Monthly Archives: April 2009

[Game 22] April

Running to stand still actually can work in baseball, but it isn’t too impressive in itself. The Twins finish their month of April at .500, which happens to be good enough to put them a half game out of first in the AL Central. Getting into the playoffs is really a matter of not losing too much. And so the Twins squeak on.

There are 12 teams in the majors with worse records, 2 with identical ones, and 15 with better ones. We’re so average we’re driving a Camry and listening to Coldplay. Suddenly I feel so beige.

It’s fair to say that we’re positioned favorably in the division because the division is, in a word, lousy. The Indians had a feel-good come from behind win against the Red Sox last night, but they’ve had little to cheer about this month, with an 8-14 record.

The Royals, White Sox, and Tigers all stand over the Twins at a less-than-lofty 11-10. Guys! Just play the missing game and we’ll all be even again.

But the Royals do have some things to be very happy about this April. Zack Greinke secured another win tonight, against the Blue Jays, making him 5-0. His scoreless streak ended, but it got to an otherworldly 43 innings. He has a near zero ERA and is at or near the AL top in strikeouts. Lots of good news for the Royals, and yet the Royals are only microscopically better than the Twins. It’s a 5-man rotation, and, um, Sidney Ponson is part of it.

Then come the White Sox and Tigers. Fun, tiny fact: the Tigers are the only team with a winning record within the division, and that’s a sterling 3-2. Everyone else is .500 except the Indians suffering at 4-5. Clearly, nothing much has been decided about the fortunes of the AL Central.

The Twins have completed only 8.3% of their games in the division, so April has been inconsequential divisionally. Instead, let’s look at the month series by series. There is a bit of an uptick if you wade all the way through.

We played seven series, split one, won three, and lost three. Are the team colors going to have to change to beige and tan? The hopeful note is a little trendline I could draw, starting in the middle of the month. We sweep the Angels, fall apart in that single day series against Boston, then go 2-1 against both the Indians and Rays. Not sure this truly qualifies as momentum, but in a world of .500 baseball I’m poking under every rock for a little energy.

In the division, we lose the White Sox series, 1-2, and make up for it by taking the one versus the Indians 2-1. The absence of especially bad news isn’t the presence of good news, but we have to build what we can on this bedrock of mediocrity.

Tonight’s game was an especially easy one. We played well, on offense and defense. The Rays played miserably, on offense and defense. Nick Blackburn went seven solid innings. He gave up two runs, and it would have been only one if he’d left a bit before that 100th pitch. Pitching for the Rays, Scott Kazmir had an uncharacteristically poor night. The strike zone eluded him, and the Twins were ready, notching nine hits and eight runs.

It began with a four-run first inning, in which the Rays gave more than the Twins took. The four hits were all singles, Jason Kubel’s a particularly bloopy one. Morneau and Morales walked as we sent nine men up. Kazmir tossed two wild pitches to allow two of the runs to score. Ugly, untidy baseball.

In the fourth, hapless Akiri Iwamura, the Rays second baseman, demonstrated the way to get two errors on one play. He bobbled a grounder to allow Kubel to reach first, then tried to make the throw to first, only to sail the ball well past Carlos Pena. Justin Morneau snuck home on the throwing error.

It wasn’t all bad baseball by the wretched Rays. Denard Span hit a triple, and the sight of him racing round the bases and sliding feet first, then popping right up, was a joy to behold. Brendan Harris used his spot at second in the batting order to smack three hits and score two runs. There were RBIs aplenty: one each for Harris, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, and Young.

Blackburn pitched well throughout. He gave up a run in the third, but ended that inning with a strikeout, and kept the Rays deathly quiet every other inning. Entering the seventh with a pitch count in the 80s, Blackburn finally ran into some trouble. The hits were innocuous enough, but Blackburn wasn’t hitting his spots. Only one run scored. Gabe Gross pecked out the RBI, taking advantage of two prior singles by Ben Zobrist and Dioneer Navarro. It was never a meltdown for Blackburn and he completed the inning, but it wasn’t a flourishing finale either.

The Twins had the game well in hand after the first inning, and won it 8-3. April’s over, and in one sense it’s as if we’ve gained no ground—you’re .500 on day one of the season, too. But we’ve won by not losing, and any minute now there could be a little streak of glory. 

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[Game 21] Inches

When they say it’s a game of inches, it’s out of frustration. You could keep a tally in most any game, but tonight as the Twins host the Rays there’s all too much proof that baseball accomplishments are measured in millimeters.

In the first inning last night, Evan Longoria set the Rays on their winning trajectory with a home run ripped to left. Tonight, facing Francisco Liriano, Longoria puts his heart and soul into another giant fly ball, but this one falls just inside the foul pole. Just inside as in better look at that replay a couple times. Yep, foul ball. On the next pitch, Longoria strikes out. Inches.

In the bottom of the first, Denard Span leads off with a walk he coaxes out of James Shields crumb by crumb. Justin Morneau is up with one out and sends a ball just beyond the wall in left center. As it sails over the fielder’s glove, just a little bit longer than the ballpark, the hit is like a Christmas gift that doesn’t fit in the wrapping paper. Inches. And a 2-0 lead.

In the fifth, the Rays mount a threat. Willy Aybar leads off with a double and advances to third on a groundout. Dioneer Navarro pokes a ball toward Nick Punto at shortstop. Nine times out of ten, a shortstop will have to concede the run and make the safe out at first. But Aybar hesitates just a fraction of a second and Punto’s throw to Jose Morales nails him. Morales stands tall, still holding the ball after Aybar’s attempt at a crash landing. Bonus: the next hitter, Jason Bartlett, gets a single to left that would have scored Aybar if he’d held up, but the Rays end up with nothing in the inning. Inches and seconds.

The Rays score 2 in the sixth to tie it, and do not resort to mere inches to do so. A walk, a double from Longoria, and a sac fly combine to deprive Liriano of a shutout. The Twins end the threat by picking off a runner who ventures too far from first. On the pickoff, Carlos Pena has no choice but try to make it to second, but he’s tagged out. Inches!

Just as the Rays climb back in the game, James Shields has his own bad encounter with a couple of inches. He has looked sharp since the first, and the tie should give him a great lift, but he intersperses two outs with loading the bases. There are all those looming Twins out there, and Shields blunders big: he hits Brian Buscher with a pitch to send him to first and a runner to the plate. Twins lead 3-1, on the inches it took to brush Buscher’s right arm.

Eighth inning, Twins hanging on to a 3-2 lead. Jason Kubel motors hard to first after hitting an innocuous grounder. Ah, but the ball skids a bit and Carlos Pena can’t make the play at first. Kubel is on base, breathing hard, safe on Pena’s error of, naturally, inches. Next up, Joe Crede. Does he miss a two-run homer by feet or inches? Depends on where you measure—the ball is foul by a hearty number of feet, but a fraction of an inch in the swing would have sent it fair. Crede flies out on the next pitch.

Now Cuddyer’s up while Delmon Young is in to run for Kubel. The Rays, in the person of reliever Troy Percival, try a pickoff, but the inches here almost always favor the runner and Young stays safe. Percival uncorks a wild pitch (how many inches does that take?) and Young scoots to second. Cuddyer eventually turns this at-bat into a walk.

The Twins want to accomplish something, as a one-run lead is never particularly soothing, so when Brian Buscher is up with two on, an RBI is top of his to-do list. Percival has other plans, and strikes him out. Two gone for Jose Morales, who fouls a few off and then watches Percival try a pitchout to gain a few inches on a runner. No dice, runners stick. But Delmon Young and/or the coaching crew get a brilliant idea and on the next pitch send Young off to third. Dioneer Navarro throws him out. Inches all inning long, and no runs score.

In the top of the ninth, Joe Nathan arrives to attempt his fourth save of the season. First pitch, first batter, forget the inches—it’s a straight up home run for Ben Zobrist to deep right. Game tied, Nathan cowed, fans quiet.

Nathan spends the rest of the inning scaring us further. He goes deep in the count on every batter, but collects two outs. Then there’s a truly frightening sequence of three straight balls to light-hitting Akinori Iwamura, leading to a single. The Rays may want to end all this mere inches stuff and take home a flat-out win.

Nathan faces BJ Upton. Upton has almost been coming back to life in this series against the Twins. After a miserable start to the season, he hit a bit yesterday and collected a walk today. Nathan doesn’t need to be especially wary of Upton, but this evening he’s missing the strike zone every chance he gets. He walks him.

Carl Crawford is up, and suddenly Nathan snaps back into form. It’s absolutely distinct, like the true Joe has returned. Crawford grounds out to second, and every pitch from Nathan drives him toward that weak groundball out. Five batters he can barely control and then Nathan is back. Was his release point off by, um, inches?

The Twins have a tie game on their hands, and home field advantage. Considering how much has been by inches tonight, it doesn’t feel like we’re in walk-off homer territory, not least because we resume the batting order with Jose Morales. JP Howell pitches for the Rays and he tries to baffle and confuse, but Morales buys himself a single.

Nick Punto does his GI job and sacrifices Morales to second. Denard Span likes to keep the small ball small and produces an infield single that requires inches and luck to foil the fielders. Men on first and third for Brendan Harris, pinch hitting for Casilla. Howell is not looking especially comfortable with all these baserunners orbiting his diamond and he lets loose a wild pitch that moves Span to second. By definition, inches.

Harris walks, his greatest contribution getting us all the way to Morneau in the batting order. We can return to imagining a boomer walk-off, but the bases are so stuffed that with one out any kind of contact might be enough as long as the double play isn’t part of it. But what is Morneau anyway? Not an inches guy! Forget that homer in the first that barely made it; it’s time to blast one.

Morneau, it must be said, has built his power hitting skills on taking what’s actually given him. Unlike some of the great home run hitters, Morneau inspects what the pitcher’s dishing out and doesn’t try to meet every offering with one mighty uppercut swing. And tonight Morneau shunts a little groundball toward the infield that has double play written all over it. Indeed, Harris is thrown out at second while Morneau runs hard toward first. Morneau is a fine athletic specimen, but speed is not in his arsenal. The throw is heading toward first, even as Morales keeps rumbling on toward the plate. Inches, inches, inches. . . and Morneau is safe. He beats the throw, the run counts, the Twins win.

Centuries of baseball and the diamond is still the exact right size.

[Game 20] Some ‘splaining to do

Scott Baker’s results simply don’t match his abilities. However, after three straight crummy outings, I’m left wondering how to explain his woes this season. In any given inning, any given at-bat, Baker is solid. His first game had some cover-your-eyes moments, but each subsequent outing has been a bit more polished.

Still, how to explain the losses. The homers and hits he gives up have perhaps had a more than usually maddening tendency to come in clumps, but we’re past the point of mere bad luck. Unless luck has set up an especially massive force field around young Scott Baker.

I missed the beginning of tonight’s game against the Rays, but the box score shows that Baker gave up two runs in the first in a little sequence of double, triple, single. Then all is serene, and Baker has three straight 1-2-3 innings. This is exactly what he needs, and the Twins need him to get back to last season’s groove.

In the fifth, when I have tuned in, Baker is under siege again. For the second straight game, he gives up runs in pairs, and now he surrenders two more. Gardy sends him out for the sixth, not least to let him end his night on a positive note. Baker responds with another 1-2-3 job, notching a total of seven strikeouts, one walk, and those four nasty runs hatched from a mere six hits.

If it falls to me to join the Baker apologists, I will note that just about every hit he allows instantly attracts a mate, and then they tend to spawn. This is not a pattern that, realistically, one can expect will continue to mar his work.

Are pitchers prey to fortune, or can they control their fate? The BABIP stat (batting average on balls in play) has given us some clues that the pitcher’s skill has little to do with what happens when a ball is in play. Once hit, baseballs seem to become hits or outs in random measure, with little correlation to the pitcher’s abilities from season to season. This raises the argument that pitchers should be assessed solely on their ability to prevent home runs and walks, and to acquire strikeouts. All else is beyond their control.

Armed with a certain style of pitching, the pitcher can have a consistent tendency to induce either groundballs or flyballs, but all else is vanity and a striving after the wind—to pitch is to consult Ecclesiastes. The last area we could investigate is the pitcher’s ability to prevent the ball from being struck. Is this an active skill or a passive result?

Scott Baker’s work and my insights can’t answer the question, but I look at his 0-3 record and wonder what role luck has played. Is there something Baker should be doing to prevent those strings of hits that accumulate like flies? I can’t see what it should be, but I wish for him and the Twins that they find the solution or that random chance returns to reign more evenly over Baker’s outings.

Tampa Bay has started the season with little of their World Series aplomb. In past years, the Rays were a little bonus treat on a team’s schedule. They were dutiful losers, easily crushed when a team needed a pick-me-up. But I can recall at least two seasons in which the Twins were fighting their way through September, tense with hope and fear as the chance to make the playoffs turned on every game. A sweet little interlude against the then-Devil Rays could boost that win total, but no. Inexplicably, the Twins tended to collapse in Tampa Bay, just when winning meant the most.

Our home series against them falls early in the season, and at first I thought these new, improved Rays might be even tougher on us. Then the Tampas got off to a miserable start, thudding down to the basement of the AL East. Maybe their eerie power over the Twins would be broken, if only because we’d start taking them seriously.

The Rays may well look at the Twins as their private punching bag, and punch they did tonight. They won 7-1, and our weeny one was a Joe Crede homer that slipped into the game like a lost sock in the laundry. It didn’t belong.

The Rays, behind Jeff Niemann, won in every possible dimension: hitting, hitting with power, hitting with demoralizing power, hitting with two out. They also tossed in intimidating pitching that confined the Twins to five hits, all from the bottom or very top of the order. The silence of Morneau and Kubel did to much to remind me of my concern that we couldn’t keep winning games as we had in the last few weeks, with power displays. Ooops, it’s entirely true: Morneau will not be able to carry the club.

The Twins are now 9-11, and merely achieving .500 has begun to look like a high-level quest. There’s no reason for true despair, as the team is still poised to overcome a gloomy April. But to keep it from being a miserable month, we have precisely the two more games necessary to enjoy the perfect mediocrity of 11-11. I’d prefer something less symmetrical, say on the winning side, by May.

[Game 19] Last Chance

The Twins concluded their weekend series against the Indians on Sunday, and entered the game with two wins in their pocket. Would they strive hard for a third and sweep the Tribe, or content themselves with two games out of three?

In the last two games, the Twins victory recipe was scoring early, if not lavishly, and befuddling the opposition with strong pitching. This afternoon the Indians chose that game plan.

After Twins starter Glen Perkins gave up a single and a walk in the first inning, a welcome double play seemed to suggest it was time to breathe easy again. Not quite. That double play didn’t nab Grady Sizemore, the lead runner, and he scored on Shin-Soo Choo’s double, putting the Indians ahead.

That lone run looked like it might be an inconsequential little score as both teams settled in to lazy baseball on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Aaron Laffey, pitching for the Indians, wasn’t precisely on fire, but he kept the Twins from creeping past third base for seven innings. Still, there was a vague sense that we’d get around to scoring any minute now. The day was so bright it simply seemed like a small chore we’d temporarily forgotten.

The Indians had a lively third, sending eight men to the plate and scoring three more runs. Perkins was roughed up to the tune of four hits, all of them pedestrian singles. It wasn’t exactly a crushing indictment of his pitching skills, but it wasn’t pleasant either. With a 4-0 lead and Laffey remaining on auto-pilot to foil the Twins hitters, the Indians were coasting toward victory.

I’m just as prone as anyone to fall into the trap of thinking I know what the players are feeling because I’m watching them intently or because only certain emotions seem possible under certain conditions. The x-ray specs don’t really work that way. Still, I can’t shake the perception that the Twins took up their baseball responsibilities especially casually today, always meaning to do some scoring but putting it off.

No one looked pressed at the plate, and Perkins returned for two decent innings after his dusting in the third. Matt Guerrier pitched an unremarkable sixth to stifle the Indians, and Craig Breslow similarly sailed through the seventh. Breslow and Luis Ayala handled the eighth in lefty-righty deployment.

Not a peep out of the Indians, so all we had to do was get back to scoring some runs. Now, how do we go about that again? No problem, the batters seemed to be saying, I’ll get to it next time. The game never felt lost, but the Twins weren’t quite ready to claim it either.

In the seventh, with Laffey around the 100-pitch zone, the Twins start putting the pieces in the right order: out, single, single, walk. Jensen Lewis is brought in to relieve Laffey and Ron Gardenhire makes a move of his own. He had started Carlos Gomez in center today, despite Go-go’s current miserable batting average. Gardy goes all out and puts Denard Span in to pinch hit. This genuinely now-or-never move still feels a bit casual, but Span hunkers down. He smacks an innocent single that scores two.

The Twins have but one out and men on first and second. Brendan Harris settles in for an especially diligent at-bat. After getting behind 0-2, Harris won’t nibble on Lewis’s sloppy sliders and brings the count to 2-2. As if to preserve the equilibrium, Harris fouls the next pitch off. He’s not giving in, but neither is Lewis. Harris adjusts his tar-caked batting helmet and stands in. Ball three. Harris is no big power threat and there are ample ways to fool him, but Lewis hasn’t found the key yet. Harris reads the next pitch perfectly: ball four. He walks to load the bases.

Now it seems like our big scoring opportunity is here at last. The Twins have gotten even this far with a fairly passive approach, highlighted by the walk that finally raises the threat level to orange alert for the Indians. Manager Eric Wedge responds by calling on rookie Tony Sipp to pitch his second big league inning. He’ll get to face the Twins’ best batters, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel.

Well, Mr Sipp, I’m sorry to crush your youthful hopes and dreams, but you’re in for trouble. Morneau has been quiet all day and it’s simply time for him to rise to this occasion. He may have to wipe the sleep from his eyes but I’m sure he’ll wake up and clobber any baseballs you have lying around.

Sipp almost looks shaky on the first pitch that Morneau fouls off, but he proceeds through the at-bat as if he were facing the docile Morneau bobblehead instead of the officially licensed version. Morneau strikes out swinging, entirely outclassed by Sipp’s stuff.

Kubel’s next. There are three men waiting on the bases and, pretty weather or not, they need to score. Kubel works deeper into the count but the large and gangly Sipp is still throwing heat. Kubel strikes out swinging, and the Twins’ best threat is blown away like a dandelion on a summer day.

Having squandered ideal comeback conditions, the Twins still have six outs to go. Am I irrationally counting on some sudden burst of fervor or is it just that I can’t accept the one true direction of this baseball game? The Twins retire meekly in the eighth and then try to give closer Kerry Wood a scare in the ninth. When Jose Morales leads off with a single, I feel like the bus I’ve been waiting for on this corner is finally pulling up. Brian Buscher walks and I’m ready to forgive the long wait. You’re here, finally here!

All afternoon I’ve contented myself with the hollow “get ‘em next time” philosophy of sports life. We have three whole outs left, I chirp idiotically. Well, two of them are promptly consumed by a double play, the single most soul-depleting outcome in such situations. Now we’re down to Brendan Harris again, he who produced that especially detailed landscape painting in the seventh—he stayed at the plate long enough to add the leaves and clouds and everything. It takes six pitches, but he strikes out looking.

Game 18: Almost

Tonight, a few things only almost happen. But the things that do happen give us a clearer portrait of a pitcher.

Kevin Slowey started tonight against the Indians. He enters the game with a pleasant little 2-0 record, but his 5.89 ERA and 1.64 WHIP suggest problems. In his three prior starts, he’s pitched 6, 5.1, and 7 innings. He studiously avoids walks, allowing at most one a game, and collects an average of 4 strikeouts per start. These numbers are good to excellent, but then we turn to hits. Slowey has coughed up 28 of them. And they’ve turned into runs: 5 in two of the starts and 2 in his most recent contest against the Angels.

These tiny little nibbits of data aren’t sturdy enough to predict or define much. If you have only these stats to stare at, you can conjure up two pitchers. One of them is pitching rather well but letting a lot of balls get hit into play. Luck and fielding deficiencies render them hits; the hits get clustered; runs score. The second pitcher is not in control of each at-bat. He’s not locating the ball; he’s falling behind in the count; he’s tipping his pitches; he’s leaving the ball up. The hitters are feasting; the hits get clustered; runs score.

I like baseball stats, and I like poking around in them, but I also realize that the stats we develop and the analysis we bring to them are actually largely in the service of . . . not watching the games themselves. We want the stats to distill the abilities of the players so we can know what they’re capable of in the future, and so we can compare them, all without the tedium of watching their every move. But sometimes you have to watch the game to find the truth.

I’ve seen two of Slowey’s three previous starts. He is pitcher type one, not type two. He’s had some shaky at-bats, but he is largely in command of the big fundamentals—a plan for attacking hitters, getting first pitch strikes, running out an arsenal of pitches. He doesn’t have a pronounced tendency toward either ground out or fly out, but he does have to suffer through pitching to contact, and he can’t rip through a game piling up Ks.

Now, wait just one minute, the stats partisans will say. The greater value of statistics is that they prevent us from generalization and the bias toward seeing what we want to see. I can claim to watch Kevin Slowey, but I’m watching with my partisan Twins blinders on, and I’m claiming that seeing two games is more insightful than studying the stats for three.

Fair enough. Neither vision is perfect. But tonight’s game clarifies Slowey’s status both under observation and statistically. He holds the Indians scoreless for eight innings, strikes out 7, and get a win. Then there is the matter of the almost.

Slowey accumulates hits, as we have to acknowledge he always will, but tonight he distributes them so fastidiously they can’t do any harm. He doles out 5 of them, each buried in a separate inning. The Indians never produce anything remotely resembling a threat. They trudge up to the plate, inning after inning, to collect an isolated hit sandwiched between Ks and groundouts.

The Twins are having the opposite experience. They munch up and spit out Carl Pavano and secure a 5-0 lead. They snare another two runs off Masa Kobayashi. The beefy bats of the left-handed hitters were going fine, but so, at last, were the righties. Joe Crede, for example, gets a homer, and Delmon Young is 3 for 4. Jason Kubel seems to be swinging from a Barcalounger he’s so relaxed at the plate. He hits two homers and a double, just missing another 4-hit night.

Slowey has thrown 106 pitches through 8 innings.  He hasn’t allowed a walk, and hasn’t had a single stressful inning. With a 7-run lead, he has quite a bit to work with if Ron Gardenhire wants to give him a chance for the complete game.

Every fan of baseball accomplishments wants to see him trot out for the ninth. Every fan of the Twins, if he can remain pure in the quest for victories alone, wants Slowey to enjoy some time on the bench. Passing 100 pitches almost always spells trouble, and if it doesn’t manifest itself tonight it may show up in Slowey’s next two starts.

The diligent students of pitch counts have an important qualifier, though. Fatigue is a serious problem, and leads to injury and mechanical problems. But the 100-pitch threshold does not define fatigue. Throwing a baseball isn’t the problem. Throwing a baseball when already tired is the problem. Tonight Slowey has accumulated a full game’s pitch count but he has never had a tough inning. Does that mean his arm is just fine?

We find out in the ninth, when Slowey gives up three straight singles. None of the hits were especially mighty, and they all needed a little good fortune in the positioning of the fielders, but none of them were bloops either. My head and heart are at odds. I am rooting for Slowey to get the complete game shutout; I am wincing because he could do himself some damage up there.

Gardy fetches him and brings in Luis Ayala. There are none out. Ayala’s job is not just to end the game but, if at all possible, preserve that shutout so none of Slowey’s baserunners come home to cloud his ERA. Ayala gets a strikeout with the bases loaded, the best possible start at untangling this mess. But the next hitter singles to center and one run leaks in. Ayala finishes it off with a double play.

So, almost. Almost a complete game, and almost a shutout, but not quite. We don’t get the special accomplishment, but we do get a pitching gem. It polishes up real good, even if it doesn’t fit the standard setting.

 

Never Behind

Allow me to remind you of the central thesis of this blog: there is something new to see in every game of baseball. That premise is stretched a bit tonight, because we have to think about a few things that didn’t happen in the game.

The Twins visited Cleveland for only their second series against an AL Central team. They’ve had three off days this week, one of them rain-induced. On Wednesday, Boston beat ’em twice, and soundly, in a doubleheader. The Twins are 7-9.

They have not been playing great baseball, but it’s been just a week since the come-from-behind miracle capped by Jason Kubel hitting for the cycle. What kind of mood will the team bring to Cleveland? And what does mood have to do with the results anyway?

The Indians, meanwhile, have been playing jubilant baseball. They’re hitting a ton and scoring runs with ease, though admittedly their stats include last Saturday’s mutant 24-run outburst against the Yankees. The weather is going to be good all weekend, and the Tribe presumably plan on making a little headway in the standings by beating up on the Twins.

The pitching matchup has the impetuous, often commanding Fausto Carmona starting for the Indians, and Nick Blackburn up for the Twins. Blackburn has been hovering in that no-man’s land of unlucky/just-a-little-lousy. He is winless in three starts, with one loss.

I decide—and this is not superstitious but strategic, I beg you to see—that the Twins need to get a run in the first and take the lead. Three weeks into the season, every one of their wins has required coming from behind. Sometimes the climb has been pretty gentle, sometimes, like last Friday, it’s been an heroic ascent, but the point is, they are always overcoming obstacles. It would be nice to coast a little.

Thanks to a lead-off single from Denard Span, a sacrifice from Alexi Casilla, and an RBI double from Jason Kubel, the Twins grant my little wish. This tiny little 1-0 lead holds up until the third, when Cleveland ties the game. The hitting sequence that does it is innocuous enough, but even the outs in the inning are sharply struck. In the two prior innings, Blackburn was throwing a lot of pitches and getting behind in the count, but escaping trouble. In the third he’s parking a lot of caught-looking strikes right where he wants them, but the Indians are drilling the ball.

A one-run lead isn’t the antidote to the long string of come-from-behind struggles, but now even that is gone. The game is tied when Justin Morneau leads off the fourth and takes a nice long look at Carmona’s first pitch before planting it deep to right center. Instant answer: the Twins aren’t conceding this one.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but our new 2-1 lead is the result of our single pure-power guy. Morneau has started the season in fine form, and I can’t think of a game in which he hasn’t made some kind of contribution. The scary part is that we’re leaning awfully heavily on his full-extension, walloping swing. It’s so un-Twins-like. Generally the Twins are the home of the slap single RBI that just barely wins games. We rely on stately rallies with men on base stealing, batters bunting, and pitchers bewitched by our never say die approach at the plate. The most telling indication that the season is off to an odd start is that Morneau himself has a weeny 11 RBIs. He’s hitting, but no one is on base ahead of him.

The missing ingredient could very well be Joe Mauer, who hits for average as if it were his highest calling. Many a game, he’s standing on second when Morneau uncorks one. Mauer is due back as soon as week from today, but I hope he isn’t rushed. I want the complete Joe Mauer action figure, not a struggling, suffering model.

The fourth inning isn’t over. We alternate success and failure: after Morneau runs the bases, Kubel strikes out, Crede walks, and Cuddyer strikes out. Delmon Young is up and it looks as if Carmona will have his way with him. He spanks the ball into the hole and third baseman Mark DeRosa does the hard part by diving and spearing the ball, then goofs the easier part by overthrowing second. On the error, Crede advances to third. Jose Morales is up, but he’s not a towering threat. Carmona may be starting to relax and gets the count to 1 and 2. Morales singles in the run and the Twins are up 3 to 1.

Blackburn settles in for three consecutive 1-2-3 innings. Whatever was just a bit off in the third is all fixed now, and Blackburn harvests groundout after groundout, spiced with the occasional strikeout. The Indians never get a toehold. In the seventh, the big excitement is a single from Ryan Garko.

The Twins tack on two more runs in the seventh, with RBIs from Morneau and Crede. Jose Mijares gives up a single but holds the eighth and then Joe Nathan enters under non-save conditions to get some work. Nathan doesn’t mind making the closer’s job look perilous. After two strikeouts, Shin-Soo Choo embarks on a 9-pitch odyssey that ends with a double. Nathan coaxes a popout from Ryan Garko to end the game.

A good, solid game for the Twins. Blackburn threw 99 pitches and gave up a single run. Morneau proved himself yet again, and the team even manufactured a run out of a walk. The Twins are starting to scratch themselves up toward .500, but their 8-9 record is, um, equivalent to the Orioles’ success, and puts the Twins in fourth place in the division. The bright side: we currently have the dunkiest division: Kansas City leads at 9-7 and the Twins are only 1-1/2 games out.

I am happy to log in the win, but I see some missing pieces. Come home, Joe. 

Day-Night Doubleheader

Last night’s rainout set up a twin bill for the Twins’ only visit to Fenway this season. Game one began at 12:35, and I picked it up in the bottom of the fourth inning. It was a lot more than half over, however, and in more ways than one.

The Twins were starting Scott Baker for the second time, hoping his first outing after rehab was going to be a little bad dream kind of interlude. Well, his stuff was presumably better, because he was still in the game, but said stuff was incrementally betraying him.

The Red Sox had acquired six runs when I tuned in, obtained in lots of two. The pitches behind three Sox homers, each with a man on base, were presumably all forgivable, but the game was looking rather out of control. The Twins had not yet managed to score a run of their own.

This was a bleak situation, but it got bleaker. Doubleheaders were played frequently in my baseball youth, but they’re nearly extinct now. And managers are glad, because specialized bullpens and doubleheaders don’t go together. Today, each team wants to allocate its resources wisely for the 18 innings to be played, and experimentation may be necessary.

The Twins relief corps have one bright spot (Craig Breslow acquits himself quite well) but primarily are punching bags. In the seventh, we get a trial of Juan Morillo, recently scavenged on waivers.

As pitching auditions go, you might expect Morillo to have some lasting psychic damage. He gives up a double, walks two, then walks in a run. He threw 17 pitches, only 4 for strikes. Apparently there’s still a way to calculate it when you don’t get a single out—Morilla gets a plump 36.00 ERA.

He’s relieved by RA Dickey, who may have spent at least some of the game enjoying his fellow knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, pitch brilliantly for the Red Sox. Dickey has nothing to foil the Sox, however—he allows two more runs and now it’s men on second and third and no one out.

The score is 10 to 1 and the rain is heavy enough now that the umpires bring out the tarp. It’s held as a rain delay for some time, but who wants to pick up that particular seventh inning again? The tiny glory of the Twins scoring a run in the fifth isn’t worth dwelling on. This is a loss for the Twins and a rub-your-face-in-it win for the Red Sox.

The weather that ended game one early also postponed game two for a while, but after the delay there were clear enough skies for it to go to its completion. The score wasn’t as gruesome, but the outcome’s the same: Twins lose, 3 to 7.

It’s a rather perfect sports day in Boston: a twinbill sweep on manager Terry Francona’s birthday, and a 7-game winning streak going in to the showdown this weekend against the Yankees. Bonus: the Bruins advance in the NHL finals.

In today’s miserable outings, Justin Morneau chimed in with hits and homers, and Jason Kubel is still making big bat noises. It’s good to see our mightiest men being mighty, but I note the silence of the little bats. There was not a single Twins-like inning, built around singles from Harris, Gomez, and Punto. Morneau is off to a great start, but this is no time to get all one-dimensional. We aren’t built for power, and Morneau’s skills are lonely ones in this lineup.

The Red Sox were not exactly overpowering today. Wakefield pitched very well, and gave up only five hits, but his game always leaves room for a hitter to get a toehold. Brad Penny, in game two, was hittable. Yet somehow, between the rain and the smugly filled seats in Fenway, conditions seemed especially inhospitable. What kind of team can fill the seats on a rainy weekday for a game called the night before?

The Red Sox faithful were rewarded. The Twins have left no mark on them as they gird up for the Yankees. We wasted our theoretically two best pitchers, Baker and Francisco Liriano, in a sad, rainy errand in Boston.

I watched both games like a fan, not a baseball observer. I was looking forward to wall-to-wall baseball today, and there was nothing fun about the competition as it played out. Fans run this risk. I felt a kick to my stomach today; I took it hard.

We love our teams because we can feel passion without any of the danger. We hate our opponents because we can feel anger without consequences. As dispassionate as I might try to be, baseball is an emotional game for me.

When I was playing fantasy baseball, a friend advised me that the trick is to turn all your losses into occasions to blame the players themselves. Never brood about your lineup mistakes, or your drafting blunders—just dump it on the players.

He’s right, I’m sure, but I can’t lift all my gloom by finding a scapegoat. I am taking it hard, and taking it to heart. Somehow, that suspended seventh inning, with Red Sox on second and third and none out, is still waiting to be ended.