September 30, 2003

Minnesota 1, Mystique and Aura 0

What a way to start the playoffs!

Obviously I skipped class yesterday. There was just no way I could mess up a perfectly good day of baseball with school. I apologize to my classmates, my teachers, my mother and anyone else who might care about my education.

Yesterday was like a combination of Christmas Morning and the first day of March Madness, with back-to-back-to-back playoff games, starting at noon. Leading off Day One of the post-season were my beloved Minnesota Twins, facing off against the New York Yankees, in Yankee Stadium.

The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog, Johan Santana, got the start for the Twins and was doing very well through four innings:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT

4 3 0 0 2 3 0 59

Johan got into a little bit of a jam in the bottom of the third inning, but worked his way out of it by striking out Jason Giambi on three straight pitches. The Twins even gave him a 1-0 lead to work with, when Cristian Guzman scored from third base on a sac fly in the top of the third inning.

Then, in Minnesota's half of the 5th, I saw Rick Reed warming up in the bullpen and I started to get worried. Johan was cruising along, he was only at 59 pitches and, as far I could tell, there was nothing wrong with him. When the inning ended, I caught a glimpse of Reed walking in from the bullpen right before ESPN went to a commercial.

I asked everyone I could get a hold of what the heck was happening. When ESPN came back from commercial, Jon Miller decided it was more important to read some lengthy ESPN promo than to tell his audience what was actually going on. He simply said, "We have something to tell you about in the game, but first..." and then read what seemed like a 10 minute commercial for something that I can't remember.

When he was finally done reading his script, the Twins took the field in the bottom of the 5th. Johan was missing and Reed was on the hill. This is about the time I really started to panic. The Twins were up 1-0, but Santana was obviously not right and now Rick Reed (Rick Reed?!) was in to pitch to the New York Yankees.

Not only was Rick Reed horrible this season (5.07 ERA in 135 innings), he was especially horrible against the Yankees:

GS     W     L      IP       ERA

2 0 2 8.1 11.88


As Reed got the first batter he faced (Aaron Boone) to ground out, I got word from a "source" that Johan Santana left the game with a cramp in his right leg, due to dehydration. According to my source, Johan had some trouble with his nerves before the game and was actually throwing up yesterday morning. This shocked the hell out of me, not only because Johan seems like the last guy who would be nervous, but also because he had pitched so damn well for four innings.

Reed got two quick outs, gave up a double to Alfonso Soriano and was quickly yanked in favor of J.C. Romero.

When Reed first came in, I just assumed Ron Gardenhire would ask him to pitch multiple innings, which seemed like a recipe for disaster. To Gardy's credit though, he obviously had a different plan. He simply wanted Reed to pitch to the three straight right-handed hitters that inning (Boone, Rivera, Soriano) and then he brought Romero in to face Nick Johnson, who grounded out to first base for the final out of the inning.

Normally, a starter having to leave the game after just four innings is going to cripple a team in the playoffs. Fortunately for the Twins, MLB decided to put an extra off-day between Game One and Game Two of this series, which gave the Twins a chance to blow out the entire bullpen in the first game and still have everyone ready to go in the second. And that's exactly what the Twins did.

After getting Johnson for the last out of the 5th, Romero stayed in and gave up a single to Derek Jeter leading off the 6th, before retiring Giambi, Posada and Williams to end the inning. I was amazed Romero was able to be effective at all, because he's been very poor this season and he was incredibly wild yesterday.

Romero stayed in to pitch to Hideki Matsui in the bottom of the 7th and walked him, at which point Gardenhire went to Latroy Hawkins, Minnesota's best reliever this year.

Latroy Hawkins has been a Minnesota Twin his entire career, since they drafted him in the seventh round of the 1991 draft. He first joined the major league club in 1995 and then spent the next several seasons as one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. From 1995 to 1999, Hawkins' yearly ERAs were 8.67, 8.20, 5.84, 5.25 and 6.62. He was a staring pitcher that entire time and somehow managed to start a total of 98 games during that span, including 33 in both 1998 and 1999.

Mercifully, the Twins moved him into the bullpen in 2000 and he had the first decent season of his career, pitching 87.2 innings with a 3.39 ERA. They kept him in the pen for 2001 and gave him the closer job, which he failed at miserably. Hawkins went 1-5 with a 5.96 ERA in 51.1 innings, blowing 9 of his 37 save opportunities, before the job was given to Eddie Guardado.

Free from his closer-duties, Hawkins went back to being a setup-man last season and had a great year. He pitched 80.1 innings with a 2.13 ERA and was one of the best relievers in the American League. Despite his great season, I did not trust him one bit. I'm sure it was mostly because, as a Twins fan during the 1990s, I had seem him fail so many times before that I just couldn't get it through my head that he could potentially be a good pitcher.

In an entry breaking down Minnesota's potential playoff-roster last year, I said the following about Latroy Hawkins (September 10, 2002):

"Latroy Hawkins is still Latroy Hawkins, which means I wouldn't have him pitching anywhere near a close playoff game."

Much to my chagrin, Hawkins was brought into several close playoff games last year, including Game Five of the Oakland series, when he was matched up against AL MVP Miguel Tejada in an incredibly important situation.

Here's what I wrote the day after the big Hawkins/Tejada showdown in Game Five (October 6, 2002):

"Ron Gardenhire decided that Latroy Hawkins should probably come into the game, so Romero was taken out and Latroy "Aaron Gleeman wouldn't trust me with a lead less than the Gross National Product" Hawkins came into the game to face Tejada.

"Here comes Donnie Moore."

Latroy threw 8 straight fastballs (most of which were between 96-98 MPH) to Tejada and somehow (thankfully!) struck him out to end the inning.

Latroy had a really great season (80 IP, 2.13 ERA, .217 Opp BA) and he really has a great fastball, but for some reason (possibly because he has a career ERA of 5.38 in over 700 IP) I just don't trust him in any sort of important situation.

I have to give him credit though, he got a really key out from one of the best hitters in baseball."

Something about that strikeout of Tejada and the way Hawkins had complete confidence in his stuff, even in a pressure-packed situation, gave me an entirely different feeling about Latroy Hawkins. He was no longer a guy I couldn't trust who happened to be having a good year, he was a completely different pitcher than the one who had been so bad, for so long.

That newfound trust I had in Hawkins carried over into this season and it snowballed with every outing. Hawkins was, once again, great out of the bullpen. He pitched in 74 games for the Twins this year, throwing a total of 77.1 innings with a 1.86 ERA. He held opponents to a .239 batting average and had a fantastic 75/15 strikeout/walk ratio. In less than a year, he went from someone I had absolutely zero confidence in to the one guy I wanted on the mound in a tight spot.

Yesterday against the Yankees, he once again found himself in one of those spots. After Romero walked Matsui to lead off the 7th inning, Gardenhire called on Hawkins. He gave up a single up the middle to Aaron Boone to put runners on first and second with no outs. Then he got Ruben Sierra to tap back to him, getting the force at second base and putting runners on the corners with one out.

At this point, it was 3-0 Twins with one out in the 7th inning and Alfonso Soriano was at the plate as the game's tying-run. Just as he did against Tejada last season, Latroy Hawkins showed complete confidence in his ability to simply overpower one of the league's best hitters. He pumped 95 MPH fastballs into Soriano again and again, finally getting him to strike out swinging on the fifth pitch of the at bat.

With two outs, Nick Johnson came to the plate, once again as the tying-run. Hawkins kept pumping those fastballs in at 94, 95, 96 MPH, but Johnson wouldn't give in. With the count at 1-2, Johnson took ball two and then fouled off four straight pitches. With the ninth pitch of the at bat coming up, I wanted Hawkins to "give in" and throw Johnson an off-speed pitch. Thankfully, he didn't. Latroy threw a straight fastball right by Johnson, who swung at it and missed for strike three, ending the inning and the threat.

Hawkins came out again for the bottom of the 8th inning. He got Jeter to ground out to second base and then struck out both Giambi and Posada swinging. After eight innings of play, the Twins led 3-0 and Latroy Hawkins' work was done:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT     STR

2 1 0 0 0 4 0 27 21

27 pitches, 21 of them strikes, almost all of them fastballs.

He dominated some of the best hitters in baseball by simply overpowering them with one pitch. And he was able to bridge the gap from the bottom of the 7th inning to the bottom of the 9th, at which point Eddie Guardado took over.

Of course, after Hawkins dominated for two innings, Eddie had to come in and make things "interesting."

Bernie Williams lined the very first pitch Guardado threw into right field for a single. Hideki Matsui lined the second offering from Guardado into deeeeep left field. When it first left the bat, I thought it was an out. When it got to the outfield, I thought it was a home run. And I think it might have been, but Shannon Stewart did this...

It was an amazing catch, saving at least a double and perhaps even a homer. He somehow managed to get all the back to the wall, make a great leap for the ball and catch it, all while avoiding a Jeffrey Maier wannabe who nearly took the ball away from him.

With that catastrophe averted, Guardado got ahead Aaron Boone with a first-pitch strike, the first pitch he threw that wasn't hit very hard somewhere. On the next pitch, Boone lined a hit hard down the left field line for a double, putting runners on second and third, with one out.

Guardado simply didn't have it. He was throwing strikes, but they weren't fooling anyone, and he was getting hit hard. Fortunately for him, Ruben Sierra was the next man he faced. He got Sierra 1-1 and then threw the third pitch high and outside. Sierra, never known for his plate discipline, took a lazy hack at what would have definitely been ball two, popping it up to Jacque Jones in right field for the second out of the inning.

Alfonso Soriano came to the plate next as the tying-run, and he hit a high chopper up the middle that Luis Rivas nearly made a nice play on. Soriano beat it by a step and Bernie Williams scored from third for New York's first run of the game. Runners on first and third, two outs, and suddenly Nick Johnson was up as the game-winning run.

I don't know how exactly he did it, but Guardado somehow got Johnson to hit a ground ball to third base, which Corey Koskie fielded cleanly and heaved over to first for the final out of the game.

Twins 3, Yankees 1.

If you would have told me about this game and I hadn't watched it, I would have had a hard time believing you. First of all, Johan Santana left the game after four innings and was relieved by Rick Reed, yet the Twins didn't lose. The Twins also had to get four outs from J.C. Romero, who has been terrible this year. Then Eddie Guardado came in, had absolutely nothing, and had to rely on a great defensive play by Shannon Stewart (seriously, a great defensive play by Shannon Stewart) in the bottom of the 9th inning to help save the game.

Not exactly how I envisioned a possible Game One victory taking place, but I sure am happy to have it.

A couple of other notes on the game...

While Stewart made that great catch for the Twins, New York's defense was very poor. As I discussed in some length during my preview of this series, the Yankees have the worst defense of any of the playoff teams and one of the worst in all of baseball. It certainly showed yesterday.

The Twins got several "infield singles" on plays that certainly could have been made. The first run they scored came courtesy of some aggressive baserunning by Cristian Guzman, who was able to beat a throw from Matsui into third base. Actually, the throw beat him to the bag, but Aaron Boone missed the tag.

Guzman then scored on a short fly ball to center field, beating the throw from Bernie Williams with relative ease, despite the fact that Bernie uncorked it from just behind second base.

The second and third runs of the game were almost all because of New York's sub par D. With Matthew LeCroy, perhaps the slowest runner in baseball, on first base, Torii Hunter hit a line drive single into center field. Bernie Williams ran over to cut it off, but the ball skipped under his glove. LeCroy, who had already stopped at second, came all the way around to score, and Hunter went sliding into third with a "triple." But wait, it gets better.

As Hunter was sliding into third, Soriano cut the throw off from the outfield and decided he was going to try to throw Torii out. The throw sailed over Boone's head, allowing Hunter to sprint home for what was essentially an inside-the-park homer.

If Matsui makes a better throw or Boone makes a better tag, the Twins don't score the first run. If Bernie doesn't completely botch the play in center field, they may not have scored the second and third runs. The Yankees could very easily have won the game 1-0.

Okay, enough about the Twins and Yankees. Here are a few thoughts on the other two games from yesterday...

When you make a whole bunch of statements and predictions about a playoff series, like I did in all of my series previews, you often find that many of your comments turn out to be completely wrong or at least fairly irrelevant. I mean, you can say one team is good at this or another team should be able to take advantage of that but, more often than not, stuff will happen that you did not predict at all and the stuff you did predict will turn out to be a non-factor.

But yesterday, it seemed like a lot of the topics I discussed in the previews were very relevant...

In talking about Florida's offense in my Marlins/Giants preview, I said the following:

"You've got a team full of right-handed hitters who don't do nearly as well against righties as they do lefties, and they are going up against one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, who dominates right-handed (and left-handed) batters. Oh, and they'll be seeing him twice this series if it goes the distance. Throw in the fact that it is very likely both of Schmidt's starts will come in Pac Bell, where he is 15-6 with a 2.31 ERA over the last two years, and the Marlins could be in serious trouble."

Here is Jason Schmidt's line from yesterday afternoon:

IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT

9 3 0 0 0 5 0 111

Schmidt dominated Florida's hitters, holding the Marlins to just three lousy singles all game. He needed just 111 pitches for the complete-game shutout, throwing 74% of them for strikes.

In that same preview, I talked about whether or not I would pitch to Barry Bonds:

"If I were a manager facing Barry Bonds in a playoff series, my decision would be an easy one. Whenever it was even remotely possible, I would walk him. I wouldn't do it in the first few innings when the bases were empty or with the bases loaded, but he'd be getting four wide of the plate in just about every other situation.

I just don't think it is worth the heavy risk you take throwing him something close to the strike zone and the rest of the San Francisco lineup is not incredibly strong. Without Bonds' totals included, the Giants are batting .262 as a team, with a slugging percentage of just .400. I would simply make those other hitters beat me."

Jack McKeon and the Marlins did exactly that yesterday, walking Bonds 3 times in 4 plate appearances. They forced the other hitters in San Francisco's lineup to beat them, and they did. With the score 1-0 Giants in the bottom of the 8th, Bonds came up to the plate with two outs and no one on base. The Marlins promptly intentionally walked him, which is a pretty extreme case of not pitching to someone, but one that I agree with in that situation.

After getting the walk, Bonds took off for second base and made it, when Chad Fox's throw over to first was in the dirt. Then, with Bonds on second courtesy of the "steal," Edgardo Alfonzo hit a deeeeep drive to center field, over the leaping Juan Pierre. Bonds came around to score and it was 2-0 Giants. Obviously Florida didn't score, so the one run would have held up, but a little insurance in a tight ballgame never hurt anyone.

Some stuff I said in my preview of the Cubs/Braves series also seemed fairly important last night:

"It is going to be up to Atlanta's offense to put tons of runs on the board, like they have all season. I just don't see them doing that against Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and even Zambrano.

If Chicago can put together any sort of offense in this series and if Dusty Baker can effectively manage the bullpen, I think the Cubs will surprise a lot of people. If I were Dusty, I would shorten things up so that the only guys seeing the light of day in anything resembling a close game are Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski. That gives him a lefty, a righty and a closer, which should be plenty in the post-season, especially with Chicago's starters."

And what happened last night? Well, Kerry Wood shutdown the powerful Atlanta offense, pitching 7 great innings before tiring in the 8th. Then, Dusty Baker went to the bullpen used three relievers to finish the game - "Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski." They were even in that same order!

I also said the following about Atlanta's pitching-staff:

"This feels very strange coming out of my mouth, but I really think the Braves do not have enough quality pitching. Ortiz has 21 wins this year, but he hasn't been that great, as his 3.81 ERA shows.

In the bullpen, it is John Smoltz and a whole lot of iffy guys. The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign."

Russ Ortiz was all over the place all night and the Cubs eventually touched him up for 4 runs in sixth inning. Actually, only 3 runs were in when Ortiz left the game, at which point Ray King came in and immediately gave up a run-scoring single to Kenny Lofton.

Repeat after me: "The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign."

That's all for today. Can you believe all of that happened and it was just the first day of the playoffs? Man, I love baseball! Enjoy today's games and I'll see you here tomorrow...

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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