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.
- Francisco Liriano was awful despite striking out seven hitters in four innings
As Fangraphs notes, Francisco Liriano had statistically one of the strangest outings of the year against the Red Sox Monday afternoon. He struck out seven batters in four innings, didn’t walk anyone, and still surrendered five runs on eleven hits. While some of these balls were hit hard, and Frankie was struggling a bit with command of his fastball, he did get extremely unlucky in that pretty much everything that could have fallen for a hit actually did (Boston’s BABIP was .733, which is very unusual in combination with such a high strikeout rate). He was also unlucky that Brian Buscher, who has the range of a telephone pole, started at third in place of Joe Crede (who is day-to-day after being hit on the hand with a pitch on Sunday). Almost everything hit to third ended up in the outfield, and unfortunately it led to a short start for Liriano.
Of course, Frankie certainly deserves his share of the blame for Monday’s meltdown, too. His struggles with his command and his tendency to overthrow when he gets himself in trouble have been well-documented. His numbers certainly suggest that he’s having trouble finding the strike zone, with a mediocre 1.88 K/BB ratio and an ugly 4.1 BB/9 rate. The Twins have been patient with Frankie (and really all of the struggling starters) so far, but they can’t afford to do so much longer and expect to contend for a division title. Anthony Swarzak pitched effectively enough against Milwaukee on Saturday, only striking out three and walking two but shutting out the Brewers for seven innings. Obviously Swarzak will need more than one start to prove he can pitch effectively in the major leagues (his next start against Boston will be most telling), and Glen Perkins probably has the most vulnerable spot in the rotation. Still, it isn’t unreasonable to think that a demotion to the bullpen is in Frankie’s future if he fails to show any significant improvement.
- Nick Blackburn, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent
Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey have proven to be the most consistently effective starters thus far. Blackburn had one of his best starts of the season against the Red Sox last night, surrendering only one earned run on eight hits and recording a career-high seven strikeouts. His 3.55 ERA leads the team, and although he’s given up a lot of hits this year, most of them have been relatively harmless singles. Blackburn has also been stingy about issuing free passes (only 19 in 63.1 IP) and home runs (only 4), which is obviously very important for a contact pitcher. His 4.12 FIP is very good for a sinkerballer (the league average is 4.50), especially since his .298 BABIP is only a little better than league-average.
And after I posted this, I discovered that Twinkie Town has a much better assessment of our default ace.
Kevin Slowey got off to a bit of a rough start, surrendering twenty-two hits and posting a 7.94 ERA in his first two starts, but he’s settled down as well and has become one of the best starters in the rotation. Both his command and control have been impeccable, posting a league-best 9.75 K/BB ratio and 0.65 BB/9 rate. While he tends to be an extreme fly ball pitcher, Slowey has been pretty good at keeping the ball in the park, giving up the gopher ball at a rate of about 1.3 per nine innings. Better yet, most of these home runs have come with the bases empty and thus keeping the damage to a minimum.
Is the Joe Crede signing the best thing Bill Smith has done so far as GM? Well, considering that his other moves include the Santana trade, the Delmon Young trade (which is looking worse by the day), signing the likes of R.A. Dickey and Luis Ayala to upgrade the bullpen, and passing on Orlando Hudson in favor of Nick Punto, then it probably is.
Speaking of decisions that may come back to haunt them, the Twins have likely blown their chance to re-sign Mauer at a more reasonable rate. Which means they probably won’t re-sign him at all. I guess that’s good news for Red Sox fans.
- Twins thump White Sox 20-1
The Twins were simply trying to avoid being swept by the Pale Hose, and going winless on this road trip, and somehow managed to score twenty runs in the process. Before the seventh-inning stretch, no less. While it seems like pretty much every Twin had a hit (Except for Nick Punto, who went 0-for-5 with 3 Ks. Justin Morneau went hitless, too, though he did draw 3 walks, one of which was intentional), Joe Mauer certainly had a good day at the plate. He hit the second grand slam of his career, as well as a pair of doubles, and drove in six runs. Ron Gardenhire shook up the lineup a bit, batting Mauer second and moving Matt Tolbert down to the eighth spot, a move that is long overdue. Mauer has always been more of a prototypical #2 hitter, since he hasn’t typically shown enough power to be a #3 hitter (although that appears to be changing), and it generally makes sense to have one of your best hitters batting second. Gardy has always been reluctant to do this though, since he doesn’t like the idea of having four lefties batting in a row. Perhaps this outpouring of offense will convince Gardy that it’s OK to bat a bunch of lefties in a row when those lefties include Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau.
The Twins did get a lot of help from former Yankee fan-favorite Wilson Betemit, who spent the afternoon making a mockery out of the third base position. Bartolo Colon really only gave up one earned run before being yanked in the second inning, the other seven came after Betemit failed to field a Nick Punto bunt. Betemit didn’t help his cause at the plate, either, going 0-for-4 and stranding a runner on base.
Nick Blackburn scattered four hits and shut out the White Sox through seven innings, and helped the Twins end a streak of a different kind: the tendency of the pitching staff to give back the lead, often in the bottom of the inning. This has been a consistent problem throughout the season, but it’s been particularly troublesome on this road trip. Before leaving for the seven-game trip to New York and Chicago, the Twins had swept the Tigers and were tied for first place. But the pitching staff blew at least four leads going into the later innings, costing the Twins at least as many wins and putting them 5.5 games behind the first-place Tigers (who haven’t lost since). Had the Twins managed to hold those leads, they would probably have finished the road trip 4-3. if not 5-2, instead of 1-6 and would probably be trailing Detroit by just a game or two.
- But wait, there’s more
This lopsided loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for the White Sox. Jake Peavy was deciding whether to accept a trade to the Southside, and not surprisingly, he declined. The outcome of this game probably had little to do with his decision, however, since Peavy has long expressed a preference to remain in the National League. It’s also not terribly surprising that Peavy would prefer to remain in an extreme pitcher’s ballpark, such as Petco, rather than move to a hitter’s paradise such as the Cell.
However, as much as it pains me to say this, the White Sox should probably consider themselves lucky that the deal fell through. Whether or not Jake Peavy should be considered one of the best pitchers in the league is the subject of intense debate, since he does pitch in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark. While his road numbers in general aren’t exactly terrible, his WHIP increases from 1.085 to 1.293 and his K/BB ratio decreases from 3.73 to 2.54 outside the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park. Which indicates that Peavy might have a rough transition to the American League, and especially to the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. And then there’s the matter of Peavy’s contract, which the ChiSox would have been on the hook for had he actually agreed to the trade. $52 million over the next three years is an awful lot of money to spend on a guy who may or may not pitch as effectively in the AL, not to mention the prospects Chicago would have to give up in exchange.
- But wait, there’s more
On a completely unrelated note, the Wild have hired Chuck Fletcher as their new GM (sorry Pierre). I’m not going to go into much detail about the hiring, since this is a baseball blog, except to say that this does like a very good hire (on paper, anyway). This team is going to look very different going forward, which will be very interesting. Still, it’s probably best to see what moves he makes first, including hiring a new coach, before getting too excited.
Oh, yeah, and the Wolves have a new GM now too, but zzzzzzz….
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.