the lineup, with Carlos Gomez, Matt Tolbert, and even Nick Punto all threats to steal, but the three have struggled to get on base consistently. Delmon Young hasn’t been living up to his potential, either, batting .258/.286/.302 while looking horribly uncomfortable at the plate. The good news is that Gomez, Punto, and Young have all taken huge steps forward this month (Yes, even Gomez. He’s drawing more walks and isn’t swinging at so many pitches outside the strike zone, he just hasn’t had much to show for it in the way of results). The bad news however, is that all three are still barely replacement-level position players.
After tonight’s loss to Houston, the Twins have fallen back to the .500 mark and are three games behind the Tigers. This time, the offense wasn’t the problem, since they hit four homers and scored five runs. No, this time it was the pitching staff, specifically the bullpen that fell down. The Twins had a 3-2 lead in the seventh, until Sean Henn came in to relieve Scott Baker. Henn surrendered three runs in the seventh (one was charged to Baker), including a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Jason Michaels, and was yanked in favor of Luis Ayala after recording only one out. I had written before that the pitching isn’t as bad as fans tend to think, and that’s true. But it hasn’t been that great, either. The starting rotation has started to settle down and pitch effectively, but the bullpen is still an issue. While Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan have been as reliable as ever, and R.A. Dickey is settling into the long relief role, the rest of the ‘pen is simply a disaster waiting to happen. Ayala has been much more effective recently, but he pitches to contact and can’t really be used in close games with runners on base. Jose Mijares hasn’t been too bad, posting a 2.57 ERA in twenty-four appearances, but he’s also been suffering from control issues (his 1.70 K/BB ratio isn’t good) and is bound to get hit hard eventually. The Twins clearly need bullpen help, but so does pretty much everybody else in the league, which will obviously complicate matters at the trade deadline. Still, I guess we should be glad that our bullpen isn’t as bad as the Indians’. Yikes.
- Speaking of homers
Mauer hit his 14th of the season, setting a new career record, and it isn’t even officially summer yet. It was an opposite-field blast (of course) that had given the Twins a 3-1 lead at the time. Someday, opposing pitchers will figure out that it isn’t a good idea to throw him fastballs on the outside corner. Hopefully he’ll hit 20 homers before they do. Obviously, Mauer isn’t going to put up such Pujolsian numbers all season long, since the physical demands of being a catcher will catch up to him eventually. As of right now, though, Mauer is the most valuable player in the league, and it isn’t even close.
Milton Bradley had a very tough day at work today. He lost Jason Kubel’s routine fly ball in the sun, which put two on with nobody out and set up a two-run inning for the Twins. Later in the same inning, he couldn’t field Michael Cuddyer’s line drive to right, playing a single into a run-scoring double. But, most hilariously, he also had a major brain fart on a Joe Mauer pop fly. Bradley forgot how many outs there were in the inning and threw the ball into the stands (hint: there was only one, Milton). Nick Punto scored easily and Brendan Harris was awarded third base. Personally, I think the play should’ve been ruled a home run. That ball went right into the stands! So what if Bradley was the one who threw it there? Bradley kind of redeemed himself by hitting a big two-run double in the sixth, cutting the Twins’ lead in half at that point. Unfortunately, he couldn’t redeem himself completely, allowing Delmon Young to rob him of the potentially game-winning hit in the eighth.
For Twins fans and Cubs haters alike, this was a great game. Joe Mauer hit his 13th home run of the season, a two-run blast that gave the Twins an early lead (and tied his career high set in 2006). Jason Kubel hit a solo shot in the ninth that extended the lead to 7-4, his tenth of the season. And Brendan Harris went 3-for-5 with an RBI and a run scored, which should help his case to be the starting shortstop (at least until Gardy realizes he isn’t a utility role player anymore). Nick Punto even hit the ball out of the infield a couple of times. I can’t remember the last time I wrote that.
Kevin Slowey was cruising along through the first five innings, allowing one hit and striking out nine Baby Bears. I guess he decided not to rely on the worst defensive outfield ever behind him. Slowey did start to fall apart in the sixth, when he surrendered three runs and cut the lead to only one run. None of that can be blamed on the defense though, all of those runs came on some very hard hit line drives (the outfield didn’t walk Mike Fontenot, either). The bullpen wasn’t great, but they managed to (barely) hang onto the lead for a change. Joe Nathan retired the Cubs in order to pick up his fourteenth save of the season in a very non-heart-attack inducing manner.
Ron Gardenhire gets a lot of criticism from fans for his management of the bullpen, especially his reluctance to use Joe Nathan in anything other than a save situation. And since the front office has consistently failed to put together a decent bullpen, the few reliable relievers on the staff get overworked (sometimes to the point of injury, see Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain). Case in point: Matt Guerrier. Matty G. had logged 28.1 innings coming in to today’s game (where he was asked to record the final out in the eighth) and had made three straight relief appearances, while Joe Nathan had only logged 23.1 and hadn’t worked since Wednesday. I realize that this is a national league ballpark, and the thought that Joe Nathan might come up to bat isn’t particularly appealing, but it was a save situation anyway and it makes sense to use Nathan since he’s had more rest. Guerrier was awful in the second half of last season, posting a. 8.88 ERA and 2.092 WHIP after the All-Star break, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was overworked. And with all of the innings he’s logged the past six seasons, it’s probably only a matter of time before he too ends up on the surgery list.
By the way, the best part of the game is that Wrigley was half full of Twins fans. Seriously, if Wrigley Field weren’t so distinctive, one would think the Cubs were the visiting team. Chants of “M-V-P!” and “Where’s Mark Prior?” whenever Joe Mauer came up to bat warmed even my icy cold heart. There was plenty of cheering whenever the Twins would score, or when Kevin Slowey struck out yet another Cub. There was also a lusty booing of Cub players, although I don’t think all of that was coming from Twins fans.
On a completely unrelated note, but because I find the idea so delightfully disgusting, here is former Toronto pitching coach Bob Miller discussing the fine art of spitting tobacco juice on umpires:
- Joe Nathan blows save, Twins win anyway on the speed(!) of Justin Morneau
Closer Joe Nathan had his first blown save of the year when Ben Zobrist (Who really, really wants a starting job in the outfield. That’s a pretty good way to earn one) hit a solo homer to tie the game. This is the second homer Nathan has given up this year, the first was to Jim Thome in a non-save situation against the White Sox. It pains me to say this, but he will be 35 this year which means that Nathan is at the point in his career when closers tend to become more hittable. While I think he’ll still be reliable and will be well worth the money the Twins are paying him, he probably won’t be as dominant as he’s been in the past and I wouldn’t be surprised if his ERA climbs north of the 2.70 mark for the first time since the Twins acquired him from the Giants in 2003.
Whether or not this leads to more blown saves will obviously depend a lot on the offense and how much run support they provide. Had the offense managed to capitalize on a few more of the scoring chances against James Shields last night, they would have had at least a two-run lead and Nathan would still have gotten the save even after giving up the home run. I just realized how dumb all of that sounds. And it’s not like I didn’t proofread before posting this, so I don’t really have an excuse. Sorry, dear readers, you deserve better than that.
Speaking of the offense, Justin Morneau once again provided most of it at the Metrodome last night. He got the scoring started right away in the first, with a two-run shot to left-center field, just beyond the outstretched glove of Carl Crawford. Morneau then drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded. Yes, you read that right, Justin Morneau of all people beat out a double-play ball to win the game (You can see video of Morny hustling down the line here. Not bad for a guy who runs like the tin man). Akinori Iwamura couldn’t handle the chopper to second (though, in his defense, that ball was hit really hard and certainly wasn’t an easy play to make), and couldn’t recover in time to get Morneau at first. And, at least for one more night, the Twins remain the only team in the league that is undefeated in one-run games.
Oh, and Francisco Liriano was pretty good last night too, scattering seven hits and giving up only two runs in 6.2 innings. He only struck out three batters, and gave up two walks, so he still struggled a little bit with his command, but was effective enough to shut out the Rays for the first five innings. Frankie was pulled in the seventh after he gave up back-to-back hits to put runners at first and second with two outs, but Matt Guerrier managed to retire B.J. Upton to end the inning with no damage done. Jose Mijares gave up a lead off walk to Carl Crawford (who then stole second), but then he settled down and struck out the next three batters he faced. Mijares has bounced back nicely from his awful spring training campaign, surrendering only one hit and one walk while striking out five since being called up last week. This is obviously very good news, since the Twins’ bullpen has been lacking a dominant reliever and were hoping that they could rely on Mijares after his stellar campaign in September.
Well, it wasn’t pretty, but the Twins beat the Mariners again, 6-5, at the Dome. Joe Nathan notched his first save of the season, and his 200th save as a Twin (it’s his 201st career save), putting him within 73 of the mark set by franchise saves leader Rick Aguilera. Starter Kevin Slowey coughed up the lead twice, but the offense came through and scored six runs on eight hits off of former Twin Carlos Silva.
Justin Morneau ended his hitless streak right away in the first inning, launching a two-run homer into the upper decks in right field. The Twins have stopped measuring home runs at the Dome this year, but it’s probably safe to say that it traveled a good 425 ft. He also successfully stretched a single into an RBI double that tied the game after Kevin Slowey was roughed up in the fourth (Jason Kubel would later drive him in on a double and retake the lead). Denard Span also had a pretty good night, adding his own two-run blast in the third and drawing a walk. Joe Crede still doesn’t look very comfortable at the plate, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. It’s still early in the season, but I am a little concerned about his offensive struggles since he had such an awful spring.
Unfortunately, starter Kevin Slowey got hit pretty hard. He gave up five runs on nine hits in five innings, including a couple of two-run home runs to Russell Branyan and Jose Lopez. Slowey didn’t walk any batters and did record five strikeouts, but he was having some trouble locating his pitches. Most of the damage came in two big innings, the two-run blast he surrendered in the second and a three-run fourth (one of those runs scored on an uncharacteristicly wild pitch). After giving up the second home run to Lopez, Slowey settled down and retired the next seven Mariners and eventually got the win.
More importantly, though, the bullpen was given the slimmest of leads and, for once, didn’t blow it. Craig Breslow was a bit wild at first, and gave up a leadoff single, but he recovered and retired the next three batters he faced (and struck out Griffey, who he had walked in his brief appearance on Monday night). Jesse Crain was an effective bridge to Joe Nathan, retiring all but one batter he faced (he did walk Russell Branyan). His curve/slurve whatever you want to call it looked really filthy, and the hitters who saw it seemed to agree (lots of shaking heads and looks of absolute disbelief).
Apparently Joe Mauer’s rehab is progressing well, though he has yet to start running (on land, he has been running in a pool as part of his rehab). Even though he claims he’s only weeks away from returning to the lineup, I wouldn’t expect to see him back until May. It’s going to take him awhile to get back into game shape, though he’s been catching bullpen sessions and hitting off a tee. Meanwhile, Scott Baker might return to the rotation by next week. He is supposed to make a rehab start for the Ft. Myers Miracle on Friday, and how soon he rejoins the team depends on the results. Apparently he hasn’t been experiencing any stiffness in his throwing shoulder, which is obviously very good news. I’m not thrilled about having R.A. Dickey in the rotation for more than a couple of starts.
Oh, and Mike Redmond will apparently be the starting catcher today. Hopefully he’ll make it through the entire game without aggravating his groin injury or injuring something else.
- Scott Baker will start the season on the DL
First it was Joe Mauer and his aching back. Then Brian Buscher had a health scare. Delmon Young, Joe Crede, and Michael Cuddyer have all been struck with various hand injuries. Justin Morneau is battling stiffness in his back. And if all of that weren’t enough, now starter Scott Baker is going to start the season on the DL with stiffness in his right shoulder. It isn’t clear at this point how long he will be out, and he will be re-evaluated on Saturday, but things certainly aren’t getting off to a very good start for the Twinkies. Baker doesn’t think the stiffness is anything serious and would have preferred to pitch anyway, but the Twins have decided not to take any risks with their $15.25 million-dollar arm. In the meantime, Francisco Liriano has now been given the Opening Night nod opposite Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, and R. A. Dickey will take Baker’s spot in the rotation. With Baker going down, there is now an extra spot in the bullpen, so it looks like both Philip Humber and Brian Duensing will be coming north with the team.
The only real position battle left now for the Twins is the final bench spot. Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and Brian Buscher have all been competing for the utility role, with Harris having somewhat of an edge because he’s out of options. The Tenth Inning Stretch has raised the intriguing possibility of Buscher being traded to the Cardinals, as Troy Glaus’ recovery from shoulder surgery isn’t going as well as expected. While I would be sad to see Buscher go, he isn’t the greatest defensive infielder and he isn’t the most versatile, either. Still, I would be kind of surprised if the Twins did move him. Joe Crede is hardly a sure thing at third, and the organization might be more apt to keep Buscher around simply to provide more depth.
Speaking of Liriano, he was effective in his brief start against the Red Sox. He was only allowed to pitch three innings, as he will be starting right away on Monday, and gave up two hits and a run while walking one and striking out three. He wasn’t struggling with his command like he was in his previous appearances, which is very good news. Well, it’s good news for the Twins and bad news for opposing hitters. Unfortunately, Brian Duensing wasn’t as effective in relief, giving up a two-run homer to Jason Bay. Luckily the offense was able to bail him out to the tune of seven runs on twelve hits, with Michael Cuddyer doing most of the heavy lifting.
By the way, The Answer Man has an interesting interview with Joe Nathan.
- Wait, Sidney Ponson has a job?
Remember all those nice things I said about the Royals? Yeah, never mind. They’ve decided that Sidney Ponson and Horacio Ramirez are going to be the fourth and fifth starters this season. Apparently Dayton Moore was so impressed with Ponson’s performance in the WBC that he thought the pudgy righty could be an effective major league starter, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Horacio Ramirez is remembered very fondly on the South Side for being the worst reliever in Sox history. What either one of these two is doing in the starting rotation for a major league ballclub is beyond me, especially over the likes of Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar. Perhaps it’s all part of of some elaborate, Major League-esque scheme to build the worst team in baseball and get out of their lease at Kauffman stadium.