June 14, 2006

Twins 8, Red Sox 1

  • Brad Radke's early struggles have kept his ERA looking really ugly, but he's quietly turned things around. He posted an 8.89 ERA in April, but after six innings of one-run ball against Boston last night Radke has a 4.33 ERA in nine starts since May 1. In other words, he's basically back to being the Radke of old.

    The source of Radke's turnaround is pretty easy to spot. After serving up 10 long balls in his first 26.1 innings, Radke has now given up just five homers in the 54 innings since then. If Radke continues to pitch well and the Twins continue to sit below .500, it'll be interesting to see if any talk about him waiving his no-trade clause pops up around the trading deadline.

    Radke has talked about calling it quits and I'd certainly like to see him retire having played his entire career in Minnesota. On the other hand, the chance to finish with a contender might be appealing and cashing Radke in for prospects would help the Twins. After seeing Radke last night and previously pursuing him as a free agent, the Red Sox would probably be among several teams interested.

  • Justin Morneau got off to a fantastic start last season, hitting .439 in April, but then batted just .220 for the remainder of the year on his way to what was a very disappointing first full season. So far at least, this year has been the exact opposite. Morneau struggled in April, hitting .208, but since then has batted an even .300 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 38 games.

    He's still not walking much and remains very inconsistent against left-handed pitching, but the power has been extremely impressive. Perhaps just as importantly, Morneau is showing the all-around hitting skills that allowed him to post big batting averages in the minors after looking like an all-or-nothing slugger far too often with the Twins.

    New hitting coach Joe Vavra appears to have convinced the previously pull-happy Morneau to use the whole field without sacrificing his power, which is something the Twins have struggled to instill in their hitters for about two decades. Last night's grand slam gives Morneau 15 homers and 51 RBIs, putting him on pace for a 35-homer, 130-RBI season.

    For many teams that type of production wouldn't be particularly out of the ordinary, but the Twins haven't had someone with 30 homers since 1987 and their last 120-RBI campaign came when Kirby Puckett knocked in 121 runs way back in 1988. In fact, over the past 10 years the Twins had just four 100-RBI seasons. Morneau is already halfway there with 98 games to play.

  • While veterans Rondell White, Tony Batista, and Juan Castro are largely behind the Twins' poor record, a major bright spot has been the emergence of the team's young hitters. Morneau seems on the verge of becoming the player many hoped he would be, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer have been the team's top hitters, and Jason Kubel is on fire since coming back up from Triple-A.

    At some point I expect those four hitters to line up back-to-back-to-back-to-back in the Twins' batting order, either at 2-3-4-5 or 3-4-5-6. Cuddyer is the oldest of the bunch at 27, meaning the core of a quality lineup is in place for years to come. If Jason Bartlett can establish himself at shortstop, that would give the team five 27-and-under starters to build around and lessen the need for Terry Ryan to go after more mediocre veterans.

  • Speaking of Bartlett, he looked good last night in his season debut. In addition to going 2-for-4 at the plate Bartlett fielded everything hit his way, including starting a relatively tough double play. I'm hopeful that Ron Gardenhire will simply stick him ninth in the lineup and let him be for a couple months. If nothing else, Bartlett and Mauer give the Twins one of the top combinations of sideburns in recent memory.
  • Mauer went 0-for-3 to drop his MLB-leading batting average to .376, but was walked intentionally in front of Morneau's grand slam. As a team the Twins drew a total of 10 walks last night, and for once it was nice to see the lineup actually take advantage of pitchers who couldn't find the plate. Well, almost the whole lineup.

    Torii Hunter continued his infuriating trend of letting a struggling pitcher off the hook. Matt Clement walked Mauer, Cuddyer, and Morneau to load the bases with one out in the third inning, but Hunter hacked at the first pitch he saw and bounced into a rally-killing double play. While the Twins' young hitters thrive, Hunter is down to .257/.335/.414 and has hit into a team-high nine double plays.

  • Nick Punto received the first post-Batista start at third base, going 1-for-4 while turning a double play defensively. This spring Punto talked about changing his approach at the plate to focus more on trying to put the ball in play. I was skeptical, writing that "you know it's officially spring training when a new batting stance and a handful of hits can convince people that Nick Punto is capable of big things."

    He's only had a total of 102 plate appearances, but so far at least it looks like Punto has successfully changed his hitting style for the better. After striking out in 20 percent of his trips to the plate last year Punto has whiffed just 11 percent of the time this season. In the process he's hit .304/.396/.380 with an 11-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio while doing a better impression of Luis Castillo than Castillo himself.

  • Aside from Morneau's grand slam and Kubel's two-run shot, the highlight of the night was one of the batboys tackling an idiot who ran onto the field during a David Ortiz at-bat. As Ortiz and everyone else looked on, the batboy put a Brian Urlacher-style spearing takedown on the guy, and then pinned him to the turf until security showed up.

    Ortiz looked highly amused when it was over and the Twins dugout exploded, basically giving the kid a standing ovation. FSN, which has a policy of not showing people who disrupt play, showed a replay afterward much to the delight of announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven. The batboy probably earned himself a ridiculous amount in tips and rightfully seemed pretty proud of himself afterward.

  • Here's a prediction: The next two roster moves will be cutting White loose and activating either Ruben Sierra or Shannon Stewart from the disabled list, and sending Willie Eyre down and calling up Pat Neshek. I still think Eyre has a chance to be a solid middle reliever, but Neshek is more deserving of a chance right now and until the team decides to finally part with Kyle Lohse Eyre is the odd man out.

    Meanwhile, White looks finished. He's had maybe one good stretch all season and has been reduced to playing once a week at this point. Plus, even if the Twins felt the need to keep White they can only use him for another 200 plate appearances until his option for 2007 kicks in. Cut bait now, let White try to latch on with another team, and get on with trying to figure out who'll be in next year's lineup.

  • Finally, I'll leave you with two observations my mom had while watching about 30 seconds of last night's game.

    Upon seeing Dennys Reyes, presumably for the first time: "This Reyes guy is kind of pudgy."

    Upon hearing that Lohse was warming up in the bullpen to relieve Reyes: "Lohse? Yuck."

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