April 5, 2004

0-1 1-0

I watched the first Twins game of the year last night and, unfortunately, it sounds like it might be one of the few Twins games I am able to watch for a while. The Twins' new TV channel, Victory Sports, is still in contract disputes with the major cable and satellite providers here.

As it stands now, I'll only be able to watch about 25 of the Twins' 162 games this year, despite having cable at my dorm room and DirecTV with the MLB Extra Innings at my mom's house.

So I might not be able to do this often, but here are some notes on the Twins game last night...

The Metrodome has brand new turf this year and it is getting some rave reviews from the players. I don't know how it plays or feels, but I can say without hesitation that it looks about 1,000 times better than the old stuff.

With the new turf, the thing they're playing the game on actually looks not totally unlike a baseball field, which is a new experience for the Twins. It sort of looks like real grass, there's stuff that looks like dirt, and the color is actually green, instead of the faded blue/green stuff with all the worn out spots and seams popping up that they had before.

As for the actual game, they didn't play very well for the first seven innings and were down 4-0 when C.C. Sabathia exited the game after 104 pitches of 2-hit ball. Then Cleveland went to the bullpen and suddenly the bats came alive.

Minnesota's 8th inning went like this:

- Walk

- Single

- Ground Out

- Single

- Single

- Double

- Single

- Strikeout

- Strikeout

At the end of that, the game was tied 4-4.

Brad Radke left after six shaky innings and, amazingly, five relievers combined for five scoreless innings, as the game went into the bottom of the 11th tied at four.

What happened then was a thing of beauty. Jacque Jones struck out to start the inning (more on him in a second). Then Matthew LeCroy walked, and was pinch-run for by Nick Punto. Joe Mauer hit a line drive single to right field, putting runners on the corners with one out.

Cristian Guzman came up with a chance to be the hero and, of course, struck out. Shannon Stewart stepped to the plate with two down in the inning and showed him how it's done, yanking a Chad Durbin offering into the seats in left field. Just like that, 7-4 Twins, and the ballgame is over.

If I can't watch the Twins for a while, I guess it was good to see such a great game. You know, so I can remember the good times while I track their progress on whatever internet scoreboard is doing a decent job of tracking the game that night.

Before being the hero, Shannon Stewart started the season with a single up the middle in the bottom of the first and it looked like they'd be able to get something going right away. Luis Rivas came up to the plate and promptly grounded into a double play.

And then, wouldn't you know it, Doug Mientkiewicz came up next and hit a double into the right-field corner, which would have scored Stewart from first.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am perhaps the world's biggest Luis Rivas basher. I cannot, for the life of me, understand batting Luis Rivas second in the lineup.

The most obvious reason is that he is one of the team's worst hitters. He doesn't hit for a high average, he doesn't get on base and he doesn't hit for power. It's just common sense that you'd bat someone like that -- a lifetime .263/.312/.377 hitter -- as far away from the top of the lineup as you possibly can.

Of course, Ron Gardenhire is probably of the school of "thought" that speedy infielders should bat #2. And, if Rivas is anything, he's a speedy infielder. At the same time, he does something that very few speedy infielders do, which is ground into an incredible amount of double plays.

I'm not just talking about the one last night. Rivas grounded into 20 double plays in 475 at bats last season and has grounded into a total of 49 DPs in 1,412 career at bats.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Rivas had 105 "double play opportunities" last season and grounded into one in 21.0% of them . That was "good" for third-worst in all of the American League, behind a couple of sluggers, Magglio Ordonez (21.2%) and Paul Konerko (28.0%).

One of the things you always hear from the Twins in talking about Shannon Stewart is how he is a great leadoff man, capable of working counts and getting on base at the top of the lineup. This is very true, as Stewart's OBPs last year (.364) and during his entire career (.368) are very good.

So you've got this good leadoff man who gets on base at a very nice clip and you fill the spot immediately after him with a horrible hitter who grounds into a ton of double plays?

It is stuff like this that makes it very frustrating to be a Twins fan sometimes. I can understand playing Luis Rivas every day. I don't agree with it, certainly, but I can at least understand it on some level. Playing him everyday and batting him near the top of the lineup, directly behind a guy who is going to be standing on first base a lot, is almost more than I can stand.

Geez, this started off as a "notes" column and ended up as a huge anti-Rivas rant. Oh well. Back to the notes...

Joe Mauer looked very good last night. He finished the night 2-3 with two walks and two singles, and all five of his plate appearances were excellent. Mauer showed incredible discipline at the plate, save for one bad swing on a low breaking ball that he struck out on.

Mauer saw 20 pitches in his first four plate appearances, laying off all but one borderline pitch. After falling behind 1-2 to Jose Jimenez in the bottom of the 9th, he smacked a single up the middle. Then in the 11th, after being patient all night, he took ball one and then ripped a single into right field.

He looked about as good as a not-quite 21-year-old rookie in his first major league game could possibly have looked. I'm about as high on Mauer as anyone, but even I was impressed and pleasantly surprised.

While Mauer looked great, Brad Radke looked pretty bad. He has always relied on his ability to throw strikes and keep hitters off balance. He was throwing strikes last night, but no one was off-balance, and the result was three solo home runs in six innings.

He was able to go six innings while not totally imploding though, which is part of the reason why the Twins were able to come back and win. I didn't think any of the five relievers looked particularly great, but they certainly got the job done. Combined: 5 IP, 6 H, 3 SO, 0 BB.

While watching C.C. Sabathia shut the Twins down for seven innings, I remembered exactly how maddening it is watching Jacque Jones flail away against left-handed pitching on a regular basis.

Jones has never hit left-handed pitching and, as a corner outfielder, he simply should not be in the lineup against them. I've heard people point out Jones' batting average against lefties last year as a sign that he's improving against them and a reason why he should be in the lineup against them.

This is one of those instances where batting average just doesn't do the job. Jones did hit .269 against lefties last year, and that's not bad, but he also had a total of six walks (and 41 strikeouts) in 154 plate appearances against southpaws, which resulted in a horrible .310 on-base percentage. He didn't have any power either, hitting just two homers and 12 doubles, for a paltry .393 slugging percentage.

And those numbers -- .269/.310/.393 -- are actually an improvement over what he's done in the past. Over the last three years combined -- which includes last year's numbers -- Jones has hit just .231/.274/.336 against lefties.

That's just not a hitter who should in the lineup when someone like Sabathia is on the mound. Especially considering the Twins have someone like Michael Cuddyer on the bench, capable of replacing Jones in right field for a game or two a week.

The AL Central teams have a ton of left-handed starting pitching this season, from Kansas City's lefty-dominated rotation, to Sabathia and Cliff Lee in Cleveland and Mark Buehrle in Chicago. If Ron Gardenhire once again chooses to stick Jones in the lineup against all those lefties the Twins are going to be at a supreme disadvantage.

Playing someone who can't hit lefties is one thing. Playing them when you've got a young, right-handed slugger sitting on the bench, desperate for playing time...well, it goes along with batting Rivas #2 on my list of stuff to complain about.

Of course, leaving Cuddyer on the bench worked out okay last night. Gardenhire (thankfully) pinch-hit for Rivas in the 8th, bringing left-handed hitting Michael Ryan to the plate. Cleveland countered by bringing in a lefty from the bullpen, so Gardenhire pulled Ryan back and sent Cuddyer up. Cuddyer hit a 2-run single up the middle to start the scoring.

One thing I was really glad to see was that Gardenhire left Cuddyer at second base for the rest of the game. I would have bet money on Nick Punto playing there after Rivas was yanked, but Gardenhire surprised me. Cuddyer almost blew an easy ground ball, but he also made an amazing cutoff throw to nail Matt Lawton at the plate.

Maybe Gardenhire won't start Cuddyer in right field in place of Jones when lefties are pitching, but now we know he'll let him play second base. That means we are just one step away from the starting lineup reading: Cuddyer, 2B.

Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

Today's picks:

Boston (Schilling) -200 over Baltimore (DuBose)

Total to date: $255

W/L record: 4-4 (3-3 yesterday for +145, including a nice +220 on the Brewers.)

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

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