October 11, 2009

The End (For Real This Time)

The combination of mental and physical mistakes, a blown save by one of the best closers in baseball, and coming up empty offensively in crucial spots is a tough way for things to end after the late-season charge that the Twins made just to grab a playoff spot, but ultimately a mediocre, injury-wrecked 87-win team with a $65 million payroll dropping three straight to a dominant, star-studded 103-win team with a $200 million payroll is no shock. The better team won even if the worse team helped them too much.

Every year fans and media members draw wide-ranging conclusions about teams that get swept out of the playoffs and that temptation is particularly strong in the Twins' case because they went 0-10 versus the Yankees this season, are 16-48 against New York over Ron Gardenhire's eight years as manager, and are now just 6-18 in the playoffs during that same time. However, history has shown that anything can happen in the playoffs, and losing three straight games to a clearly better team certainly qualifies.

You'll no doubt read articles this week about how Joe Nathan is washed up or Gardenhire needs to be fired or various impact players need to be traded or all kinds of other sweeping changes based on how the team performed in a few games against a superior opponent, but don't buy it. Sure, the Twins have lots of issues to address and lots of holes to fill, but that was just as true last week when everyone was giddy about sneaking into the playoffs as it is this week when everyone is sad about being swept out.

At the end of the day the Twins simply need to improve, not because they lost a best-of-five series, but because they won 87 games in baseball's worst division after going 88-75 in 2008 and 79-83 in 2007. They need to surround Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Michael Cuddyer with other capable bats, they need to make decisions on Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, they need to sort out the rotation, and they need to pull off some significant moves without getting fleeced again.

Whether you view the Twins' season as a success or a disappointment and whether you think that they ended on a high note with Game 163 or a sour note with the postseason sweep, the same strengths, weaknesses, and issues are present heading into what is an extremely important winter for Bill Smith and the front office. My guess is that the roster that closed down the Metrodome will look much different than the group that opens Target Field, and that should be both exciting and frightening for Twins fans.

I'm going to take a few days off before diving into full-on offseason mode, but before any of that I want to thank everyone who stopped by here over the past 166 games. This was my eighth season blogging about the Twins and the site's traffic was at an all-time high with almost one million visitors between pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers and last night's loss. Whether you read this every day or just stumbled on the site, love me or hate me, come for Twins analysis or Link-O-Ramas, thank you.

Oh, and wait 'til next year.


Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

October 9, 2009

Damn

I'd be a horrendous beat reporter, because (among many, many other reasons) the last thing I want to do right now is write about what just happened. Forcing myself to type up some kind of coherent recap seems like the right thing to do, but I'm not really sure what to say. One of the most painful losses in Twins history leaves me wanting to stare blankly at the television or punch a wall or crawl into the fetal position or have a drink. Or maybe drinks. Anything but write about it, really.

An absolutely brutal blown call by umpire Phil Cuzzi probably cost the Twins an 11th-inning lead and he deserves an avalanche of criticism, but Carlos Gomez's base-running blunder, Joe Nathan's blown save, and the failure to do any damage with the bases loaded and no outs in extra innings makes any attempt to point fingers elsewhere seem kind of silly. Instead of taking homefield advantage back to the Metrodome the Twins have now lost eight straight playoff games and are facing elimination. Damn.

October 7, 2009

Jeter, Rodriguez, Sabathia Fuel Yankees' Game 1 Win

Given the circumstances, the only real surprise from Game 1 of the ALDS is that the Twins jumped out to an early lead. After playing 12 innings to decide the AL Central crown Tuesday night and arriving in New York at around 3:30 a.m. local time for a 6:07 p.m. game, the Twins drew first blood with a pair of third-inning runs before rookie Brian Duensing predictably struggled in his first taste of the playoffs, at Yankee Stadium, against the best offense in baseball (with a bespectacled Jay-Z looking on, no less).

Derek Jeter quickly erased the Twins' early lead with a two-run homer in the next half-inning and Nick Swisher's run-scoring double--with the aid of shoddy throws from both left fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Orlando Cabrera--in the fourth frame gave New York the lead before the Yankees broke the game open in the fifth inning. Jeter drew a leadoff walk and came around to score on Alex Rodriguez's first postseason hit with runners in scoring position since approximately 1942.

With the Yankees up 4-2 manager Ron Gardenhire gave Duensing a quick hook, pulling the southpaw with two outs despite left-hander Hideki Matsui coming to the plate. Duensing held left-handed batters to just .244/.311/.268 this season, but Gardenhire chose to bring in fellow southpaw Francisco Liriano and his slightly worse .255/.325/.307 mark against lefties. Whether he thought that Duensing was tired after throwing 79 pitches or Liriano was simply a better matchup against Matsui the move didn't work.

Matsui got ahead of Liriano and homered on a 2-1 pitch, putting the Yankees up 6-2. New York tacked on another run against Liriano in the seventh inning and the Twins went just 4-for-23 with four singles and one walk after scoring the pair of third-inning runs. Armed with a five-run lead and an off day next on the schedule the Yankees' bullpen went into full shutdown mode with Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, and finally Mariano Rivera relieving CC Sabathia after his 6.2 innings of two-run ball.

Sabathia pitched well despite some shaky work behind the plate from Jorge Posada, striking out eight, walking none, and allowing just two extra-base hits after coming into the game with a 7.92 ERA in five previous playoff starts. And once armed with a lead the Yankees' bullpen trio of Hughes, Chamberlain, and Rivera--with a little Coke mixed in against tough left-handers--is going to be awfully tough to come back on throughout the postseason.

About the only negative from the Yankees' point of view is that Mark Teixeira went 0-for-4 and hit into a double play, but the rest of New York's incredibly deep and dangerous lineup picked up the slack and the quintet of pitchers combined for a dozen strikeouts versus just one walk. Sabathia working into the seventh inning before handing things over to Rivera and company is a combination that looks capable of carrying the Yankees deep into October, and he's now won seven of eight starts versus the Twins.

Luckily for the Twins they have matchups against the far more hittable A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte before Sabathia's turn in the rotation comes around again in Game 4 and today's break in the schedule gives them a chance to set up their own rotation after throwing Duensing almost by default. As noted in my ALDS preview Nick Blackburn against Burnett is the Twins' most favorable matchup of the series and that's on tap when play resumes tomorrow night for Game 2.


Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

Escape to New York

Wow.

Without question one of the greatest, most pressure-filled games in Twins history, made all the more surreal by the fact that C.C. Sabathia will deliver his first pitch to Denard Span tonight, in New York, at 5:07 p.m. Unfortunately there isn't much time to dwell on the amazing one-game playoff win when the real playoffs begin immediately, although no Twins fans will be forgetting last night anytime soon. For a look at what awaits the Twins in New York, check out my lengthy ALDS preview on NBCSports.com:


NBCSports.com - ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Yankees

Wow.

October 5, 2009

One-Game Playoff Live Chat at 4:00 PM

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