August 29, 2006

Royals 2, Twins 0

It's been a while since the Twins reminded me of last season's team, but last night's loss would have blended right into the second half of 2005. Royals starter Mark Redman entered the game with a 5.85 ERA on the season, including a 6.85 ERA since the All-Star break, yet had little trouble shutting down the Twins' lineup for nine innings using an assortment of well-placed slop.

Redman has certainly shown himself to be a capable big-league starter in the past and was at his junk-tossing best last night, but there's something particularly frustrating about watching a lineup flail away at 116 pitches that rarely topped 80 miles per hour. Of course, the fact that the loss dropped the Twins out of the Wild Card lead and wasted Matt Garza's best start was also tough to take.

After Garza beat the Orioles last week for his first major-league win, I discussed how impressive his outing was despite recording only one strikeout. I also marveled at Garza's ability to change gears and make adjustments between starts, as he went from trying to strike everyone out to purposely inducing weak contact. Here's a little of what I wrote:

Over the long haul, Garza's ability to rack up strikeouts is incredibly important and he figures to thrive at it. In the short term, it's impressive that he was able to switch gears, following up a horrendous first outing with back-to-back solid starts that held almost no resemblance to one another. The challenge going forward will be to produce a performance that combines those gears.

Garza eventually wants to get ahead in the count, finish hitters off with two strikes, pitch efficiently, and induce weak contact when a strikeout isn't always an option. He's shown the ability to do all of those things already, but not in the same start.

Last night's outing is as close as Garza's come to putting together a well-rounded performance that combines all the things he does well. He gave up several relatively hard-hit fly balls, but kept the ball in the ballpark, worked efficiently, induced a fair number of ground-ball outs, and racked up seven strikeouts. In other words, he looked like one of the elite pitching prospects in baseball.

It's a shame the Twins' offense couldn't do any damage against Redman, because if the lineup had managed even three runs against him the big story today would be Garza's performance. For all the talk about him possibly being a bust or his fastball being too straight or his off-speed stuff not being refined enough, Garza deserves a lot of credit for how he's pitched since what was a brutal debut.

He's turned in three straight solid outings, including back-to-back starts that I'd classify as impressive, and has begun to build his case for a spot in the postseason rotation. When combined with the news that Francisco Liriano is scheduled to throw off a mound, Twins fans can officially resume dreaming about that Johan Santana-Liriano-Garza combination at the front of the rotation.

After a night that saw the White Sox leap-frog back into the Wild Card lead thanks to the Twins being held scoreless for the 12th time this year and Redman tossing his second complete-game shutout in 182 career starts, it's worth looking ahead to something less depressing. The Twins remain a good bet to make the playoffs and their chances once in the postseason are looking a whole lot better.

Between Brad Radke's mess of a shoulder, Liriano's fragile elbow, and Garza's inexperience, there are plenty of question marks to go around. However, if the injury gods play nice and Garza keeps improving, a Santana-Liriano-Radke-Garza rotation could do some serious damage in October. Now that I think about it, I can't remember ever being this enthused about being shutout by the Royals.

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