August 6, 2006

Walking Through Kansas City

As the Twins left Minnesota Wednesday night, it would have been hard to argue that they had any sort of positive momentum. They ended a six-game homestand with back-to-back blowout losses to the Rangers, losing 9-0 on Tuesday and 10-2 on Wednesday, and the starting rotation was in disarray because of injuries and demotions.

Thankfully, the Royals are exceptionally bad. After being knocked around at home by Texas, the Twins traveled to Kansas City for a four-game series and proceeded to absolutely destroy the worst team in baseball. In particular the Twins' offense, which entered the series ranked among the bottom half of the league, exploded for 41 runs in four games.

The Twins hit a relatively mundane five homers during the series, yet scored 41 times in 37 innings. How does that happen? Well, the Royals' pitching staff couldn't throw the ball over the plate most of the time and, when they actually did, the Twins' hitters smacked the ball into a gap somewhere as multiple runners raced around the bases.

Kansas City pitchers handed out a ridiculous 36 walks in the first three games, including 14 free passes Saturday behind starter Runelvys Hernandez's pathetic nine-walk effort. They managed to throw strikes Sunday, but given a chance to actually swing away the Twins' hitters treated the game like batting practice, going 22-for-44 (.500) with eight extra-base hits.

The Twins hit .371 (56-for-151) with a .576 slugging percentage during the series, which amazingly aren't even the most staggering numbers. With 56 hits, 36 walks, and five hit batsmen, the Twins had a combined on-base percentage of .503. At the risk of stating the obvious, here's a point that must be made: Over nearly 200 plate appearances, the Twins reached base half the time. Literally.

In direct contrast, the Twins' pitching staff issued a total of 10 walks in four games and held the Royals to a .250 batting average. Most impressive, they did so with Mike Smith, Carlos Silva, Willie Eyre, and a fresh-from-the-disabled-list Matt Guerrier throwing 40 percent of the innings and Francisco Liriano sitting the entire series out.

Some other notes from a delightfully lopsided series ...

  • Aside from the final scores of each game and Smith's greased-down mullet, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series was hearing FSN play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer stubbornly suggest that Jason Bartlett should lay down a bunt nearly every time he came to the plate with a runner on base.

    There are all sorts of things wrong with Bremer's preferred and annoyingly oft-stated strategy, from the fact that this isn't 1968 to the Twins' .371 batting average during the series. Thankfully Ron Gardenhire let Bartlett swing away, because he went 11-for-18 (.611) with three doubles, four RBIs, and seven runs scored.

    One of the staples of this blog over the years has been me pleading with the Twins to give Bartlett a chance (and then a second chance). Not only did I opine that he was underrated defensively, which is now clear, I stressed that his minor-league track record suggested Bartlett could be a major asset offensively as well. Watching him emerge as one of the team's best players has been gratifying.

    Maddeningly deemed not worthy of starting over Juan Castro coming out of spring training, Bartlett is now hitting .377/.443/.497. If not for the Twins sending him to Triple-A for a third year and leaving him at Rochester for three months in favor of Castro, Bartlett would be right with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau among the league leaders in batting average. Or bunts, if Bremer were in charge.

  • In discussing Smith's surprise call up last week, I predicted that he'd be "overmatched against big-league hitters" and added that "the longer he's around the worse the Twins' chances become." Sadly, Smith lived up to those exceedingly low expectations, looking like he belonged on the Royals' staff by walking three batters and allowing four runs before being yanked after three innings.

    Here's what Gardenhire told reporters about Smith's Twins debut:

    He threw 80 pitches in three innings. That's not the way we pitch up here. We attack the hitters. It's 100 degrees out there. We need to move the game along, pick up the pace, make them hit the ball, get the fielders off the field.

    The Twins need a fifth starter again on Friday, but I'd be shocked if Smith gets the nod. Matt Garza tossed seven shutout innings while racking up 11 strikeouts in his last outing at Triple-A, so calling him up from Rochester is the obvious solution. However, given Terry Ryan's statements last week about not thinking Garza is ready for primetime, giving Guerrier the start seems possible.

    Guerrier has worked strictly out of the bullpen over the past two seasons, but he made 80 starts at Triple-A between 2001 and 2004, posting a 3.98 ERA in 487 innings. Prior to the Twins calling him up in 2004, Guerrier had a 3.19 ERA in 23 starts at Rochester, posting a 97-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 135 hits in 144 innings.

    It's unlikely that he can pitch very deep into a game, both because he hasn't started in several years and is fresh off the disabled list, but there's no reason he wouldn't be a better bet for five passable innings than Smith. Given the Twins' bullpen depth and the multiple off days coming up on the schedule, that's all they'd need from the fifth starter for a while.

  • Silva is back to being a ground-ball pitcher after flirting with disaster as a fly-baller. He's induced 24 ground-ball outs in his last two starts, including getting 14 of his 18 non-strikeouts outs on the ground Saturday. He's still serving up too many homers and is far from reliable, but with a 4-0 record and 4.40 ERA since the All-Star break (plus the sinker's return), he's once again a decent fourth starter.
  • Here's yet another way to describe what a rough series the Royals' pitching staff had: The Twins totaled 99 baserunners in four games. Ninety-nine.
  • Torii Hunter has talked a lot about wanting to improve his plate discipline, and to his credit has experienced a significant increase in walks recently. However, he's still the same old undisciplined hacker in too many key spots, swinging at the first pitch after a pitcher's shaky control fills the bases in front of him.

    While many fans and media members (like Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune) still cling to the long-expired notion of Hunter as the "face" of the Twins, the fact is that he's almost an afterthought at this point. He's not one of the team's five best players and he's not one of the hitters you'd want to see up at the plate in a key at-bat.

    None of which is to say that Hunter has ceased being a good player, because that's certainly not the case. However, any argument about keeping him past this season that includes talk of an off-field impact should be taken about as seriously as the early-season talk of Castro being a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. Both things were debatable at one time and are now just flat-out silly.

  • Morneau hit his 29th homer of the season Saturday and nearly went deep for the 30th time Sunday, as Shane Costa made a nice catch up against the wall in right field. The Twins' lack of a 30-homer hitter since 1987 has been a major talking point locally for years and that Morneau is set to end the discussion with one swing in early August is amazing.

    After driving in 10 runs during the series, Morneau is now hitting .321/.376/.599 with 29 homers and 98 RBIs. He's on a 40-homer, 140-RBI pace that only Harmon Killebrew has reached (or even come close to) in the entire history of the team. Plus, overlooked in his RBI binge is that Morneau has cut way down on his strikeouts while showing considerably more patience.

    Some of the added walks are due to teams being scared to pitch to him, but Morneau is also doing a much better job laying off borderline pitches and going deeper into counts. Morneau had a 58-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the first half, but since the All-Star break has struck out just seven times in 92 at-bats while drawing 11 walks. Oh, and he's hitting .382 with 19 homers and 62 RBIs since June 1.

  • Speaking of RBIs, Luis Castillo knocked in five runs against the Royals to give him 42 RBIs on the year. That may not seem like much, but Castillo's career high is 47 RBIs and he topped 40 RBIs just twice prior to this season. Despite already missing a dozen games with leg problems, he's on pace to shatter those marks.
  • Nick Punto and Josh Rabe combined to go 0-for-10 Sunday, which means the rest of the lineup went 22-for-34. For those of you without calculators handy, that works out to a .647 batting average for everyone else.
  • Leave it to the Royals to end Mike Redmond's walkless streak.

    Redmond had gone 126 plate appearances without drawing a single walk this season until Odalis Perez gave him a free pass in the first inning yesterday. What's odd about the whole situation is that Perez was a rare Kansas City pitcher who actually threw strikes (aside from that plate appearance, obviously) and Redmond had to take a borderline 3-1 pitch to work the walk.

    When not walking, Redmond also went 3-for-4 with two RBIs in what was his lone appearance of the series, bringing his season totals up to .352/.366/.440. And if it seems like the Twins have an awful lot of guys sporting huge batting averages, you're right:

    Jason Bartlett      .377
    Joe Mauer .365
    Mike Redmond .352
    Jason Tyner .326
    Josh Rabe .324
    Justin Morneau .321
    Nick Punto .308

    As a team, the Twins rank second in all of baseball with a .289 batting average on the season and lead MLB with a .327 batting average since the All-Star break.

  • With Morneau's 98 RBIs ranking second only to David Ortiz among AL hitters, it's easy to overlook Michael Cuddyer's outstanding production. Cuddyer smacked a pair of homers against the Royals and is now hitting .270/.359/.503 with 16 homers and 70 RBIs overall. He received sporadic playing time early in the year, but is still on pace to crack 100 RBIs.

    The last Twins right fielder to reach triple-digit RBIs? Kirby Puckett in 1994. Before that it was Tony Oliva in 1969 and 1970, and the only other right fielder in team history with a 100-RBI season was Bob Allison in 1961 and 1962. Similar to Bartlett breaking out once he got away from Rochester, can you imagine where the Twins would be if they hadn't reconsidered their stance on not giving Cuddyer everyday at-bats?

  • Fans and media members alike continue to doubt Pat Neshek and he continues to mow hitters down. Through 10 appearances, Neshek is 1-0 with a 1.23 ERA and 20-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14.2 innings. Opponents are hitting .083/.137/.208 against him. And remember the gnashing of teeth over how he'd fare against left-handed hitters? They're batting an even .100. He's for real.
  • Speaking of teeth gnashing, the concerns over Johan Santana's less-than-dominant performance since the All-Star break appear to be mounting. I'm not overly worried, just as Brad Radke's bad start against Detroit after a dozen or so good outings in a row didn't even phase me. Santana's struggles seem to stem from control issues, which I don't view as a long-term problem.

    He's still capable of making hitters look silly for stretches, as he did with six strikeouts in the first three innings Friday, but simply can't sustain it for as long as normal due to iffy command. When going 3-0 with a 4.31 ERA over a five-start stretch is deemed reason for concern, you know you're dealing with a special player.

    If Santana suddenly couldn't miss bats and was being knocked around with hard-hit balls all over the field that'd be one thing, but that's not the case. He has 30 strikeouts in 31.1 second-half innings and has gone back-to-back starts without serving up a homer. Twins fans have been so spoiled by Robo Santana that it's shocking to see him actually give up runs in the second half, but he'll be just fine.

  • Sometime around the 15th hit yesterday I began to feel sorry for the Royals, but watching Mauer and Cuddyer rip back-to-back ninth-inning homers off a shell-shocked Ambiorix Burgos Friday is one of my favorite memories of the season. Seeing the look on Buddy Bell's face after Cuddyer's bullet cleared the fence in left-center ranks up there with Morneau's walk-off bloop single against Mariano Rivera in terms of moments I'll remember for years.
  • Last but not least ...
    WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
    Chicago 65 44 .596 ---
    Minnesota 65 45 .591 0.5
    Boston 65 45 .591 0.5

    Giddy up!

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