Twins Update

Two losses in a row, and I’m already resigned to the mediocrity of recent years. Berrios gave up 12 hits and didn’t look like the ace I don’t consider him to be. (I’m more impressed with Odorizzi.) The Twins got two two-run homers, but that was it. You wonder if they’ve become over-reliant on home runs and incapable of building rallies. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Worse, they failed to move any runner over from second. What has happened to the bunt. Aside from Rosario’s shift-beating bunt against the Tigers, I can’t think of a Twin bunting all year. So much can happen.
Another annoying trend: the Angel hitters beat the Twins shift four times, and it didn’t stop a single hit. In fact, Mike Trout got two hits driving ground balls through the shift. If I were a pitcher and saw Albert Pujols drive in a run by hitting a weak ground ball to the second baseman’s vacated position I would not be happy.
We’ll see if the Twins make adjustments and execute a little better the rest of this important series. On the other hand, Cleveland lost to the White Sox; so the Twins’ losses aren’t hurting them in the standings.

Twins Manager

The Minnesota Twins began their offseason by hiring Rocco Baldelli from the Tampa Bay Rays to be their new manager, replacing Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, 2017’s AL Manager of the Year. The Twins’ dismal season was not Molitor’s fault, and no one found particular fault with anything he did, except not winning more games, which is really up to the players. We should also note that the Twins finished second in their division, ahead of Detroit, Kansas City and Chicago – none of which fired its manager. The Twins will offer Molitor another job and hope he remains in their system, another sign that he didn’t really mess up.
Nevertheless, I am totally on board with the decision, if for no other reason than it gives me, and all Twins fans, something new to look forward to. I’m not aware of any hot rookies on the way, and no one expects the Twins to deviate from their policy of not entering the sweepstakes for big-name free agents. As to the core of remaining players, none appear to be on a trajectory toward major improvement. In short, if the Twins began 2019 with the same-old, same-old, there would have been a major excitement deficiency, not to mention a fall-off in ticket buyers. The easiest way to inject interest is to introduce a new manager, who may have a new way of doing things or connecting with his players, even if turns out he is just putting lipstick on a pig.
Of course, the easiest way for the Twins to regain relevance is to resurrect the careers of their potential superstars, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. You could be fairly sure it wasn’t going to happen with Molitor. Maybe Baldelli can strike a chord and offer them a fresh start. As I see it, their problems are not physical: Sano has lacked maturity and Buxton confidence. If a new manager cannot make a difference, it will be time for the Twins to move on. The simple possibility that he will make a difference is enough for me to look forward to the season ahead.

Serena’s Meltdown

Even after the NFL’s opening weekend and Novak Djokovic’s dominating performance in the men’s final, the sports world wants to talk about Serena Williams, perhaps because the sports world is equally divided on the subject. I won’t repeat the particulars, so well known by now, but I will emphasize my view that the assessed penalties in no way contributed to her loss to Naomi Osaka. The point penalty was given at the start of Osaka’s service game – hardly a pivotal moment – which Osaka handily then won at love. The more important game penalty was also given on Osaka’s service game, which she was likely, but not certainly, to have won, based on the success she had serving during the match. In the immediately following game, down 5-3, Serena played her best tennis, holding serve at love. It appeared that she would take this fighting spirit, plus her Grand Slam experience, and break Osaka at 5-4, but she couldn’t. With all the distractions, and the crowd rooting against her, Osaka hit two service winners and closed out the set and the match.
There’s no question that Serena would not have been as upset if she had been winning. Her meltdown was undoubtedly amplified by her frustration at losing to a 20-year-old player she thought she should beat. It was losing her serve at 3-1 that made her internalize the injustice she felt for the first code violation. Had she won that game I doubt any of this would have happened. But the biggest contributor to Serena’s outburst, in my view, was her sense of entitlement. She has been so glorified, put on the cover of Vogue, anointed as the greatest ever, marveled over for her motherhood, that her attitude was, “how you can do this to me? I am Serena Williams!” At 36, most athletes are more mature and have gone past “the-world-is-against-me.”
It is fair to quibble with the umpire’s assessing a code violation for coaching from the stands if he didn’t informally caution Serena first – although there’s no reason to think she would have responded any better to such a warning. The penalty for smashing her racquet was automatic and necessary. Otherwise, are we – and our young tennis players – to think this is acceptable behavior on the tennis court? At this point, Serena has to rein her emotions in, say this is the finals of the U.S.Open and I’m not going to be distracted. Instead, she got ugly, really ugly. Even if she were in the right, which she wasn’t, it was not her place to demand an apology from the referee and berate him. Worse, she brought her infant daughter into the discussion and accused the referee of sexism (which we subsequently learned was baseless, based upon his actions toward male players). Even after the match, when she could have reflected on the outrageousness of her behavior, she posited herself as a champion for women.
Granted, I have never been a fan of Serena’s and watch women’s tennis, if at all, mainly in the hope that someone less arrogant and bullying will beat her. But even so, I was shocked by the things she said to the chair umpire, who was just doing his job, however imperfectly. Who is she to say, “You will never do one of my matches again”? Can you think of another sport where the athlete could or would treat an official this way? And Serena, I fear, based on the media reaction I’ve seen, will get away with it.

On Watching Soccer

The month-long drama of the World Cup – and, indeed, it is drama! – is giving me an appreciation of international soccer (“football,” to the rest of the world) and one very significant way it differs from American sports, or at least the way Americans watch sports. The big difference: games are often decided by something other than which team plays best, and everyone accepts that. When Portugal lost to Uruguay, Cristiano Ronaldo calmly said, in his post-game news conference something to the effect of, “I thought we were the better team today, but they scored more goals, and that’s football.”
In the games I’ve watched, relatively few goals have been scored by players passing the ball to each other until someone shoots it in the net. First, there have been a record number of “own goals,” where a player inadvertently causes the ball to go into his own net. Next, an inordinate number of goals come from penalty kicks, which more often than not result from an insignificant hand ball or foul – “insignificant” in that the play would not otherwise have resulted in a score, or even a scoring chance. Third, a good number of goals come off free kicks and corner kicks, which again involve plays that otherwise would not have produced a score. Hitting a ball off an opponent so that it goes across the end line is a whole lot easier than hitting it through the defense and past a goalie.
You can say that the better team is more likely to get more corner kicks, free kicks and penalty chances, and that is true and the law of averages would play out in a game that ended up, say, with a 5-3 score. But the last four World Cup matches have been 0-0 at the half, and one goal is often all that is needed for a victory.
In past World Cups there was also the issue of human fallibility in the form of the referee, who might or might not see a hand ball, who might or might not think a challenge in the box warranted a penalty kick, and soccer fans all recognized that this was an integral part of the game. Now the World Cup has added instant replay, or VAR (Video Assistant Referee), which all but eliminates the prospect of egregious blunders. On the other hand, it has increased the chances of calling fouls that would have escaped the naked eye, much like instant replay in baseball that reveals a base runner momentarily losing contact with a base.
In baseball, basketball and football, one team can exert its superiority (for that day) over the course of a game; it is unlikely that one fluke play will determine the outcome. If it does, the American fan will feel aggrieved and complain bitterly that he was robbed. In soccer, the fan will shrug and say, “that’s football.”
I could point to any number of games to support my thesis, but I’ll just mention the most recent game I watched, England v. Colombia. England was methodical, Colombia flashy, but the course of play mattered little. England’s one goal combined three of the factors mentioned above: a corner kick, a referee’s interpretation and a penalty kick. The 1-0 score held until the last few seconds of stoppage time, when Colombia scored off a corner kick. The game was then decided by yet another matter of chance more than skill: a penalty kick shoot-out. I say “chance,” because a goalie’s ability to thwart a penalty is solely a result of his guessing where the shooter will aim.
Or I could point to today’s other game, in which Sweden defeated Switzerland, 1-0, when a Swedish player’s shot deflected off a Swiss leg into the goal, despite Switzerland’s controlling play for more than 60% of the game. There have been some great goals resulting from wonderful team play, but just as often there has been luck. Only it’s not considered luck. It’s considered football.
I watched a half-dozen more games without any new revelation or any reason to adjust my analysis. Take only the example of today’s final, won 4-2 by France over Croatia: France’s first goal came off a set piece set up by what the commentators called a dive just outside the penalty area and it went in, an own goal, off a Croatian head. France’s second goal was a penalty kick, resulting from an accidental hand ball. Croatia controlled a majority of the play and, again in the commentator’s words, played better. France’s play, he thought, was disappointing; but they scored four goals – a rarity in the tournament – and therefore won. What a sport!

Twins Preview

At ten games into the season, it’s a fool’s game to make a prediction for how the year will unfold. One of the fun things about a baseball season is seeing a closer emerge from bullpen obscurity or a rookie – a la Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge – lead the league in home runs. All you go on is unwarranted projections from last year’s team; and of course how many games a team wins also depends on the quality of the opposition, a factor I have no good way of judging. Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism as I look at the Twins’ chances in 2018.
Pitching: This is the biggest upgrade and biggest cause of hope. Getting Jake Odorizzi was the steal of the winter, and adding Lance Lynn gives the Twins a legitimate five-man rotation once Ervin Santana comes back from his finger injury. Of course, I am also assuming/hoping that the problematic Kyle Gibson finally turns the corner and that phenom Jose Berrios matures into a lights-out pitcher for more than five innings. The relief corps is always a work-in-progress, as the manager does situational testing. Last year at this time who had even heard of Trevor Hildenberger, yet he became one of the Twins’ most dependable arms. So far this year, however, he hasn’t had the same success. Most observers’ principal concern is having 41-year-old Fernando Rodney as the closer, but Addison Reed is a more than competent backup if Rodney falters. There are also a half-dozen pitchers-in-waiting in the minor league system should any of the current crop of starters and relievers falter or get injured. In sum, there is no ace, but outside of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, how many real aces are out there?, and the Twins have pitching that is good enough to keep them in most games.
Hitting: This will make or break the Twins’ year. Specifically, Miguel Sano could carry the team with his power, or he could be a strikeout machine. Byron Buxton could bedevil the opposition with his speed, or he could continue to flail helplessly at curve balls. Jorge Polanco was a .200 hitter for half the season, a .300 hitter the other half: which will it be? Logan Morrison hit 38 homers last year but can’t make contact this spring: is it a slump or was last year an aberration? Max Kepler suddently became overmatched against lefthanded pitching. Still young and learning, can he turn that around? Perhaps the most overlooked question mark is Eddie Rosario, a streak hitter who Molitor has been batting third and fourth this year without much result. When he’s hot he can hit anybody, but if he fails it will be almost as big a hole in the lineup as Sano. Joe Mauer, one assumes, will continue hitting as he always does, with not much power, although being in the last year of his huge contract might give him a little extra motivation. There’s no Jose Altuve in the lineup, someone you can always count on to get a hit; but there is plenty of potential firepower if even two-thirds of the question marks are answered positively.
Defense: It’s fun to talk about the Twins in the field, and this may be the component that ensures an over-.500 record. Buxton is recognized as the game’s best defender, which also helps the four fielders around him. Brian Dozier won a Gold Glove at 2nd, Mauer is steady, if not flashy, at first, and Sano’s arm at 3d is a marvel and his dexterity surprising. Jason Castro was signed for his defensive skills, framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt; and Rosario has led the league in outfield assists. The shortstops and other outfielders are only average, but there are no clunkers in the lot.
Manager: For his first two years I thought Paul Molitor didn’t bring enough fire to the table, and I regret his reluctance to use bunts, hit-and-runs, squeeze plays – any of the tricks of the manager’s trade – but his results, especially last year’s, speak for themselves. The players seem to respect him, which is something. In all, I’d rate him a neutral force on the season’s outcome.
Conclusion: I don’t know if the Twins have improved enough to overtake the Indians or the Astros, and I always worry about the chokehold the Yankees have on every Twins team; but the playoffs should be well within their grasp. It should be a fun summer.

Minnesota Sports

My years in Minnesota we reveled in being a mid-market, or even small-market, team, playing over our heads with unheralded athletes. The big free-agent signings were for NY, LA and less thrifty owners. If we did overpay, it was for a local hero, a Kevin Garnett we signed out of high school, a Joe Mauer whom we drafted out of St. Paul. So when the Timberwolves traded with Chicago for Jimmy Butler, an all-star in his prime, it sent shock waves through the Twin Cities psyche. “You mean, we’re actually trying to win something this year?,” as opposed to building something for the future, was the common reaction. If, in fact, Butler hadn’t gotten hurt, there was a chance the move could have worked. As it is, the Wolves are scraping to make the playoffs, where it is doubtful they will win one game; but the season has been more interesting and fun than usual. (The flip side is that the players traded for Butler are doing quite well for the Bulls, and it is anyone’s guess which team will be the ultimate profiter.)
The Vikings, of course, did the Wolves one better. By giving Kirk Cousins the richest(?) guaranteed contract ever, they have set the Super Bowl, if not the NFL title, as their only acceptable goal. Given that the NFC title game this year was fought between two backup quarterbacks, it will be intriguing to see where all the teams with new leaders end up next season.
No one, of course, expected the Twins to do much in the offseason. First, they have a reputation, long-earned, for cautious spending. Second, they did quite well, unexpectedly so, with their young squad last year, and it was reasonable to hope that a year’s growth would bring those prospects even further along. But the pitching was an issue. Months went by and not much happened. A few relievers were signed: Zach Duke and Addison Reed. Then a closer, Fernando Rodney, although in his 40s and having played for eight other teams it’s hard to believe he was much in demand. Then, out of the blue, the Twins signed Jake Odorizzi, a more than competent starter from Tampa Bay. Next, Logan Morrison, as the Rays continued their fire sale. The deal was only for one year, but there weren’t many 38-home run hitters available. And last, they found another quality starter, Lance Lynn. In the space of a few weeks, the Twins went from a “can-they-do-it-again” team to a favorite to make the playoffs.
The expectations of Minnesota sports fans have ratcheted up several notches. Now we will see if the big bucks deliver.

Minnesota Sports

Notwithstanding the football Gophers’ upset win over Washington State in the relatively meaningless Holiday Bowl, this has been a dreadful year for a Minnesota sports fan. I don’t know why, or if this is at all peculiar to Minnesota, but pessimism has been my normal state since I moved there, and it has carried over to my non-resident fandom. Maybe it’s because the Vikings never won the Super Bowl, because Gary Anderson missed the kick, because Brett Favre’s pass was intercepted, because the Twins always fall to the Yankees, because the Gophers can’t compete with the Ohio States of the Big Ten or because the Timberwolves are the Timberwolves, I don’t know. Every community has its share of heartbreaks – think of Buffalo’s four Super Bowl losses, the Cubs’ hundred years without a championship, or Cleveland’s general misery before 2016 – and for every winner there are dozens of losers; so my view may be more the norm than I admit. But the fact remains that I expect every comeback to fall short and every draft choice to be a disappointment.
The Twins, as noted previously, set a team record for futility this summer. The only cause of optimism is the fact they have a new General Manager, although that fix usually takes several years to produce results. Their young superstars-to-be, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, had better start living up to their hype or the future will be bleak. The Vikings started the fall miraculously, going 5-0 with, first, a backup quarterback then a dominant defense. They gave away a game to the Lions and, seemingly, their confidence and their season unraveled from there, at first slowly and now precipitously. The T-Wolves excited their fan base with the prospect of a new, proven coach guiding three 21-year-old athletic phenoms. Things might be rough at first, but surely this bunch would start to deliver on its promise. Instead, they have held big leads in almost every game only to fall short at the end; and as we know, it is only the last five minutes of an NBA game that really matters. I am less invested in the U of M’s football team, but they, too, were a tease: holding second-half leads over the likes of Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin and finishing with a respectable 9-4 record, but without a “signature” win. There is an NHL team currently on a winning streak, but I can’t follow every sport and, except for three years reporting at Harvard, hockey has never interested me.
Perhaps I should file for divorce from Minnesota, now that I no longer live there. If Santa Barbara had a team, maybe I would, but I doubt I will ever identify with Los Angeles – the New York City of the West Coast. The Minnesota scene is still manageable, and I enjoy the StarTribune sports section each morning, so I expect I will stick. I just wish there were more fellow fans out here to commiserate with.

Cubs 8 – Indians 7

The two most exciting words in sports are “Game Seven,” and last night’s World Series win by the Chicago Cubs lived up to that reputation and all the hype surrounding the Cubbies’ first championship in 108 years. But in terms of baseball esthetics, it wasn’t a “great” game. It was marred by sloppy defense, bad umpiring, questionable managing and tired pitching. The game also lacked drama for its entire midsection, as Chicago posted leads of 5-1 and 6-2 that seemed insurmountable. And ultimately, you’d like a Game 7 to come down to a face-off between one team’s best pitcher and the other’s best clutch hitter (I still think of 1962 when the Giants’ last two hitters against the Yankees were Willie Mays – hit – and Willie McCovey – line drive to second). Last night, the little-known and seldom-used Mike Montgomery was pitching to the 25th man on the Cleveland roster, Michael Martinez, who hit a dribbler to third. Adding to the anticlimax, Rajai Davis was trying to steal second on the pitch which, if Martinez had not swung, would have either produced a more dramatic ending or given the Indians a runner in scoring position. As it was, the only drama came from Kris Bryant’s slipping on the wet field as he threw to first, an appropriate p.s. to the sloppy play.
By sloppy play I’d point first to Javier Baez’s two errors at second for the Cubs and Davis’s allowing two Cub runs by failing to get set and make good throws on two fly balls to center. Addison Russell flubbed a ball at short and two Indians scored on a wild pitch that bounced off the catcher’s mask, one batter after they had advanced on the catcher’s throwing error.
The bad umpiring was epitomized by the out call at second when Baez obviously failed to catch the ball. This was reversed by instant replay (which saves us from the famous World Series gaffes of yesteryear but breaks the natural rhythm of the game. It’s also a bit jarring to see umpire John Hirshbeck raise his right arm so authoritatively after receiving word from New York that he blew the call), but there was nothing to do about the strike-three and ball-four calls that Sam Holbrook got wrong behind the plate. Both teams benefitted from the missed calls – which were not even borderline pitches, according to the FoxTrax box – although Bryant’s walk on a great 3-2 pitch by Andrew Miller in the 5th led directly to a run when he scored on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out single that followed.
Joe Maddon and Terry Francona had been hailed as co-geniuses through six games because of their adroit lineup changes and unorthodox use of their pitchers, but neither came out unscathed from Game 7. Maddon’s decision to remove starter Kyle Hendricks in the 5th was roundly second-guessed by every commentator – both at the time because he had been so effective and his only apparent sin was giving up his first walk of the night, and afterward because of the comparative ineffectiveness of everyone that followed. The second consensus flaw in Maddon’s strategy was his overuse of closer Aroldis Chapman, who did not need to have been used at all in Game 6 and because of overuse in Games 5, 6 and 7 was nowhere as overpowering as usual, giving up a booming double to Brandon Guyer and the game-tying home run to Davis. He brought in Jon Lester in mid-inning, despite his promise not to, and two runs resulted. The only Cubs pitcher not charged with a run was the aforesaid Montgomery, who recorded the first save of his career with two pitches to the aforesaid Martinez.
Francona fared no better. Undoubtedly because of prior usage, three of his four aces gave up multiple runs. I was sure before the game that Corey Kluber would not be asked to pitch beyond the 4th, regardless of his success, because he had pitched so much already – and the Cubs had seen him so much. Despite a relative lack of success – having given up three runs and struck out nobody, as opposed to eight strikeouts in three innings in his first Series start – Francona let Kluber start the 5th and the result was a homer by Baez, otherwise the worst Chicago hitter in the Series. The next home run was even more unexpected, coming off the bat of 39-year-old David Ross, in the game merely to catch Lester, and it came off Andrew Miller, also worn down, or exposed, by heavy use. It’s hard to second-guess Francona’s use of Bryan Shaw, who gave up the two 10th-inning runs, although the 17-minute rain delay in between his innings could have disrupted him and prompted a manager to bring in a fresh arm – if he had someone as good. Where Francona’s strategy more clearly backfired was his decision to give Anthony Rizzo an intentional walk: Rizzo ultimately scored the winning run.
So, if you compare 2016 with 1960, where the game goes back-and-forth and ends with a home run; or 1991, where Jack Morris wins a 1-0 game in ten innings (and pitches 23 innings with three runs allowed overall), this is not one of the all-time great Game Sevens. Still, it was pretty good and, when Rajai Davis took Chapman deep in the 8th to tie a seemingly lost game, it had all the excitement you could want.

The Vikings 2016

Since the Vikings games are so rarely broadcast on the West Coast, I watched with particular interest (via DVR) their surprising 17-14 win over the Packers in their home opener. I say “surprising” because I am still enough of a Minnesotan that I expect the worst from any tense situation, and having the ball in Aaron Rodgers’s hands with time left and only a 3-point lead is tense.
My first takeaway is how impressed I was with Sam Bradford. Forget that he had only been on the team two weeks and that, with or without Adrian Peterson, he had no running game to use. He made passes that I haven’t seen a Viking quarterback make in years. Not the dinks of Daunte Culpepper, not the “game management” of Teddy Bridgewater, these were legitimate 20-yard throws into the smallest of windows. On both his touchdown passes – first to Kyle Rudolph, then to Stefon Diggs – the receivers were covered but his throws were perfect.
My second reaction, however, was “more of the same”: namely, the inferiority of the offensive line. Again, I don’t know how many years it has been since I’ve seen a Viking quarterback able to stand in the pocket and pick out a receiver without fearing for his life, the way Tom Brady and Peyton Manning routinely do. This may be why the Viking offense has relied so heavily on check-down passes. Bradford, as I saw it, never had the luxury of looking for a secondary receiver and more often than not had a Packer in his face as he threw. The TV announcer singled out Brandon Fusco as being particulary unable to slow down his man, and replays show Matt Kalil flailing as his rusher raced by him. The two off-season additions to the line were considered “average” in assessments I had read, and there doesn’t seem to have been any upgrade from the draft. It’s hard to see how the Vikings will be able to “improve” their offensive line as the season progresses, which will make it a challenge for Bradford to remain healthy (he did suffer one injury already, to his non-throwing hand) and as charged up as he must have been for his debut.
Third, the Viking secondary must be a strength, if not the main strength of this squad. Just the fact they have held two NFL opponents to 16 and 14 points is remarkable. More than that, you couldn’t help notice how much trouble Rodgers had in finding someone to throw to. Several times he counted to five and just threw the ball out of bounds. When he was sacked – and it happened four times – he always had time to throw first but couldn’t pull the trigger. The Packers’ main offensive weapon was the defensive interference penalty – two by the oldest Viking defender, three by the youngest. You have to think that coaching, practice and experience can eliminate much of this problem. Trae Waynes, who isn’t even a regular starter, was always right with his man; he just made unnecessary grabs at the receiver’s jersey. And Green Bay’s last touchdown came on a long scramble by Rodgers – when he couldn’t find anyone to throw to.
In sum, there is considerable hope for the season. The Vikings have a major weakness – bad offensive line and weak running attack – but there don’t seem to be any world-beaters in the (injury-prone) NFL this year. Their defense should keep them in most games, and if Bradford stays healthy they have a quarterback who can make deep throws and good decisions. Diggs, Rudolph and Adam Thielen provide an above-average receiving corps, with competent backups. Cordarelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels are good kickoff and punt returners, and Blair Walsh better be good. I’m sorry I won’t get to see more of their games.

Typical Twins

The Twins offense had an unusually good night against the Tampa Bay Rays last night: Nunez had two hits, two stolen bases and two runs, although his ground-ball double play with the bases loaded in the fifth was the decisive losing moment. Joe Mauer had two singles with men in scoring position, although only one scored and the game was out of reach by then. Brian Dozier had two hits – best of all a rare double to rightfield, albeit on a weak swing. And even Byron Buxton had a two-hit game and showed off his speed on the bases. Max Kepler made two plays in right that Sano would not have. The Twins and Rays both had 11 hits. Four of the Rays’ hits, though, were home runs.

On the negative side, Trevor Plouffe batted cleanup and was a black hole, where all rallies went to die. He swung Dozier-like, pulling everything and looking frustrated. Worse, he’s hitting .245, 100 points below Danny Valencia, a Twin discard who is alive in Oakland. I hope it has become as clear to the Minnesota front office as it is to me that Sano has to be the Twins third baseman of the future – with a possible shift to first when Mauer is gone. This was to be the year that Plouffe and Dozier reached their primes and carried the team. Both have flopped, and a new direction is required.