September 22, 2006

Red Sox 6, Twins 0

They trailed the division-leading Tigers by a seemingly insurmountable 12 games at the All-Star break, yet as Luis Castillo stepped into the batter's box against Josh Beckett last night in Boston, everything was set up for the Twins to take over first place in the AL Central.

Detroit had blown a 3-0 lead about a half-hour earlier, losing 4-3 to Baltimore when Melvin Mora laced a two-run double down the left-field line in the bottom of the eighth inning. That loss dropped the Tigers into second place (by mere percentage points) for at least a few hours and the Twins had baseball's best pitcher, Johan Santana, taking the mound to claim first place for longer than that.

As perfect as the situation seemed, it wasn't meant to be. Santana served up a first-inning homer to David Ortiz, picked an unfortunate time to make his first error of the season defensively in the second inning, and staked the Red Sox to an early 4-0 lead. The Twins' lineup failed to get anything going against Beckett, who entered the game with a 5.02 ERA, and Boston coasted to a 6-0 victory.

If not for the circumstances, losing last night's game wouldn't be difficult to swallow. Taking two out of three at Fenway Park is anything but a negative and it gives the Twins five straight series wins. Plus, the White Sox have all but been eliminated from the playoff picture, meaning the Twins can go into the final 10 games with a postseason spot secured and a measly half-game deficit for the division crown.

Of course, the loss was difficult to swallow. The opportunity was there to overtake the Tigers and apply further pressure to their sinking ship, and it's always surprising when Santana pitches and the Twins don't win. What's shocking is that the Twins have now lost back-to-back Santana starts, although they at least put up a fight in the Santana-started extra-inning loss to the Indians last Friday.

By beating the Tigers at the Metrodome on September 10, the Twins improved to an amazing 26-5 in Santana's starts, compared to 57-54 with anyone else pitching. In the 10 games since then, the Twins are 0-2 in Santana's starts and 7-1 with anyone else pitching. Normally I'd say something about how odd that is, but it actually fits pretty well with the general theme of the Twins' incredibly odd season.

Santana being anything less than unbeatable will surely be cause for plenty of panic, even when it's just a two-start return to mortality, and whatever MVP chances he had likely vanished. However, his last two starts have been far from disastrous and considering the state of the rotation at this point, winning seven out of eight games with other starters on the mound is a huge positive.

Not sweeping the Red Sox combined with Santana's struggles kill the Twins' momentum a bit, but in both cases the bigger picture provides a better view. The Twins could only have dreamed about being in a virtual tie for first place in late September, they couldn't have even dreamed up a scenario where they had a postseason spot locked up with 10 games left, and the rotation is in great shape if Santana is suddenly the chief concern.

Some other notes from the Twins' 62nd loss of the season ...

  • Called up last week when Rochester was eliminated from the Triple-A playoffs, Glen Perkins made his major-league debut last night, tossing 1.1 scoreless innings in relief. After a great college career as the Gophers' ace, the Twins used the compensation pick they received for losing Eddie Guardado as a free agent the previous winter to select Perkins 22nd overall in the 2004 draft.

    The call-up to the big leagues was actually Perkins' second promotion this month, as he moved up to Triple-A after Matt Garza, Boof Bonser, and Scott Baker left Rochester for the Twins' rotation. Thrust into Rochester's rotation at playoff time, Perkins turned in back-to-back impressive outings, throwing six shutout innings in relief of a rehabbing Francisco Liriano on September 9 and following it up by striking out 10 batters over seven innings in a start last Thursday.

    A quick glance at Perkins' performance at Double-A reveals an ugly 4-11 record, but while a pitcher's record can be misleading in the majors, it borders on completely useless in the minors. In this case it overshadows the fact that Perkins pitched well at New Britain, tossing 117 innings with a 3.91 ERA and 131-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .243 batting average and 11 homers.

    Given Baker's struggles and the coaching staff's lack of patience with him, it's possible that Perkins could replace him for a start next week and may also be considered for the postseason roster as a second left-handed reliever. Regardless of what happens down the stretch, Perkins will likely be given a chance to earn a spot on the pitching staff coming out of spring training. Barring that, he could come up at midseason much like Bonser did this year.

    While Garza has a chance to develop into a No. 1 starter (if the Twins didn't already have Santana and Liriano), Perkins profiles more as a middle-of-the-rotation option. Aside from being a lefty, Perkins fits the same type of profile as Bonser and Baker, right down to the less-than-ideal fly-ball tendencies. The importance of young rotation depth has been on display this season, and with Garza, Bonser, Baker, Perkins, and Kevin Slowey the Twins are in great shape in that department for years to come.

  • Beckett and Keith Foulke combined to hand the Twins their 14th shutout of the season last night, which is a startling number that ties the team record set in 1990. I realize it sounds overly simplistic and blatantly obvious to put it this way, but that means the lineup has given the Twins zero chance to win in nine percent of their games this season.

    For all the talk about piranhas, the various MVP cases being made for Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, and Dick Bremer's misguided nightly proclamation that the Twins have "the best offense in the league" because of their lofty team batting average, that's pretty pathetic. When they actually manage to score a run, the Twins are 90-48 for a .652 winning percentage.

  • With the White Sox 5.5 games behind the Twins with only 10 games left, fans can safely focus their energy on rooting against the Tigers. Detroit's remaining schedule consists of a three-game road trip to Kansas City, followed by a six-game homestand against the Blue Jays and Royals. The Twins travel to Baltimore for three games and then come home to host the Royals (4) and White Sox (3).

    The Tigers have a slight edge in remaining opponents, but the overall difficulty is relatively similar. The Royals (27-38) and Orioles (26-37) have been equally bad since the All-Star break, while the White Sox (28-37) have actually been worse than the Blue Jays (31-33) in the second half. In other words, the AL Central title will go to whichever team can take care of business against two weak sets of opponents.

  • Last and least, I almost always take the weekends off from posting anything new here, but that will likely change at times for the next month or so. In other words, if you're looking for a way to kill a few minutes somewhere other than at work, feel free to stop by.

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