April 22, 2005

Twins 10, Royals 9

It took 16 games, but I finally missed my first Twins game of the season yesterday afternoon. The game against the Royals was once again not available on TV here in the Twin Cities, and for the first time no technological miracles provided me with a special viewing. The 10-9 victory in extra innings turned out to be one of the more exciting games of the season, of course.

Anyway, my notes on the game are obviously rather limited by the fact that I didn't see a single pitch. So, instead of talking about things I saw yesterday, here are some things I missed ...

... Lew Ford going 4-for-6 with the game-winning RBI in the 10th inning to snap out of his early funk. Despite all his struggles and all the ink wasted on dissecting his situation with the team, Ford is now batting .296/.356/.444 on the year. He hit .299/.381/.446 last season.

... Dave Gassner erasing his great first impression with a poor outing. Gassner pitched a lot more like the guy I had major doubts about yesterday, giving up five runs while recording just five outs. He now heads back to Triple-A with a 5.87 ERA. I'm glad his good start came before his bad start, though, because it was nice to see his family crying over being happy last week. Gassner isn't as good as his first start and he's not as bad as his second start, but I think his 5.87 ERA is at least reasonably close to what can be expected from him over the long haul.

... Terry Tiffee striking out in his last major-league at-bat for at least a little while. Tiffee was sent down immediately after the game to make room for Justin Morneau on the roster. He did well in his eight-game stint, hitting .280/.345/.520, but also grounded into three double plays in 29 plate appearances and went 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly in three chances with the bases loaded. Tiffee will be back as soon as the Twins decide Joe Mauer's knee is no longer something to be worried about on an everyday basis.

... Mauer pinch hitting for Corky Miller in the ninth inning and then staying in the game defensively. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Mauer had started three straight games before yesterday, so the fact that Ron Gardenhire was willing to use him defensively for a fourth consecutive game says a lot about the current state of The Knee. Mauer was intentionally walked to bring his on-base percentage up to .411 on the year.

... Michael Cuddyer shifting from third base to second base in the late innings. Yes, I know Cuddyer has been disappointing this year. And yes, I know most people think he's better suited for third base than second base. It still warms my heart to know that there is at least a glimmer of hope that Cuddyer could still take Luis Rivas' job. Of course, Cuddyer will have to actually start hitting for that to be a positive thing. He is just barely out-OPSing Rivas right now, .617 to .536.

... Torii Hunter continuing his hot hitting. Hunter was struggling early, but he went 3-for-4 in Game 1 of the Kansas City series and then went 2-for-4 with a homer, two walks, three RBIs, and three runs scored yesterday. He is now up to a very solid and very Hunter-like .274/.338/.532 on the year. Oh, and he stole another two bases yesterday. As I discussed earlier this week, Hunter is on a major base-stealing roll dating back to last season. He is now 25 for his last 28 (89.3%).

UPDATE: A reader who actually saw the game writes in with the following about Hunter's two stolen bases: "He was picked off both times but escaped actually being out. The first one he was dead picked off of 1st base but the runner on 3rd became a distraction after Sweeney (apparently) missed the tag on Hunter and Torii managed to get to 2nd. From where I was sitting Hunter was out on that play, and Tony Pena had a long discussion with the 1B Umpire about it also. The second time, Hunter did his little, the pitcher isn't paying attention so I'll just go move. Except that he went too early and MacDougal had him dead at second. Except that MacDougal threw the ball into center field."

... Jason Bartlett collecting multiple hits for the first time since April 13. Bartlett's batting average stood at .360 after going 2-for-5 against the Tigers that day, but it had fallen all the way down to .238 before yesterday's game. After going 2-for-6 with a double and three runs scored, it's now at least back up to .250.

... Matthew LeCroy's second homer of the year. LeCroy, who has done a spectacular job filling in for Morneau, went 3-for-5 with a homer and two RBIs yesterday. He is now up to .333/.440/.500 on the year. The most shocking thing about his performance thus far? Six walks in 50 plate appearances. LeCroy is currently walking .120 times per plate appearance, which is nearly double his career rate of .065 coming into this season. He has also seen 4.06 pitches per plate appearance, up over 10% from his career numbers.

... Juan Rincon giving up his first run of the season. He is actually human apparently, as his 1.08 ERA shows. Sort of.

... Joe Nathan not giving up a run for the eighth time this season. Nathan picked up his first win of the season by striking out the side in the top of the 10th inning and then watching as the Twins scored in the bottom of the frame. He is now 1-0 with five saves and a 0.00 ERA in eight appearances, with 10 strikeouts and zero walks in 7.1 innings.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Blast From The Past: Wally Berger (by John Brattain)
- Hardball Questions: Richard Pound (by Ben Jacobs)

Today's Picks (21-11, +$1,100):
Los Angeles (Weaver) -140 over Colorado (Jennings)

April 20, 2005

Twins 5, Royals 4

Last night's game wasn't on TV in the Twin Cities, and while I thought long and hard about heading to the Metrodome to catch Johan Santana in action for the first time this season, I decided against it once I realized the Kansas City broadcast feed was available thanks to the miracle of technology. Instead, I watched the game while eating Chinese food and working on my Rotoworld column for this week.

Some notes ...

  • The Royals' announcers were obsessed with meaningless statistics. Before the first pitch had even been thrown, the fact that Kansas City started the season 3-0 with Alberto Castillo in the lineup was mentioned three different times, with one of the times accompanied by a fancy on-screen graphic. A little later, one of the announcers said, "Terrence Long, who is in the lineup tonight, is a .400 career hitter against Santana." Then, a few moments later when the lineup was shown, the same guy said, "Long is 6-for-15 lifetime against Santana."

    Well, Castillo was in the lineup and the Royals lost, and Long went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Santana. In the announcers' defense (one was former Kansas City pitcher Paul Splittorff and I didn't catch the other guy's name), they were very tolerable considering they were announcing for the team the Twins were playing. And if that doesn't make sense to you, you've obviously never watched your favorite team play the White Sox on WGN.

    With that said, they gushed over Castillo each time he came to the plate in such a way that I can't even fathom the things they would say about him if he wasn't a horrible player. They made a guy with a .295 career slugging percentage in 10 major-league seasons sound like Johnny Bench. Also, at one point the play-by-play guy actually said the following words: "The Royals had been having a dickens of a time scoring runs."

  • Johan's wife apparently gave birth to their second child less than an hour before the game started. My mom's reaction? "He didn't take the day off to be with his wife, huh?" Thankfully, no.

    My theory about Santana has always been that you can tell when he's really pitching well when he gets a lot of weak pop ups to right field. Strikeouts are also an indicator of him feeling good, obviously, but he has shown in the past that he can get strikeouts even when he's not quite right. Within the first two innings last night, Santana got both Tony Graffanino and Eli Marrero to pop up weakly to Jacque Jones in shallow right field.

    Santana induced another weak pop up to right field against Joe McEwing in the third inning, but it dropped for a base hit. Last year, when Santana was really rolling, those were all gobbled up for outs. This year quite a few of them are falling for hits, which is why his batting average against isn't very Santana-like. McEwing's blooper really hurt, because instead of the inning being over, David DeJesus and Graffanino followed with consecutive singles, scoring McEwing, and Mike Sweeney scored himself, DeJesus, and Graffanino with a three-run homer down the left-field line.

    Santana was missing high and outside all night to right-handed hitters, and I'm wondering if the blister on his middle finger is hurting his grip and control. He managed to get back on track after the ugly third inning, but it ended up being yet another "except for" start. As in, Santana was incredibly dominant and pitched extremely well, except for those four straight hits in the third inning.

    Santana's final line: 7 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 10 SO. He didn't pick up the win and his ERA rose 0.32 points to 4.32, but Santana did improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio to an amazing 37-to-2 in 25 innings on the year. For those of you without a calculator, that works out to 13.32 strikeouts per nine innings and 18.5 strikeouts for every walk.

  • The Official Whipping Boy of AG.com, Luis Rivas, made a great play in the first inning on a sharp grounder off the bat of Sweeney that appeared to be headed into right field for a base hit. Rivas did a full out dive, snared the ball, popped up, and made a strong throw to nail Sweeney at first base. About 10 seconds before the play, I was thinking to myself, "Geez, this is a really bad defensive infield tonight."

    Of course, Rivas later become the first middle infielder I have ever seen lose an infield flare "in the lights." It was one of the strangest, most awkward fielding plays I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. Incidentally, Rivas is now hitting .250/.290/.250. That's zero extra-base hits and one walk, if you're curious.

  • Juan Castro, who is one of the worst offensive players of this or any era, once again batted second in the Twins' lineup last night. This makes no sense whatsoever, and I don't care what position Castro plays, how comfortable he is batting in that spot, or how good he is "handling the bat." If he was that good handling the bat, he wouldn't be a career .226/.269/.331 hitter. And why, exactly, is a guy with a .269 career on-base percentage batting directly in front of the team's best hitter?

    The Twins' disturbing lack of bench strength was exposed last night when Castro was left in to bat with two men on base and two outs in the eighth inning of a 5-4 game. The bench at that point? Two no-hit catchers, Mike Redmond and Corky Miller, and two middle infielders, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. Meanwhile, Michael Restovich is batting like .750 with the Rockies.

  • Here's an obvious thought that just came to me during Lew Ford's first at-bat last night: Assuming Jones leaves as a free agent this offseason, Ford could take over in right field. That means designated hitter would be left open for Jason Kubel, who despite being the Twins' "rightfielder of the future" will be coming off a major knee injury. A year at DH could be pretty nice for Kubel, and obviously I like the idea of Ford getting some time in the outfield for once. What this has to do with last night's game is anyone's guess.
  • Torii Hunter is in an amazing zone on the bases. He is now 7-for-7 stealing bases on the year, and at least three of them have come without the catcher even making a throw to second base. Dating back to the second half of last season, Hunter is 23 for his last 26 (88.5%). Prior to that, he was 57-for-92 (62.0%). Of course, Hunter's steal mattered very little last night, because Jones hit a two-run homer into the upperdeck in right-center three pitches later.
  • Hunter also collected three hits to raise his batting average to .259, but came up empty in a pretty big spot. With two runners on base and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, he took a slider right over the heart of the plate for a called third strike. In fact, take a look at MLB.com's pitch-location chart for the entire at-bat:

    At least he stayed away from that first pitch out of the strike zone, right?

  • Hunter's poor at-bat with two men on was just the tip of the iceberg. After stranding about 3,000 runners in the two-game series with the White Sox, the Twins' futility with runners in scoring position unfortunately carried over to last night's game.

    Matthew LeCroy and Hunter led off the fourth inning with back-to-back singles and Jones walked to load the bases with no outs and Ford up. Ford laid off two breaking balls out of the strike zone to run the count full. Then, just as the Kansas City announcers informed everyone that the Twins were zero for their last eight with the bases loaded, Ford popped up the 3-2 pitch into shallow left field for an easy out. Terry Tiffee followed with an equally easy inning-ending double play.

    Make that 0-for-10, including an astounding six double plays. That means the Twins had gotten zero hits and used up 16 outs in the last 10 times they were in the single most beneficial situation a team can possibly be in. In the sixth, after Hunter doubled and Jones was intentionally walked, Ford drew a 3-2 walk to once again load the bases, this time with one out and Tiffee up. He failed to get a hit, but at least made his out in medium center field, so Hunter could tag and score from third to tie the game. Rivas then finished the inning with a ground out, stranding two runners.

    The Twins finally broke through in the eighth inning, when they loaded the bases for yet another time with one out. Shannon Stewart was up and he hit another vomit-inducing, here-comes-a-double-play grounder to shortstop, but this one miraculously snuck past Angel Berroa and into left field. It broke the 0-for-10 streak with the bases loaded and scored Ford from third base with the go-ahead run.

    Al Newman sent Tiffee home from second base too, but Long threw him out at the plate easily. It was a poor decision by Newman, as the grounder was hit right in front of Tiffee, so he had to actually hold up for a second to make sure it got through without hitting him in the leg. No one will remember that though, since Joe Nathan shut things down in the ninth to preserve the one-run lead and get the win.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Ten Things I Didn't Know Last Week (by Studes)

    Today's Picks (18-11, +$790):
    Boston (Clement) +110 over Baltimore (Lopez)
    New York (Mussina) -125 over Toronto (Chacin)
    Oakland (Harden) -110 over Seattle (Franklin)

    White Sox 3, Twins 1

    I don't want to talk about it. Fourteen hits. One run. At least Johan is on the mound today.

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Hot Starts and On-Pace-Fors (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

    Today's Picks (16-9, +$775):
    New York (Pavano) -130 over Toronto (Lilly)
    Chicago (Garland) +115 over Detroit (Ledezma)
    Kansas City (Lima) +270 over Minnesota (Santana)
    Cleveland (Westbrook) +145 over Los Angeles (Colon)

    April 18, 2005

    White Sox 5, Twins 4

  • Small ball my ass.

    The next person who says the White Sox are winning because of "small ball" or "smart ball" or any similar nonsense deserves to have their baseball-watching privileges revoked immediately. Chicago came into last night's game tied for third in the American League in home runs with 14, thanks in large part to Paul Konerko's league-leading six long balls. Carl Everett homered twice off Kyle Lohse last night, accounting for three of Chicago's five runs, with the other two runs coming on a Joe Crede homer. In other words, same old White Sox.

    Ozzie Guillen and delusional sportswriters from Chicago can talk about "doing the little things" all they want, but the White Sox won last night because Jose Contreras somehow avoided completely melting down, the bullpen came in and shut the Twins down, and the lineup smacked the hell out of the ball. It's not a new formula for success or something that has a catchy nickname, but it works better than any strategy that has bunting prominently involved. I dream of the day the White Sox have to actually try to beat the Twins by running and bunting.

  • The White Sox aren't exactly rushing Frank Thomas back to the lineup, and rightfully so. His replacement at designated hitter, Everett, is killing the ball right now. Or at least he's killing the Twins right now -- his two homers last night continued a career-long trend of beating up on Minnesota pitching. Even before last night, Everett was a .343/.391/.555 hitter in 43 career games against the Twins (compared to .277/.347/.473 overall). He looked like he was taking batting practice against Lohse.
  • Despite Everett's heroics, the Twins more or less shot themselves in the foot on the way to losing an extremely winnable game for the second day in a row. After falling apart in the late innings against Cleveland Sunday, the Twins simply couldn't come through with even one key hit when it really mattered last night. And they had plenty of chances.

    After loading the bases against an extremely shaky Contreras with one out in the top of the first inning, Torii Hunter let him off the hook. Not only did Hunter hack at the first two pitches he saw despite the fact that Contreras had used 33 pitches to get one out, Hunter then grounded into an inning-ending double play. A hit in that spot and the game might very well have been busted wide open, because Contreras looked like a fighter who was clinging to the ropes so he wouldn't fall face first into the canvas.

    Later, with Contreras long gone, the Twins again loaded the bases with just one out in the top of the sixth inning. This time Joe Mauer was at the plate, but he was uncharacteristically just as impatient as Hunter, swinging at the first pitch he saw and grounding it weakly to second base for another inning-ending double play. In all, the Twins grounded into three double plays -- two with the bases loaded -- and also lost a key runner on a stolen base attempt. If any of those things don't happen, the Twins aren't in second place this morning.

  • When he wasn't grounding into a debilitating double play that had me wanting to punch the television, Mauer had a good game. He went 2-for-4 with a walk and his first home run of the year (a ninth-inning shot off Shingo Takatsu that brought the Twins to within one run). After a relatively slow start, Mauer is now hitting .317/.391/.463 on the year.
  • When Jacque Jones was rounding third with the Twins' first run of the game in the second inning, he had a look on his face that said, "I hope there is a play at the plate, because I will destroy A.J." Sadly, Aaron Rowand air-mailed the throw and both Jones and A.J. Pierzynski were safe.

    Pierzynski had a rough night, bouncing a couple throws to second base, including one that rolled into center field on Hunter's stolen base in the fifth inning. Hunter advanced to third base on the play and then scored one pitch later when Contreras uncorked a wild pitch that bounced past Pierzynski to the backstop. Of course, Pierzynski got a little revenge in the sixth inning when he nailed Michael Cuddyer trying to steal second.

    The Cuddyer steal attempt was a weird one, because it came on a pitch that Luis Rivas nearly bunted. Instead, Rivas pulled his bat back, the pitch was called a ball, and Cuddyer was cut down at second. It ended up costing the Twins, because Shannon Stewart's single two batters later may have scored Cuddyer from second if a) he had stolen the base, or b) Rivas had gotten the bunt down. Rather than that happening, the Twins loaded the bases with a couple walks and then failed to score when Mauer hit into the double play.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - A History of the LOOGY: Part One (by Steve Treder)
    - Game in Review: Angels vs. the A's (by Studes)

    Today's Picks (15-8, +$785):
    Chicago (Prior) -145 over Cincinnati (Claussen)
    Atlanta (Thomson) -110 over Houston (Backe)

    April 17, 2005

    Twins Take 2 of 3 From Indians

  • Dave Gassner was exactly as advertised and pitched about as well as could have reasonably been expected in his first big-league game. I found it impossible to watch Gassner without thinking of Jamie Moyer, from the lack of velocity and abundance of off-speed stuff on the outside corner to the slow-motion left-handed delivery. With Carlos Silva's miraculous recovery from a knee injury that reports initially had keeping him out for at least half the year, Gassner is likely headed back to Triple-A very soon, although the Twins could certainly decide to keep him in the bullpen over Matt Guerrier.

    It was really wonderful to watch as Gassner's family congratulated him after the game. More than 100 of them traveled to Cleveland from Wisconsin to see his major-league debut, and many of them got very emotional. A young woman whom I assume is Gassner's wife gave him a long, intense hug and then began sobbing as she turned away from him. I can voice my skepticism about Gassner being successful in a major-league rotation on a long-term basis, but all that stuff takes a backseat when you see just how much winning a game in the big leagues means to someone.

    La Velle E. Neal's game story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune had a good quote from Gassner: "I was a little nervous. My game, really, is that I have to concentrate and locate the ball. I don't throw hard enough to blow it by anybody, so I have to stay calm, stay slow and in control and let the defense do the rest." We also learned, thanks to Ron Gardenhire, that Gassner's nickname is "The Gassman." Not great, but considering the lack of decent nicknames around baseball these days, that one is actually not too bad.

    Gassner's final line: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO, 1 HR

  • I thought Gardenhire's decision to bring Terry Mulholland in to relieve Gassner was a very strange one. It was a 3-2 game in the bottom of the seventh inning, and Cleveland had right-handed hitters Jose Hernandez and Ryan Ludwick due up, followed by switch-hitter Josh Bard. Hernandez and Ludwick were only in the starting lineup in order to face the left-handed Gassner, so why bring a lefty in to relieve him and face them? And if you're going to bring in a lefty in a one-run game in the seventh inning, why your long reliever and not J.C. Romero?

    It worked out well enough, as Mulholland got out of the inning without allowing any runs and the Twins then scored three in the top of the eighth to take a four-run lead. Still, I don't get the thinking behind it. Since when does Mulholland protect small leads in the late innings? Where was Romero or Juan Rincon, or even Jesse Crain? It almost came back to bite the Twins too, as Mulholland gave up two runs in the bottom of the ninth when Hernandez singled and Ludwick homered. Gardenhire had to bring closer Joe Nathan in to get the final out in what was suddenly a two-run game.

  • Thankfully, bringing Mulholland in wasn't the only "interesting" pitching decision of the game. With Kevin Millwood sitting on 101 pitches through seven innings, having allowed three runs, Cleveland manager Eric Wedge sent him back out to the mound for the top of the eighth. Here's what happened:

    Single
    Walk
    Home Run

    I have no doubt that part of Wedge's reason for leaving Millwood in the game was that Millwood missed out on wins in his first two starts of the year thanks to poor run support. Down just one run in the eighth, Wedge wanted to give Millwood a chance to get through one more frame in the hopes that Cleveland's offense could take the lead for him in the bottom of the inning. The problem is that, even in the best-case scenario that has Millwood pitching a 1-2-3 inning, he would have finished with 115-120 pitches thrown. Is that really the sort of early season workload you want a starting pitcher who missed a big chunk of last season with elbow problems to have?

  • This stuff about Johan Santana having a blister on his middle finger is very concerning, because that is by far the worst non-serious problem a pitcher can have. It's the sort of thing that can linger all season while making a pitcher ineffective without actually keeping him out of action. Santana says it isn't a big deal and he certainly looked great against the Indians, but it is troublesome nonetheless. On the other hand, he is 3-0 with a 4.00 ERA and spectacular 27-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio right now, after being 0-0 with a 6.46 ERA and 10-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio after three starts last season.

    I commented to someone a few minutes before Friday's game that I was surprised Santana, who has had problems serving up homers in the past, hadn't allowed one yet this season. He then gave up two solo shots to the Indians, of course. Santana is certainly not quite on the top of his game yet and is giving up a few more singles per game than you'd like to see, but 27 strikeouts in 18 innings is a thing of beauty and his control has been amazing. I also like that after getting 18 ground ball outs compared to just six fly ball outs in his first two starts, Santana had five of each against Cleveland.

  • After months of complaining about Lew Ford's lack of outfield playing time, I am really loving Gardenhire's new outfield rotation. Ford started in center field Thursday, moved to right field Friday, and played left field Saturday. In each case Gardenhire gave the "normal" starter at the position a day off from defense, sticking him at designated hitter.

    Now, obviously putting Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones at DH isn't a great thing, but Gardenhire realizing that Ford playing zero defense on an everyday basis is a huge waste is a good thing. I think we're probably one tight Shannon Stewart hamstring from Ford getting some serious outfield action, and it was nice to Ford in right field and Jones on the bench yesterday against lefty C.C. Sabathia.

  • Jason Bartlett (unfortunately) provided a nice example of why we shouldn't get caught up in early season numbers. In discussing Bartlett's defense on Thursday, I wrote: "It also helps that he's hitting .360." After taking Thursday's game off, Bartlett went 0-for-4 Friday and 0-for-5 Saturday, and then sat out another game Sunday. He is now hitting .265. Of course, Bartlett's .265/.306/.412 is better than what Cristian Guzman hit last year (.274/.309/.384) and way better than what he's "hitting" so far this year (.122/.159/.146).
  • Juan Castro can't hit, he costs too much money, and his place on the roster is both superfluous and redundant. The man is also one hell of a fielder. That play he made on the horrific hop Friday was amazing. I only pray he doesn't start taking at-bats away from Michael Cuddyer at third base, although after Cuddyer's error there yesterday afternoon I'd say it's a very real possibility.
  • The season is 12 games old and guess which team is tied for the best record in the American League? Just wait until the cavalry starts coming off the disabled list.
  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - News, Notes and Quotes (April 18, 2005) (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Rivals in Exile: Slow Starts (by Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken)

    Today's Picks (13-7, +$680):
    Arizona (Webb) -105 over Colorado (Chacon)
    Toronto (Bush) +180 over Boston (Schilling)
    Oakland (Haren) +105 over Texas (Park)

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