September 20, 2006

Twins 8, Red Sox 2

Torii Hunter is healthy, apparently.

Watching Hunter go down in a heap of pain after fouling a ball off his left foot Tuesday night, I worried that he may have suffered yet another serious injury to an area that has cost him dozens of games over the past two years. I even went so far as to write that "losing him now would be a big blow to the Twins' World Series chances" and lament that "it'd be a real shame to lose him with two weeks left."

False alarm.

Hunter was back in the lineup last night, playing center field despite the fact that he could have easily swapped places with designated hitter Jason Tyner (that phrase just doesn't look right) and taken the night off defensively. Not only that, he looked as spry chasing down fly balls as he's looked in months and continued his recent power surge by smacking a three-run homer in the eighth inning that will go down as one of the biggest clutch hits of the Twins' season.

In one night, Hunter responded to my various criticisms and worries about his defense, health, hitting, and performance in key situations. In doing so he kept the Twins a half-game behind the Tigers in the AL Central, erased the damage from David Ortiz's 50th homer of the year, and pushed the White Sox even further out of the postseason picture. It was one hell of a false alarm.

During the 39 minutes between Juan Rincon getting the final out in Boston at 9:23 last night and Todd Jones getting the final out in Chicago at 10:02, the Twins were tied atop the AL Central. Unfortunately, the White Sox proved useless and eventually let the Tigers reclaim their half-game lead, but the Twins will once again try to take over first place tonight with Johan Santana on the mound.

Some other notes from the Twins' 90th win of the season ...

  • As unlikely as it would have been even a month ago, Boof Bonser is now the Twins' No. 2 starter. With seven innings of two-run ball against the Red Sox last night, Bonser improved to 6-5 with a 4.36 ERA on the season. While those are solid numbers for a rookie, the real story is how Bonser has pitched since returning from a demotion to Triple-A:
                      GS      ERA       IP     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    Pre-Demotion 7 5.30 35.2 27 12 9 .292
    Post-Demotion 9 3.74 53.0 49 10 6 .260

    The trip to Rochester and some talks with Rick Anderson convinced Bonser to throw strikes, and he's turned in eight straight starts without allowing more than three runs. In addition to cutting down on the walks, Bonser has boosted his strikeout rate to nearly one per inning and has done a much better job keeping the ball in the ballpark, although the long ball remains his biggest weakness (which Ortiz can now attest to).

    He's not a healthy Francisco Liriano or even an injured Brad Radke, but Bonser provides a lot more hope for the postseason rotation beyond Johan Santana than there once was. As of right now, I would guess that Ron Gardenhire would like to go with Santana in Game 1 of the ALDS, followed by Bonser and Carlos Silva. Of course, the actual playoff rotation depends upon whether the Twins need to win the last couple games of the year and whether Radke can be included, but Bonser's in either way.

  • Bonser isn't the only Twins player who has turned things around in the second half. Rondell White was perhaps the worst player in baseball prior to the All-Star break, posting a .182/.209/.215 hitting line that was almost unbelievable in its putridness. However, after going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk last night, White is now hitting .313/.350/.563 with seven homers and nine doubles in 36 second-half games.

    It's been difficult for White to shake the perception that he's struggling at the plate, both because his horrendous early-season performance remains singed in the minds of most Twins fans and because his overall numbers are still sub par. But while it may have taken three months' worth of historic and painful-to-watch out-making for something to click, White is now providing exactly the sort of offense the Twins thought they'd be getting when they signed him this winter.

  • I wonder what happened to all those people who argued to the bitter end that Juan Castro was a better defensive shortstop than Jason Bartlett. Did they all move to Cincinnati with Castro? Did they see Bartlett's two incredible plays deep in the hole last night? Do they still stubbornly think that Castro would have come anywhere close to making either play? I suppose the answer to all those questions is "who cares."
  • Justin Morneau followed up his amazing 5-for-5 game Tuesday night by going 1-for-4 with a walk and his 125th RBI of the year. Morneau failed to make up any ground on Ortiz for the league RBI lead thanks to Ortiz's homer, but he's on the verge of moving into second place in Twins history:

    Harmon Killebrew 1969 140
    Harmon Killebrew 1962 126
    JUSTIN MORNEAU 2006 125
    Harmon Killebrew 1961 122
    Kirby Puckett 1988 121

    Morneau will surely pass Killebrew once, but it's unlikely that he has enough games remaining to drive in another 16 runs to claim the top spot. Incidentally, Michael Cuddyer notched his 101st RBI, which moves him past Rod Carew's MVP-winning 1977 campaign into a tie with Tony Oliva's 1969 season for 24th place on the all-time team leaderboard. Cuddyer needs another nine RBIs to move into the top 15 (Killebrew's 1966 season and Kirby Puckett's 1992 season are tied for 14th place with 110 RBIs).

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