July 18, 2006

Twins 8, Devil Rays 1

If not for Ron Gardenhire's (entirely logical) decision to pinch-hit Terry Tiffee for Justin Morneau in the eighth inning of last night's blowout win over the Devil Rays, Francisco Liriano would have tossed the first complete-game shutout of his career. Instead, Liriano had to settle for this line:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
8.2 3 1 0 0 7 0 111

Tiffee's inability to catch a low Jason Bartlett throw in the ninth inning led to an unearned run scoring and Liriano being yanked in favor of Kyle Lohse with one out left, but that doesn't take away from the overall performance. Liriano is now 11-2 with a 1.94 ERA as a 22-year-old rookie, including 10-2 with a ridiculous 1.58 ERA in a dozen starts since joining the rotation in mid-May.

Liriano was his typical dominant self last night, throwing strikes and missing bats, but he gave up more fly balls than normal. In fact, 13 of Liriano's 19 non-strikeout outs came through the air, which is unusual for a guy whose 2.28-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio ranked third among AL starters heading into the game. Of course, most of the fly balls were more like pop ups, so it didn't much matter.

It was particularly nice to see Liriano come up with an impressive outing after having his worst start of the year last time out against the Indians. He shook off having his six-game winning streak snapped while serving up three homers to Cleveland, and looked as overpowering as ever. Last night was the sixth time in 12 starts that Liriano has failed to surrender a single earned run.

It's tough to focus on anything except Liriano after a performance like that, but here are some other notes from the game ...

  • Perhaps Liriano purposely stopped inducing ground balls in order to get Jason Tyner some work in center field. Tyner was kept busy out there all night and made all the necessary plays, but looked a little tentative while doing so. He clearly has the speed to chase down most everything and will surely improve with more experience at the Metrodome, but so far at least could learn a lot from Torii Hunter in terms of attacking balls hit in front of him.
  • Not only did Nick Punto return to the lineup one day after suffering what initially appeared to be a relatively significant knee injury, he went 2-for-3 with three RBIs and made a great play at third base. Plus, Punto nearly upstaged Liriano by letting FSN mic him for the whole game, which led to a bunch of amusing soundbites (including a subtle crack about Gardenhire being out of shape).

    Punto avoiding the disabled list is a nice change of pace given how much injuries have depleted the roster already this month and he's a big part of the new-look lineup. Losing Hunter takes away one of the team's few legitimate power threats, but with Luis Castillo and Punto at the top of the lineup and Tyner and Bartlett at the bottom of the order, the Twins have the ability to go first-to-third on singles all night.

    I'm generally of the opinion that speed is overrated in terms of actual impact on wins and losses, but when the speed comes in the form of guys who actually get on base it's plenty valuable. I'd prefer a lineup full of guys like Morneau, but short of that it's nice to see hitters putting together good at-bats, scrapping to get on base any way they can, and then putting pressure on the defense once they reach.

  • Rondell White joined the first-to-third party on Josh Rabe's first big-league hit in the seventh inning, but only after he was doubled off first base twice earlier in the game. As Will Young pointed out after I complained to him about White's mistakes, he still has a long way to go before approaching Henry Blanco's jaw-dropping ability to run into outs.

    Still, White runs the bases like a drunk little leaguer far too often given that he's not actually on base all that much. What makes it especially odd is that he's still plenty athletic and has above-average speed at 34 years old. It seems to be either a complete lack of instincts or some kind of mental block, or maybe a combination of both.

    With that said, White went 2-for-3 with a walk last night and is 5-for-10 with a homer since returning from Triple-A, so it's a little easier to stomach some baserunning blunders now than when he was making four outs per game at the plate. Plus, he tracked down a fly ball in the left-center field gap last night that Shannon Stewart would have needed a bus and multiple transfers to get to.

  • Morneau's homer was his 25th, which means for all the talk about the Twins' lack of a 30-homer hitter since 1987, Morneau is within striking distance of that mark in mid-July. As sad as it sounds, Morneau is one of only 17 Twins with at least 25 homers in a season and one of only 14 with multiple 20-homer campaigns (and he just missed a third by homering 19 times in 74 games as a rookie).

    No. 25 came off Scott Kazmir, which gives Morneau nine homers in 114 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Not only is that impressive for any left-handed hitter, it's amazing considering Morneau came into this year with just seven homers in 255 career at-bats against southpaws. As I said yesterday, it's time to move him into the cleanup spot and let him stay there for the rest of the decade.

  • Remember when the Twins couldn't get anyone out? They now rank second in the league in runs allowed. After giving up 6.2 runs per game in April, the staff has held teams to an average of 3.9 runs per game since. This is what happens when your bullpen stops giving up runs altogether and the two best pitchers in the league start half your games. To put that in some context, the Twins allowed an average 4.4 runs per game while leading the league in ERA in 2004.

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