July 23, 2004

Nick F'ing Punto and Why Wins are Dumb

For the ninth straight time, Johan Santana took the mound yesterday afternoon and was about as good as a pitcher can possibly be.

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT

7.0 3 1 1 3 10 1 101

And, through six innings, the Twins had scored him a grand total of just one run off Dewon Brazelton. Hell, they were being no-hit until Nick Punto got a single to drop in front of Carl Crawford in left field with no outs in the sixth inning.

Santana got into a little trouble in the top of the seventh, putting runners on first and second with walks, but got a big strikeout of Geoff Blum (who homered off him earlier) to end the threat.

He was clearly running on fumes at that point, so I was pretty sure his day was done. It was at this point I began getting annoyed by the Twins' continued lack of run support for Santana. He has pitched so brilliantly for the past two months, but the team continues to make his scratch and claw his way through close games.

Then, almost as if the Twins could sense the steam emanating from my ears, Corey Koskie and Jose Offerman drew walks off Jesus Colome, Shannon Stewart blooped a single just in front of Jose Cruz Jr. in right field, and the Twins had the bases loaded and no outs.

And up to the plate came Nick Punto, the man who could, if such cliches came true, be pictured in the dictionary under "utility infielder." Punto, who started at shortstop yesterday in place of Cristian Guzman, came into the at-bat with two career home runs in 178 major-league at-bats.

In my head, I was thinking, simply, "Don't hit into a double play," something I figured Punto, with the infield in and good speed, could probably avoid. In Nick Punto's head, he was thinking, "If he throws me something hard and over the plate, I'm going to destroy it."

Colome, who had been showing off his 97 MPH fastball and complete lack of control to the first several batters he faced, grooved a 95 MPH heater right over the plate for Punto and Punto put what I would consider a picture-perfect swing on the ball.

Full extension, nice and level, good follow-through, sweet spot on the ball. And the ball just took off. If anyone else would have hit it, I would have immediately known it was gone. I mean, the ball was clobbered. But since it was Punto who put the swing on the ball, I figured maybe it would get chased down on the warning track, or that it would bounce off the baggy for a bases-clearing double.

Nick Punto may not hit many home runs, but the one he hit yesterday couldn't have come at a better time and it couldn't have been more definite. Grand slam, 5-1 Twins.

My exact words, after the ball flew over the top of the wall in right-center, were a very affectionate "Nick F***ing Punto." I've found, strangely enough, that I show gratitude and respect for players who do something extraordinary by calling them names. As in, "Damn, Garnett's a motherf***er!" I'm not sure how to explain it, but I've noticed myself doing it more and more lately.

And with that, my complaints about run support were suddenly silent.

Then a funny thing happened. With my complaints calmed and the Twins holding a four-run lead, Juan Rincon came on to relieve Johan Santana. Rincon, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year, just didn't have it.

He seemed to be relying on his breaking stuff a lot more than usual and whatever he threw couldn't find the strike zone. He walked Rey Sanchez to lead off the inning (which, in itself, is nearly impossible), gave up a single to Carl Crawford, and then walked Tino Martinez.

Suddenly the tying run was at the plate in the form of Rocco Baldelli. But there was no way Rincon, who came into the game with a 1.88 ERA in 48 innings, would pick this game to completely implode. After all, this was Santana's win, and it was such a struggle and such a miracle just to score him those runs.

Sure enough, Rincon, just as Colome had done before him, served Baldelli a fat pitch out over the plate and Baldelli, just like Nick Punto before him, deposited it into the seats for a grand slam.

And just like that, Santana had another no-decision and the game was tied. Such is life as a baseball fan, I suppose. One moment you're ready to go crazy complaining about a lack of run support. The next moment, the team scores four runs to silence you. And the next moment, the team's most reliable setup man comes in and blows a four-run lead without recording a single out.

Incidentally, the next time someone uses a pitcher's wins and losses to show you how good or bad the pitcher is, just punch them in the face for me. Santana pitches brilliantly for seven innings, nearly doesn't get the win because the team can't score him any runs, and then actually gets a chance for the win because Punto hits the grand slam.

Then Rincon comes in and completely blows it for Santana, allowing J.C. Romero to pick up the "win" by pitching one decent inning directly before Michael Cuddyer hits the go-ahead homer.

So for seven great innings, Santana gets nothing. For one ridiculously bad inning -- and you can't even really call it an "inning," since Rincon didn't record any outs -- Rincon gets absolutely nothing. And for one good inning, timed perfectly between a reliever blowing the lead and a hitter smacking a home run, Romero gets the win.

For the love of Joe Morgan, does that make sense to anyone? The sickest thing, of course, is that if Rincon comes in, blows the game for Santana, and then manages to miraculously record three outs on his own, he would have gotten the win when Cuddyer homered in the bottom of the eighth.

Johan Santana can do a lot of things. He can baffle hitters with his fastball/change up combo for 10 starts in a row, he can single home a few runs in interleague play, and he can get me to devote thousands of words to his existence in this space each month.

Several of the things he cannot do are control how many runs his teammates score and when they score them, and how well or poorly his bullpen performs after relieving him. Until he can master those things, let's leave all the wins and losses and talk about guys who "know how to win" and guys who "pitch just well enough to lose" to the flat-earth society.

With all that said, it really would have been nice to get Johan that win. 🙂

New article at The Hardball Times: Early Returns on the Class of 2004

Today's picks:

San Diego (Lawrence) +110 over Los Angeles (Lima)

Florida (Penny) -140 over Montreal (Armas)

Chicago (Loaiza) -145 over Detroit (Robertson)

Oakland (Mulder) -150 over Texas (Rogers)

Total to date: -$3,385

W/L record: 125-172 (2-2 yesterday to break even.)

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

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