- 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.
- Twins survive ninth-inning nightmare to beat Oakland 10-5
This game was much, much closer than the final score would indicate. The Twins had a 10-0 lead going into the ninth. Scott Baker had pitched brilliantly, holding the A’s two just two hits in eight innings, and since he’d thrown only 96 pitches, was going for a complete game. And that’s when things got a lot more interesting than they really needed to be. Baker was obviously gassed, and loaded up the bases without recording an out (although he didn’t get any help from Alexi Casilla, more on that in a minute). Jesse Crain was brought in to relieve Scotty, but ran into trouble of his own. After Alexi Casilla again failed to field a routine ground ball that allowed a pair of runs to score, Crain had trouble finding the strike zone. He walked Jack Cust with the bases loaded, and was yanked in favor of Jose Mijares. Mijares struck out Jason Giambi, but then suffered some control issues of his own. He walked the next two batters and forced in a pair of runs. With the score now 10-5, and the bases loaded with only one out, Joe Nathan was brought in to complete what had suddenly become a save situation. He struck out Jack Hannahan and Rajai Davis to end the threat and pick up his 12th save of the year.
I’ll admit that I was nervous before Nathan came in. If there’s any team that can screw up a 10-0 lead in the ninth inning, it is the Twins. They’ve had such awful luck on the road this season and it really wouldn’t have surprised me if they ended up losing 11-10. Besides, it’s not like this kind of thing has never happened before.
The horrorshow that unfolded in the ninth overshadowed what had been a rare quality road win. Not only did Baker pitch a gem, but the bats sprang to life and gave him some much-needed run support. Delmon Young, who’s really been having a rough season both on and off the field, went 2-for-4 with a double (his first extra-base hit since April 22) and three RBI. Justin Morneau made me look silly for suggesting he might be in a slump, going 4-for-5 with a solo home run. Jason Kubel hit a three-run homer. Brendan Harris, who saw his career-high 12 game hitting streak come to an end on Monday night, went 3-for-4 with a walk and a run scored. Even Carlos Gomez, who was put in the leadoff spot when Denard Span was forced to leave the game, came up with a big two-run double (though he also struck out twice). It’s a good thing too, because the Twins needed every single one of those runs to hold off the A’s and get the win.
- Bert Blyleven is an a**
OK, here comes a mini-rant. I’m not really a fan of the Twins’ broadcast team, but I don’t usually complain about them here because it’s a waste of time. The Twins aren’t going to fire Bert and Dick simply because I don’t like them, and rehashing ad nauseum all the dumb things they say is enough to give me a headache. And since most of my readers don’t have to listen to Dick and Bert, they’d probably have no idea what I’m talking about, anyway. But when Blyleven called out Scott Baker during the broadcast for failing to pitch a complete game, I felt I needed to make an exception. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he made it sound like the ninth-inning collapse was all Scotty’s fault, and it wasn’t (Alexi Casilla had a lot to do with it, but I’ll get to that). Baker was on his game all night: he struck out eight batters, didn’t walk anyone, and allowed only one extra-base hit. He retired fourteen straight batters coming into the ninth inning, and considering how much Baker has struggled this season, his performance had already exceeded expectations. The complete game would simply have been icing on the cake. But Bert ripped into Scotty when he loaded the bases without recording an out (again, not really his fault), accusing him of lacking the mettle to pitch a complete game. Ridiculous. If Baker truly wasn’t interested in trying to finish the game, then what the hell was he doing out there in the first place? It was obvious that he was exhausted, and one would think that if Baker didn’t care about finishing the game himself, he would’ve simply told Gardy that he was done for the night. Scotty didn’t deserve the public tongue-lashing Bert doled out from the safety of the broadcast booth, not after pitching eight innings of two-hit ball. And it will never happen, but Bert owes Scotty an on-air apology. Maybe I should change the title of this blog to “Fire Bert Blyleven”.
Worse yet, there was little rage directed at the true goat of the game: Alexi Casilla. The second baseman booted a couple of routine ground balls, one of which might have been a double-play. If Alexi even made one of those plays, Baker likely would’ve escaped the ninth having pitched a three-hit, maybe one-run complete game. But because of Casilla’s incompetence, Baker had to settle for eight innings and three unearned earned runs. And the Twins had to use their closer to save what should have been a complete blowout (of course, Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares could’ve pitched better, too). Ugh, I never thought I’d be so happy to hear that Nick Punto is coming back soon. I will take a sub-.200 middle-infielder who can make routine plays over a sub-.200 middle-infielder who can’t any day.
The uproar over Alex Rodriguez and his bum hip has made me realize how nice it is to cheer for a team nobody cares about. Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser have all had their share of ailments so far (some of them devastating), and yet the mainstream media has barely even noticed. While ESPN has been covering the A-Rod drama nearly 24/7 and obsessing over what Brian Cashman needs to do to ensure that the Yankees make the playoffs, we here in Twins Territory have had to keep up with the progress of our injured players through the local papers (both of them). The injuries to all of these players, like the injury to A-Rod, could potentially cost the Twins the season. But at least I don’t have to hear about it.
There is one other benefit to having little media coverage of your team: nobody cares if they lose. It’s true; the Twins could go on a 20-game losing streak (God forbid) and ESPN would barely even mention it. Could you imagine what it would be like if that were the Yankees or the Red Sox? tWWL would be in full-on panic mode, with all of their analysts talking nonstop about what kind of fire sale the team needs to have. They would spend hours agonizing over what went wrong, and calling for the firing of everyone in the front office. In some ways I kind of felt bad for Yankee fans last year. Every time I turned on the television, I had to hear about how they weren’t going to make the playoffs and that they were a laughingstock because they spent so much money to finish in third place. I can’t imagine Yankee fans really enjoyed having that thrown up in their faces all the time.
Oh, sometimes it can be difficult to be a Twins fan. You often have to watch your favorite players walk away once they become too expensive. But when you realize that Torii Hunter is getting paid $90 million to hit about 25 homers a season for the Angels, you appreciate the $7.2 million Jason Kubel even more. After awhile you tend to think of your favorite players as your children. It’s fun to watch them come up through the system and develop into well-rounded individuals, but eventually they have to grow up and leave the nest. You wish them well, but you know that it’s in the best interests of everyone involved if you just let them go.
Besides, you always have more babies at home to worry about.
I am not trying to disparage large-market teams in any way. Nor do I think the fans of such franchises should abandon their beloved teams and become Twins fans (though that would be nice. The Twins could always use more fans). I just don’t really want the Twins to ever have the sort of media coverage those other teams endure. I realize that the sort of unlimited financial resources these franchises enjoy comes from overexposure by the mainstream media, and I admit that sometimes I wish the Twins had that kind of money. Still, I don’t think I could take it if I had to hear about my teams’ shortcomings every time I turn on the friggin’ television. Obviously I don’t need any help getting all worked up over nothing.
- Twins shutout Reds 3-0
This game wasn’t all that interesting, either, except for the fact that Glen Perkins has been pitching well. I realize that it’s only spring training, but this is still good news. Perk was very inconsistent last year, to say the least, with September being his worst month by far. He didn’t make it past the fifth inning in any of his starts and was having trouble locating his pitches. Considering that he is projected to be the fourth starter (Blackburn has knee issues and the Twins want to take a conservative approach), he’ll have to start pitching more like he did in August.
And Jason Kubel had an RBI single, extending the good spring he’s been having so far.
- Joe Nathan Aching Shoulder Watch:
Nathan threw a full bullpen session the other day and reportedly feels fine, so I’m calling off the watch for now. He even said it himself: “I haven’t felt this good in four years”, whatever that means. Also, Nick Blackburn’s sore knee apparently isn’t bothering him anymore. The starting rotation doesn’t have much depth so this is obviously very good news. While Philip Humber or R. A. Dickey could potentially fill out a spot if necessary, whether or not they could do so competently is another matter. Anthony Swarzak and Rob Delaney look like very promising prospects, but the organization feels like they need more seasoning in the minors. The same could be said about Jason Jones (who will probably end up being a reliever, anyway). While I initially thought the Twins could probably get away with an eleven-man pitching staff, maybe there’s a need to carry twelve pitchers after alll.
Oooooh, I almost forgot. Our old friend Dennys Reyes, aka the Big Sweat, has signed with the Cardinals for two years and $3 million, plus incentives. Reyes was mostly used as a situational lefty during his time with the Twins, and he’s been a very good one at that. The Cardinals had one of the worst bullpens in the league last season (or so I’ve been told), and this signing gives them some much-needed depth at a reasonable price. He isn’t going to solve all their problems, though, since he tends to be shaky against righties and probably wouldn’t make a good closer.
- Wild defeat Sharks in OT, 4-3
This game is worth
mentioning because it is going to go down as one of the greatest in
franchise history. The Wild were down 3-0 in the middle of the second
period, after playing so terribly throughout the first. It looked as
though they were going to lose their fifth straight game and fall
completely out of the Western Conference playoff picture. I was about
to change the channel when captain Mikko Koivu deflected a shot into the net for the first goal, which ignited the unbelievable rally. Minutes later, defenseman Kim Johnsson found Pierre-Marc Bouchard all alone a the blue line, and he beat Brian Boucher over the shoulder for the second Wild goal. There was no stopping the Wild after that, as they kept pressuring the Sharks until they finally gave in.
Of course, Boucher inadvertently helped them out with some sloppy goaltending (and bad ice):
Zidlicky was simply trying to clear the puck into the offensive zone and head off to the bench for a change. He had no idea he’d scored until he saw his goal on the jumbotron. I doubt the Wild would’ve been able to stage such a comeback if Evgeni Nabokov were between the pipes, but I don’t care. This team hasn’t won a game since they beat the Blackhawks on Feburary 22nd at United Center. I will take a win of any kind at this point.
The Captain saved the best for last, though, when he scored the game-winning goal with a mere 20 seconds left in overtime:
Yep, that’s about how I reacted, too.
The Wild are now one point away from making the playoffs, with about 19 games left to play. I still don’t think they’re going to make it, but I’ll be happy if they just finish the season with a winning record.