- 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.
Before I get into how awful the Twins have been away from the Dome, I just want to say: OMG THE BULLPEN MANAGED TO NOT BLOW A ONE-RUN LEAD FOR ONCE. ON THE ROAD TOO. TRULY THE END IS NIGH. Anyway, at 25-27, the Twins are currently two games under .500 and 4.5 games out of first in the AL Central. And it’s really no mystery why our boys are struggling to stay above the .500 mark: their 6-16 road record is abysmal. While there aren’t many teams in the league with winning records away from home, few have such a record of futility as the Twinks. There are only two teams in the league with worse road records than Minnesota: Washington (6-20) and San Diego (8-19), and obviously neither one is likely to make the playoffs this year. While the Twins had lost 11 of their past 12 road games before beating Tampa on Sunday, four of those losses had been by one run and six of their last nine losses have been by two runs or less.
The Twins, like most teams in the league, have always played better at home than on the road. Most people like to blame it on the obvious home field advantage the Twins enjoy at the Dome, but the disparity between their home and road records hasn’t been as vast as people tend to think (they usually have a league-best home record and a road record somewhere around the .500 mark). In the seven seasons under manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have posted a worse road record through the end of May only once: in 2006, when they were 8-20. The Twins had gotten off to a slow start that year and were 24-29 on June 1st, 11.5 games behind the division-leading Tigers, before riding an incredible hot streak and finishing 96-66 to capture the division title (they finished with a 42-39 road record, btw).
Pitching has obviously been part of the problem, though the pitching staff as a whole hasn’t been that much worse on the road. As a team, the Twins have a road ERA of 5.16 compared to 4.53 at home. In road games, opponents are batting .272/.345/.485 against the Twins and the pitching staff in general is posting a 1.45 WHIP, 1.70 K/BB, and 6.15 K/9, compared to .273/.322/.427 with a 1.33 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB, 6.06 K/9 inside the teflon confines. Obviously these numbers aren’t great, but they’re not bad for a team whose one and two starters have been pitching more like back-of-the-rotation starters through the first few months of the season. For the most part, the pitching has been good enough to keep the team in ballgames as long as the offense has been productive. Unfortunately, this hasn’t usually been the case.
The lack of offense has really been the heart of the Twins’ struggles away from the Dome. There’s a very good assessment of the offense to this point here, and while it’s hardly surprising that the bottom of the lineup has been ice cold, these problems have been exacerbated on the road. At home, the Twins are batting a decent-enough .278/.356/.447 with an OPS of .803. On the road, however, the Twins are a mediocre .263/.335/.406 with an OPS of .741. The best hitters in the lineup, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, have put up some very good numbers on the road, but with the likes of Nick Punto, Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, and Carlos Gomez at the bottom of the order it’s not surprising that the Twins have averaged only 4.2 runs per game away from the Dome (which is actually skewed from the 20-1 thumping of the Pale Hose). And that’s an improvement over the 3.6 runs per game the team was averaging with Casilla and Tolbert batting second in the lineup. While Young, Casilla, and Gomez are all young enough that they should improve, it remains to be seen how much longer the organization will be patient with their development.
First of all, what a strange ending to the series against Boston yesterday. Four ejections in the same inning, with the catchers and managers on both sides getting the boot (Which forced the Twins to play without a DH for the rest of the afternoon. Fun). Seriously, the consensus on both sides is that the umpiring in that game was pretty bad. Which is a shame, since all of the controversy overshadowed what was actually a really good ballgame. Josh Beckett and Anthony Swarzak were locked in a tight pitcher’s duel through the first seven innings, with Beckett eventually outdueling his rookie opponent. Obviously, it’s a bit disappointing that the Twins only managed to split the series against the Sox at the Dome, but it just doesn’t seem like quite as much of a letdown as the previous 1-6 roadtrip. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Twins had won four games in a row coming into the series, but it doesn’t seem as hard to watch your team lose when they play some good baseball in the process. And the Twins played well for the most part, it just wasn’t enough to win the series against the Sox. It isn’t like the series at Fenway, where the Twins never really bothered to show up in the first place. Or against the Yankees, where they let three games slip away in the later innings (and were then pummeled in the finale). Losses of that sort are enough to prompt a fan suicide watch.
The Twins’ offense has gotten really hot during the month of May, and with 55 home runs coming into tonight’s game against the Rays, has been unusually potent as well (they hit 111 the entire 2008 season). Well, at least the first half of the order has been on fire anyway: Denard Span is batting .303/.412/.404 in the leadoff spot, Joe Mauer is apparently made of magic (seriously, .407/.496/.824 with 11 HR and an OPS of 1.320 in 113 plate appearances), Justin Morneau is leading the AL in OPS and slugging percentage and is in the top five in nearly every other offensive category, and Jason Kubel is having a career year (though he’s still struggling to hit lefties, with an OPS of .429). Joe Crede will probably be good for about 20 homers this year, besides reminding us what it’s like to have an actual third baseman playing third. And even Michael Cuddyer is finally showing the type of power the Twins expected when they signed him to a multiyear deal before the start of last season, batting .330/.417/.670 with 7 homers and an OPS of 1.087 through the end of this month. Whether or not he’ll continue to be so productive remains to be seen (his career numbers suggest otherwise), but if nothing else it could make him a valuable trade piece in the offseason should the Twins fail to make the playoffs for a third straight year.
Unfortunately, not everyone is hitting so well. The bottom of the order, particularly the middle infield, stinks. Earlier this week, Aaron Gleeman compared the offensive production of Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris, and Matt Tolbert combined to that of national league pitchers, and the infielders just barely came out on top. Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. Before he was injured, Jason Bartlett was batting .373/.418/.596 and providing some good defense for the Rays, which just makes that trade seem so much worse. And Orlando Hudson, who the Twins could’ve signed for half the price of Nick Punto, is hitting .340/.413/.485 with an OPS of .898 for the Dodgers. The failure to upgrade the middle infield, like the failure to address the issues with the bullpen, is coming back to haunt the Twins.
And now Punto is on the 15-day DL
because he sucks with an ouchie groin. Alexi Casilla has been called up from Rochester and Brendan Harris will be the starting SS for the time being. Hopefully the middle infield will now be a little more productive at the plate than NL pitchers.
The Boston media has apparently been fawning over Joe Mauer already, even though he won’t be a free agent until after the 2010 season. It doesn’t bother me if an organization wants to pursue high-profile free agents to address one of its most glaring needs, even if some of those free agents happen to be Twins. Obviously it makes a lot of sense to go after the best talent on the market, especially if you have the resources available to do so. The problem is that Mauer isn’t available yet, and it’s a bit presumptuous to simply assume he will be. While the Twins are notoriously frugal as an organization, they have expressed a desire to keep their native son in a Twins uniform through the prime of his career. SO KEEP YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF OUR CATCHER YOU F***ING VULTURES. But please help yourselves to one of our
useless gritty, scrappy middle infielders who do the little things right and battle their tails off. No really, I insist.
Hmm, maybe I should add “This Week in F–k You” as a regular feature during the offseason. Of course, most of those posts would probably be directed at Bill Smith, anyway.
Last night, he hit a game-winning grand slam in the thirteenth inning. In the series finale earlier this afternoon (which I actually didn’t see because I was still sleeping from last night’s extra-inning marathon), he drove in a pair of runs on a single to give the Twins a lead they would never relinquish. Crede has always hit Tigers’ pitching well, posting a career .276/.339/.558 with an OPS of .897 and 24 home runs going into today’s game. And his numbers aren’t skewed just from hitting in U.S. Cellular field for so many years, either. At Comerica Park, he’s a career .287/.341/.599 with 15 homers and an OPS of .939. The Crede deal looks as though it’s starting to pay dividends. Even though he’s provided Gold-Glove caliber defense all season, his bat has been relatively slow to wake up. And that makes sense, as he’s never hit well at the Dome and he’s had to adjust to playing with a new team with an entirely different approach to hitting. But he’s been batting .290/.313/.548 in the month of May, with two homers and eight RBI in his last four games, so perhaps he’s starting to see the ball better inside the Teflon confines. And yes, it does beat having Tony Batista at third.
Scott Baker suffered from yet another big inning that got away from him when the Tigers scored five runs on six hits in the sixth. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, except this is at least the third time he’s had such an inning this year. Dr. Baker was very effective through the first five innings, and though he may not have matched Justin Verlander’s impressive performance, he pitched well enough to keep the Kitties off the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Mr. Scott came out to pitch in the sixth, and things promptly fell apart. Of course, it didn’t help that he had Jason Kubel in the outfield, who rarely plays in the field and missed a fly ball that probably should’ve been caught (and would’ve ended the inning). Kubel is usually the DH because his defense is less than stellar, but he was in the outfield today because Delmon Young is out with a family emergency and is expected to miss at least the next three days. Jose Morales has been called up from Rochester in the meantime. Still, if this doesn’t make the case that Denard Span and Carlos Gomez should both be starting in the outfield, then I don’t know what will. Yes, Kubel is swinging a hotter bat than Go-Go, but his lack of range in the field nearly cost the Twins the game.
Most importantly, though, the bullpen was handed a one run lead and actually held onto it for a change. Craig Breslow pitched a scoreless seventh and retired the first two batters in the eighth before being lifted in favor of Matt Guerrier. Breslow struck out a batter and didn’t walk anyone, which is good news for a guy who has an ugly 0.90 K/BB ratio. He didn’t surrender any home runs, either, something he had become prone to doing lately. Matt Guerrier bounced back from a terrible appearance the night before, when he gave up a three run homer to Miguel Cabrera and a solo shot to Jeff Larish to put the Tigers ahead by a couple of runs. Still, one has to wonder why Guerrier was asked to get the final out in the eighth. While it is perfectly understandable that acting-manager Scotty Ullger (Ron Gardenhire was ejected after arguing with the home plate umpire) didn’t want to leave Breslow in to face Ryan Raburn with a runner on base, since all of the homers he’s surrendered have been to right-handed hitters, Matty G. has pitched 18.1 innings so far this season and has made five straight relief appearances. Why not bring in Joe Nathan? He’s going to pitch the next inning anyway, and unlike Matty G, has only pitched thirteen innings so far this year. Save Matt Guerrier’s arm!
Oh, yeah, and that Joe Mauer guy sucks.
In his very first at-bat of the season, Joe Mauer drilled a 2-0 pitch from Sidney Ponson into the left-field seats. In his next at-bat, he spanked a double and then scored on a Justin Morneau single. In his third at-bat, he drew a walk and then scored on a Justin Morneau home run (which ended up being the winning runs, I might add). In his fourth at bat, well, he grounded into a double play. Still, that’s not bad for a guy who hasn’t played in any major league games since the
heartbreaker tiebreaker against the White Sox last year, and hadn’t really even swung a bat until, like three weeks ago. The Twins chased Sir Sidney out after five innings, tagging him for seven runs on nine hits. Considering that the Twins were one of the few teams that His Royal Highness the Prince of Slobenia has consistently been successful against (he is 11-4 with an ERA of 3.13 lifetime against Minnesota), it was a very good night indeed.
It’s tough to complain about the lineup too much, since the Twins did manage to score seven runs. However, one has to wonder why the struggling Alexi Casilla is still batting second. I realize that Ron Gardenhire probably doesn’t want four lefties in a row (although, it isn’t a bad idea when those lefties are Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel), but why he keeps batting Casilla second is a mystery. Casilla is batting a miserable .167, but even worse he’s been getting on base at an underwhelming .231 clip. This simply isn’t good enough, and while Casilla is much better defensively at second than Brendan Harris, Harris has been riding a hot streak lately and probably should be in the lineup everyday. I don’t mind Gardy being patient with Casilla and hoping he’ll turn things around (he did hit the ball really hard three times last night, unfortunately it happened to be right to a Royal each time), but he should be moved down in the lineup until he actually does so.
Of course, it’s a good thing the offense managed to provide him with all of that run support, since starter Kevin Slowey needed every single one of them. He gave up five runs on eight hits in five innings and surrendered the lead twice, although he didn’t run into trouble until the third. Still, it was good enough to earn his fourth victory of the season and he improved(?) to 4-0. Joe Nathan, after blowing a save against Tampa Bay in his last relief appearance, gave up a single to Mike Aviles but pitched an otherwise-perfect ninth to record his fourth save of the season.
Oh, and Joe Crede was out of the lineup last night because his wife was having their third child.
He is expected to miss the rest of the series against the Royals but should rejoin the team in Detroit. Never mind, he’s back in the lineup tonight. But Kubel’s sick, so he’s out. And the flame-throwing Juan Morillo was demoted to AAA Rochester to make room for Mauer on the roster. It isn’t really that surprising that he managed to clear waivers, as his 22.50 ERA and poor 0.33 K/BB rate probably scared off any prospective suitors. It will be interesting to see if pitching coach Bobby Cuellar can tame some of his wildness. The minor-league coaching staff has had a lot of success in teaching the young prospects to throw strikes, so Morillo has definitely come to the right place. At any rate, it’s tough to imagine that Morillo won’t get another shot with the big club. A guy whose fastball averages 96.5 mph would be a very good thing to have in the bullpen indeed.
- Jason Kubel homers twice in Twins’ 7-1 victory over Cleveland
Jason Kubel apparently wants to remain in the cleanup spot once Mauer returns to the lineup (which might be as early as Tuesday), blasting a pair of home runs in today’s game against the Indians. Kubel’s been on a tear recently, batting .316/.350/.789 in his past five games, with an OPS of 1.139 and, of course, a pair of home runs. And then there was this performance against the Angels. Kubel has certainly been batting like a cleanup-hitter, but leaving him in that spot means that the Twins would have four left-handed hitters in a row. Which actually might not be much of a problem. The M&M boys certainly hit lefties pretty well (though not as well as righties), and lead off hitter Denard Span has had a lot of success against left-handed pitching, too. Still, I can’t imagine Ron Gardenhire going with such a lefty-centric lineup for any extended period of time, so most likely Mauer will bat third and everyone else will move down in the lineup.
- Oh, yeah, Kevin Slowey pitched ok, too
Actually, he was masterful. Painting the corners. Changing speeds. Throwing his breaking pitches whenever he felt like it (even on a 3-2 count), and just doing all of the little things necessary to keep hitters off balance. Slowey shut out the Indians for eight innings, giving up just eight hits and striking out seven. The lone Cleveland run came in the ninth, when Slowey was lifted after giving up three straight hits to load the bases. Luis Ayala came in and surrendered an RBI single to Kelly Shoppach before getting Tony Graffanino to ground into a game-ending double play.
It appears as though the pitching staff has finally figured out the secret to winning games: keeping the ball in the ballpark. Oh, and not walking anybody, either. That always helps. Nick Blackburn pitched a gem of his own against Cleveland on Friday, allowing one run on six hits in seven innings, without walking anybody or giving up a home run. Although, Blackburn kind of owns the Indians, so I guess his performance wasn’t all that surprising. Still, after watching the starters give up what seems like a gazillion home runs the past few weeks (and the most walks in the league so far this season), it was fun to watch a couple of well-pitched ballgames for a change.
Remember all that stuff I said about Kevin Slowey earlier? That he is the new Brad Radke and will be a dark horse candidate for the AL Cy Young this year? Well, never mind (And thanks for making me look like a complete idiot there, Kev. Lord knows I don’t need any help with that!). As Joe Christensen has helpfully pointed out, Kevin Slowey is looking a lot more like Livan Hernandez than Brad Radke. He gave up five runs on thirteen hits in five innings against Toronto last night, and has given up ten runs in twenty-two hits in his two starts thus far. At this rate, he’ll surpass Livo’s grand total of 257 hits surrendered last season sometime around August.
The bullpen wasn’t exactly spectacular last night, either. Even though Slowey struggled, he did exit the game with a very slim lead. Which the bullpen (specifically Luis Ayala) promptly coughed up. Ayala has been doing his best Juan Rincon impression this year, and by that I mean he sucks. He’s given up four runs on ten hits in five appearances so far, one of which was a two-run bomb to Lyle Overbay in the eighth that put the Jays on top for good. I have to wonder what he was doing pitching the eighth in the first place, though, especially since Jesse Crain is starting to look like the dominant reliever he was before having shoulder surgery in 2007. Ayala gave up a run in the seventh that was charged to Matt Guerrier (since he put the runner on in the first place) and was being hit pretty hard. And yet for some reason Ron Gardenhire thought it was a good idea to put him out there again, even though he had just threatened to cough up the lead one batter ago. Unfortunately, he made good on that threat in the eighth, and the Twins ended up losing a game they really should have won.
Last night’s game, as painful as it was to watch, did have a little bit of a silver lining. Jason Kubel hit his first home run of the season, a bomb off of Jesse Litsch in the second inning. Denard Span seems to be putting his awful ST campaign behind him, as he went 2-for-4 with a walk and a stolen base and is now hitting .310/.444/.448 in the lead off spot. And R.A. Dickey managed to retire all four Jays he faced, which is something the entire pitching staff had failed to do up to that point. So the Twins might actually have one reliable reliever in the bullpen after all.
And, in honor of outgoing Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire (and because I need cheering up), here is a collection of his best quotes:
My personal favorite? When asked if he was worried about his team getting lazy against non-playoff bound opponents down the stretch, Lemaire responded: “Worry is part of our life. We wake up, we worry. We go to bed, we worry. And when we dream, we dream about being worried.” And that is exactly how the pitching staff (and Gardy’s mismanagement of it) is making me feel right now.