September 28, 2006

Twins 2, Royals 1 (First Place)

The Twins moved into a first-place tie last night thanks to five innings of one-run ball from Brad Radke and a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth inning from Joe Mauer, which is just about the best sentence I can imagine typing on September 29, 2006. After trailing the Tigers by a dozen games at the All-Star break, the Twins simply need to win more games than the Tigers over the next 72 hours to take home their fourth division title in five years.

It's a remarkable comeback that was laughable in June, impossible in July, improbable in August, and unlikely as recently as yesterday afternoon. And now? Well, all the Twins have to do is beat the White Sox a few times and hope the Royals can ruin the Tigers' final homestand. The Tigers demolished the Royals in Kansas City last week, Johan Santana is skipping his final start, and the White Sox have an awful lot of motivation to play hard this weekend, so a division title is perhaps still unlikely.

Of course, how "unlikely" can anything really be at this point? The Twins began the season 25-33, but have lost just 31 times in the 101 games since then. By going 70-31 over that span they've climbed to within one game of the league's best record, amazingly clinched a playoff spot with a week remaining on the schedule, and are going down to the wire fighting for a division championship with a team that once seemed unbeatable.

Whether or not the weekend ends in another AL Central crown, the way the Twins moved into first place last night will go down as one of the most memorable games of the year. It began with Radke returning to the mound after a month off to rest shoulder injuries that likely would have ended his season if not for the fact that he plans to retire anyway. With many fans hoping just to see him take the mound one last time, Radke instead turned in a performance that exceeded all expectations.

His command wasn't quite at the pinpoint level we've come to expect from one of the greatest control pitchers in baseball history, but Radke breezed through five innings on just 57 pitches while showing off good velocity. It would have been one hell of a way to end a career, going out on a high note in front of the home crowd, except for the fact that Radke pitched well enough to immediately be penciled into the postseason rotation as the Game 3 starter in next week's ALDS.

The big test will come when Radke tries to brush his teeth this morning, but barring a setback there's little reason to think he won't be on the mound at the Metrodome at least one more time. As if Radke starting the game wasn't enough to make it exciting, Mauer kept the game from ending by lacing his 13th homer just over the left-field wall with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Twins on the verge of being shut out for the 15th time this season.

Jason Bartlett then ended the game with a bases-loaded single that scored Justin Morneau with the game-winning run in the 10th inning, turning himself into a perfect symbol of the historic turnaround. When logic overcame stubbornness and the Twins finally decided to call Bartlett up from Rochester in mid-June, they were 29-34. He's started every game since then, booting Juan Castro out of the lineup and off the team, and the Twins have gone 66-30.

Let's recap, if only because it makes me smile: Radke started what is likely the final regular-season game of his career and made himself a much-needed option for the playoffs, Mauer delivered one of the year's clutchest moments, Bartlett came up with the walk-off hit, Morneau touched home plate with the game-winning run, and Joe Nathan even picked up the win that put the Twins into first place. Does it get any better than that?

Short of Santana somehow tossing seven shutout innings or Torii Hunter hitting a couple homers and robbing the Royals of two more, you'd have been hard-pressed to script a better one-game example of everything that has gone right over the past 101 games. Now we'll see what the script holds for the final three games, with "White Sox lay down" hopefully being on the page and kicking off a World Series run with Santana on the mound at the Metrodome hopefully beginning the final act.

Radke's Return (Bring on the Yankees)

Detroit lost to Toronto last night, giving the Twins a chance to move into a first-place tie in the division and make things really interesting with four games remaining, but Carlos Silva turned in an ugly start to quickly dash those hopes. The Twins' odds of facing the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs are now relatively overwhelming, which is a sobering thought given Silva's performance against the Royals and the ridiculous lineup the Yankees trotted out last night:

1. Johnny Damon
2. Derek Jeter
3. Bobby Abreu
4. Alex Rodriguez
5. Jason Giambi
6. Gary Sheffield
7. Hideki Matsui
8. Jorge Posada
9. Robinson Cano

That lineup includes two former MVPs, perhaps the leading candidate to win the award this year, and another guy who's finished among the top three vote-getters in three different seasons. Eight of those nine hitters are multi-time All-Stars and the only one who isn't is Robinson Cano, a 23-year-old chasing Joe Mauer for the AL batting title. Not coincidentally, that lineup scored 16 runs against Baltimore last night despite most of the starters getting a few innings off.

Beating up the Orioles isn't necessarily proof of a lineup's greatness, but from top to bottom that group is as scary as any in modern baseball history. The Yankees have already scored 912 runs this season with four games left on the schedule, which is amazing when you consider they spent much of the year with Bobby Abreu in Philadelphia and both Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui on the disabled list. Stick all nine of those guys in the same batting order and it's a 1,000-run lineup.

All of which is why Brad Radke's return to the mound tonight is suddenly extremely important. I had all but written off Radke's chances of pitching in the playoffs when his shoulder injuries became too much for him to pitch through late last month, but with Silva looking like a mess again and a first-round trip to New York looming next week, having Radke available to potentially give the Twins even five innings in Game 3 of the ALDS would be huge.

Is that realistic given the condition of his ailing shoulder and the month-long layoff he's had? Perhaps not, but we'll have a much better idea tonight. If Radke can make it through three or four innings against the Royals and not experience a setback later this week, he's clearly a better bet than Silva and there's little doubt that the Twins would turn to him over Scott Baker (despite Baker's limited success against the Yankees). That would leave the Twins with the following first-round rotation:

Game 1: Johan Santana
Game 2: Boof Bonser
Game 3: Brad Radke
Game 4: Matt Garza
Game 5: Johan Santana

While certainly not ideal, that's far better than the jumbled mess of ugly ERAs the Twins were looking at sifting through a few weeks ago. Johan Santana would be called upon to potentially start two games at Yankee Stadium, with Boof Bonser taking the other game in New York, while Radke and Matt Garza would make their starts at the Metrodome. It's not quite the Santana-Liriano-Radke-Bonser rotation the Twins could have trotted out in a best-case scenario, but it'll have to do.

Now all Radke has to do is throw 50 pitches tonight without his arm falling off and the Twins are ready for October.

September 26, 2006

Twins Notes

  • Johan Santana shook off some early trouble last night to record his 19th win in what was apparently his final start of the regular season, going eight relatively smooth innings in a solid tune-up for Game 1 of the ALDS. The performance essentially guarantees that Santana will become just the eighth pitcher in the history of baseball to capture the major-league triple crown by leading both leagues in wins (19), ERA (2.77), and strikeouts (245).

    Santana's final numbers:

    GS      W     L        IP      SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    34 19 6 233.2 245 47 24 .220

    Santana holds unbeatable leads in ERA and strikeouts, and is one win ahead of Chien-Ming Wang for the MLB lead. Wang makes his final start of the season tonight against Tampa Bay, meaning the best he can do is tie Santana. The list of pitchers whose company Santana will soon keep is impressive to say the least: Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Grover Alexander, Hal Newhouser, Dazzy Vance, and Dwight Gooden.

    Take a look at how steady Santana has been since moving into the starting rotation full time in 2004:

    YEAR     GS      W     L      ERA        IP      SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    2004 34 20 6 2.61 228.0 265 54 24 .192
    2005 33 16 7 2.88 231.2 238 45 22 .210
    2006 34 19 6 2.77 233.2 245 47 24 .220

    Aside from some variance in win-loss record thanks to horrible run support last season, those three pitching lines are as similar as they are amazing. It's a shame that he'll have just two Cy Young Awards to show for that historic three-year run, but at least there's no chance of him being shafted for a second straight season. It's also a shame that Santana won't reach his second 20-win season, but having him start twice in the five-game ALDS makes up for it.

  • Unfortunately, the Tigers stayed in front of the Twins in the AL Central by beating the Blue Jays last night, making a fourth division title in five years unlikely. Because of the tie-breaker situation, the Twins will have to actually beat the Tigers by one game in order to claim the division, which means they may as well be two games back with just five games to play. Assuming Detroit wins at least once more, the Twins would have to either finish 5-0 while the Tigers go 3-2 or go 4-1 while the Tigers finish 2-3.

    Given the fact that Santana is expected to skip his final start and the Tigers finish up their schedule by hosting the Royals in a three-game series, it's probably safe for the Twins to start booking hotel rooms in New York. All of which is why Randy Johnson's back spasms are suddenly an interesting topic. The Yankees are expected to go with Wang in Game 1 and Mike Mussina in Game 2, with the 43-year-old Johnson penciled in for Game 3.

  • On the subject of playoff rotations, Ron Gardenhire indicated yesterday that Boof Bonser will get the Game 2 start behind Santana. The notion of Bonser starting against the Yankees in the second game of the postseason would have seemed absurd a few months ago, but he's clearly established himself as the Twins' No. 2 starter by going 5-3 with a 3.47 ERA and 54-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10 starts since coming back up from Triple-A.

    Bonser was fantastic against the Royals Monday, tossing 6.2 innings of two-hit ball while giving up one run on a solo homer, and has now turned in nine straight starts without allowing more than three runs. He's a 24-year-old rookie who'll be on a huge stage for the first time at Yankee Stadium and is at a major disadvantage against the powerful New York lineup because of his homer-prone tendencies, but going with Bonser is the right decision.

    The Game 3 starter will be determined by how well Brad Radke pitches against the Royals Thursday and how healthy his shoulder feels afterward. It'll be Radke's first appearance since August and will either be the last game he pitches in the big leagues or the first step toward rejoining the rotation for one last postseason run. I remain skeptical that Radke can shake off a significant injury and a lot of rust to be counted on in the ALDS, but a Santana-Bonser-Radke rotation is worth holding out hope for.

  • Joe Mauer took last night off after going 2-for-3 Monday, watching his lead for the AL batting title shrink when both Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter went 2-for-4. Here's what the race for the highest batting average in the league looks like with five games left:
    Joe Mauer         .349
    Robinson Cano .343
    Derek Jeter .341

    The season is quickly becoming very Yankees-centric, with Mauer battling New York's middle-infield duo for the batting title, Justin Morneau competing with Jeter as the two most popular mainstream media candidates for AL MVP, and the Twins facing a likely first-round trip to The Big Apple.

  • I had to laugh when Dick Bremer reacted to a leaping Torii Hunter catch Monday by saying: "You wonder if that's a ball Hunter doesn't get to three or four weeks ago, because he admits to having a quicker first step now." One of the many things I've harped on here of late is that Hunter's defensive struggles in the weeks immediately following his stint on the disabled list were largely ignored by the local media, and especially by Bremer and Bert Blyleven on the team's television broadcasts.

    So when does Bremer finally decide to bring it up? When Hunter's foot is healthier and his problems defensively are in the rear-view mirror. That's always been Bremer's way of doing things, with another example being how he went out of his way to praise Juan Castro's play on a daily basis right up until the Twins cut him loose, at which point he completely changed his tune to how replacing Castro with Jason Bartlett provided a much-needed spark for the team's turnaround.

    I make a lot of strong statements here, ranging from subjective observations and unpopular opinions to unlikely predictions and non-mainstream analysis. I'm certainly wrong my fair share of the time and get criticized sometimes even when I'm right, but you can always count on hearing what I think. Bremer has no ability to do that, parroting whatever the company line is until it changes and gladly ignoring the elephant in the room because it might not be a pleasant topic to discuss.

    When balls were flying over Hunter's head and he was flailing around on the turf after futilely attempting to make the spectacular plays we've all come to expect, Bremer acted as if it was business as usual. When Castro was showing all the range of a potted plant and the infield was a sieve, Bremer excitedly acted like the Twins had Ozzie Smith at shortstop. Now that Hunter is playing well again and Bartlett is getting to everything in sight? Suddenly history has changed and the revised topics are on his mind.

  • Speaking of Castro, he signed a two-year contract extension with the Reds, adding to the mounting evidence that Wayne Krivsky leaving his post as Terry Ryan's right-hand man to become Cincinnati's general manager is one of the best things that could have happened to the Twins. It's comforting to know that the Twins' annoying preference for veteran mediocrity over young talent at times in the past may have been largely Krivsky's doing. It's also comforting to know Castro won't be coming back.

  • September 25, 2006

    The Clincher

    Notes From the Weekend

    Some notes I typed up while watching the Twins' "magic number" shrink to two and the chances of a first-round date with the Yankees grow ...

  • Rondell White went 4-for-4 with a double Saturday and is hitting .317/.353/.549 in 40 second-half games. If you project those post-break numbers out to a full season, it works out to around 25 homers and 75 RBIs, which is exactly the type of production the Twins were hoping for when they signed White this offseason and began the year with him hitting out of the cleanup spot.

    Over that 40-game stretch, which essentially coincides with the end of White's shoulder problems, he's hitting .319/.360/.564 against right-handed pitching and .313/.340/.521 against left-handed pitching. As odd as this sounds after watching him bat .182/.209/.215 in 54 first-half games, White is being wasted a bit batting seventh in a lineup that is suddenly bottom-heavy.

  • Torii Hunter continued his own amazing second-half run Saturday, going deep for the 29th time this season and 15th time since the All-Star break. As discussed here last week, Hunter's plate discipline and strike-zone control have mysteriously vanished in the second half, but he's more than made up for it by batting .300 with 15 homers and 44 RBIs in 55 games.

    Just as importantly, Hunter has looked much better defensively over the past two weeks. He's still not quite himself in center field (and may never be), but he's getting to far more balls than he was this time last month and is no longer an obvious liability. Interestingly, while Hunter's power surge has some people convinced that bringing him back next year is a no-brainer, his overall production is fairly typical.

    In fact, try to pick out this season from the following hitting lines:

     AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    .289 .334 .524 .858
    .271 .330 .475 .805
    .269 .337 .452 .789
    .279 .338 .488 .826
    .269 .323 .462 .785

    Those five lines are what Hunter has done in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and overall for his career. And if you're not able to easily and confidently identify which hitting line belongs to this season, then you've discovered my point. It's great to have Hunter relatively healthy and playing well heading into crunch time, but his future with the Twins has the same question marks attached as it did three months ago.

  • Remember when Joe Mauer was supposedly wearing down? Not only did Mauer hit his second career homer off a lefty yesterday, taking Adam Loewen deep in the first inning to give the Twins a 2-0 lead, he's now batting .329/.442/.486 this month. Here's what the race for the AL batting title looks like heading into the final week of the season:
    Joe Mauer         .347
    Robinson Cano .341
    Derek Jeter .339
    Miguel Tejada .332
    Vlad Guerrero .325
    Justin Morneau .323

    He's hitting .360/.448/.549 against righties and .322/.392/.414 against lefties.

  • I've raved about the Twins' infield defense since Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto took over for Juan Castro and Tony Batista, but watching the Orioles half-heartedly go after relatively routine plays over the weekend hammered the point home even further. While I don't agree with Ron Gardenhire about heading into next season with Punto as the starting third baseman, it's certainly tempting defensively.

    However, Punto's hitting this month is concerning, and not just because he's batting .245/.263/.298. He's reverted back to his old habits, posting a 15-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio after entering the month with 50 strikeouts and 44 walks. Punto found success this year because he stopped focusing on drawing walks and pretending he's a power hitter, but that approach has reared its ugly head again.

  • It was nice to see Phil Nevin hit his first Twins homer yesterday, if only because it could mean that Gardenhire may actually start playing him consistently. Nevin left Saturday's game with what appeared to be a serious wrist injury, yet was in the lineup Sunday and hit a crucial two-run bomb before narrowly missing his second homer in his next at-bat.

    At this point it looks like Nevin and Jason Tyner are in an unlikely yet relatively straightforward platoon, which is something Gardenhire has avoided in the past. Nevin plays against lefties (pushing Justin Morneau to designated hitter, at least over the weekend) and Tyner starts against righties. I'd like to see Nevin in the lineup against certain homer-prone right-handers, but it's a well-designed platoon.

    Nevin is a right-handed batter who has typically posted significantly better numbers against lefties over his career, while Tyner is a left-handed batter who has hit .329/.365/.387 against righties this year. The platoon would make more sense if Tyner was actually given a chance to contribute defensively instead of being wasted at DH, but as long as he's not hitting against southpaws I'll be happy.

  • On the subject of Gardenhire's in-game tactics, it's worth noting that he's slowly but surely begun micromanaging the bullpen on a regular basis. He used six relievers in each of the past two games, which would make some sense if the Twins' bullpen wasn't loaded with guys who don't really need to be mixed and matched in specific situations.

    The musical relievers worked in both cases this weekend and it's certainly a good idea not to overuse the bullpen down the stretch, but Gardenhire has somehow managed to turn one of the things I have always thought he does well (managing the bullpen) into yet another tactic worth questioning. Here's hoping he doesn't continue his Tony LaRussa impression in October, because it's not needed.

  • It's difficult to find fault with Morneau given his .363 batting average this month, but he's quietly gone 21 games (83 at-bats) without a homer after going deep 32 times in his first 129 games (481 at-bats). Also worth noting is that Morneau struck out six times in the three-game series with the Orioles, which is unusual after he came into the series with just 26 strikeouts in 251 second-half at-bats.
  • Like most of Matt Garza's outings so far, yesterday's start contained both good and bad aspects. Garza pitched well early, but seemed to tire as his pitch count approached triple digits and served up three solo homers (including a pair to Miguel Tejada) after giving up a total of three homers in his first 41.2 innings.

    Garza showed no signs of being particularly homer-prone in the minors, but along with his possible lack of stamina it's another reason to think he'll struggle in a start against the Yankees. One thing you can always count on with New York is that they'll work long counts, wear pitchers down, and take full advantage of mistakes left over the plate.

  • I would have thought it nearly impossible, but Scott Ullger may be an even worst third-base coach than he was a hitting coach. Ullger's misguided tendency to send runners home when playing it safe would make much more sense came to a head Friday when Luis Castillo was thrown out by about 20 feet in the first inning.

    The smart (and seemingly obvious) play would have been to hold Castillo up, giving the Twins runners on second and third with no outs for Mauer in the first inning of a scoreless game. Instead, Ullger got needlessly aggressive, Castillo was thrown out with ease on a laughable play, and the would-be rally was wasted.

    One of the Twins' strengths during their amazing turnaround is team speed, with Tyner, Castillo, Punto, Bartlett, and even Hunter and White giving them a lineup full of runners capable of going first-to-third any time. In fact, most days there isn't a single base-clogger in the bunch and that has certainly led to plenty of runs. However, generally speaking the Twins take too many unnecessary risks on the bases.

    That means Ullger sending runners home when playing for a big inning is a better decision, but also includes Gardenhire ordering low-percentage steals and hitters trying to stretch singles into doubles at horrible times. As fun as it is watching the Twins put pressure on a defense by flying around the bases, it's equally frustrating watching them run themselves out of innings a few times per week.

  • Matt Guerrier's win in relief of Scott Baker Saturday was his first in 89 big-league appearances spread over three seasons, which is amazing considering how well he's pitched while often working multiple innings at a time. Guerrier is now 1-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 154 career innings, including a 3.27 ERA in 63.1 innings this season.
  • After all the talk about the Twins' sub par performance away from home earlier this season, they finished the road portion of their schedule with a 42-39 record. That may not seem all that great, but over the previous five seasons the Twins won 38, 43, 42, 40, and 38 games away from the Metrodome. The Twins were 44-37 on the road in 1991 and amazingly went just 29-52 away from home in 1987.

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