Friday, September 26, 2008

It's a Maxwell's Night

Just a heads up. I'll be watching the game at Maxwell's tonight starting at 7:30 or so, and particpating in the pregame revelry from 6-6:45, too. If you're interested in joining me, TVOR and some friends, you're certainly invited.


Got this comment: "Please don't go to Maxwell's again this year. You've gone twice now, and both times the Twins have been blown out."

And I could NOT agree more. I actually logged in tonight to say exactly the same thing. Maxwell's cannot happen again this year. As evidence I'll point out the profile in the Dugout Splinters for Kyle Davies that I wrote yesterday:

Friday: RHP Kyle Davies (8-7, 4.21 ERA)

  • 2008: 107 IP, 117 H, 10 HR, 41 BB, 63 K
  • AAA: 6-2, 2.03 ERA, 57.2 IP, 47 H, 38 K
  • Davies came to the Royals last year at the trade deadline, acquired from the Braves for Octavio Dotel.
  • It wasn’t just his 6.66 ERA last year that made Royals fans think he might be Satan. He struggled with his control mightily, throwing seven wild pitches and hitting 3 batters in just 50 IP.
  • He’s been much better this year, both at AAA and in the majors. His control has improved, and the most important benefit of that is that balls are staying in the park. He gave up exactly as many home runs last year, but it was in less than half the innings.

When Kyle Davies strikes out eight in six innings while walking just two, there are supernatural powers at work. And I watched the game at an increasingly empty watering hole, that became more and more apparent.

But there was some cheering, mostly due to the ESPN ticker. When the blinking bright little white square turned to a '9' behind 'CLE', it was the most raucous and communal moment of the night.

The number we didn't see was '3', but that was the real number we were cheering, because that's the Twins magic number following the White Sox loss to Cleveland. We'll hope our boys can wittle it down themselves tomorrow.

Hopefully we'll have something better than a blinking bright little white square to cheer.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Speed Kills

In baseball, "speed" doesn't translate well. Speed doesn't beget speed, or at least not speed in terms of scoring runs quickly. It's a misnomer.

Much like "piranha" has become a misnomer. In fact, it has become a dirty word in Twins Territory, mostly because it had been so revered in 2006. Its meaning transformed from "guys whose speed can impact a game" to "overhyped guys without any power that Gardy falls in love with". And that's why you won't hear Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and Alexi Casilla referred to as "piranhas" today.

But last night we saw exactly what piranhas are supposed to be. A group that swarms around you in a feeding frenzy. A group that turns ground balls down the line or in the gap into three bases, whether the runner start at first or home. A group that smells blood and goes 9 for 14 with three triples and two doubles.

But mostly it's a group or players where you feel like somehow, someway, they're going to find a way to turn a break into a run. Bobby Jenks talked last night about how one of the problems you face as a closer is that you can't pitch around these guys. And Ozzie Guillen talked about how you must pitch to them, because you can't walk them and put that speed on base. And they're right.

But these guys make it even tougher by managing the strike zone. Anything below a 2.0 K/BB is above average. Here are our guys:

Nick Punto - 1.96
Alexi Casilla - 1.39
Denard Span - 1.27
Carlos Gomez - 5.56

OK, Gomez is still dismal in that regard. I'm on board. You're talking to the guy who suggested demoting him just a month ago. And I still don't see where he plays on this team next year. But I also don't know how you don't play him next year.

And as for Casilla and Span, I don't know how you don't PAY them next year. The Twins are fortunate enough to find themselves with a couple of young players with promising futures, very little service time, and tangible results. They'll also likely have somewhere between $25 million and $35 million worth of payroll room for things like signing bonuses. It sure seems like a pretty good match.

But that's something to worry about in the offseason and today the offseason seems pleasantly distant. A team that can chip away a division rival's five run lead in less than six innings sounds like a team that can score a run or two in the playoffs when it really needs to.

And that's why speed is a misunderstood. It doesn't translate to big, fast-scoring innings. It translates to certainty. Or, if you rather, to muscling a single run across through sheer force of will. That happened seven times tonight in five different innings.

And little by little, like piranhas, it killed.

Ozzie and the Press
"I will. I'll take two sleeping pills and a glass of vodka and to go to sleep tonight. I'll need it tonight."
- Ozzie Guillen

OK, that's probably not the exact quote, but I'm a blogger, and my TIVO happened to crap out, so sue me. Get, and enjoy, the exact quote from someone who cares about the details.

And while you're at it, you might want to pity those poor beat writers a little too. Can you imagine needing to write up a game story or column after that game? On a deadline? It's been a couple of hours and I'm still trying to figure out what I just saw. fortunately, I can spit out just about anything. Journalists, on the other hand would almost certainly not be able to write up the next blurb.

This game wasn't decided by poor umpiring, but it's pretty clear that it was just dumb luck that it wasn't. As I watched home plate Mike Reilly look like he was guessing on about every fifth pitch, I assumed he was a rookie umpire in a very big game, and was simly over his head.

Turns out, the only way I could've been more wrong is if I was actually Mike Reilly trying decipher a borderline pitche. Reilly has been an umpire for 31 years, and was either really gifted or really connected in the 70s because he rocketed through the minors to the majors in just five years. Plus, he sounds like a hell of a guy. He lives in the town he grew up in. Has four kids. He's even on the Board of Directors for Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

Of course, none of that made a smidgen of difference last night as he turned each pitch into a guessing game for the batter. I don't know if he had a bad night, or if he's just going through a rough patch, or if he's losing it after 31 years on the job. But I do know that someone besides the guys yelling from the two dugouts should call that performance what it was: embarassing. It truly marred an otherwise amazing game.

Freezing Up
Punto, Gomez, Span and Casilla got on base 12 times last night. AJ Pierzynski has thrown out just 21 out of 112 stolen base atempts. And the Twins not only had no stolen bases, they didn't have any official stolen base attempts.

Now, part of that is becaue the Twins just plain swing the bats. And it's not like they didn't try to be aggressive. There were multiple stolen base attempts on foul balls, and even a suicide squeeze play that could've scored the winning run in the eighth inning.

But it didn't happen, and it didn't happen for a reason. The Twins batters are willing to watch a couple of strikes, but the runners on base aren't willing to risk a stolen base on the first or couple pitches. Opposing teams have learned this, and they're throwing a lot of early strikes when, say, Gomez is on first base. Why not? Span is taking them, because that's what he should do. Gomez is sticking around first, because he's studying the pitcher. Why not get ahead in the count and force Span to foul off pitches later, when Gomez is more likely to run?

And it's driving me crazy, especially in the late innings of close games. Can we do something about this please? We're not going to learn anything life-altering by watching Jenks throw two pitches to the plate. How about we take off the skirt, get on our horse, and gallop to second base on the first pitch occasionally?

(Deep cleansing breath)

Ok, that' probably more than enough for tonight. But it's likely not enough for the weekend. The magic number is still four, with just three games to play. That will likely be hard to wittle down without sweeping the Royals, including a tough game on Saturday where the Glen Perkins faces Gil Meche. Feel free to stop by on the weekend. One way or the other, I'll likely be covering it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Flip-flopping a Flopped Bullpen

So. I'm a wreck.

A happy, elated, jaunty wreck, but a wreck nonetheless. I'd forgotten how exhausting fall baseball can be. This decade the Twins have usually clinched relatively early and exited the playoffs even earlier. To be frank, I'm not sure I'm built for this. Which isn't to say I'm ready for it to end.

But the Twins have essentially begun the playoffs a week early, and they've begun them with a string of must-win games. Last night's was a classic playoff game, complete with a packed dome, stingy runs, and a self-adminstered angioplasty.

But I wouldn't have it any other way, and not just because it moved the Twins within a half game of first place. This is the kind of game the Twins need to win in the playoffs, and tonight they unveiled the new upside-down bullpen hierarchy that they hope is going to get them there:

9th - Joe Nathan
8th - Jose Mijares
7th - Boof Bonser
6th - Craig Breslow

Thank god. This is the problem that has plagued the Twins for the second half of this year, and a problem that both the GM and the manager seemed reluctant to attack. It took longer to solve it that it should have, but it looks like there is a solution, or at least there was tonight.

Nick Blackburn did well enough for five innings, and he'll get the "W", but the final four innings in a one run game are a lot more important than the first five. It appears that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen agreed, letting starter Mark Buehrle throw 121 pitches to get him through the late innings. That's probably fine, but it's worth noting that Buehrle is the pitcher that will need to be used on Monday if the White Sox must play that last game against the Tigers.

(And while we're at it, Javier Vazquez is the pitcher that lines up for the White Sox last game on Sunday versus the Indians. Both now look like they could be critical games, and Ozzie has led frontal attacks on Vazquez's confidence and Buehrle's stamina the last two games. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out on the south side.)

Tonight's White Sox pitcher is Gavin Floyd, not John Danks as I said yesterday. Floyd is right-handed, known as a bit of a space-case, and he's been scary good against the Twins this year - better than Buehrle and better than Vazquez. He'll be facing Kevin Slowey who pitched a shutout against the Sox the last time he faced them in the Metrodome.

But the good news today is that it doesn't look like he's going to need to. With the new flip-flopped bullpen, a one-run lead is sustainable again.

Now, if only my systolic blood pressure was....

Speed Round Thoughts
- The magic number is six. I haven't seen the magic number guy at the dome yet. Is he there yet this year? Will he show up for tomorrow's game just so he can unveil it if they win?

- Manager Ron Gardenhire started LH-hitting Jason Kubel at DH over RH-hitting Michael Cuddyer because left-handers have hit .309 against Buehrle this year, and right-handers have hit just .267. La Velle E Neal had a nice tidbit in his blog about talking to Corey Koskie about the same thing and having Koskie confirm that Buehrle's cutter can be hit very hard by lefties when he misses his spot.

It's nice to see the coaching staff pay attention to this sort of thing. And it's even more encouraging to see them act on it. That said....

Over the last three years (2005-2007) left-handers and right-handers have hit Buehrle almost exactly the same statistically. But, he's faced almost four times as many right-handed hitters. Generally, the ratio is closer to 2:1, so when you see a ratio that high, it means that opposing managers are only letting the very best left-handed hitters face Buehrle.

So those equal stats were put up by very different groups of players - elite left-handed batters hit Buehrle about as well as the whole spectrum of right-handed hitters. Which means he's been quite a bit better against left-handed batters for his career. Maybe that changed a little bit this year, but don't take it as gospel that Buehrle can be hit by left-handed bats.

And, by the way, Kubel went hitless, though he did draw a walk. And the only Twins players to have multiple hits last night were Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. They both bat right-handed.

- Oh, and I did another podcast with Seth yesterday, this one with Nick Nelson from Nick and Nick's and Howard Sinker from A Fan's View. You can find the podcase (and subscribe) here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

If Bruce Dickinson Wants More Kubel, We Should Probably Get Him More Kubel

So, how long have we waited for last night?

Several years, at least. In 2006, when Jason Kubel kick-started the Twins hot streak with an extra-inning grand slam against the Red Sox, we hoped he was all the way back. But it was longer than that, because you don't start talking about "being all the way back" unless you are already waiting for a guy to return to form.

I suppose we could go back to the injury, which was way back in the fall of 2004 for chrissakes. That was so long ago that Luis Rivas was ending his tenure at second base. But you can even stretch it back a bit further that year, to when Kubel was beating the living snot out of pitchers in AA and AAA, posting a 1000+ OPS between the two leagues.

Since then we've watched him rehab physically for two years, and rehab mentally for another two. And it's been painful for us, too. We've watched a guy whose confidence was AWOL for most of last year, such that one could legitimately question whether he needed to revisit the minors.

But tonight the wait was, that's not right. One night doesn't make up for four years of purgatory. Purgatory sucks. It's a place short of heaven, but within sight of it. And you're weighed down with stones until you learn to humble your pride.

He should have regained some of that pride last night. He faced a pitcher who has dominated him (2 hits in 21 AB) in the past. He was playing in the biggest game of the season. And he batted behind the top of the order which collectively went just 2 for 17. And yet he carried the team to an important victory, turning a one-run deficit into a one-run lead and then padding it later. If he keeps that kind of performance up, we're all going to be walking around in gold-plated diapers.

Manager Ron Gardenhire defended Kubel's place in the lineup before the game, and wasn't above gloating a bit after the game about his decision. He pointed out that he had watched all 21 of those previous at-bats against Vazquez and that Kubel had several quality at-bats in that bunch. And then he pointed out that Kubel now sits with 20 home runs. Unsaid was that Kubel also has 78 RBI, which is just one short of Joe Mauer for second place on the team.

But Gardenhire will have a tougher decision tonight. Left-handed pitcher Mark Buehrle will be facing the Twins, and while Kubel has improved versus lefties, he's still hitting just .234 against them with no power to speak of.

Well, OK, maybe it isn't such a tough decision. Kubel, after his night of glory, will likely spend some time on the bench tomorrow, hoping that the White Sox are eventually forced to bring in a right-handed reliever. Or maybe he'll just wait there until Thursday, when the Twins face right-handed John Danks. And he'll likely wait there patiently.

After all, he waited four years for last night. We all did. What's 48 more hours?

Other Stuff
Let's throw down as many more thoughts as I can in fifteen minutes....

- Justin Morneau broke the record for most doubles in a season by a Twin passing...Marty Cordova? Seriously? Can someone explain to me how a guy with plantar fasciatis for his ENTIRE TWINS CAREER beat out Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Pucket and Chuck Knoblauch for doubles in a season? Those big casts/boots are heavy. And don't try to argue with me about the plantar fasciatis. I was there. He had it every game for his ENTIRE TWINS CAREER.

- If Gardy really wants to puff his chest a bit, he should point out that he chose Nick Punto, of all people, to bunt on a suicide squeeze. That might not sound strange until you remember that Punto, in the midst of his journey through Dante's seven circles last year, couldn't bunt to save his life. And now Gardenhire has him laying down a bunt with Delmon Young running full steam towards the plate? Talk about playing a hunch.

Of course, not only did Punto get the bunt down, but he may have placed the most perfect bunt of all time. I'm serious. Consider: not only did it get the run in, but he singled even though the middle infielders were playing in to try and cut down the run at the plate. How does that even happen?

- Let's not forget Delmon Young and his three hits. Early on he was driving the ball to the opposite field, and then he turned on one and drove it deep to the left field bleachers. He also made a couple of plays in left field, despite still being limited by his sprained ankle. He was also interviewed following the game and left two impressions:

1) he was absolutely tickled to be getting the attention and
2) he is not going to fall for the "banana in the tailpipe" trick.

He's hitting .293 now. He isn't the player that we hope he will be yet, but he's probably not the player he hopes he will be yet, either. But he looks like he is heating up at exactly the right time.

- Finally, as Scott Baker finished the seventh inning with 100 pitches, I wondered who would pitch out of the bullpen. I assumed it would not be Jesse Crain, Jose Reyes or Matt Guerrier, because Gardenhire would still view them as someone to save for a closer game. I guessed Bobby Korecky would get the call.

I was somewhat relieved to see that it was Crain and Guerrier that got the work, because I'm almost sure that this means that we'll see Jose Mijares in the next close eighth inning. And I'm encouraged by the results, too. Crain did well and hopefully regained some confidence. Guerrier gave up another very long home run and will hopefully come nowhere near a close game for a bit longer. He could use the rest. And, frankly, so could my artery walls.

That's it for tonight. Whatever each of you did to ensure a Twins victory, make sure you do it tonight too. I'll be dumping water on my head as I try to sell GameDay's prior to the game. At 1.5 games out and facing Buehrle, we can't be too careful.

Ozzie's Gambit

By Kyle Eliason

The following will appear in GameDay's Dugout Splinter this series.

Manager Ozzie Guillen shuffled the entire White Sox rotation in preparation for this, the biggest series of the season for both clubs. Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd all made their previous starts on just three days rest.

Chicago won just one of those three games despite using their three best starters, which will raise questions about Guillen’s decision should the White Sox falter in Minnesota. First, Vazquez got rocked by the Yankees, allowing seven runs and failing to get out of the fourth inning in last Thursday’s 9-2 loss. He struck out and walked four. Then would come Buehrle’s turn, and the only win that resulted from the first stage of Ozzie’s gambit. The southpaw allowed three runs in six innings of work last Friday, all coming in the bottom of the fourth from Royals’ third baseman Mark Teahen’s homerun. Floyd would then follow on Saturday, losing to the Royals as a result of allowing three homers, five runs and eight hits in six-and-a-third.

There is good news in that the Sox failed to widen their lead as much as the might have. The bad news is that their three best pitchers are all rested and ready for the Twins. Vazquez threw just 88 pitches last Thursday, Buehrle threw just 93 on Friday and Floyd just 93 on Saturday.

The Vazquez-Baker match up is an interesting opener to the series, as neither pitcher has lost to the other team this season, but neither has pitched particularly well, either. Vazquez is 2-0 with a 5.11 ERA against the Twins this season and Baker is 1-0 with a 5.73 ERA in two starts against the Sox.

The Buehrle-Blackburn match up is worrisome. The former looked good on just three days rest in his last start, the latter looked worn down by the long season despite pitching on regular rest and failed to make it out of the second inning in his last trip to the mound. Here’s hoping the extra rest resulting from getting bounced early helps Blackburn find what he needs to outduel a notorious Twins killer.

The Flyod-Slowey match up is perhaps the most interesting. The Twins do not have Floyd figured out yet, and he’s posted a 1.86 ERA in three starts against Minnesota. And Slowey threw a complete game shutout in his only start against the White Sox this season.

The White Sox’ offense is built around power. They lead the majors in homeruns and enter the series having outhomered Minnesota a whopping 223 to 108. Normally that would translate into one of the top offenses in baseball, but Chicago finds themselves in the second tier due to an average on-base percentage and middling batting average. And they also find themselves without their best hitter. Left fielder Carlos Quentin, who leads the club in runs (96), homeruns (36), runs batted in (100), on-base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.571), has been out since September 2nd with a wrist injury. His cast has come off and he’s working on strengthening his wrist, but he is unlikely to return before the postseason, if the White Sox are able to make it that far.

To compensate for the loss of Quentin, Guillen has moved the versatile Nick Swisher, who can man both first base and all three outfield slots, to left field full-time. The aged body of Ken Griffey Jr. patrols centerfield, and Jermaine Dye is handling right. Swisher, who was acquired from Oakland via trade before the season began, is finishing up a horrible season. Coming off two seasons in which he posted an OPS higher than .830, Swisher has seen that decline to a mark of .746, which doesn’t hack it at a corner position.

Prior to Quentin’s injury, Guillen had the option of mixing and matching the likes of Swisher (.746 OPS), Griffey (.761 OPS) and Dewayne Wise (a fluke .860 OPS in 104 at bats) in center, and Swisher and Paul Konerko (.773 OPS) at first base. That option is now gone. It’s too bad the Twins have three righties scheduled to pitch, as both Wise and Griffey bat left-handed and struggle with southpaws and Swisher is no longer a platoon option.

Second baseman Alexi Ramirez had been another right-handed option for Guillen’s outfield, but Joe Crede’s back has him sidelined, which meant shifting Juan Uribe to third base full time and planting Ramirez at second. Josh Fields is kind of an option at third, but he’s be terrible in very limited playing time at the Major League level this season, and now officially looks like a first round bust. Enter the likes of Chris Getz as reserve second baseman and Guillen is announcing to the media that his infield depth is now, “paper thin.”

The White Sox have not been the same club since Quentin went down. Dye, designated hitter Jim Thome and the aforementioned Ramirez are all still solid hitters relative to their position, but no one has really stepped up to replace the loss of their MVP candidate. Their rotation has been rested and reordered in anticipation of this series. Their manager has been quick to lay into his players for failing to pull away from a Twins club that hasn’t done much to try and steal the division. Their bullpen, like the Twins’, has its holes. As Tuesday’s first pitch draws near, it is striking just how similar these two teams look. Both have two or three dangerous hitters, solid but not dominant starters, and have been playing .500 or worse baseball for the past two weeks.

The beauty of late-season baseball is that something as trivial as the bench players available to two American League clubs might shape the outcome of the Central Division and possibly the playoffs. Here’s hoping our home town nine can get it done this week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Praising Hope, Imbalance, and Swinging for the Fences

Keeping Hope Alive
It's natural to think about a sweep, and that would be great, but the Twins don't need to sweep the White Sox to keep their hopes alive. Two our of three will do just fine.

Taking two out of three would mean the Twins trail the White Sox by 1.5 games with three left to play, but the Twins last three games will be versus the Royals, against whom the Twins are 11-4 this year. Meanwhile, the White Sox will need to play an Indians team that is 31-17 since August 1st. If the Twins gain a game during that series, the White Sox will need to play and beat the Tigers next Monday to win the division. If they lose that game, they'll be playing the Twins for the division title late next week.

Don't get me wrong - a sweep would be absolutely fabulous, but there is still plenty of hope left so long as the Twins win the series.

Division Results
Turns out that 72 games is a big chunk of the season. A big, and very important, chunk.

That's how many games each team in the AL Central plays against its own division, and again this year it is determining whose final weeks are relevent. The Twins are 21-15 against Detroit and Cleveland this year, and the White Sox are even better at 21-11 with several games left. Here are the overall results of each of the division teams against each other:

Chicago 41-24
Minnesota 39-27
Cleveland 34-35
Detroit 27-41
Kansas City 26-40

Not only does the order reflect the actual overall standings, but it even reflects the magnitude of difference between them. Chicago is about two games better than the Twins, who are about five games over Cleveland, who is about seven games over Detroit, who is just a gave over the Royals. It's the same for actual standings. It's uncanny.

The unbalanced schedule is despised by many for what is perceived to be an unfair impact on races. But this year in the AL Central, the division looks like like it was decided by how the teams played against each other, not just against common opponents. And I can't think of a better or more satisfying way to decide a division.

Watching Morneau and Mauer
Even if things do go south, it should be fun to watch Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer this week. I'll admit, I haven't paid much attention to individual batting races since I was about ten years old, but for some reason this year's has me entranced.

First, there is Morneau's pursuit of the RBI title. He's in a three way race with Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera, who are behind him by 4 and 3 RBI respectively. it interests me because a couple of months ago it looked like Hamilton would run away with this award, and because of it's impact on the MVP voting. If the Twins last until the last weekend, and Morneau wins the RBI title, I think he'll end up with that second MVP award, and we'll all get to bask in the righteous indignation directed his way by people who don't like how it's awarded. Delicious.

But that interest pales in comparison to the Batting Average championship that Mauer is chasing. Mauer is also in a 3 way race, but he separated himself this weekend a bit. He's hitting .330, while Dustin Pedroia is at .324 and Magglio Ordonez is at .323. It holds more interest for purely sentimental reasons, because I grew up watching Rod Carew and he was in the mix every year. Batting championships remind me of listening to Herb, chewing cardboardish bubble gum and using my calculator to figure out batting averages. It reminds me of youth.

And, finally, I'm carefully watching another race for Mauer too. Mauer is on the cusp of hitting double-digit homeruns this year, stuck at nine. In a column at the beginning of the year I predicted that Mauer would start to show more power this year, and Kyle Eliason quickly jumped all over me based on Mauer's ground ball percentage. I had him put his money where his EQA is, so we have some sort of eating/drinking bet on Mauer's HR total, with 10 being a push.

And if I had to choose between the quiet satisfaction of a misty memory inspired batting championship and gloating over a few free pints and dinner at the Local, which one would I choose?

Swing away, Joe. Swing for the fences.