Twins Get Swept

When one team is 0-10 for the year against another, it is pretty safe to say that that second team, in this case the Yankees, is better than the first, in this case the Twins; so it is not really worth harping on a) the Twins’ fatigue in Game One; b) the ump’s bad call on Mauer’s ‘double’ (the worst call I’ve ever seen in the Majors) in Game Two; or c) Punto’s baserunning gaffe in Game Three. As Mike Lupica opined on Sunday morning, the Yankees would still have found a way to win these games. They not only have a decided edge in talent, they have a not unrelated psychological edge that will only dissipate once the Twins win a series against them.
Nevertheless, the ALDS just concluded was instructive in pinpointing the gaps between these Twins and a championship-caliber squad. The most obvious is the closer. The Twins would have won Game Two if Joe Nathan hadn’t surrendered a two-run homer to A-Rod on a fastball right down the middle, and they would have had a slight chance in Game Three if he hadn’t given up hits to the first two batters he faced in that ninth inning. Nathan has great save stats, but I’ll bet that less than half are what I would call ‘quality’ saves (see The Save). His huffing and nervous mannerisms make me nervous and make me admire, all the more, Mariano Rivera, who comes in and calmly throws strikes. Fuentes of the Angels, the Majors’ saves-leader, inspires similar confidence. But we all know that the Twins are lucky to even have Nathan, and an upgrade in this area is not foreseeable.
Partly that is due to the shortcomings of the relief staff leading up to him. I had high hopes for Pat Neshek two years ago, but his effectiveness after Tommy John surgery will be a question. Jose Mijares looked like a stopper mid-year, but he got, literally, no one out the last two weeks and looked lost on the mound. Matt Guerrier is serviceable, no more, and I hope we can keep Jon Rauch; but the end of the game is no longer the lock is used to be when the Twins had a lead after seven.
Cuddyer and Span blossomed into front-line players – I could even see them cracking the Yankees lineup. I have no doubt that we will see another season of Punto, Tolbert and Cabrera in the middle infield. Morneau will be back at first, hopefully with more consistency; and despite his being overmatched this last week, I think Jose Morales will be an upgrade on Mike Redmond as backup catcher.
If Delmon Young continues to improve, which is possible, he can contribute. A platoon with Jason Kubel would limit the defensive liabilities of both. If we keep Pavano, the pitching is set: Slowey, Baker, Pavano, Duensing, Blackburn is a solid five, without even considering Perkins, Liriano or Bonser. That leaves holes, big holes, at third base and DH, both places where power is needed. As the playoffs with the Yankees showed, three singles is not as good as one home run.
Unfortunately, the Twins will have to spend all their money on retaining Mauer, not to mention Pavano and Cabrera, and it is not likely they can get a third baseman in trade for, say, Carlos Gomez and Bonser (throw in Liriano, too). Still, this team showed over the last month what it can do when it is inspired. If it remembers and plays at that level for the whole summer in the new ballpark, 2010 could be fun, indeed. We might even beat the Yankees.

Twins Win

By coincidence or not, the Twins began their improbable 17-4 stretch run the same day Justin Morneau went out for the season and I posted my negative assessment of their play to-date (see Twins at the Far Turn). Since no one read my posting, it’s likely that Morneau’s absence had the greater impact, in an addition-by-subtraction way. First, Morneau’s injured presence in the middle of the lineup was a kind of black hole, sucking life from Twins’ rallies. Second, removing the anointed rbi-man prompted others, notably Cuddyer and Kubel, to expand their roles. Finally, it provided a day-to-day consistency to the Twins lineup that paid off with the new, improved Delmon Young a fixture in left.
But as Gardy says, it all comes down to pitching, and this is where the Twins of the second half far exceeded the team of the first. Here, the biggest change was addition-by-addition. Jon Rauch suddenly gave Gardy a middle-to-late-inning righthander he could insert with confidence to back up starters who were consistently good for five or six innings, then faltered. Rauch was a clear notch above the erratic Crain and Keppel – and their performance improved under less pressure, as well.
One more change: when injury-prone Joe Crede finally went down for good, Gardy threw his lot in with Matt Tolbert, the sparkplug-type player he prefers, after bouncing the position around among Crede, Harris and Buscher for so long. And I shouldn’t forget the midseason pickup of Orlando Cabrera, who solved the first-half quandary of whom to bat second. The result: down the stretch, the Twins, for the first time in 2009, had a set lineup, and the pitchers had an established pecking order.
But still, they had a lot of ground to make up, and they couldn’t have done it without the help of the other teams in the division: the Royals and the White Sox knocked down the Tigers, and the Tigers and White Sox generally stumbled. But even when the opposition didn’t falter, the Twins excelled. Most notable was Joe Mauer’s hit against Zack Greinke on Saturday, breaking up a scoreless tie in one of the tauter, better-played games I saw all year. Even more crowd-pleasing was Cuddyer’s game-winning home run two innings later. Some of the other wins in the final week were messier; but all was rescued by the one-game playoff against the Tigers, one of the best games outside a World Series that anyone has seen.
First, the evenness of the matchup set the stage for the titanic struggle. Both teams, of course, had identical records. While the Twins held an 11-7 season edge and resulting home-field advantage, the Tigers had been in first place since May. The Twins hadn’t played particularly well most of the year and few of their fans even felt the team deserved a spot in the playoffs. Conversely, Detroit is going through such tough times as a city, how could you not root for some psychic satisfaction for their citizens? But once the game began, all that mattered was my feeling for the Twins.
The game itself is amply documented elsewhere. All I will mention are the pivotal moments that particularly resonated for me. First, almost more than the team, I wanted Mauer to win his batting title on up note. Neither of his hits were crucial (typical for the year, the Greinke at-bat aside), but by going 2-for-4 he registered the highest batting average for a catcher, ever – no small achievement. Punto and Tolbert, remnant “piranhas,” performed well: Tolbert scored a run with his baserunning and drove in the tying run in the 10th; Punto had a hit, a walk, almost drove in the winning run with his line-out to left and made a game-saving defensive play. In fact, his effort on Inge’s bounder up the middle contrasted nicely with Polanco’s inability to reach Tolbert’s harder shot to the same spot. Guerrier gave up a homer to the first batter he faced – how often have we seen that? – and Nathan turned in yet another gutsy, but dicey, save-type appearance: after allowing two hits, he escapes when a hard-hit line drive becomes a double play. After using up its best pitchers in the first 9, the Twins have to survive extra innings on the arms of Crain, Mahay and Keppel. Keppel gets his first major-league win, but not without major luck: with the bases loaded, the umpire mistakenly rules that Brandon Inge has not been hit by a pitch, then Laird strikes out swinging on a low pitch that would have been ball four. But best of all, for the 2009 Twins, are the heroes of the 12th-inning run: Carlos Gomez, in as a defensive replacement for Kubel, hooks a single to left, and is driven home by a bouncer to right by Alexi Casilla, who came in as a pinch-runner for Brendan Harris, who was hit-by-a-pitch while batting for Jose Morales. Flukey? maybe. Great baseball? definitely!