August 9, 2006

Twins 4, Tigers 2

  • The one blemish on Brad Radke's resume over the past 10 weeks is a bad start against Detroit on June 29 and it looked like he was in for another rough outing against the Tigers last night when they scored two runs in the second inning. However, as he so often does, Radke got into a groove after a shaky start and ended up tossing seven innings of two-run ball to pick up his 11th win of the season.

    After a loss to Cleveland on May 24, Radke was 4-6 with a 7.44 ERA as talk of shoulder problems and looming retirement grew louder. Since then he has been among the best pitchers in baseball, going 7-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 14 starts. Given his injury situation Radke is always one pitch away from what could be the end of his career, but he's had an overlooked impact on the Twins' dramatic turnaround.

    With Johan Santana being human, Francisco Liriano heading to the disabled list, and the back of the rotation being a revolving door, Radke has suddenly turned into the Twins' most reliable starter. It's a shame that Santana and Liriano aren't also firing on all cylinders, because with Carlos Silva pitching well again and Matt Garza coming up from Triple-A, a Santana-Liriano-Radke-Silva-Garza rotation would be scary.

  • Speaking of Garza, he was called up from Rochester yesterday afternoon and watched last night's win while spitting sun-flower seeds and blowing bubbles in the dugout. Garza officially takes Mike Smith's short-lived place on the roster and in the rotation, but will essentially be replacing Liriano once the Twins place F-Bomb on the disabled list.

    (Garza provides a proper hair replacement for Smith's greased-down mullet.)

    It's obviously unfair to expect Garza to truly "replace" Liriano, but he has a chance to make losing the best pitcher in baseball a little less painful. It'd be easy to point to the struggles of young starters like Scott Baker and Boof Bonser as reasons to be skeptical of Garza having an immediate impact, but Garza is several steps beyond Baker and Bonser as a prospect.

    In fact, an argument could be made for Garza being the single best pitching prospect in all of baseball now that guys like Liriano, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and Jonathan Papelbon are established as major leaguers. At the very least, Garza is the most major league-ready of the elite prospects, and that's the key right now.

    It's a shame that it took an injury to Liriano for Garza to get his feet wet in the majors, but that doesn't take away any of the excitement of seeing him in a Twins uniform. He's expected to make his debut Friday against the Blue Jays, which is a tough first opponent. I'd gladly settle for five decent innings, which should be the goal going forward when it comes to the back of the rotation.

  • The latest news on Liriano can probably be classified as "incomplete" rather than "bad." He'll be placed on the disabled list, with Baker or Bonser likely being called up to replace him on the roster. Liriano's official status and potential timetable for recovery won't be clear until after he meets with doctors Thursday, but at this point I'd be surprised if he pitches again before September.

    As Ron Gardenhire told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday, the Twins are more concerned about Liriano's future than when his next start will come:

    The ultimate goal here is to protect our young pitchers. We're going to miss having him in the rotation, a great arm like that. But we want him to understand that it's all about protecting that young arm so he's here many, many years down the road.

    It's difficult to offer up any sort of strong opinion on how the team should handle Liriano's situation until more details are known, but I certainly agree with Gardenhire's overall assessment. If there's any increased potential for long-term risk by Liriano coming back to pitch this season, he should be shut down immediately and start preparing for spring training. Hopefully it won't come to that.

  • As he's done several times this season, Nick Punto came up with a big game right when many fans started wondering if he was coming back down to earth. With Punto's batting average in danger of falling below .300 for the first time since early July, he went 3-for-5 with two doubles last night and is now hitting .313/.403/.418.

    I was skeptical about the new-and-improved Punto when I first heard about the adjustments he was working on this spring, but at this point anyone waiting for him to turn into a pumpkin probably hasn't been paying much attention. Punto is a completely different hitter than the guy who struggled prior to this season.

                    AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoD     IsoP      SO%    SO/BB
    Pre-2006 .238 .302 .321 .064 .083 20.0 2.36
    2006 .313 .403 .418 .090 .105 12.5 0.95

    Punto used to approach his plate appearances like a power-hitter who didn't actually have any power, working long counts in an effort to coax walks and taking big swings that resulted in warning-track fly balls. That inevitably led to a decent number of free passes, but also meant tons of strikeouts and a low batting average.

    Now he's actually hitting like a speedy guy with little power should, cutting his strikeouts by nearly 40 percent and turning a horrible strikeout-to-walk ratio into an excellent one. Punto's walks now come as a result of fouling pitches off and putting together tough at-bats, rather than being passive and putting his fate in the hands of an umpire. He's a hitter now, not a walker.

    He's unlikely to maintain a .313 batting average long term, but he's closer to being a .313/.403/.418 hitter than he is the guy who entered this year hitting .238/.302/.321. Assuming he stays away from old habits, Punto has gone from being an overused utility man with marginal value on a big-league roster to someone whose only question going into next year should be which position he'll start at.

  • Joe Mauer went 3-for-5 with a double and two RBIs, collecting his first multi-hit game of the month. That sounds like a bigger drought than it is, because Mauer had at least one hit in his first six games of August. With that said, he raised his three-decimal batting average (the one that gets printed in the newspaper) last night for the first time since July 23. Mauer is hitting .367/.445/.534 and is on pace for 15 homers, 35 doubles, 10 steals, 90 RBIs, and 90 runs scored.
  • Jason Tyner went 0-for-3, but continued to come up big in important spots by throwing out Magglio Ordonez at the plate with the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Tyner isn't exactly known for his arm and needed every ounce of his 175-pound (yeah, right) frame just to get the ball to the plate, but it was a game-changing play that neither Shannon Stewart or Rondell White could have made and further strengthened his grip on a roster spot for 2007.
  • After being embarrassed by the Twins over the weekend, the Royals took Monday off to recuperate and then surprisingly beat the Red Sox last night. The loss dropped the Red Sox a half-game behind the Twins in the Wild Card race and for a moment it looked as if the White Sox were also going to lose to the Yankees, which would have put the Twins in sole possession of the Wild Card lead.

    Instead, Mariano Rivera blew a rare save opportunity when Paul Konerko led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a solo homer, and Chicago eventually beat New York in 11 innings. The Wild Card standings now look like this:

    WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
    Chicago 66 45 .595 ---
    Minnesota 66 46 .589 0.5
    Boston 65 46 .586 1.0

    Tonight's Santana-Jeremy Bonderman matchup should be a great one, and leaving Detroit with a series win and the Wild Card lead would be quite an accomplishment.

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