September 29, 2004

Let's Lose Two

The bad news is that the Twins dropped both games of yesterday's doubleheader to the Yankees and fell into a tie for homefield advantage in the first round with the Angels, who are suddenly in sole possession of first place in the AL West. What that means is that the Twins probably need to win at least two of their remaining four games, or risk going up against New York in the opening round.

The good news is that, as I discussed in some depth last week, I'm not so sure the Twins wouldn't be better off playing New York in the first round anyway, as opposed to facing Boston. Although Minnesota lost both games, yesterday's twin-bill further convinced me that the Yankees are the more beatable team. I'd still much rather take my chances against whoever comes out of the AL West, of course, but that's not an option.

While they are no doubt a very good team, perhaps even the best team in the league, the Yankees don't scare me like they have in the past. They are flawed and they are vulnerable, and unlike last year, I think the Twins can actually beat them.

While the Twins will go with Johan Santana (who looked very good yesterday) and Brad Radke two games apiece in the first round, I'm not even sure who the Yankees will call on to start in the ALDS at this point. Yesterday's starters, Mike Mussina and Jon Lieber, both looked very hittable, giving up a total of 17 hits and seven runs in 11.2 innings.

Meanwhile, Orlando Hernandez, who is 8-1 with a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts, had his most recent start pushed back because of some shoulder problems, and Kevin Brown lasted just two-thirds of an inning in his return from the DL. The guy I thought would be one of the best pitchers in the AL this year, Javier Vazquez, is 14-10 with a 4.89 ERA, and has gone 4-5 with a bloated 7.06 ERA since the All-Star break.

Of course, while the Yankees have won behind some very good pitching in past years, what has made them scary has usually been their offense. Despite scoring the second-most runs in baseball, this version of the Yankees' hitting attack doesn't strike the same sort of fear in me that past lineups have.

It's obviously still a dangerous group, with Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui all among the best offensive players at their position, but their lineup also includes a lot of Bernie Williams (.258/.356/.424), John Olerud (.257/.354/.365), Kenny Lofton (.273/.344/.398), Ruben Sierra (.250/.300/.467) and Miguel Cairo (.291/.346/.419), not to mention a punchless Jason Giambi (.213/.348/.391).

Guys like Williams and Cairo have been relatively productive, but it's no longer even close to true that the Yankees' lineup doesn't have spots in it where the opposing pitcher can relax. I guess what I'm saying is that New York's offense is still plenty scary, but it's not "let's try to hold 'em to single digits today" scary. That, combined with the questions about the starting pitching, gives me a surprising amount of confidence that the Twins can beat the Yankees. Not that they will, just that they can.

Santana's Last Start

When a team wants to give a pitcher a rest, like the Twins did with Santana yesterday, why do they limit his innings pitched, rather than his pitches thrown? I've never understood this. In other words, why commit to letting a pitcher throw just five innings, when five innings could mean 50 pitches or it could mean 120 pitches? Why not just limit the pitch count to 75?

My guess is that the answer to that question has everything to do with needing to pitch five innings to qualify for a win, which makes what happened yesterday pretty tough to take. Santana exited the first game of the doubleheader after five innings and 71 pitches (making my confusing question pointless), and in a position to get his 21st win of the season. Sadly, the Twins' bullpen couldn't get the job done, as J.C. Romero and Juan Rincon combined to blow the 3-1 lead for Santana.

If, for some idiotic reason, Santana doesn't end up winning the AL Cy Young award, you can point to the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 1 yesterday as the reason. Down 3-1 with Santana out of the game, the Yankees scored four runs to take a 5-3 lead, sticking Santana with a no-decision and causing me to say something along the lines of "#%$&*!" as Derek Jeter's chopper bounced off the glove of Rincon.

Santana finishes the year at 20-6 with a league-leading 2.61 ERA in 228 innings. He struck out an AL-best 265 batters, walked only 54, and allowed opponents to hit just .192 against him. It is, without question, one of the best seasons by a pitcher in Twins history and the best season by any pitcher in the AL this year, and also perhaps the best season of any AL player, period.

I cannot imagine a pitcher performing better or dominating more than Santana did in the second half, and it was an extraordinary experience to watch him every fifth day. On a personal level, it felt pretty good to see him flourish and become a household name around baseball, just a couple years after I made it my life's work to get him into the starting rotation.

While I've probably been Santana's biggest supporter and promoter over the past few years, what he did this season exceeded even my wildest expectations. I went from constantly complaining about him being stuck in the bullpen to constantly trying to convince people that he's been the best pitcher in the league. I'd say the "FREE JOHAN SANTANA!" campaign went pretty well.

Beating Mr. Aces

I was playing a $20 Sit & Go tournament Tuesday evening and one of the other nine players was dealt AA as a starting hand five times. I know this because he won a showdown the first time and then proceeded to show the rest of the table what he had each time after that, while everyone made comments along the lines of "again?!" every time.

The odds of that happening in one sitting, in a 45-minute span, have got to be astronomical. And as if that weren't enough, he also got KK once (when he showed that, one person commented that they were "disappointed" not to see aces).

But here's the good part: I beat him. While my highest pocket pair the entire time was nines, I grinded away at the blinds of other players, let Mr. Aces do all the dirty work knocking everyone else out of the tourney, and then went up against him head-to-head.

I really should keep track of this sort of thing (you'd think I would, being a stat-head and all), but I would guess that my winning percentage when I get to head-to-head in a Sit & Go is at least 60%. I think a lot of players at the relatively low levels I play at don't realize how differently you need to play with just two players left, and how that impacts what starting hands you play and how you play them.

Out-chipped nearly 5-to-1, I took his blinds a couple times when he failed to call the big blind (a mistake in head-to-head, usually), bluffed the flop with six-high to take down a small pot when he did call the blind, and then doubled up when he went all-in with top pair and I called with two pairs.

After that, his entire strategy changed, as he went from the table bully to an unsure player, checking whenever he didn't hit a flop, which allowed me to take down pot after pot, even when I also missed. He made a little comeback when he was down to $500, doubling up twice on me, but I eventually knocked him out with the aforementioned pocket nines that held up against his QJ offsuit.

My bankroll has been going through some fairly big fluctuations lately, but after that win I found myself back up to right around my highest point ever, give or take a few bucks. I was thinking that if the Sit & Go tourneys didn't take a 10% entry fee ($1 on a $10 tourney, $2 on a $20 tourney, etc.), my bankroll would really be looking good, as I'd guess I've played well over 100 of them.

Oh, and as if that weren't enough, I bought my first ever set of poker chips last weekend, getting a nice 500-chip set of "dice" chips that I've been playing with in my dorm room ever since. There's something soothing about the clackity-clack-clack of shuffling chips while you work on your journalism assignments.

Now, all I need to do is find a good weekly home game near me, and I can become a full-fledged poker degenerate.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Park Factoring (by Aaron Gleeman)

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

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