October 4, 2006

ALDS Game 1: A's 3, Twins 2

Skipped from his final turn in the regular-season rotation over the weekend to line him up to start the first game of the postseason yesterday afternoon, Johan Santana turned in a dominant performance against the A's in Game 1 of the ALDS:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     PIT
8.0 5 2 2 1 8 107

Santana had not lost at the Metrodome since August of 2005, and if told before the game that he'd post the above pitching line against the A's, most fans would have felt safe chalking up a win for the Twins. In fact, the assumption would have been that Santana held Oakland to a pair of runs over eight innings before turning the lead over to Joe Nathan for the final three outs. Sadly, that's not how things played out at all.

Santana blitzed through the A's lineup, attacking hitters with 92-95 mile-per-hour fastballs and making them look silly on swings against his ridiculous changeup. He struck out two batters in each of the first three innings, all of them swinging, and set the A's down in order a total of six times. Unfortunately, he ran into trouble in the second inning, throwing a 3-1 changeup that Frank Thomas lofted into the seats down the left-field line to put the A's up 1-0.

Santana bounced right back to blow a 95-MPH fastball by Eric Chavez on a 2-2 count, but Jay Payton followed by a blooping a two-strike changeup into short center field for a single. Marco Scutaro then ripped a double down the left-field line, and with Rondell White and his non-existent throwing arm out there, Payton had little trouble scampering home with Oakland's second run. Santana got out of the inning by striking Mark Ellis out on a beautiful changeup, but the damage had been done.

Santana retired the side 1-2-3 in each of the next four innings, wriggled out of a Jason Bartlett-fueled bases-loaded jam in the seventh, and put the finishing touches on his masterpiece with a 1-2-3 eighth. While tagged with the loss in the boxscore, Santana's only real crime yesterday was being human. He pitched brilliantly, allowing two runs in eight innings against a good lineup, and gave his team a great chance to win.

Instead, the Twins lost because the lineup did everything they could to turn a good Barry Zito outing into a great one by hacking at anything he threw at them, and a curious bit of bullpen management by Ron Gardenhire gave Oakland what turned out to be the deciding run. Rather than take the driver's seat in the series behind a dominant effort from their ace, the Twins gave up homefield advantage and now must win three out of four beginning with Boof Bonser taking the mound this afternoon.

Some other notes I typed up after watching the game ...

  • One of the in-game tactics that I frequently criticize Gardenhire for is his mishandling of Nathan in non-save situations. Too often he'll hold Nathan back for a place that is either less important than the current spot or may never actually occur, turning instead to lesser relievers in crucial spots. Yesterday afternoon was a perfect example of this tactical mistake in action, and it ended up costing the Twins a run and perhaps even the game.

    With the Twins down 2-1 to begin the ninth inning, Gardenhire pulled Santana after 107 pitches. I felt it was the right decision, although there's certainly room for disagreement given a relatively manageable pitch count and the way he was throwing. However, Santana has rarely been asked to approach 120 pitches in regular-season starts and narrowly avoided serious trouble in the seventh inning, so with the best bullpen in baseball fully rested it was the right move.

    What followed wasn't. With the game being played at the Metrodome, there was no potential for a save situation left. If the Twins took the lead at any point for the remainder of the game, it would immediately end and they would win. That may seem overly obvious, but it's worth mentioning given that Gardenhire decided to leave Nathan in the bullpen. For what, exactly, I'm not sure, but it was Jesse Crain who got the call.

    In the notes I jotted down during his warmup tosses, I wrote simply: "Why Crain?! Where's Nathan?" He promptly served up Thomas' second homer to lead off the inning, putting the Twins in a 3-1 hole that came back to bite them when they scored what would have been the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, on the way to losing 3-2. The debate amongst many Twins fans seems to be why Gardenhire chose to bring in Crain instead of Pat Neshek, but that's missing the larger and more obvious point.

    Nathan is the team's best reliever, in addition to being one of the best relievers in all of baseball, yet in the most important inning given to the bullpen in a game where no save situation was ever going to be possible, he watched Crain give the A's an insurance run that drastically reduced the Twins' chances of coming back. If you don't turn to your best reliever in the most important relief inning in the first game of the playoffs, what are you saving him for? Game 2? Next season?

  • Justin Morneau produced two of the few well-struck balls against Zito, driving a curveball deep into the left-center field gap in the fourth inning. Mark Kotsay tracked it down after a full-out sprint, making the catch and then crashing into the wall. Morneau looked stunned as rounded first base on the way to a would-be leadoff double, and Kotsay's play proved important when White's two-out gapper led to no runs after Phil Nevin popped up a fastball right over the plate to end the threat.

    White later put the Twins on the board by yanking a high fastball into the seats down the left-field line. It was a no-doubt homer that seemed to come out of nowhere with Zito breezing through the lineup and White deserves a lot of credit. He came up with two of the three extra-base hits against Zito, continuing an impressive run that saw him bat .321/.354/.538 in the second half after hitting .182/.209/.215 prior to the All-Star break.

  • Jon Miller and Joe Morgan broadcast the game for ESPN. I've typically enjoyed Miller's work in the past, but I'm afraid some of Morgan's faults have been rubbing off on him. Miller referred to Bartlett as "Josh Bartlett" no fewer than eight times during the course of the game, beginning with his reading of the Twins' batting order in the first inning and continuing basically each time Bartlett came to the plate or made a play defensively.

    Moments before his leadoff double in the eighth, Bartlett was welcomed to the plate by Miller informing viewers: "Here's Josh Bartlett." Apparently that must have been the final straw for someone watching who had the ability to make an important phone call, because minutes later Miller issued an apology for mispronouncing the name all afternoon. Morgan, in typical Morgan fashion, immediately said: "You know Jon, I heard you saying that and should have said something."

    Really, Joe? You heard the play-by-play announcer you're working a playoff game with mispronounce the name of one team's shortstop at least eight times over the course of two hours and "should have said something"? In reality, I suspect Morgan, like Miller and the asleep-at-the-wheel producer who's supposed to be in charge, either had no idea what Bartlett's name actually is or wasn't paying enough attention to notice the mistake being made over and over.

    Miller also botched "Neshek" no fewer than four times, referred to the Homer Hankies the crowd was waving as "rally towels," and repeatedly opined that Torii Hunter was having trouble tracking fly balls in the Metrodome roof because he was acting like he couldn't see them well off the bat. Those things are nit-picky by themselves, but when combined with the ongoing "Josh Bartlett" fiasco it was an tour de force performance.

    Had he read the pronunciation guide ESPN provided him or done some prep work, Miller would have known how to say the names of players who figured to play key roles in the series he's being paid to announce. Had he paid attention to the World Series in either 1987 or 1991, he'd have been familiar with Homer Hankies. And had he watched the Twins play a few times, he'd have known that Hunter rarely loses a ball in the roof and is simply trying to deek runners when he acts lost out there.

  • If Derek Jeter had made the same catch Nick Punto did while leaping into the stands for a foul ball in the seventh inning, it would lead every SportsCenter for a week and become part of postseason video montages for the next 50 years. Just saying.
  • The Twins pride themselves on "doing the little things," but sure didn't show it in Game 1. Luis Castillo made a crucial first-inning out on the bases and later failed to lay down a sacrifice bunt that proved costly, Punto cost himself a possible bunt single by continuing his incredibly misguided and stubborn tradition of sliding head-first into first base, and Bartlett booted a tailor-made double-play grounder that put Santana in a huge jam.

    After Santana set the A's down in order to begin the game, Castillo led off the bottom half of the first by drawing a walk when Zito couldn't find the plate. With Punto up, the middle of the order to follow, and Zito having trouble getting into a groove, the Twins had an opportunity to strike first in what figured to be a low-scoring game. Letting things play out naturally with a runner on base for Punto, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer (and possibly Morneau) would have been my preferred strategy.

    However, a somewhat compelling case could also have been made for asking Punto to bunt Castillo into scoring position, bringing the middle of the order up with a man on second and one out. Instead, Castillo took matters into his own hands--or his own feet, to be more accurate--and attempted to steal second base. Gardenhire said afterward that he hadn't ordered the steal, with Castillo talking off on his own as "a green-light guy."

    I question giving a green light to someone who was gunned down on a third of his steal attempts while dealing with various leg problems, including missing multiple games because of knee soreness last week. With that said, ultimately the blame goes to Castillo, both for choosing a bad spot to run and for executing poorly. He got a horrible jump, ran like he was sloshing through mud, and was called out on a close play.

    Castillo led off the bottom of the fourth with another walk and this time Punto bunted him into scoring position. Of course, while the same bunt would have been reasonable with the score tied in the first inning, it made little sense down multiple runs in the fourth. The bunt-or-not dilemma popped up once more in the eighth, when Bartlett led off with a double. Castillo stepped to the plate with a chance to get the tying run to third base with one out and Gardenhire reportedly ordered him to lay a bunt down.

    Castillo bunted through Zito's first offering and Jason Kendall threw behind the runner, nearly picking Bartlett off second base. Perhaps discouraged by the near-blunder, Castillo made his second game-changing decision of the afternoon by swinging away, leading to a weak ground out to third base that failed to advance Bartlett. He was eventually stranded there and became one of several opportunities to either tie the game or take the lead that the Twins mishandled.

  • The bottom line is that the Twins made all kinds of mental, physical, and tactical mistakes in a close game. They wasted scoring chances by not executing fundamental plays, handed the A's several outs by playing small-ball in unfavorable spots, and perhaps most importantly made Zito nearly unhittable by chasing pitches outside the strike zone all game. As Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus reported:

    Eighteen of the 34 batters [the Twins] sent to the plate saw no more than two pitches. Zito averaged 16.6 pitches an inning this season; he didn't throw more than 14 in any inning Tuesday. ... The Twins saw fewer than 10 pitches in three of their nine turns at bat. After Jason Bartlett's leadoff double in the eighth, the Twins went through their last seven batters, six outs, on 13 pitches, the last seven from Huston Street.

    The Twins deserved to lose Game 1, although Santana certainly didn't.

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