July 31, 2006

Twins 15, Rangers 2

One day after scraping together a late-inning rally from little more than a bunch of choppers and the Tigers' mistakes, the Twins' lineup welcomed Torii Hunter back from the disabled list and exploded for 15 runs against the Rangers. Luis Castillo and Jason Tyner combined to go 0-for-8, but the other seven starters amazingly went 18-for-31 (.581) with 15 RBIs and 14 runs scored.

It was good to see the Twins tee off on a soft-tossing rookie, because over the past few years guys like John Rheinecker have given them trouble far too often. It was also good to see the hitters keep pouring it on after the Rangers brought in hard-throwing right-hander Joaquin Benoit and tack on a couple extra runs against left-hander Ron Mahay.

Lost in the avalanche of runs is that Carlos Silva turned in an outstanding performance against one of the league's top offenses:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
7.0 6 1 1 0 4 1 102

Silva attacked hitters by pounding strikes early and often, struck out more than three batters for just the fourth time all season, and reversed his recent trend of morphing into a fly-ball pitcher. Fourteen of Silva's 21 outs came via either strikeout or ground out, and by the time Mark Teixeira took him deep for a solo homer in the seventh inning it was already 15-0.

Given the inconsistency from Scott Baker and Boof Bonser, and Terry Ryan's apparent reluctance to bring up Matt Garza from Triple-A, it's unclear if Silva was close to losing his spot in the rotation prior to last night. Whatever the case, he's no longer in any danger of a demotion, and Ryan's decision to trade Kyle Lohse yesterday while not picking up a veteran starter is looking pretty good.

Here are some other notes I typed up while watching the Twins' 61st win of the year ...

  • After last night, I wonder how many Twins fans changed their mind about what a mistake it was for the Twins not to trade for Carlos Lee. Lee looked absolutely lost in left field, losing several battles with the Metrodome roof while showing off his Shannon Stewart-like throwing arm, and went 0-for-3 at the plate.

    Lee is a fine (if overrated) hitter, but with Jason Kubel and Rondell White hobbled he'd have been forced into playing defense regularly on the Twins, which would be a disaster. Instead, the Twins stood pat and let Hunter returning from the DL be their addition at the trading deadline:

  • 2004-2006          AVG      OBP      SLG     AB/HR
    Carlos Lee .285 .345 .514 17.7
    Torii Hunter .272 .339 .462 23.5

    In theory the Twins could have had both Hunter and Lee, but that scenario would have included either Lee's (and everyone else's) nightmare of him playing left field at the Metrodome or him starting over Kubel and White at designater hitter. All of which isn't to say that picking up Lee wouldn't have helped the offense, but rather that his impact specifically on the Twins down the stretch would have been somewhat limited.

    Incidentally, Hunter went 3-for-5 with a homer, four RBIs, and three runs scored in his first game since July 15.

  • The Twins did make one trade yesterday, sending Lohse to the Reds for pitching prospect Zach Ward. I'm shocked that Lohse remained in Minnesota for this long considering the writing was on the wall for his exit since last season, and even more surprised that Ryan was still able to coax a quality prospect in return out of former assistant Wayne Krivsky.

    Lohse isn't as bad as he looked before being yanked from the starting rotation earlier this season and actually pitched fairly well out of the bullpen, but with Matt Guerrier coming back from the DL this week and the rest of the bullpen thriving, the need for an effective mop-up man was trumped by adding another intriguing young arm to the farm system.

    The deal further cements my belief that Krivsky leaving his job as Ryan's right-hand man is one of the best things that could have happened to the Twins. In fact, given what we now know about Krivsky's preference for washed up veterans and lopsided trades, I'm starting to reconsider exactly how much blame Ryan deserves for some of the team's more questionable moves over the past few years.

    Not only do I approve of Ryan resisting the temptation to overpay for a guy like Lee or Alfonso Soriano, I think he deserves a lot of credit for cashing Lohse in for as much as he ended up getting. Plus, during his in-game interview with television announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven last night, I found Ryan to be his usual honest, level-headed, and intelligent self.

    Ryan expressed a clear and reasoned rationale for both wanting to acquire a bit bat and ultimately backing off from available deals to do so. During his half-inning in the booth, I found myself nodding in agreement with something Ryan said more times than I have while listening to Bremer and Blyleven all year.

  • In terms of what type of prospect the Twins got in Ward, here's a look at his numbers this season in the Midwest League:
     G     GS      ERA        IP     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    20 18 2.29 114.0 95 37 2 .188

    The good news is that those are outstanding numbers pretty much across the board, particularly the .188 opponent's batting average and two homers allowed in 114 innings. The bad news is that Ward is already 22 years old, which makes his dominating hitters at low Single-A significantly less impressive than it looks.

    With that said, Ward was the Reds' third-round pick in last June's draft and Baseball America had the following to say about him earlier this season:

    All season, the Gardner-Webb product has done a fantastic job of inducing ground balls, and that was the case yesterday as he struck out seven and walked one while recording 11 groundball outs to just three in the air. One the season, Ward has a 3.55 ground ball/fly ball ratio in 72 innings.

    I'm hopeful that the Twins will push Ward a little more aggressively through the system, because there's no need for him to waste any more time in the low minors. At the very least he appears to have a good chance of becoming a quality reliever down the road and there's certainly enough potential there for a lot more. Not that they needed it, but the Twins' pitching depth just got even deeper.

  • FSN flashed an interesting graphic last night showing that Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano have combined to go 23-7 with a 2.57 ERA as starters, while the rest of the rotation is (or was, before Silva's outing) 22-29 with an ERA over 6.00. The graphic was intended to show how much of a dropoff there's been after Santana and Liriano, but I was surprised by the fact that the other starters have managed what is now a 23-29 record despite a six-something ERA.
  • Reports of the Twins' starting third baseman turning back into a pumpkin were greatly exaggerated, as the new-and-improved Nick Punto continued to be both new and improved by going 4-for-4 with a walk, three RBIs, and four runs scored. Punto is now hitting .320/.399/.423 in 81 games, which along with good defense and 11 steals makes him one of the five best third basemen in the league.
  • Who knew Josh Rabe could hit the ball that far?
  • Justin Morneau hit .239 last season and came into this year with a career batting average of .248 in 255 big-league games. He then batted just .208 in April and was hitting .236 when the Twins began their amazing 40-game stretch back on June 8. Since then he's been perhaps baseball's hottest hitter, and after going 3-for-4 last night now ranks sixth in the AL with a .321 batting average.

    Joe Mauer went 2-for-5 to increase his MLB-leading average to .368, but at the rate Morneau is going he may not even be leading his own team by the end of the month. Morneau also ranks second in RBIs, fourth in total bases, seventh in homers and slugging percentage, and eighth in OPS. Oh, and he's also hitting .308 against southpaws and has a higher slugging percentage against them than against righties.

  • July 30, 2006


    I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
    There was something so pleasant about that place
    Even your emotions have an echo and so much space

    And when you're out there, without care, yeah I was out of touch
    But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
    I just knew too much

    Does that make me crazy?
    Does that make me crazy?
    Does that make me crazy?

    - Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"

    After two depressing losses to begin the series Friday and Saturday, Johan Santana couldn't throw strikes yesterday afternoon and the Twins were six outs away from being swept by the Tigers for the third time this season. Detroit starter Jeremy Bonderman was cruising along, putting up the following Santana-esque pitching line through seven innings:

     IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
    7.0 1 0 0 1 8 0 86

    Not only was Bonderman completely overpowering the Twins' lineup, allowing one measly hit while racking up eight strikeouts, he needed just 86 pitches to record 21 outs. He was about as good as I've seen a pitcher look this season, both in terms of dominance and efficiency, and the hitters simply looked like they had no chance against him.

    And then suddenly the wheels came flying off. It's easy to look at the boxscore and determine that Bonderman imploded in the eighth inning, but that's not really the case. It's true that he fell apart, but as odd as this sounds, he continued to pitch well and gave up six runs through almost no fault of his own. Seriously.

    With the Twins trailing 3-0, Justin Morneau came to the plate leading off the eighth inning and hit a chopper back up the middle. Bonderman got his glove on it, deflecting it to the right side of second base. Shortstop Carlos Guillen ranged into shallow center field to scoop it up on the run, but made an errant throw to first base that bounced into the dugout and moved Morneau up to second base.

    Jason Kubel came off the bench to pinch-hit for Josh Rabe, hacking at the first pitch he saw and hitting a high chopper to first base. Chris Shelton came lumbering in to scoop it up and tag first, but had what can only be described as a Bill Buckner moment as the ball skipped under his glove and rolled half way down the right-field line. Morneau scored from second base, making it 3-1.

    Mike Redmond stepped to the plate and also swung at Bonderman's first offering, this time sending a chopper to the other side of the infield. Third baseman Brandon Inge watched helplessly as the ball landed directly on the chalk about a foot behind third base and then made its way into the left-field corner. Brent Clevlen had trouble fielding it cleanly off the wall, allowing Kubel to score all the way from first base despite running like he'd stepped on a nail rounding second.

    With the lead cut to one run and Redmond on second base, the Tigers brought the infield in expecting Jason Tyner to bunt. Instead, Tyner fouled off the first pitch he saw and then hit another chopper on the second pitch. This one went over Shelton's outstretched glove and into right field, with Magglio Ordonez picking it up cleanly and firing a strike back into the infield to keep Redmond at third base.

    With runners on the corners, Jason Bartlett came to the plate and hit yet another chopper down the third-base line. The ball may have gone foul before getting to the base, but Inge fielded it and tried to tag Redmond, who successfully dove back into third base after thinking briefly about heading home. With the ball called fair, Redmond safe, and Bartlett hustling on the play, Inge had no options left and the Twins had the bases loaded.

    And that's when things really got interesting.

    After getting ahead of Luis Castillo, Bonderman came set for his 1-2 pitch and took his hand out of his glove, signaling for catcher Vance Wilson to cycle back through the signs again. Bonderman had been doing that quite a bit throughout the game, but this time he forgot to take his foot off the pitching rubber and was called for the game-tying (and surprisingly obvious) balk as the Metrodome exploded.

    As Redmond trotted home from third base with Tyner and Bartlett each moving up a base, Bonderman understandably lost it briefly, gesturing wildly and yelling at multiple umpires while his eyes appeared ready to pop out of his head. Two pitches later, after resuming the Castillo at-bat, he exaggeratedly stepped off the mound before making the same hand motion to Wilson.

    One pitch after that, with the infield drawn in, Castillo slapped a grounder up the middle that Guillen made a diving stop on before throwing to first base for the first out of the inning. Tyner scored from third on the play, giving the Twins their first lead of the game at 4-3. Nick Punto briefly ended the excitement with a harmless fly out to left field, but things quickly picked up steam again.

    With first base open and two outs, the Tigers did like so many teams have done over the past month and intentionally walked Joe Mauer to face Michael Cuddyer. The ninth batter of the inning, Cuddyer poked Bonderman's 1-2 pitch--his 116th of the game and 30th of the inning--into the right-center field gap, slicing through Curtis Granderson and Ordonez and skipping all the way to the wall.

    Bartlett scored from second, Mauer scored from first, and Cuddyer ended up on third with a two-run triple that pushed the score to 6-3. With six runs already on the board and Morneau stepping to the plate for the second time in the inning, manager Jim Leyland mercifully lifted Bonderman in favor of left-hander Jamie Walker, who struck Morneau out to end what was without question the strangest, craziest, most bizarre half-inning I've ever seen.

    - Infield Single
    - Error
    - Error
    - Double
    - Infield Single
    - Balk
    - Ground Out
    - Fly Out
    - Intentional Walk
    - Triple
    - Strikeout

    It's impossible to understand how truly ridiculous nearly each thing that took place during the inning was without having seen it first hand, but the fact that the Twins scored six runs while hitting exactly one ball legitimately well is a pretty good indication of Bonderman's misery. They essentially put together a six-run rally on five choppers, a ground ball, an intentional walk, and a two-out triple.

    It was only one win and the Twins still lost a series at home, but scraping together an inexplicable come-from-behind victory after seemingly having the game lost is somehow infinitely better than being spanked yet again by the Tigers. Plus, with Chicago coughing up a late-inning lead of their own while losing to Baltimore yesterday, the Twins went from looking like they'd depressingly be three games behind the White Sox just days after sweeping them to being one game back.

    Of course, the White Sox may not be the Twins' biggest problem any longer:

    WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
    New York 61 41 .598 ---
    Chicago 61 42 .592 0.5
    Minnesota 60 43 .583 1.5
    Toronto 57 48 .543 5.5

    That's right, the Twins are now chasing the Yankees for a playoff spot.

    And I hope that you are having the time of your life
    But think twice
    That's my only advice

    Come on now, who do you
    Who do you, who do you, who do you think you are?
    Ha ha ha, bless your soul
    You really think you're in control?
    Well, I think you're crazy

    - Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"

    TRADE DEADLINE UPDATE: The Twins have traded Kyle Lohse to the Reds for Single-A pitching prospect Zach Ward. I'll have a lot more on this (and any other moves the Twins make) tomorrow, but my initial reaction is that Terry Ryan did very well here hooking up with former assistant Wayne Krivsky.

    A third-round pick in 2005, Ward is 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA, 95-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .188 opponent's batting average in 114 innings at low Single-A. The Twins don't exactly need more young pitching, but Ward is exactly the sort of low-minors prospect Ryan thrives on plucking from other organizations.

    July 27, 2006

    Matt Garza and Other Twins Notes

    Baseball America does a weekly feature called "Scout's View" where they interview a major-league scout about a specific prospect. The articles are subscriber-only content, but here's a small excerpt of "a veteran National League scout" on this week's subject, Matt Garza:

    The impressive thing was, in his last inning ... he was throwing as high as 97. So he lost nothing at all velocity-wise later in the game. When he needed something at the end, he had it. And then, it wasn't like a one-time thing. He repeated some 97s, which was really nice to see.

    Of his breaking pitches, even though they might end up with the same grade, the curveball was a better pitch than the slider, but they were both good. So what it tells you about a kid like that is that he's got three plus pitches, and the other pitch ain't bad.

    I get excited when I'm looking at some highly touted kid, and you're hoping that he can duplicate what you've heard, and he certainly did. He was really impressive.

    Garza is suddenly a hot topic because of his continued dominance in the minors and the upcoming trading deadline, but I don't believe for a second that Terry Ryan would even consider trading Garza for half-year rentals like Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee. Or at least I hope that's his stance, because history has shown that contending teams tend to overpay for midseason acquisitions and the impact of such players is relatively limited.

    Quite simply, Garza is not the type of prospect you trade away, period. He's a former first-round pick who has emerged as one of baseball's truly elite prospects in just his second pro season and is one step away from the majors at the age of 22. Check out Garza's eye-popping numbers between Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A so far this year:

    GS      W     L      ERA        IP      SO     BB     OAVG
    21 13 4 2.04 123.2 142 30 .178

    The Twins have pushed Garza aggressively and he's responded by dominating each level, posting ERAs of 1.42, 2.51, and 2.05 while holding opponents to batting averages of .169, .190, and .162. His combined record of 13-4 with a 2.04 ERA and 142-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123.2 innings is amazing, and includes a 2.05 ERA and 21-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Triple-A.

    Allowing just 79 hits in 123.2 innings is a huge part of what makes Garza a great prospect, and of particular note is that he's served up only six homers. Even more so than win-loss records or ERAs, the three things to focus on when it comes to pitching prospects are strikeouts, walks, and homers. Garza is about as good as it gets in all three of those areas, which is why he has legit ace potential.

    In Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, the Twins have arguably the two best pitchers in baseball and boast a one-two punch that few teams in the history of the sport can match. As if that weren't scary enough for the rest of the league, the Twins will soon add a third "No. 1 starter" in Garza. In fact, if Ron Gardenhire has his way, the rotation may contain three aces within weeks.

    I think the best thing for Garza's development would be to remain at Triple-A until September, following the path Liriano took last year. Garza has thrown a lot of innings already and is coming off a complete-game, three-hitter that saw him inexplicably throw 127 pitches. With that said, if the Twins feel Garza is ready and calling him up would keep them from overpaying for a veteran starter via trade, I'm all for it.

    Garza is the real deal, and if this season has taught the Twins anything it should be that trusting the young players you've developed is crucial. Plus, the sooner Garza establishes himself as a dominant starter in the majors, the sooner I can start using my poker-related nickname: Trip Aces. The best part, of course, is that both Liriano and Garza are 22 years old and Santana is the elder statesman at 27.

    Some other notes I typed up while anxiously waiting for this weekend's series against the Tigers to begin ...

  • Not only do I think the Twins should avoid parting with Garza at all costs, I think they'd be best off being "sellers" rather than "buyers" between now and the trading deadline. That's obviously not what many Twins fans want to hear, but generally speaking I think giving up promising young players for 50 or 60 games of a veteran is a short-sighted mistake.

    Prospects like Kevin Slowey or Glen Perkins are a clear step down from Garza, but giving up their entire career (or at least the six years before free agency) for 200 at-bats is a bad move, even if those at-bats come from an impact player like Soriano or Lee. Any number of studies have shown that the impact of midseason acquisitions is typically overstated and history is littered with teams who would gladly take back their prospects-for-veteran deadline deals.

    It's certainly possible that Soriano or Lee would propel the Twins to the World Series, in which case giving up "too much" young talent becomes secondary to the third banner hanging in the Metrodome. However, that's impossible to know for sure and since we're only talking about one-third of a season, it's more likely that Soriano or Lee would represent a relatively minimal gain over Rondell White and Jason Kubel.

    I would stand pat unless a favorable deal came along for someone like Boof Bonser or Kyle Lohse. Breaking the bank for someone like Soriano is more exciting and fans will always love trading for a big-name player while giving up little-known prospects, but those same big-name players were once "little-known prospects" to the average fan and this team as currently constructed does not need to mortgage any of its future to win now.

  • As part of the focus on Joe Mauer earlier this week, ESPN.com had a nine-part breakdown of his swing that is definitely worth looking at.
  • Over at Baseball Analysts, Rich Lederer interviewed Bert Blyleven on a variety of topics, including the should-be Hall of Famer's thoughts on the Twins' playoffs chances, the pitching staff's dominance, and why pitch counts are the devil's creation.
  • Reading the Chicago newspapers following the Twins' sweep of the White Sox was a lot of fun, but I still managed to become annoyed at this excerpt from the Chicago Sun-Times:

    [The Twins] continued to show they might be the best "worst" team in baseball. Despite few household names, Minnesota has gone 34-8 since June 8 to catch the defending World Series champions.

    The idea that the Twins have "few household names" is either absurd or a major mark against the media's coverage of teams outside New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. Mauer is a former No. 1 overall pick who is leading baseball in batting average, Santana is a former Cy Young winner having another great year, Liriano is a rookie leading MLB with a sub-2.00 ERA after coming into the season as baseball's top pitching prospect, and all three of those guys were All-Stars.

  • The Twins used yesterday's off day to sign Mike Redmond to a two-year contract extension that includes a team option for 2009, which seems a little excessive for a 35-year-old backup catcher. Locking up a bench player through the age of 38 is the type of move that more often than not will end badly, although it can't be too much of a mistake assuming the deal is something close to the two-year contract worth $1.8 million Redmond initially signed with the Twins.

    Redmond is a perfect backup for Mauer. He hits right-handed, which allows Gardenhire to give Mauer days off against tough left-handed pitchers while taking advantage of the platoon edge. Redmond is also solid defensively, both in terms of throwing and calling a game, and is reportedly well-liked in the clubhouse. I liked the move to sign him two years ago and I like the move to re-sign him now, I just wish the option year was 2008.

  • By weighing the age and performance of each player in baseball, my Hardball Times colleague Dave Studeman determined that the Twins are the second-youngest team in MLB behind only the rebuilt, prospect-laden Marlins.
  • Today's Minneapolis Star Tribune contains a great feature-length article by the Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, LaVelle E. Neal III, on a week in the life of Santana. It's a must-read.
  • I'll be back first thing Monday morning with a full recap of the three-game series against Detroit and discussion of what did or didn't happen on the trade front. In the meantime, feel free to hang out in the comments section, which has suddenly become a hot spot with over 350 posts in the past two days.

  • Tied! (Sort Of)

    Late last month, with the Twins still 10 games out of a postseason spot despite winning 14 out of 16 games, I wrote about how depressing it was that they failed to make up any ground on the White Sox while winning nearly every day for three weeks. I simply didn't like the Twins' chances of making up a double-digit deficit against the defending champs in half a season.

    Little did I know at the time that not only could the Twins do it, they'd do it within a month. The Twins improbably followed up winning 14 out of 16 by winning 20 of their next 26. Just as importantly, the White Sox finally went through a rough patch, dropping 10 out of 12 since the All-Star break. Here's how the Wild Card standings looked through June 7, compared to what they look like this morning:

    JUNE 7          W      L       GB        JULY 26         W      L       GB
    Chicago 36 22 --- New York 59 40 ---
    Boston 33 23 2.0 MINNESOTA 59 41 0.5
    Toronto 33 25 3.0 Chicago 59 41 0.5
    Cleveland 29 29 7.0 Toronto 56 45 4.0
    Oakland 28 31 8.5 Los Angeles 52 49 8.0
    Seattle 28 33 9.5 Oakland 52 49 8.0
    Los Angeles 27 32 9.5 Texas 51 51 9.5
    Baltimore 27 33 10.0 Seattle 49 52 11.0
    MINNESOTA 25 33 11.0 Baltimore 46 56 14.5

    After beginning the season at a lifeless 25-33 (.431), the Twins have gone 34-8 (.810) over the past 49 days. In doing so they went from 11 games out of a playoff spot to within a half-game of the Wild Card leaders, leap-frogging seven teams in the process. What's especially amazing about their run is that within those 42 games was a three-game losing streak that involved two losses to the lowly Royals.

    (Much like the Twins since June 8, Carlos Silva had a hard time cooling off yesterday.)

    Surrounding those three losses near the end of the first half, the Twins have gone an utterly ridiculous 34-5 (.872). Their climb up the standings has been so fast and so relentless that it's been hard to fully appreciate how good they've been. Fortunately, today's off day provides that opportunity. Unfortunately, there's a three-game series against the MLB-leading Tigers waiting Friday.

    If only for dramatic purposes, it would have been nice of the Yankees to lose last night so the Twins sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, would have meant something other than both teams being tied at a half-game behind New York. Of course, even that's not much of a buzz kill now, not with Francisco Liriano taking the mound Friday, Brad Radke following him Saturday, and Johan Santana up Sunday.

    Those three pitchers were on the mound for exactly two-thirds of the Twins' amazing 42-game stretch, combining to go 20-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 28 starts. Over that same span, Joe Nathan appeared in half of the Twins' games, saving 14 wins with a 1.13 ERA and 36-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Setup men Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, and Pat Neshek combined for a 1.72 ERA in 62.2 innings over that stretch.

    The pitching (and defense) has been fantastic, but the lineup has been as big a driving force behind the turnaround. The Twins hit .305 with a .372 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage over the past 42 games, which is incredible considering they were hitting a measly .268/.327/.396 prior to the run. While the Twins limited opponents to 3.4 runs per game since June 8, they've scored an average of 5.7 runs per game.

    Much like Santana, Liriano, Radke, and Nathan carrying the pitching staff, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau put the offense on their backs since June 8. Mauer hit .381/.475/.545 with 25 RBIs and 24 runs in 36 games, while Morneau made that look downright pedestrian by hitting .402/.434/.768 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in 42 games.

    (Justin went BOOM for the 16th time in 42 games to finish off the White Sox.)

    Nick Punto set the table for them by hitting .333/.420/.442 and Jason Bartlett hit .336/.420/.459 at the bottom of the lineup, all while turning the infield defense from horrible to outstanding. Slotted between Mauer and Morneau, Michael Cuddyer hit .261/.351/.447 with six homers and 35 RBIs, while Rondell White returned from the dead to hit .288/.365/.519 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 16 games.

    Even Torii Hunter (.274/.374/.453) was great before heading to the disabled list after 30 games, and Jason Tyner has taken up right where he left off by hitting .353/.389/.373 as his replacement in center field. Jason Kubel's bum knees have kept him on the bench more than anyone would like, but when in the lineup he hit .302 with six homers and 20 RBIs in 30 games.

    Add it all up and you get a team that went from being out-scored by 42 runs in the first 58 games of the season to out-scoring their opponents by 97 runs in the next 42 games. It's no coincidence that the winning started almost immediately after Juan Castro and Tony Batista were let go, but as perhaps the world's biggest proponent of those moves, not even I expected them to lead to something like this.

    What the Twins have done in winning 81 percent of their games over a quarter of a season is beyond remarkable and in doing so they've put themselves in position to potentially win the World Series in a year many--including myself at times--left them for dead. The long road ahead is evident by still having to look up at the Yankees (and sideways at the White Sox) in the standings, but it's tough to put much of anything past the Twins at this point.

    With five off days left in the final two months, Santana, Liriano, and Radke may be able to start two-thirds of the remaining games and there are 11 dates with the Royals left on the schedule. The rest of the AL should be very afraid. Hell, if they do to the Tigers this weekend what they did to the White Sox in Chicago, the Twins will be just 5.5 games out of first place in the division.

    ("You guys see that train up ahead? You may want to get off the tracks.")

    July 25, 2006

    Twins 4, White Sox 3

    Now this is fun.

    One night Joe Mauer smacks his first career homer off a left-handed pitcher, a three-run bomb that propels the Twins to a 7-4 win. The next night Jason Bartlett delivers his first long ball of the season, another three-run shot that allows the Twins to hold on for a 4-3 victory. This afternoon I fully expect Jason Tyner to hit a game-winning grand slam.

    I'm going to keep this entry relatively short, because by the time many of you read this today's game will have already been played. I'd feel silly going on and on about last night's win and what it means for the Twins' playoff chances, only to have Carlos Silva give the game back by the time some of you return from your lunch break.

    Here are some notes I typed up while watching arguably the most exciting game of the season ...

  • The White Sox's battery last night is perhaps the worst in baseball at controlling the running game. Coming into the game, runners had gone 38-for-44 stealing bases off Jose Contreras over the past two years and a remarkably awful 31-for-32 off Sandy Alomar Jr. Given how vulnerable Chicago was to steals, the Contreras-Johan Santana matchup, and the Twins' speed-dominated lineup, I expected Ron Gardenhire to give just about everyone the green light.

    That was the case right away, as both Luis Castillo and Nick Punto swiped second base during the first-inning rally that ultimately came up short. However, after that the Twins ran just once more on Contreras, with Tyner getting thrown out at second base in the fourth inning. In all, the Twins had six runners on first base with second base open in Contreras' seven innings--Tyner twice and Castillo, Punto, Michael Cuddyer, and Rondell White once each--and ran half the time.

  • Jim Thome's first-inning solo blast was extremely impressive, even with the wind in Chicago making nearly every fly ball a potential homer. Thome was behind 1-2 against the best southpaw in baseball, got fooled by a changeup to the point that he was completely out in front on his swing, and still managed to clear the fence in dead center field by a good 20 feet. In 138 career games against the Twins, Thome has now hit .325 with 46 homers and 106 RBIs.
  • Cuddyer showed off what other teams will soon learn is one of the best outfield arms in baseball, gunning down Tadahito Iguchi when he tried to go first-to-third on Thome's single in the sixth inning. Instead of having runners on the corners with one out and Paul Konerko at the plate in a tie game, Santana was able to pitch to Chicago's cleanup hitter with no one in scoring position and two down. Konerko grounded out to end the threat.

    Cuddyer later showed off some leather in right field, making a sprawling grab on A.J. Pierzynski's broken-bat line drive with two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth. If he fails to make either of those plays, there's a very good chance the Twins lose the game. Cuddyer is still a little shaky at times in right field, but he makes enough outstanding plays to make me think he can develop into a major asset defensively.

  • The heavy winds blowing out to left and center field would normally have been very bad news for Santana, who is among the most extreme fly-ball pitchers around. However, while he did give up two homers, Santana limited the potential damage by uncharacteristically getting 10 of his 14 non-strikeout outs on the ground.

    I normally disagree with the notion that people like me would benefit much from having interview access to players after games, but this is one of the rare instances where it would have been nice. I'd like to know whether or not Santana made a conscious effort to keep the ball on the ground because of the weather conditions (as opposed to it being due to coincidence or Chicago's powerful lineup).

  • Santana improved to 12-5, which ties him for second in MLB in wins. Santana also moved his career mark to 71-30, which is good for a .703 winning percentage that's tops among all pitchers with at least 100 decisions since Spud Chandler went 109-43 (.717) for the Yankees in the 1940s. Last but not least, Santana is now 3-0 since the All-Star break, which gives him the following combined second-half pitching line since moving into the rotation full time in 2003:
    GS      W     L     WIN%      ERA        IP      SO
    47 33 3 .917 1.99 318.0 332

    Not bad.

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