Oh, I could harp on our guys for their inability to win games on the road. I could rake them over the coals for going 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position and stranding 31 runners in the past three games. I could worry that the Twins seem unable to get themselves above the .500 mark, that they can’t seem to gain any ground on the division-leading Tigers, and that their 7-18 road record is second only to the Orioles (8-20) for the worst in the AL. But I’ve been doing those things a lot lately, and it doesn’t really seem to be helping. So, maybe it’s time to take an entirely different approach: from now on, no matter what happens, I’m only going to focus on the good things that the Twinkies do. Maybe a little encouragement is exactly what our boys need, maybe they’ll start to believe in themselves. Maybe they’ll actually start to win some games in places other than the Metrodome. So, instead of focusing on the fact that the Twins only scored five runs in three games against the Mariners, I’m only going to talk about the things that went well:
- Joe Mauer
The AL-Player-of-the-Month went practically hitless in the series, got caught in a rundown in a key spot, and only threw out one potential base stealer. But it’s actually a good thing that the golden boy had a relatively quiet series. The less productive Mauer is at the plate, the lower his price tag, and the likelier he will remain in Minnesota for the rest of his career. Besides, he’s already got a couple of batting titles; he should stop being so selfish and let someone else win one for a change.
- Justin Morneau
Johnny Canuck was doing his horribly unfunny Carlos Gomez impression at the plate pretty much the entire series, waving at pitches well outside the strike zone with runners in scoring position. He went 1-for-11 with a couple of strikeouts and stranded seven of his teammates on base. But, hey, at least he drove in a pair of runs on a couple of sac flies. Way to be a productive out, Morny. That’s kind of helpful. And he did score the winning run in Friday’s game on Matt Tolbert’s double/Wladimir Balentien’s fielding error, so there’s that. Now that selfish jerk Mauer won’t be able to hog all the glory for himself anymore.
- Kevin Slowey
Well, four runs on ten hits in 4.2 innings certainly doesn’t sound very good, but give me a minute and I’ll find something nice to say. Umm…well…at least the three home runs Slowey surrendered were solo shots. That’s good, right? So one entire thing did not go really bad for Kevin Slowey. For the most part, though, the pitching was actually pretty good. Frankie technically had a quality start, Nick Blackburn pitched pretty well, and even the ne’er-do-wells in the bullpen only surrendered a single run the entire series. Luis Ayala (of all people) recorded a very important out in the eighth inning of the series finale. It would’ve been more important, though, if the Twins actually scored against Sean White in the ninth. But I guess they just wanted to make sure the kid got his first major-league save. That was awfully nice of them.
Well, I certainly can’t blame any of these losses on the starting pitchers. Unless, of course, you want to blame them for not pitching complete-game shutouts, which is essentially what they’ve needed to do to beat the Yankees. All three pitched well enough to earn the win in every single game of this series, but the bullpen and the offense haven’t exactly held up their part of the bargain. Francisco Liriano gave up one earned run in six innings, and although he wasn’t particularly sharp, consistently managed to pitch himself out of trouble. Which pretty good for a guy whose emotions often get the better of him when things don’t go his way and would subsequently let the game get out of hand (like in this game against the White Sox). Nick Blackburn was also pretty effective, giving up a three-run homer to Mark Teixeira, but settled down nicely after that and surrendered only four runs through 7.2 innings. Kevin Slowey pitched an absolute gem through 7.2 innings, striking out eight batters and outlasting A.J. Burnett. Unfortunately, the two earned runs he surrendered in the bottom of the seventh kept him from actually out-dueling his Yankee counterpart and earning a much-deserved win.
While it’s tempting to blame the bullpen for everything, the truth is that the Twins left a lot of runners on base. Yes, Joe Nathan deserves the blame for blowing the save on Friday night. Yes, Craig Breslow surrendered a two-run homer to A-Rod in the bottom of the thirteenth in game two. And yes, today Jesse Crain gave up the game-winning homer to Johnny Damon in the tenth. But it doesn’t really help that Twinkies have stranded 34 runners on base in the first three games of the series. Twice they loaded up the bases in today’s game, and twice they failed to drive in any runs. It’s somewhat understandable that they couldn’t do much against A.J. Burnett, but the failure to do anything against a journeyman like Brett Tomko is simply inexcusable. All of the games in this series have been decided by two runs or less, and the Twins have led going into the later innings in every single one. But the failure to capitalize on scoring chances, and the failure of the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, to hold the lead has been frustrating. It is costing the team wins, plural. And even if they manage to win the division anyway, which they could, so what? They are likely to meet one of the AL East teams, such as the Red Sox or Yankees, in the first round. And will likely get swept in the first round if they don’t do something to shore up some of the glaring weaknesses in the bottom of the lineup and in the bullpen.
By the way, how amazing is Joe Mauer? This has to be the play of the decade. I don’t care what it costs, Joe has to stay in a Twins uniform until he dies.
- Scott Baker manages to not give any home runs, Twins lose anyway
Scott Baker, who has had a lot of trouble keeping the ball in the park in his first two starts, had what was his most successful start of the season against the Rays last night (though he still surrendered four runs on six hits). Things got off to a rough start when he gave up two runs in the first (after he had retired the first two batters he faced). But then he settled down and retired ten straight batters before running into trouble again in the fifth. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible outing, as Baker struck out seven and walked only one, and his pitches had a lot more movement than in his previous starts, but in the end it just wasn’t good enough. Baker’s recent struggles, coupled with the fact that his mechanics were so awful, led to some speculation that he might be hiding an injury (he didn’t want to go on the DL in the first place). However, it seems as though his mechanics have been causing problems before his issues with shoulder stiffness (he gave up a league-leading nine homers during ST), and that perhaps these mechanical issues were what led to his shoulder issues in the first place.
Although the young pitching staff has had its share of struggles early on, it isn’t the starting pitching that concerns me. While all five of them might not exactly be Cy Young winners, they are a lot better than their overall records would indicate. However, the offense, or lack of it, is something to be concerned about. The Twins struggled to do much of anything against Jeff Niemann, who for his part, wasn’t all that impressive. They had runners on base with less than two outs in each of the first three innings, and yet each time failed to drive in a single run. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but this has really been a problem for the lineup (well, at least for the hitters not named Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, anyway).
Even though Morneau and Kubel both struck out swinging against Niemann with RISP, it’s difficult to get too frustrated with them since both have been essentially carrying the offense. Actually, all of the left-handed hitters in the lineup (and switch-hitter Jose Morales) have been hitting pretty well. The righy bats, however, are a much different story. Outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gomez are struggling, with Cuddy batting a miserable .208/.275/.306 and Go-Go an anemic .195/.250/.293. Delmon Young has been a bit more successful, batting .255/.296/.333, but his focus on trying to pull the ball more has led to a lot more double-plays. The crowded outfield situation might be part of the problem, since only Cuddyer has seen much regular playing time (though he hasn’t exactly benefited from it). All of this depth in the outfield was supposed to be one of the team’s major strengths this season, but except for Denard Span, none of them have been very productive at the plate, and two of them are mediocre defensively at best.
While Joe Crede has only twelve hits in 66 plate appearances, half of those have been for extra bases and three have been home runs. Crede was always more of a power hitter with the White Sox and never really hit for average, so it will be interesting to see if his career numbers hold up outside of U.S. Cellular field. Right now, the Twins are 9-11 and in fourth place in the AL Central. While it is still very early in the season, the Twins should be concerned about the lack of production from all of the right-handed hitters in the lineup. They may be blessed with four very good left-handed hitters (Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Span), but these four can’t carry the offense by themselves. For now, with such huge holes in the lineup and no major moves in the works, a fourth-place finish looks to be about right.
- You can’t spell V-E-Z-I-N-A without B-A-C-K-S-, dang it
On a non-baseball related note Niklas Backstrom, Boston’s Tim Thomas, and Columbus’ Steve Mason are all finalists for the Vezina trophy. While none are certainly terrible choices, they are a bit controversial since they do play for teams that implement a defense-oriented system (allegedly, more on that in a minute). Oh, I know there are some people who would disagree with me on this, but when you look into the numbers and examine the season in general, Backs is really the most deserving of the three.
While it’s true that Mason and Thomas have both had very good years, and that both have led their teams to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Backs is the only goaltender who has ranked consistently in the top five in GAA, save percentage, wins, and shutouts all season. And while he plays for a team that supposedly plays stifling defense, that certainly wasn’t the case this season. Niklas Backstrom faced 2,059 shots this year, second only to Calgary’s Miikka Kiprussoff (who saw 2,155), and yet he still put up a stellar 2.33 GAA and .923 save percentage. Considering all of the horrible defensive plays made in front of him on a regular basis, and the overall lack of offensive support (the Wild finished near the bottom of the league in goals scored), Backs had to perform a miracle almost every single night. And considering that his mediocre team wasn’t officially eliminated from playoff contention until after the second-to-last game of the season, it’s clear that Backs has been more valuable to his team than any other goaltender in the league.
And he did all that while playing with an injured left hip. But I guess if that isn’t convincing enough, maybe this is:
No, I’m not talking about the 3-game losing streak, though thankfully that is over now, too. No, I’m talking about the Blue Jays’ ten-game winning streak against the Twins, which was the second longest of its kind in the league (the Brewers currently hold a 12-game streak over the Pirates). The Twins defeated the Blue Jays 3-2 in eleven innings last night, the first time they have done so since July 23, 2007. They were swept twice last year, and lost a horrorshow of a game on Monday night that they really should have won anyway. Glen Perkins pitched another gem, though he did run into some trouble in the eighth. Joe Nathan and Jesse Crain also managed to pitch competently in relief. And Joe Crede was the big hero of the game (although he was the goat, earlier, more on that in a second) driving in the winning run on a walk off double.
Although it was good to see the Twins pull out a win last night, I do have a bone to pick with the offense. Quite frankly, there was absolutely no reason for this game to go into extra innings. While rookie pitcher Ricky Romero was pitching a gem of his own, the Twins did have an opportunity to break the game open (or at least tack on one more run) in the sixth and failed to capitalize on it. With the bases loaded with nobody out, Michael Cuddyer struck out swinging on four pitches, and then Joe Crede grounded into an inning-ending double play. This certainly isn’t the first time the Twins have failed to capitalize on scoring chances this year. They left runners stranded at third with no outs twice in Monday night’s ballgame, and failed to capitalize on bases-loaded opportunities several times during the series with the Mariners. Worse yet, forcing the game into extra innings means that Jesse Crain had to pitch two innings in relief and likely won’t be available for tonight’s game if needed. Considering that he’s one of the few pitchers in the bullpen (or on the entire staff, really) who has been able to pitch effectively, this could be a problem.
The good news, however, is that Joe Mauer has been running without pain and is scheduled to start some extended spring-training games in the GCL next week. While there is no timetable for his return, he is attempting to make it back to the lineup by the end of the month. Mauer can’t carry the entire offense by himself, but at least he won’t strand so many runners in scoring position. His return will also provide a bit of stability to the lineup, since Gardy has had to juggle things a bit in his absence (well, he’s had to find playing time for all of the outfielders, too). Morneau will likely move back to the clean-up spot, where he is most accustomed, with maybe Crede or Cuddyer/Jason Kubel then hitting behind him. Having a regular spot in the lineup should help the rest of the batters get more comfortable at the plate.
By the way, apparently Wild players Colton Gillies, James Sheppard, Cal Clutterbuck, and maybe even Josh Harding are supposed to stop by the FSN booth and help out with the analysis after tonight’s game. If that’s not a reason to watch the silly post-game show, then I don’t know what is.
- Twins drop opener against M’s, 6-1
To be honest, I didn’t really think the Twins were going to win this game. Not with King Felix on the mound for Seattle. He is one of the most underrated young pitchers in baseball, and let’s face it, the Twins don’t exactly have the most potent offense in the league (or the division, for that matter). It was a pretty close pitchers’ duel for most of the game, though. Aside from a couple of mistakes to Ken Griffey, Jr. and Franklin Gutierrez, Francisco Liriano was pretty effective for seven innings. His command was much better than during the spring, though he didn’t actually strike out many batters (only three). Felix Hernandez simply outdueled him through eight innings, giving up one run on five hits and striking out six. Twins hitters were unable to capitalize on the few scoring chances they had, with Michael Cuddyer striking out with runners on second and third in the first and Justin Morneau grounding into an inning-ending double-play with the bases loaded in the fifth.
I still don’t think the Twins will make the playoffs this year, and it’s not because they lost their first game of the season (I have talked about this before). Even if guys like Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer have career years at the plate, the bullpen is once again going to be a huge liability. While I do think that Jesse Crain will be a dominant set-up man, and I think that Craig Breslow will prove to be an even more effective LOOGY than Dennys Reyes, the middle relief will still be an issue. Matt Guerrier, Philip Humber, and Luis Ayala don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters. R. A. Dickey might prove to be the most reliable of the bunch, and I’m not just basing this on his ST stats. Dickey was very effective as a reliever for Seattle last season. While he was awful as a starter, with a 6.72 ERA and 1.769 WHIP in 76 innings, the knuckleballer was much better pitching out of the bullpen, posting a 2.00 ERA and 1.111 WHIP with 20 strikeouts in 36 innings.
*sigh* Maybe all of the starters will pitch complete games this year; that’s the only way the bullpen won’t be an issue.
The Twins will probably remain in contention for most of the season, even though they won’t end up winning the division. At the very least they will play some very good baseball and should be a lot of fun to watch (for the most part). Which is more than I can say about some of our other sports franchises:
- The Vikings have a good chance to contend for a Super Bowl and they’re blowing it
The most frustrating part of this whole Jay Cutler trade isn’t that the Vikings didn’t get him. A lot of analysts and fans don’t think Cutler would have been a very good fit for Minnesota, and they’re probably right. He is kind of a whiny-pants, and he demands loyalty from an organization, something he certainly wouldn’t get here. No, the most frustrating part of this whole thing is that the Bears made a bold move to acquire a talented young QB that they can build around, while the Vikings haven’t done much of anything. In fact, they’ve actually gotten slightly worse. And it’s really a shame to think that a player as electrifying as Adrian Peterson is going to waste the best years of his career on a team that could be something really special if it were only lead by a decent QB.
Oh, and these people are doing the Lord’s work.
- The Wild don’t have much of a chance to win anything
Mercifully, the season is almost over. Not-so-mercifully, the future for the team looks pretty bleak. They have traded away so many draft picks to try to make a playoff run in the past couple of years that they don’t have much young talent waiting in the minor leagues. They are about to lose their franchise scoring leader to free agency, and they haven’t had much luck in signing top free agents (not that they have enough cap space to seriously pursue them, anyway). Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this team is in rebuilding mode and it will be a long time before they even approach playoff contention again.
I guess it isn’t all bad, though. Rookie wrecking ball Cal Clutterbuck has been one of the lone bright spots in one of the most boring seasons ever. He leads the league in hits. He fights with Sean Avery. He is a master of the art of trash talk. And he scores the occasional goal, too.