- 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.
Sorry, Jays fans, but you would feel the same way if your team had been so completely and thoroughly embarrassed by one pesky team over the years. I can’t say I expected the Twins to actually win this game, since they have never beaten Roy Halladay. Ever. But things were much, much closer than the final score would indicate. Francisco Liriano has started to pitch like the old Frankie (or at least the one who came up in August last year), giving up one earned run in six innings, though the earned run was sort of questionable as Brendan Harris wasn’t playing deeply enough to catch the relay throw from Denard Span, allowing Jose Bautista to easily advance to third on a deep fly ball by Marco Scutaro and then score on a single. Other than a couple of doubles and a walk, Frankie was nearly spotless and struck out five Blue Jays before exiting the game after the sixth.
Unfortunately, the bullpen brought gas cans to the mound in the seventh. Three different relievers combined for seven runs on six hits in that inning, including a grand slam to Kevin Millar given up by R.A. Dickey (on the very first pitch, nonetheless). Matt Guerrier started things off with a two-run homer to Marco Scutaro. When he gave up a single to Vernon Wells, lefty Craig Breslow was brought in to face Adam Lind. Breslow proceeded to allow another run on a wild pitch and walk two more batters, loading the bases. He was then lifted in favor of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (who had just pitched nearly three innings in relief the night before) who promptly hung a knuckleball, and there went the ballgame.
The pitching staff has been roughed up a bit in the first few weeks of the season, but I still think it’s too early to panic just yet. The starting rotation has at least shown signs that they will recover from their early struggles. Glen Perkins has been the lone bright spot in the rotation so far this season, Francisco Liriano has rebounded nicely from his first two rough starts, and righties Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker will probably bounce back as well. Nick Blackburn, well, he is what he is, though he hasn’t exactly been terrible this season, either. He pitches to contact and will probably always give up a lot of runs (he’s a lot like Carlos Silva), but he should at least pitch a solid 6-7 innings per game. The bullpen, however, gives me cause for concern. The Twins do have a reliable set-up man in Jesse Crain and a decent seventh-inning guy in Matt Guerrier, but the rest of the ‘pen is kind of a mess. Neither Philip Humber nor Luis Ayala have shown much this year, and Ayala will probably be released sometime by June (if not before then). R.A. Dickey was effective as a reliever for the Mariners last year, but a knuckleballer probably isn’t the best choice in tight situations. Lefty Craig Breslow was a pleasant surprise last year, holding lefties to a .183/.230/.323 line and righties to .221/.230/.233, but has struggled to even find the plate in his five relief appearances so far this season. There isn’t a large sample size to draw from, but Breslow hasn’t shown a penchant for wildness thus far in his career, so this might just be a bit of a hiccup.
Update: apparently the Twins have gotten sick of Humber and his penchant for leaving his curveball up over the plate and have designated him for assignment. They have picked up Juan Morillo from Colorado to take Humber’s spot in the bullpen. Morillo hasn’t fared much better than Humber so far (he has an ERA of 11.42 in 8.2 innings), but his 96 mph fastball is very intriguing. He throws very hard, but has issues with his command (he had an 80 walk season in 2006). Maybe pitching coach Rick Anderson will be able to work his magic and get him to throw strikes. At the very least, Morillo will keep a spot warm for either Jose Mijares or Anthony Swarzak.
It’s true. As Howard Sinker noted last Sunday (by the way, look who’s now on his blog roll), the Twins considered taking Manny in the third round of the 1991 amateur draft. Scout Herb Stein (who pushed the organization to draft the likes of Rod Carew and Frank Viola) was heavily urging them to draft him, but the organization ultimately decided to pass, taking first-base prospect David McCarty instead. Ramirez was drafted in the 13th round by the Indians and went on to be the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation (and arguably in baseball history), while McCarty went on to enjoy a career as a utility infielder, batting .242./.305/.351 in his eleven seasons with the Twins and Red Sox.
One has to wonder what the Twins’ lineup would have looked like with Manny Ramirez, though. Especially since that lineup would also have had David Ortiz. I doubt the Twins would have won any more World Series championships (Manny is not a starting pitcher, after all), but perhaps they could have been spared so many losing seasons. I’m not sure if that is such a good thing, however. The Twins would never have been able to keep either Ramirez or Ortiz if they became the offensive powerhouses we know and love. They would probably have been outbid by larger-market teams, and would have been forced to either trade each one for whatever prospects they could get (as they did Johan Santana) or simply lose them to free agency (like Torii Hunter). Worse yet, those losing seasons have helped shaped the current roster. Justin Morneau was a first-round pick in the 1999 draft (3rd overall) as was Joe Mauer (1st overall, 2001 draft). Imagine the current lineup without either one.
- Speaking of David Ortiz…
Big Papi was 2-for-3 with a two run homer against his former team in today’s 9-5 loss to the BoSox. The pitching wasn’t great on either side, though the Twins were much worse. Scott Baker was once again burned by his tendency to give up the long ball, surrendering the two-run blast to Ortiz and a solo shot to Jason Varitek. Baker gave up four runs on seven hits overall, and walked one while striking out two in three innings. Matt Guerrier wasn’t very sharp either, surrendering two two-run homers in one inning of relief. This is not good news for someone who struggled mightily down the stretch last season, and is going to have to be a key part of the bullpen this year. Jose Mijares pitched better than he has in his past couple of appearances, but he still wasn’t terribly effective. He surrendered one run on two hits and walked one in his one inning of work, though he did strike out two. Brian Duensing and Bobby Keppel were probably the most effective pitchers for the Twins, as they were the only ones who didn’t give up any runs.
At least the offense has started showing some life, though. Other than Justin Morneau, that is. Johnny Canuck has been struggling a bit at the plate and he was hitless in today’s game, striking out twice. Denard Span seems to have found his swing, and went 2-for-3 with a solo homer off of Jonathan Papelbon. Alexi Casilla has been getting hot lately, too, and went 4-for-4 with two stolen bases. While I doubt the two of them will be able to maintain this torrid pace during the regular season, they should at least be good enough to keep their one-and-two slots in the lineup.
- At least Pudge can go play for the Astros now
Team USA rallied from a two-run deficit to defeat the Puerto Ricans and advance to the semifinals in the WBC. This was quite a game, with the Americans down two runs in the bottom of the ninth. David Wright drove in the winning runs on a single, capping off one of the most dramatic rallies in the WBC (second only to the Netherlands/Dominican Republic) thus far. Okay, to be honest I didn’t actually watch this game, as I was watching the Wild pull off an impressive rally of their own, but it sounds like it was good. And now I’m officially cheering for Team USA, which means they’ll probably get eliminated right away in the next round (I was previously cheering for the Canadians and the Dutch, after all).
- Twins’ pitching has been pretty impressive so far
Once again, the pitching staff just missed a no-hitter in yesterday’s game against Baltimore, when Matt Wieters singled off of Bobby Keppel in the bottom of the ninth. This is actually the second time this spring that the Twins have taken a no-hitter into the late innings. Francisco Liriano was perfect in this outing and recorded five strikeouts. Joe Nathan pitched brilliantly too, recording no hits and no walks while striking out two in his lone inning of work. Better yet, his shoulder doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all anymore, which is great because the Twins don’t anything else to worry about right now.
Kevin Slowey pitched pretty well against the Rays today, giving up two runs on four hits, but striking out four batters in 3 1/3 innings of work. The bullpen looked pretty good once again, too, including Matt Guerrier. Matty G struck out one and walked one in 2/3 of an inning, but didn’t give up any hits or runs. Actutally, his worst performance so far this spring was probably against the Pirates, when he gave up two runs on two hits and walked one in one inning. I think that, as long as he can return to his previous role in the seventh and doesn’t have to pitch too many innings this year, Guerrier will likely bounce back from his awful 2008 campaign.
- The offense, however, is not
It’s a good thing the pitching staff has been so stingy about giving up runs; the offense has been reluctant to score any. I realize that most of the regulars are playing in the WBC, and so the offense might be a little anemic when it’s being carried by the likes of Carlos Gomez. Still, some key players are still in camp and haven’t been terribly productive yet. Michael Cuddyer has been a miserable .188/.235/.313 so far, and Joe Crede has recorded only one hit in his 14 plate appearances (though he has two walks). These guys are both coming off of injury-shortened seasons last year, and it will probably take awhile for them to get comfortable at the plate. In particular, Crede’s back doesn’t seem to be bothering him anymore, so it will probably just be a matter of time before he starts hitting.
I am more worried about Denard Span, however. As I’ve written elsewhere, he was a great leadoff hitter for the Twins last season, something the lineup has lacked since the departure of Doug Mientkiewicz in 2003. However, he never had that much success at the plate in the minor leagues, and so I have been concerned that last season might have been a fluke. So far, that concern has been real since Span has only hit .111/.111/.235, though he’s drawn four walks in 18 at-bats. Span has grounded out 9 times, and flown out 5 times, so it appears as though he’s simply hitting the ball to a fielder. This might be an issue with his mechanics, and I would much rather he go through these problems here in camp than during the regular season (or the middle of the playoff chase).
The news isn’t all bad, though. Delmon Young, another big question mark entering into spring training, seems to be taking Tony Oliva’s advice to heart:
Young apparently wasn’t very happy with his disappointing performance last year. While he hit a respectable .290/.336/.405 with 10 homers overall, most of his offensive production came in the second half. Before the All-Star break he was a mediocre .286/.330/.390 and had shown little power. Worse yet, he had struck out 62 times in that period and seemed to be struggling to find his swing. His name had been mentioned in several trade rumors during the offseason, and it looked as though he would be out of a job with the crowded outfield situation. But so far Young has responded by tearing the cover off the ball, hitting .529/.550/.789 and has driven in five runs in his 19 plate appearances so far. Three of his ten hits have been for extra bases, and his only homer of the season is the two-run bomb he hit today against the Rays. He still hasn’t shown a ton of patience at the plate, though, and has yet to draw a walk (though he has yet to record a strikeout, so I guess that’s progress).
Jason Kubel has been a menace at the plate too, hitting .400/.538/.800 in his ten plate appearances thus far. Kubel doesn’t have a lot of extra base hits yet, just a double and a solo homer, but I think those will come. At least he’s showing more confidence anyway.
- This is not good news at all
Joe Mauer is apparently still having a lot of back pain and is scheduled to have a magnetic resonance anthrogram on Wednesday. Obviously we don’t know yet what, if anything, is wrong, but it doesn’t look like Mauer will be ready for Opening Day. Mauer swings what is arguably the most valuable bat in the lineup, so losing him for any part of the season would be a huge blow. I will hold off any speculation as to what the Twins will do without Mauer in the lineup until we know if indeed he will be out of the lineup.
- Canada loses 6-5 to the U.S.
That’s right, I am cheering for team Canada. Why? Because I am a terrorist Twins fan who hates freedom, that’s why. I know I should root for my home country and I know it’s unpatriotic if I don’t. I would just find it much easier to do so if there were any Twins on the American roster. Besides, I can’t bring myself to root against Justin Morneau. I can’t. I won’t. It’s like rooting against puppies or Jesus or something.
This game was probably the best of the WBC so far. Canada jumped out to an early lead, but the U. S. answered right back. Then they answered back some more, to the tune of four runs on two monster home runs. But then Canada battled back and came within one run. They had runners at second and third with only one out with Morny and Jason Bay coming up to bat. And both of them promptly killed the rally and thus ended Canada’s hope of embarrassing the U.S. team a second time. Oh, well, the sooner Canada gets eliminated the sooner Morny and Jesse Crain can resume playing for the only team that really matters.
By the way, I think the Dominican Republic forgot that they were supposed to win this game.
- Twins lose 10-1 to the Pirates
This is actually the first blowout loss the Twins have suffered in these exhibition games, so I guess I’m not going to get too upset. It just would’ve been nice if one Minnesota team could’ve beaten somebody at something today. Michael Cuddyer scored the only Twins run after hitting a triple, but Alexi Casilla went 2-for-3 with a double. I’ve expressed concern that Casilla might not be able to repeat the success he enjoyed last year, and so far he hasn’t looked very comfortable at the plate. Maybe he’s starting to get settled in now, though.
Scott Baker wasn’t exactly dominant, but he held the Pirates to one run on six hits in his four innings while striking out four (his one run allowed was a solo shot by Adam LaRoche). The rest of the pitching staff, unfortunately, didn’t fare so well. R. A. Dickey was the only other pitcher who was effective, shutting out the Pirates in his one inning of relief. Most notably, Matt Guerrier gave up two runs on two hits and eighth-inning candidate Jose Mijares gave up one run on two hits. Although he’s a lefty and was very impressive during his September call-up last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mijares was sent down to Rochester for more seasoning. He just doesn’t seem to be quite ready to pitch in the major leagues yet. Besides, the Twins wanted him to work on some things and he’s failed to do so thus far.
- Scott Baker signs four-year deal with Twins
There was talk earlier during the offseason that the Twins might want to lock up some of their young starters into long-term deals, since most of them will be arbitration-eligible next year. They took the first step in doing so by signing projected Opening Day starter Scott Baker to a four year, $15.25 million deal, with an option for a fifth. The Twins have essentially bought out all of Baker’s arbitration-eligible years and have an option for his first year of free agency. Better yet, they will have him under contract until he’s thirty-two, and the most he will get paid is if they pick up his $9.25 million option (Joe Christensen breaks down the deal here). While it hardly takes a genius to recognize that it is in an organization’s best interest to lock up young talent while it is still relatively inexpensive, I will give Bill Smith some credit for keeping Baker through what will be the peak of his career at a reasonable price.
Baker was very good last year. Actually, according to Fangraphs, he was the second-best pitcher on the team (behind Joe Nathan of course). Baker started to emerge as the staff ace, since Francisco Liriano was struggling to recover from Tommy-John surgery. While I do think Liriano will eventually surpass Baker and claim the top spot, for now the twenty-seven year old righty is the best pitcher in the rotation. He posted an ERA+ of 118 and an FIP of 3.79. His K/BB ratio was a respectable 3.36 and he also posted a WHIP of 1.18. Baker is more of a fly-ball than strikeout pitcher, though, and sometimes gets burned by the long ball (his HR/9 inning rate was 1.04 last year). However, most of the damage is limited to solo homers since he’s good pretty at keeping runners off the base paths.
- Wild lose to Kings, 4-3
I have said it before, but I think it bears repeating: the Wild are not going to make the playoffs this year. They haven’t been able to string together more than two wins in a row since they won their first six games to start the season, and such a team doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs. This game featured some rare shoddy goaltending by our Backs, who seemed to be sleeping out there. Ugh. Can’t we just call a mercy rule on the rest of the season? I don’t think I can take anymore.
On a more positive note, defenseman Kurtis Foster made his first appearance on the ice in nearly a year. It was obvious that he wasn’t quite ready to play, but he had no choice as Brent Burns was sick and there wasn’t anyone else who could replace him. Fozzie looked a little shaky out there at first, and didn’t earn any points through his twelve shifts. Considering that he’s been out of the lineup for so long, and wasn’t even expecting to play tonight, he actually fared pretty well. It was just really good to see him out there skating with the team again.