June 20, 2006

Twins 6, Astros 5

What an odd way to climb above .500 for the first time since April 15.

Down 4-1 early thanks to a pair of homers off Brad Radke, the Twins came back to tie the Astros at 4-4 in seventh inning and then took a 5-4 lead on a Brad Lidge wild pitch in the top of the ninth. Joe Nathan came in to lock down the Twins' 35th win of the season and at no point did it even cross my mind that he could blow the lead.

Not only was Nathan 17-for-17 converting save chances dating back to last September, with a 1.93 ERA and .178 opponent's batting average he's been so automatic this season that I can't remember the last time I felt nervous with a late-inning lead. True to form, Nathan got two easy outs and quickly got two strikes on Preston Wilson, one of baseball's most strikeout-prone hitters.

And then, much like the ending of The Crying Game except with slightly less homoeroticism, Wilson sliced a line drive down the right-field line for a game-tying homer.

Nathan shook off the blown save to retire Brad Ausmus on an easy ground out, sending the game into extra innings. Houston brought lefty Trever Miller in from the bullpen to pitch to Justin Morneau, who promptly launched the first pitch he saw into the gap in left-center field to take Nathan off the hook with a go-ahead homer.

Two outs later Jason Bartlett lined a double down the left-field line, bringing up Nathan's spot in the lineup. That gave Ron Gardenhire an interesting decision to make, because in order for Nathan to pitch the 10th inning he had to hit for himself with a runner in scoring position. The upside is that Nathan had only thrown 17 pitches and likely wanted a second chance to close out the win.

Of course, there's a downside too. Even though Nathan is a former position player who likely hits much better than the majority of big-league pitchers, letting him bat for himself basically forfeits any chance at tacking on an additional run. Plus, having Nathan pitch a second inning may make him unavailable for Wednesday's game.

The other option is pinch-hitting for Nathan, which would bring Juan Rincon in for the 10th-inning save. Whereas the best-case scenario with Nathan is him lucking into a hit maybe 15 percent of the time, a pinch-hitter like Mike Redmond gives the Twins perhaps a 30-percent chance of bringing Bartlett in for the seventh run. Plus, Rincon has been every bit as reliable as Nathan for most of the year.

Gardenhire chose to stick with Nathan and I likely would have brought Redmond off the bench to hit, but unlike many of his decisions I can't say that I find much fault in the way things went down. Adding an insurance run in that situation could be hugely important and I have nearly as much faith in Rincon as Nathan, but using Nathan for multiple innings is something I've been advocating for a while now.

Nathan predictably struck out on four pitches, stranding Bartlett at second base, but definitely got his money's worth on the two swings he unleashed. Then, as if angry at himself for goofing around in the ninth inning, Nathan struck out Orlando Palmeiro, Eric Munson, and Craig Biggio to emphatically slam the door.

Some other notes from the Twins' eighth straight win ...

  • Morneau's homer was his 17th of the season and he's now on a 40-homer, 135-RBI pace. He's also hitting .270 after being at .235 as recently as June 8 and batting .239 last season. Perhaps most encouraging is that Morneau's game-winning homer came off a left-handed pitcher, giving him five homers and a .486 slugging percentage against southpaws this season.
  • Joe Mauer went 1-for-4 to drop his MLB-leading batting average to .378 and was also intentionally walked. With a runner on second base, two outs, and the game tied in the seventh inning, Roy Oswalt put Mauer on to face Michael Cuddyer. This is noteworthy because Cuddyer is the Twins' cleanup hitter and you don't often see teams put runners on base in order to face that spot in the lineup. Beyond that, Cuddyer had already homered off Oswalt in the second inning.

    The move worked and I can't say that I blame manager Phil Garner for making it, but it either shows a ton of respect for Mauer or an incredible lack of respect for the Twins' choice to bat directly behind him. Given that Cuddyer is hitting .270/.367/.536 I'm guessing it had more to do with the guy getting a hit 38 percent of the time than anything else. Mauer has been walked intentionally six times this season after receiving a dozen free passes last year.

  • It's tough to get too excited about Bartlett's hitting since returning from Triple-A when Juan Castro was actually batting .350 for the first three weeks of April. With that said, Bartlett is now 10-for-22 (.455) with two doubles in six games. He's also looked solid defensively and has given the team an added dimension with his speed while supplying an on-base threat at the bottom of the order. With each game I wonder why exactly he couldn't have been doing this two months ago.
  • In the grand scheme of things it's not a big deal, but I'm growing tired of Gardenhire replacing Jason Kubel with Lew Ford defensively in the late innings. Kubel has shown himself to be a fine defensive left fielder and last night at least the switch forced Ford into an important situation offensively while Kubel looked on from the bench.

    The last thing I'd want to do is take Kubel's bat out of the lineup in a close game because of marginally improved defense in an outfield corner, especially when his replacement has been one of the team's worst hitters. It's somewhat astounding to me that Gardenhire has shown a willingness to let guys like Castro hit in key late-inning spots, yet feels the need to micro-manage to the point of replacing a good defensive left fielder with a very good defensive left fielder.

  • Jesse Crain came up with 1.2 hitless innings in relief of Radke and quietly has a 1.74 ERA in eight games this month. In fact, since Crain's blowup against the Mariners on May 1, he has a 3.10 ERA and 18-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.1 innings. Interestingly, Crain has gone from being an extreme fly-ball pitcher to an extreme ground-ball pitcher, posting a 30-to-12 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio over that span.
  • The new-and-improved Nick Punto continues to avoid turning back into a pumpkin, tying the game with a two-out RBI double down the left-field line off Oswalt. Punto's numbers have slipped this month, but he's still hitting .286/.377/.357 while playing excellent defense at third base, which compared to 50 games of Tony Batista makes Punto seem like Mike Schmidt.

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