September 30, 2008

The End

Game No. 163

Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind
I knew there was a better way of life and I was just trying to find
You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure
Across 110th Street is a helluva a tester

- Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street"

After six months and 162 games, the Twins' season now comes down to a one-game playoff tonight against the White Sox, in Chicago. Winner takes the AL Central crown and begins a first-round series Thursday against the Rays. Loser takes their 88 wins and starts waiting 'til next year. For a moment yesterday it looked like the Tigers might knock off the White Sox, but after a three-hour rain delay Alexei Ramirez made sure that the Twins will have to do their own dirty work.

My promise to live chat throughout the entire rain-delayed game led to a seven-hour marathon session that has me pretty much talked out, but there isn't a whole lot to say about a one-game playoff anyway. Both teams' shallow, mediocre bullpens figure to be big factors, because John Danks has a 6.88 ERA in seven starts against the Twins and Nick Blackburn has a 5.67 ERA in five starts against the White Sox. Here are their overall numbers this season:

                   W    L    ERA   xFIP   GS    IP    SO   BB   HR   OAVG
Nick Blackburn 11 10 4.14 4.55 32 187 93 36 22 .295
John Danks 11 9 3.47 3.94 32 187 155 54 15 .251

The White Sox have a tough southpaw on the mound and are 53-28 at home while the Twins are 35-46 on the road and have the league's fourth-worst OPS against lefties. Beyond that, Chicago's ballpark significantly boosts homers and the wind will reportedly be blowing out at 30 miles per hour. Given that the White Sox hit the league's most homers with 234 and the Twins hit the league's fewest homers at 111, conditions also clearly favor Chicago.

Fortunately just about anything can happen and just about anyone can be Bucky Dent for one day, and even with the deck stacked against them and a 14-20 record to finish the year the Twins are nine good innings from their fifth division title in seven seasons. I'd sure love to spend tomorrow writing an ALDS preview.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

September 28, 2008 "Makeup Game Live Chat" Today at Noon 4:00 P.M.

As it turns out, winning two out of three games from the Royals would've given the Twins the AL Central title. Instead, they dropped back-to-back home games against a 75-win team before avoiding a sweep yesterday, finishing with an 88-74 record. The White Sox also won yesterday, improving to 87-74, but due to a rain out earlier this month they'll play game No. 162 today against the Tigers. If the White Sox lose, the Twins take the division. If the White Sox win, there's a one-game playoff in Chicago tomorrow.

TODAY'S MATCHUP        W      L      ERA     xFIP
Freddy Garcia 1 1 4.50 4.59
Gavin Floyd 16 8 3.91 4.69

Unfortunately for the Twins, the odds are stacked pretty heavily in the White Sox's favor. The game is in Chicago, where the White Sox are 52-28, and Detroit has nothing to play for except perhaps trying to tie for last place rather than owning sole possession of the cellar. The Tigers completely unraveled late in the season, going 19-34 since August 1 and 8-17 in September, and have already announced plans to fire both their pitching coach and bullpen coach.

Beyond that, the White Sox are starting Gavin Floyd, who's 16-8 with a 3.91 ERA and has seen the team go 4-0 when he's faced the Tigers this season. Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia is starting for the Tigers. Not only is Garcia making just his third start after missing a year following elbow surgery, he's friends with Ozzie Guillen and married into his family, pitched for the White Sox from 2004-2006 (before being dealt for Floyd, oddly enough), and may try to land another job with Chicago as a free agent this winter.

In other words, the Twins definitely shouldn't count on Garcia and the Tigers doing them any favors. On the other hand, stranger things have happened and even as very heavy favorites the White Sox probably have at least a 25-percent chance of losing. Plus, even in victory they may have to use Bobby Jenks or Matt Thornton extensively, thus hurting their chances in the one-game playoff tomorrow. Whatever the case, I'll obviously be watching the game and it seemed like a good time for another live chat.

I'll start chatting at noon and do the usual Q&A thing for an hour, leading up to the first pitch in Chicago at 1:05 CT. Once the game gets underway, I'll continue fielding questions while also providing some play-by-play/commentary. If you're stuck somewhere without a television or just feel like cheering for the Tigers in the (online) presence of fellow Twins fans, feel free to stop by. If things run smoothly and the Twins make the playoffs, we can try some more in-game live chatting in October.

UPDATE: Today's chat will be simulcast at Rotoworld, so it'll be more crowded and less Twins-centric than initially planned. However, the strong anti-White Sox sentiment will remain. Promise.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

September 26, 2008

First Place!


The lineup with the league's fewest homers goes deep three times in Game 1. The bullpen that's been so shaky for the past four months tosses 10 scoreless innings between Game 2 and Game 3. Carlos Gomez, who came into Game 3 with the AL's lowest OPS, goes 4-for-5 with two triples and a double, and Alexi Casilla, who'd been 29-for-126 (.230) since coming off the disabled list, delivers a walk-off hit in the 10th inning to complete a three-game sweep.

And just like that, the Twins are in sole possession of first place for the first time since August 23.

When three defensive miscues led to a six-run fourth inning for the White Sox and Kevin Slowey exited after taking a line drive off his wrist, it looked like the Twins were following their unfortunate year-long pattern of slipping up immediately after experiencing tremendous success. Instead, the bullpen locked down the White Sox's lineup and the Twins battled back from a 6-1 deficit, responding with two runs of their own in the bottom of the fourth frame and one more in the sixth to set up the late-inning drama.

Up 6-4 with six outs to get, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen turned the game over to his most reliable bullpen duo of setup man Matt Thornton and closer Bobby Jenks, who'd combined for a 2.59 ERA and .211 opponent's batting average in 121.1 innings this year. Brendan Harris led off with a double down the third-base line and Nick Punto advanced him to third base with a ground out, at which point Guillen pulled Thornton for Jenks, who hadn't blown a save since June 4.

Gomez greeted Jenks by driving in Harris with a bloop single and then came around to score the tying run in spectacularly thrilling fashion when Denard Span yanked a triple down the first-base line. Gomez looked like Usain Bolt flying around the bases, unleashing the full scope of his amazing wheels before diving into the plate with a completely unnecessary yet somehow fitting slide as the 43,000 fans at the Metrodome exploded.

Casilla and Joe Mauer momentarily killed the huge buzz by both failing to knock in Gomez from third base--including a fouled off suicide-squeeze attempt from Casilla--and the game advanced to the ninth tied at 6-6. With no save chance possible, Ron Gardenhire smartly brought in closer Joe Nathan, who shook off his recent shakiness to set down six straight batters in two perfect frames, recording more than three outs for just the fourth time this year and completing two innings for just the second time.

With Nathan apparently done despite throwing only 26 pitches and rookie Jose Mijares warming up in the Twins' bullpen, Guillen did what Gardenhire was seemingly unwilling to do and sent Jenks out for a third inning. He retired Harris on a ground out, but walked Punto on four straight pitches. Gomez moved him to second base with a ground out and Punto alertly scampered to third on a wild pitch, putting the game-winning run 90 feet away with two outs.

Guillen ordered an intentional walk of Span, which made plenty of sense given that he was 3-for-4 with a pair of extra-base hits on the night to boost his batting average to .299. Plus, Casilla was on deck after striking out against Jenks in an ugly at-bat that left the go-ahead run stranded on third base two innings earlier, making him 2-for-12 with four strikeouts in the series and 18-for-79 (.228) this month. Casilla took a first-pitch fastball right down the middle and then laced a line drive to center field.

                 W      L     WIN%      GB
Twins 87 72 .547 ---
White Sox 86 72 .544 0.5

Sweeping the White Sox is a beautiful thing and last night's game was among the most exciting in my two decades as a Twins fan, but a half-game lead guarantees nothing but a meaningful final weekend. If the Twins avoid a letdown they should take at least two out of three from the Royals, who even after going 16-7 this month are a half-game from last place at 73-86 overall. Similarly, if momentum means anything the White Sox should have trouble with the Indians, who're 79-80 overall after a 30-16 run.

FRIDAY MATCHUP         W      L      ERA     xFIP
Kyle Davies 8 7 4.21 5.09
Francisco Liriano 6 3 3.39 4.44

Gil Meche 13 11 4.05 4.11
Glen Perkins 12 4 4.50 5.07

Brandon Duckworth 3 2 5.06 5.26
Scott Baker 10 4 3.59 4.30

Over the past six years this blog has rarely featured Saturday or Sunday content, but my guess is that tradition will probably be broken this weekend with a new entry or two, so feel free to stop by. You can also check out my weekly Friday morning appearance on KFAN at around eight o'clock to hear me talk Twins with Mike Morris, Cory Cove, and Chris Hawkey on "The Power Trip Morning Show." And come Monday hopefully it'll be time break down the playoff roster and preview the Twins' first-round series.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

September 24, 2008

Twins Take Round 2

Lack of power and shoddy bullpen work have been two of the Twins' weaknesses. They rank dead last among AL teams in homers and since Pat Neshek suffered a season-ending arm injury the non-Joe Nathan members of the bullpen have combined for a 4.54 ERA. So naturally in the season's biggest series they hit three homers Tuesday night and got four shutout innings of relief last night. Baseball can be a funny game, but with the Twins now a half-game back in the AL Central you knew that already.

Nick Blackburn wriggled out of jams last night despite allowing eight hits and two walks to 23 batters, leaving after five innings with just two runs on the board. For most of the past few months a five-inning start would have preceded a bullpen breakdown, but instead the unlikely trio of Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser, and Jose Mijares each tossed a scoreless frame with a one-run lead to set up Joe Nathan for his 200th career save.

Mijares working a 1-2-3 eighth inning was particularly impressive given that he's been in the majors for less than two weeks after making the jump from Double-A and was up against 1,445 career homers in Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Ken Griffey Jr. One bad pitch and the game is tied, yet the 23-year-old rookie who spent half the season rehabbing a broken elbow got Thome to fly out and then induced a pair of ground balls to preserve the 3-2 lead.

Nathan looked somewhat shaky in the ninth inning, which has uncharacteristically been the case quite a bit lately, but thanks to Carlos Gomez's sprinting catch of an A.J. Pierzynski drive in the left-center gap he closed out the 86th victory of the season. Facing long odds down 2.5 games with six games to play, the Twins are now one win away from overtaking the White Sox and jumping into the driver's seat for a playoff spot heading into the final weekend.

Kevin Slowey takes the mound tonight against Gavin Floyd, who's 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA in four starts versus the Twins this season and nearly no-hit them in May. Chicago also knocked Slowey around for eight runs when he matched up against Floyd in June, but since then he's 10-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 18 starts, including a masterful complete-game shutout of the White Sox when he last faced them in late July at the Metrodome.

As an extreme fly-ball pitcher facing baseball's most powerful lineup keeping the ball in the ballpark will be a struggle for Slowey, but he's a smart, calm, strike-throwing machine who's been the rotation's second-best starter all season. A victory tonight would be huge, giving the Twins a half-game lead with the Royals coming to town and the White Sox hosting an Indians team that's quietly gone 30-15 since early August.

                 W      L     WIN%      GB
White Sox 86 71 .548 ---
Twins 86 72 .544 0.5

Two down. One to go.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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