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 Today

An update after the Twins disappointingly split a four-game series with the lowly Detroit Tigers:
Both losses, by identical 5-3 scores, were the result of Trevor Hildenberger‘s giving up two runs in the inning he pitched. Instead of the lock-down reliever he was in the season’s first month – the dependable bridge to Taylor Rogers and Blake Parker – he has become the bullpen’s biggest liability, with an ERA over 6.00. It hurts me personally to see a player I’m so invested in fail so consistently, but I don’t know how manager Baldelli will be able to trust him again. Conversely, relievers Magill, Morin and Duffey were solid. Poor Tyler Duffey, who has been up and down to the minors like a yo-yo, struck out all three batters he faced in the 9th and was promptly returned to Rochester. He’s had success before but never been able to sustain it. The announcers, however, were surprised to see his fastball timed at 96, so maybe there is still a future for him. Especially if Hildenberger can’t recover.
Byron Buxton continues to surprise me by continuing to hit occasionally. He is still easy to strike out with low, outside sliders, but he is getting enough pitches over the plate and when he does he hits them hard, leading the league in doubles. If he goes 1 for 4, he will be a major upgrade over his past performance.
No one, however, hits the ball as consistently hard as C.J. Cron. He can’t hit a high fastball and will never hit for average, but is a genuine threat every at bat. Jonathan Schoop also has power for a number eight hitter, giving the Twins power up and down the lineup. He and Cron will both have plenty of 0-for-4 days in between breakout games when they power a win.
Marwin Gonzalez has emerged from the black hole I placed him in for the first month. I still consider him the Twin I least want to see at bat with the bases loaded and two outs, but he has risen above the Mendoza line and shown his value as a potential utility player.
Whether he will be relegated to that role depends upon the return of Miguel Sano to third base. So far, the results of his rehabilitation games in the minor leagues are discouraging: he has struck out three times for every hit, and nothing kills an attack like having a cleanup hitter striking out half the time. I trust that the Twins management sees this and is wise enough to leave him off the roster until he proves that his presence would be an upgrade over Gonzalez at third.
The Twins are clicking, but far from on all cylinders. Rosario and Kepler have experienced sustained slumps, while Adrianza and Cave have yet to show that they merit permanent roster spots.
This is the beauty of baseball, though. Every player can be analyzed every day; the season is long and everyone slumps. Nelson Cruz seemed to be the most consistent hitter on the Twins, until all of a sudden he became the weak link. You figure that the best team in the league will lose 62 games or more; so you can’t expect perfection every day.

Twins Win

The Twins’ first win at Yankee Stadium in three years is worth remarking, as is their overall record one-fifth through the season, the best in the Major Leagues. Every Minnesota fan has a deep reservoir of pessimism, but there are plenty of hopeful signs for the remainder of the 2019 season.
First is the fact that no one is playing over potential. Yes, Eddie Rosario’s league lead in home runs will not last, but neither should his .222 batting average. Marwin Gonzalez, whom I had all but given up on, is starting to look like a solid contributor and will raise his average above .200. The other free agents – Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop – have all been solid additions, but nothing terribly unexpected. Mitch Garver is rounding into the franchise catcher of the future, and Jorge Polanco has been the hitting machine I always thought he was. The offense has been awesome, but there is still room for improvement. Byron Buxton still refuses to learn how to bunt, a weapon that would make him less of a potential black hole at the bottom of the lineup. And Max Kepler could cut down on the long stretches between his hot streaks.
The pitching has been the bigger surprise, although I’ve been higher on Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson than many other observers. Conversely, I wasn’t convinced that Jose Berrios was the ace others deemed him. Martin Perez was new to me, and if his most recent efforts are at all indicative he will give the Twins four quality starters. I’ll wait until today’s game with New York, if it’s played, to judge Michael Pineda; but again, he has potential to round out a top-flight rotation.
Everyone says the Twins’ bullpen is the weak link, but Taylor Rogers has been lights-out for a year now, and Blake Parker, Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May and Ryan Harper have all had bright moments, giving the Twins about as good a bullpen as anyone else. Yes, they could use two more good arms, but that may not be necessary if the offense keeps building four-run leads. Matt Morin looked good in his debut, but we’ll need more time to know for sure. I’m not hopeful about prospects in the minor leagues, and Fernando Romero has not impressed, but the expectation is that a free agent or two will be added mid-summer if the team remains in contention.
The one worry is injuries. Every team suffers them, and so far the Twins have suffered less than their competitors. Only Willians Astudillo has been a significant loss to the IL. If one of the starters, or Rogers or Cruz, gets hurt it will test the suspect depth. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy.

Hope Springs Eternal

One game does not a season make, any more than spring training should be used to judge a team’s prospects. That said, the Twins’Opening Day 2-0 win over Cleveland gave me a lot to be hopeful about for the 2019 season. Six things in particular.

1. Jose Berrios pitched like the ace the Twins claim he is. The second half of last year’s season, plus some of his spring training efforts worried me that he would only be good, not great, but going head-to-head with Corey Kluber and tossing almost eight innings of two-hit ball was exciting. If he can become a true ace, it will only raise the level of the other starters around him.

2. Byron Buxton’s ringing double. Buxton led the team in hitting in spring training, but we’ve seen that before, only to have him flame out when the real games began. Not only did he break up Kluber’s no-hitter with the Twins’ hardest hit of the day, he seemed able to lay off the outside breaking balls he has routinely flailed at in the past. The Strib said if Buxton hits .240 he will be a real asset; I’m hoping more for .260.

3. The free agents all contributed. Outside of Buxton’s double, the only Twins hits were by their big-ticket free agent acquisitions, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez, but they all came in the 7th inning, producing the day’s only runs. (Jonathan Schoop, the fourth free-agent starter, was HBP in the same inning, although nothing came of it.) Two of the hits were of the broken-bat variety, but still… Last year’s disappointing season was at least partially attributable to the failings of that year’s free agents: Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and others.

4. Taylor Rogers. The Twins’ bullpen is an unknown, unproven quantity, but Rogers was impeccable the last half of 2018, and he was stellar closing out the Indians: 4-up, 4-down, 3 Ks. Whether he becomes the Twins’ closer – or whether they even anoint a closer – if he can stay solid it will give everyone more confidence.

5. Rocco Baldelli. All he did, I suppose, was pull Berrios for Rogers at exactly the right time, but it gives everyone on the Twins a fresh start to have a new, young manager in place.

6. The core four. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Jason Castro are the four holdovers from last year who form the base to which the free agents have been added. They did next-to-nothing against Kluber, but there is every expectation they will break out in games to come. Rosario and Kepler, especially, just received long-term contracts and are batting lead-off and clean-up in Baldelli’s order. They are at the age where they can no longer be rated on their potential; this is the year they need to produce.

7. Cleveland just did not look particularly intimidating. The Twins won’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox or Astros, but all they need do is beat out the Indians and they’re in the playoffs, where anything can happen.

Of course, Opening Day gave us no hint of the Twins’ bench strength or the remainder of their pitching staff; so from here on it’s speculation. Tyler Austin and Jake Cave are legitimate long-ball threats; while Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garber are both reliable. Willans Astudillo is simply exciting. Unfortunately, one or two will be optioned or released if and when Miguel Sano earns back a starting job and Baldelli needs a 12th pitcher. Simply put: if Sano can come back and play to his potential, the Twins should win their division.

I am mildly confident about the starting rotation of Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda. I’ve never seen Martin Perez, but reports from spring training were encouraging, and if he falters there are prospects in the minors who could blossom. One fun part of every baseball season is the success of some rookie you never heard of or counted on. If the Twins are lucky, they won’t need one this year.

Birds of Australia

I didn’t go to Australia to go birding – tennis, beach resort, Sydney sights and hiking were on the agenda – but I did take my binox and had some good moments. On Lord Howe Island I counted 24 of the species pictured in that island’s field guide, missing only four. Most were found feeding in the extensive grass fields in the island’s midlands, so it was just a matter of checking them off. A boat ride to Ball’s Pyramid added a few seabirds to the list, although I doubt I could’ve identified any on my own.
In the Blue Mountains I cancelled my bird guide, partly for logistical reasons but partly because after a morning hike with a naturalist I was discouraged about finding many birds in the rain-forest habitat. Instead, the next morning I went out on my own before breakfast, and in the park across from our hotel saw my first Laughing Kookaburra sitting calmly on a tree branch. Crimson Rosellas were conspicuous by their call as well as their bright red plumage, and I saw a pair of King-Parrots, which I’d briefly seen with our guide the day before. Walking down the road I saw a Crested Pigeon, a very obvious identification, sitting atop a TV antenna. Then, darting in and out of a dense bush, I spotted a Satin Bowerbird, a male along with an equally identifiable female. These weren’t a lot of birds, but being able to make the identification on my own made them memorable and thrilling. As we neared the end of our morning hike, we stopped at a lookout over one of the many falls at Katoomba. I spotted a White-throated Treecreeper working its way along a branch; then a Rose Robin with a striking pink breast and white forehead patch perched nearby.
There were, of course, the common birds that we saw in the cities: White Ibis, Silver Gull, Australian Magpie, Common Myna. It all goes to prove that I don’t need a lot of birds to keep me happy. I just like to know what it is I’m seeing.

Sands Beach Birds

As often as I go to Sands Beach at UCSB for Western Snowy Plover docent duty, I still get surprises. This Thanksgiving Matt Hall joined me for my 11-1 shift and we had a memorable outing. For one thing, the wind was fierce, making a 73-degree day bone-chillingly cold. Nothing could be seen floating, but flocks of shorebirds, including the Snowies, took off and swerved in unison over the heavy waves. A Killdeer greeted our arrival on the beach, and four Marbled Godwits were poking in the sand near the docent station. I can’t remember seeing so many Snowy Plovers nestling in the sand: the blackboard said that 225 had been counted recently. Of course, Black-bellied Plovers were massively abundant, but there were fewer Semipalmated Plovers than I expected. There was a Western Grebe, quite dead, sprawled on the sand; four Turkey Vultures took turns approaching their Thanksgiving meal.
While watching the Snowies, we saw one, then two, stockier, browner birds picking at the wrack: Dunlins. One smaller sandpiper with light legs wandered by, probably a Least Sandpiper. Vees of Brown Pelicans soared in the wind, and a lone Whimbrel joined other birds at the water’s edge. The day’s highlight was a majestic Peregrine Falcon that landed on a log in the protected area of the Slough and sat there as we approached the edge of the fenced-off area. Its black hood set off the bright yellow above the upper beak and on the powerful talons. It showed off its darting flight before re-alighting on the log, then eventually took off inland, scattering songbirds in front of it.
We headed down to Coal Oil Point where the exposed rocks held a mass of birds, mostly Western Gulls, but also a bunch of Willets and more Black-bellied Plovers. One red-billed Heermann’s Gull settled in, and four Royal Terns grandly faced into the wind, in front of eight diminutive, by comparison, Forster’s Terns. As we headed back, we saw a single, larger gull standing at water’s edge: a Glaucous-winged Gull, a treat.
As we drove out, something on the dirt road attracted both a Black Phoebe and a Say’s Phoebe, along with White-crowned Sparrows and a California Towhee. And Devereux Slough, which had been bone dry a week ago, had water from Wednesday night’s rain and ducks had descended – from where? – mostly Mallards but also American Wigeon, Coot, six Redheads and a single female Ring-necked Duck. One Domestic Mallard, slightly larger and white-fronted, stood out among the others. Double-crested Cormorants and Black-necked Stilts, regular Slough denizens, rounded out the company.
Back home on Lilac Drive I was happy to find Townsend’s and Orange-crowned Warblers mixing in with the Yellow-Rumps and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Everyone seems to be pointing to the Christmas Bird Counts starting in three weeks.

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.

All-Star Game ’18

Based on the 8-6 final score and the AL win, you’d think I enjoyed this year’s All-Star Game. It was, however, a total bore. Almost all the scoring came on solo home runs, which made me realize that is one of the least interesting plays in baseball – certainly the least interesting run-producing play. There is no anticipation, no drama, no involvement by the other 16 players. How much more exciting it is when there are runners on first and third and one out. Anything can happen, any outcome is possible, every fielder has to be on their toes. Add to that the on-field interviews, which reminded the viewer that this was not a real game, just an exhibition. Then – and this has been an issue for decades – the implicit need to get everyone in the game means that when the game is on the line, it’s being decided not by the big names, but by the guy who’s there because the San Diego Padres have to be represented.

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.
Postscript:
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!