Friday, October 09, 2009

Who are the "Yankees"?

Teams that play in the postseason are rarely in the same division. This can cause a problem for fans, because they aren't as familiar with teams that they only see once or twice per year. That is likely the case this week for Twins fans, as the hometown nine faces an obscure team from over a thousand miles away with a strange name - the "Yankees."

The Yankees are from our nation's biggest city and have a rather rich baseball history, once boasting the major league's career home run hitter. They are very popular out east, and even nationwide among people with low opinions of themselves. You will often hear these folks talk about their Yankees to boost their own low self-esteem. That can be especially true when one's career has stagnated at a tertiary sports network, such as TBS.

But one gains little real information from such ramblings, so I thought it might be a good idea to present a primer of what we can expect to see when the Twins face them this weekend.

The Lineup
The strength of the Yankees is in their offense, and has been for the entire decade. Actually, that's not quite true. The real strength of the Yankees is in having a 100+ year history in the richest city on earth. But this most clearly manifests itself in their lineup. They ranked ranked first overall in runs scored and they ranked first overall in OPS.

But what's impressive about this lineup is how deep it is. There just aren't many weaknesses. For instance, versus the right-handers the Yankees ranked first overall in OPS. And the also ranked first overall versus left-handers.

And that balance isn't just at a high level - it goes down to the individuals. It used to be that you could, in late innings, mix-and-match a little to get the upper hand. For instance, the Twins almost always carried an extra southpaw when they played the Yankees because Jason Giambi would struggle against left-handers.

That's not the case anymore. Up and down the lineup there is no magic formula for getting every other guy out. Now you need to look at individual types of pitches. Hideki Matsui is really fooled by changeups. Mark Teixeira doesn't hit curveballs. Nick Swisher has trouble against anything offspeed.

In other words, this isn't a lineup you manage. This is a lineup you fight your way through, and you do it with a healthy dose of courage (to throw the offspeed stuff) and luck (to throw anything else). They are deep through the #8 hitter when Jorge Posada is catching, and through #7 when he's not.

The Pitching
People will say, however, that the offense has been a constant. Instead, this year, the pitching is the difference. That might be true, but that doesn't mean it's world class. Overall, it's been about average. The team sported a 4.26 ERA this year which ranked 12th in the majors. In terms of runs against, the Yankees ranked 14th, giving up just twelve fewer runs than the Twins staff. And we worried about the Twins staff all year.

For this weekend, we don't care so much about the overall staff. We mostly care about the next two starting pitchers, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte.

Burnett has been quite the topic in New York this year. They signed him for $82.5 million, guaranteeing five years to a 32-year-old who has battled injuries his whole career. But he stayed healthy this year, and to the Yankees credit, they've been very careful about extending him past 100-110 pitches in his starts. Most of his starts have gone well, but he's mixed in enough stinkers to leave his ERA at 4.04.

A lot of those clunkers came at the end of August and the beginning of September, which naturally caused a little insomnia in the city that never sleeps, seeing as they were counting on him for the playoffs. But his last really crummy start was September 12th, and he's been very good since.

He does, however, give up baserunners, because he walks quite a few and still gives up hits. I expected to find out that his personal catcher, Jose Molina, who will be starting tonight, would limit the damage those runners can do on the basepaths. But he isn't any better about stopping a running game than Posada, whose defense looked laughable in Game 1. Molina has thrown out just nine of 32 stolen base attempts.

The Twins ran a little in Game 1. It might behoove them to really focus on it in Game 2. It looks like a weakness on a Yankees team that doesn't have many. And candidly, the Twins don't have that much to lose by throwing caution to the wind.

The cliche about Pettite is that he gets a lot better as the season goes on, and sure enough his ERA is 3.30 after the all-star break, as opposed to 4.85 before. He's exactly the kind of Yankees pitcher that has baffled the Twins for the last decade. He's a veteran. He never challenges batters, preferring to keep making his pitch until he finds an impatient batter. And he's left-handed.

If you only watch one-pitch per at-bat with Pettitte on the mound, make it the first one. It's usually a strike, and if it's good enough to hit, the batter will do fairly well (.360 batting average). But if Pettitte gets strike one, batters have hit just .212 against him this year. On the other hand, if he falls behind 1-0, batters have posted an 876 OPS against him.

I mentioned last week that Michael “Sammy” Samuelson had a get-together at Sunday’s game. Sammy is a life long baseball fan who, along with Julian Loscalzo, is responsible for the irreverent Hot Stove League Banquet each January. For Sunday’s game, he was followed by a video team from, and the video has been posted here.

A great baseball game can bring out the best in us. As proof I offer “Ode to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome” by Andrew Berg. Well worth the click.

Finally, please consider signing up to follow me on Twitter this weekend. I don't know where I'll be watching (or attending) the games, but whatever is going on, I'll be talking about it in short 140 character snippets. I'd love you to be a part of that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Dozen Memories Before Bed

It is quiet, still and dark now. That’s a stark contrast to the last 10 hours, but exactly what I need. I’m recovering from the best baseball game I’ve seen live in 18 years, a cacophony of noise, hope, rage, enthusiasm and community and – and I’m spent. The kids are in bed, so is The Voice of Reason™, and I should be – god knows I should be – but I'm not ready to fully embrace the quiet, still and dark.

So let’s shift from “recover” to “reminisce”, in the hopes of eventually reaching “relish”. There were 12 innings, and that’s just such a beautiful round number, full of biblical implications, so let’s go through the twelve innings and pull a memory out of each.

I’m going to remember Joe Mauer taking that extra base. My kids were at the game, and since they don’t watch that much baseball, they didn’t understand how extraordinary that is. A team leader, not especially fast, and a catcher to boot, going like a bat out of hell to squeeze an extra base. Justin Morneau did the same thing the first series of the season, and it impressed the hell out of me then, and Mauer impressed the hell out of me tonight.

But I didn’t explain it to my kids. They aren’t there yet, they wouldn’t get it. I’d just be their dad rambling on about something unimportant, the same way all our parents do. And logically they would be right, because Mauer is stranded there as the inning ends.

But it was important. I believe that.

Tigers have a runner on third base with one out and fail to drive him in. I was just on Seth’s podcast tonight and I wondered out loud how many times that happened to Detroit tonight. So I’m going to look through the game quick and let you know…

Four times. That’s less than I thought. But note that this isn’t how many times that runners were in scoring position and a batter didn’t get a hit. This is how many times a productive out would’ve scored a run, but didn’t. It happened this inning, and twice in the ninth and once in the 12th.

I haven’t reflected much on just how heart-breaking this loss must be to Tigers fans. Besides the lack of execution with runners on third, you have the misplays in the field and the three game lead collapse. (Shudder) That's enough reflection for now.

I hate to say it – but I'll remember the “al-cho-hol-ic” chant the crowd directed at Miguel Cabrera the most. I know, I know – you stay classy, Minneapolis. But I don’t feel the need to apologize for it.


I remember Scott Baker continuing to struggle, giving up a single and then starting the next batter with an outside pitch before shortstop Orlando Cabrera called time-out to talk to him, with Mauer joining them. One pitch later Rick Anderson also came out to talk to him.

From then forward, Baker was very good, and having him go into the seventh inning helped a bullpen which should be a legitimate concern versus the Yankees.

Nothing much happened this inning, so let’s go with a pregame memory. We park an hour and twenty minutes before game time thinking we’ll stop at Maxwell’s and maybe get some waffle fries. We know we’re in trouble when we see a line of people waiting to get into Grumpy’s. Maxwell’s has no line, but is so full of people that it felt dangerous in there. We skedaddled and just went to the dome.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this is a football town. But we’re getting there. The pregame insanity and the reaction of tonight’s crowd is a testament to it.

Jason Kubel, after two very bad at-bats, homers and I’ve been told that’s when it looked like the crowd got into the game. Maybe. But I gotta say, I was more impressed with the crowd tonight than I’ve been in years, even before Kubel’s shot.

50,000 people in the dome can make a lot of noise, but they can also make a lot of silence. I didn’t notice the silence even when the Twins were down 3-0. It was exactly as if the crowd knew that they were going to need to pack a lunch, that this was a game that was going to be decided late.

Let me add one caveat – my enthusiasm for the crowd might be a result of sitting in the second level. There were plenty of times I would look around and see the more expensive seats sitting while upper deck sections were rising and screaming for a 3rd strike. I think this was a case where the farther you were from the action, the more fun it was.

And there were times I’m sure the crowd affected the players. I’m quite sure it helped the Twins score in the bottom of the tenth. It might very well have kept overmatched umpire Randy Marsh from hearing Brandon Inge’s uniform get scraped by a pitch. And I’m convinced we carried Bobby Keppel in the twelfth. All he had to do was throw the first strike and the crowd would take it from there.

I remember the pandemonium during and after Orlando Cabrera’s line drive home run. My kids were elated. Everyone is giving high fives or just hugging. And I dared to think my kids might just experience the rarest of events in Minnesota sports – a big win that really means something.


Or not. The Magglio Ordonez shot was quick enough that we were all sort of numbed by it, but the Rick Raburn/Matt Guerrier/Marsh battle was what got us all worked up. The umpiring seemed so bad tonight that I assumed I was just in a terrible position to evaluate it. After talking to several fans and reading some stories, it seems like a shame that an umpire’s very bad day could affect such a critical game.

Span CANNOT bunt in that situation. I assume he did so on his own, but then someone needs to pull him aside before the at-bat – or even during the at-bat – and let him know he can’t bunt in that position. If Kubel is batting fourth, he can. But since Kubel had been lifted an inning earlier, he can’t. And somebody needs to help him out with this.

The Tigers will likely get criticized for some miscues in this game, but it’s worth pointing out that Brandon Inge made a diving stop of a rocket by Cabrera to keep the Twins from scoring in this inning. It was a breathtaking defensive play.

I’m going to remember my 10-year-old son spinning towards me with his lower lip out and tears in his eyes. Between the HBP of Audrey Huff and calling the pitch immediately before Inge’s double a ball, The Boy™ is convinced that there is an injustice being done. Nothing make that kid madder than that, except maybe losing, and now we had both.

It’s also worth noting that in Matt Tolbert’s RBI single in the bottom of the frame, the Tigers came within inches of that being a double play instead. I did not think that grounder was getting through. I’m not sure I know how it did.

As the Twins used three pitchers in this frame, I remember The Voice of Reason™ turning to me and asking if Ron Gardenhire was going to run out of pitchers soon. I said I didn’t think so, because the Twins still had Brian Duensing, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Manship (not to mention Armando Gabino) available. That’s the advantage of September.

And meanwhile, Fernando Rodney breezes through the bottom of the tenth on something like 35 pitches – and there is nobody warming up in the Tigers bullpen? Really?

Two things – I’ll remember the crowd trying desperately to will Keppel through a scoreless inning. I’ll remember Gardenhire charging out of the dugout by NOT making a pitching change, and me thinking he’s insane.

But mostly I’ll remember Carlos Gomez sliding across home plate. Two innings earlier I had watched him fly into a rage as he left the field and entered the dugout, furious at himself for not getting the clutch hit the team needed in the ninth. Now he’s sliding like a rapturous superman. Gawd it's fun to watch him love this game.

Good - that seems like a good memory to hold onto as I go to bed. It’s time for quiet, still and dark to have their turn.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Gulping Sports from a Firehose

The taste was familiar, but I couldn't quite place it.

Does anyone else feel their life spinning out of control during a pennant race? I stood looking in the mirror this morning and wondered how much longer I could hang on.

I'm up late writing or unwinding. I have a dining room table with two weeks of unopened mail and a planner full of procrastination. I'm eating like Prince Fielder and spending money like George Steinbrenner. All while I wear the same lucky shirt day after day. Things may not be falling apart yet, but some bolts sure need tightening.

It's affecting my relationships. I don't have anything else to talk about with friends. My own kids are amused by me. My marriage would likely be tested if my wife wasn't a huge Phillies fan. Being from Philly, she gets it. Most of that city is like this a half dozen times a year.

Thinking of Philly - that's when I recognized the taste. Youth. This week tastes like youth. Balancing on a wave that is close to out of control. Not sleeping, combined with too much emotion. Periods of waiting punctuated by hours of excess. Connecting with strangers, hanging with friends, accepting opportunities, stretching oneself thin - this bittersweet taste is youth.

We middle-aged guys tend to romanticize youth. We remember the highlights, the bonding, the freedom, the sense of purpose. We forget how many of our actions were driven by boredom or ignorance or insecurity.

But mostly we forget just how uncomfortable youth really is. Too often it feels like nothing fits. Things are too tight or too loose or they chafe. We find a way to handle it because it doesn't last long. We fight through it and forget it because of the highs.

Which is what Seth wanted to talk about on Saturday night's podcast. He wanted to hear about the highs of attending The Greinke Game, wanted a sense of the exhilaration. What did Mauer's single feel like? Delmon's double? The last out?

They felt like they're supposed to feel. They were loud, communal and chaotic. They were a layer of joy fueled by a mound of rage. They were a tomorrow and sea of yesterdays joined by a moment. They felt like youth.

And I hope it continues, because the highs are great. But thank gawd it doesn't last long.


But you don't come here to hear about my life falling apart, or at least I hope not. That would be a little morbid. You come here to read about the Twins, so let's review a handful of my Tweets from the weekend and expand on them a bit.

Keppel?!? What kind of Rasputin-type hold does he have on Gardy. And where are the Nobles when you need them?

You know who would be nice to have available right now? Perkins. #Twins are really showing him who is boss.

Right now, no lead feels safe. It feels a lot like the 2002 playoffs, when the bullpen got to the point where they were wilting en masse. That's forgivable most of the season - but not between September 1st and the postseason. The Twins could have another 15 relievers on the roster right now, but Bill Smith promoted just one - Armando Gabino. Who is a pitcher that Gardenhire trusted to throw all of 3.2 innings since being recalled at the end of August. Meanwhile, Glen Perkins is sitting at home, either as a punitive act, a fiscal act, or both.

It feels like there is some dysfunction going on that I can't entirely put my finger on. It doesn't feel like it's just Gardenhire or just Smith. Gardenhire stumbled upon a possible solution late in the game yesterday, when he turned to Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano to pitch late innings. Let's hope that depth and some extra rest gets the bullpen back to a respectable level before they really need them.

OK, that's it for now. I got a date with The Voice of Reason. We'll talk tomorrow before The Big Game.