September 24, 2008

Twins Take Round 1

Prior to last night's series opener, the national media joined local scribes from Chicago and Minnesota in focusing on the power disparity between the White Sox and Twins, and as usual Ozzie Guillen talked about needing to "get those piranhas in a big net" and "put some poison in the water to make their teeth fall out." And rightfully so, because Guillen's team arrived at the Metrodome with an MLB-leading 223 homers, yet had been out-scored by a Twins lineup that boasted the league's fewest long balls.

Billed as a matchup pitting speed versus power, Game 1 instead saw the Twins do a good White Sox impression with three homers and six extra-base hits. As the Metrodome crowd of 35,000 used chants to cast their MVP vote for Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel went 3-for-4 with a pair of homers, a triple, and three RBIs to provide more than enough support for Scott Baker's seven innings of one-run ball. For Kubel it was a signature moment in what has been an outstanding, underappreciated season.

MVP-caliber years from Morneau and Joe Mauer have carried what is now the highest-scoring Twins offense since 1996 and Denard Span's emergence over the past three months has also been hugely important, but Kubel has quietly been the team's third-best hitter all year. He's hit .276/.340/.480 with 20 homers and 78 RBIs in 499 plate appearances to give the power-starved lineup a second home-run threat alongside (and recently behind) Morneau.

Morneau and Kubel have combined for 39 percent of the Twins' homers, going deep 43 times in 1,185 plate appearances while the rest of the team has managed just 68 homers in 4,921 trips to the plate. Leading the league with a .280 batting average overall and hitting .310 with runners in scoring position for the league's highest RISP mark in over three decades go a long way toward explaining the Twins' surprising run production this season, but oddly enough smacking the ball over the fence works too.

Baker's effort may get lost in Kubel's big night, but he was fantastic against a team he'd struggled with previously. Baker came into the game sporting a 7.99 ERA in seven career starts versus the White Sox, which perhaps isn't shocking given his extreme fly-ball tendencies and their power. Yet he kept the ball in the ballpark, limiting the White Sox to just five singles and one walk in 26 plate appearances before handing a 9-1 lead over to the bullpen. He's now 10-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 27 starts overall.

As the Twins have shown all year momentum in baseball tends not to mean as much as most people would like to believe, but they couldn't have scripted a better way to begin the series and now have just a smidgen of breathing room in case Nick Blackburn's recent struggles continue tonight. If instead he follows Baker's lead with a strong outing and the Twins' bats do some damage against Mark Buehrle, then suddenly the division landscape shifts dramatically heading into Thursday night's series finale.

                 W      L     WIN%      GB
White Sox 86 70 .551 ---
Twins 85 72 .541 1.5

One down. Two to go.

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

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