September 24, 2008

Twins Take Round 2

Lack of power and shoddy bullpen work have been two of the Twins' weaknesses. They rank dead last among AL teams in homers and since Pat Neshek suffered a season-ending arm injury the non-Joe Nathan members of the bullpen have combined for a 4.54 ERA. So naturally in the season's biggest series they hit three homers Tuesday night and got four shutout innings of relief last night. Baseball can be a funny game, but with the Twins now a half-game back in the AL Central you knew that already.

Nick Blackburn wriggled out of jams last night despite allowing eight hits and two walks to 23 batters, leaving after five innings with just two runs on the board. For most of the past few months a five-inning start would have preceded a bullpen breakdown, but instead the unlikely trio of Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser, and Jose Mijares each tossed a scoreless frame with a one-run lead to set up Joe Nathan for his 200th career save.

Mijares working a 1-2-3 eighth inning was particularly impressive given that he's been in the majors for less than two weeks after making the jump from Double-A and was up against 1,445 career homers in Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Ken Griffey Jr. One bad pitch and the game is tied, yet the 23-year-old rookie who spent half the season rehabbing a broken elbow got Thome to fly out and then induced a pair of ground balls to preserve the 3-2 lead.

Nathan looked somewhat shaky in the ninth inning, which has uncharacteristically been the case quite a bit lately, but thanks to Carlos Gomez's sprinting catch of an A.J. Pierzynski drive in the left-center gap he closed out the 86th victory of the season. Facing long odds down 2.5 games with six games to play, the Twins are now one win away from overtaking the White Sox and jumping into the driver's seat for a playoff spot heading into the final weekend.

Kevin Slowey takes the mound tonight against Gavin Floyd, who's 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA in four starts versus the Twins this season and nearly no-hit them in May. Chicago also knocked Slowey around for eight runs when he matched up against Floyd in June, but since then he's 10-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 18 starts, including a masterful complete-game shutout of the White Sox when he last faced them in late July at the Metrodome.

As an extreme fly-ball pitcher facing baseball's most powerful lineup keeping the ball in the ballpark will be a struggle for Slowey, but he's a smart, calm, strike-throwing machine who's been the rotation's second-best starter all season. A victory tonight would be huge, giving the Twins a half-game lead with the Royals coming to town and the White Sox hosting an Indians team that's quietly gone 30-15 since early August.

                 W      L     WIN%      GB
White Sox 86 71 .548 ---
Twins 86 72 .544 0.5

Two down. One to go.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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