Monthly Archives: May 2009

[game 50] Sugar

I read other blogs and comments, you know. I know what this type of sports chat is supposed to sound like. And I know I don’t measure up.

I lack the clarity, the fury, and the venom necessary to meet reader expectations.

Since beginning this, I knew I would be writing more timidly and more naively than is appropriate for sports. I am too in awe of the players, too respectful of their skills, and too removed from doing anything remotely comparable myself. I see the players as entertaining us, yes, and that gives me a certain license to cheer or boo. But I keep seeing them as people too.

Sport is interesting to me because it presents a simplified, vivid version of many of life’s great trials. There is glory and self-doubt, daring and caution, discipline and freedom, self-knowledge and blind faith, individual and team, winning and losing, vengeance and compassion, competitive fire and pure exhaustion. Every element of a sport involves testing limits—can it be done faster, better, longer? The limits come both from history and from each individual. Are you good enough?

That’s the question echoing in every stadium and sand lot. Are you good enough? When I watch baseball or any other sport, I am looking for the same bedtime story I always want to hear: if I try hard enough, and practice, and believe in myself, I am good enough.

Ah, but what is good enough? Sports is serious, a business in more ways than one. There is a vast infrastructure out there devoted to finding what might be talent, chipping at it a little, polishing it some, denting it, turning and twisting it until it’s more recognizable, and controlling it until it gives the finders what they want.

Principally they want money out of it, but what we see as these nets are cast and hauled up and cast again is the journey from raw ability to excellence. We see, or think we see, the crystallization of competitive hierarchy, in which the worthy are rewarded and the excess cast aside.

In baseball, the widest hierarchy extends from the rookie leagues to the majors. At every stage, the players are ranked. At many stages, the players have to be ranked very quickly, very efficiently perhaps. But even though we have perfected the means of finding the least raw scrap of talent and giving it some kind of audition, our mechanism is a bit overloaded. Coaches and scouts don’t have long enough to nurture each player, or find out what’s needed to overcome a flaw. Classifying the flaw is enough. Detect it and move on.

What would it feel like to have a remarkable, unusual skill but only be able to tap it unpredictably? If you are trying to be hitter, and in the course of a week hit two homers and then stumble through strikeouts and singles and grounding into double plays the rest of the week, what do you tell yourself? That you’re the greatest home run hitter ever? That you will be? That you will be if you could just do something three times in a row that, currently, you can only do when you are barely expecting it?

This is why my blog lacks the zestful condemnation of the Twins when they fail. (They failed, tonight. Scott Baker was pitching, and lost to the Rays, 5-3.) What would it be like to be Scott Baker, to pitch well a good deal of the time, but not in any way always. (Tonight, the sixth inning was the problem, in the form of a three-run homer from Evan Longoria.)

Not just tonight, but every night. Not just in the majors, but at every stage from college ball to Triple A. To be in the zone a while, and then out of it again, over-thinking, over-throwing, losing the release point that is such a subtle element of your mechanics that it can come and go when your brain and body are focused on nothing else. But still, it eludes you for a moment. Gone again, then back. Then gone.

How would it feel to know that facts support both your highest opinion of yourself, and your lowest? That you can throw 96 miles per hour, and that you can’t anyone out? That you held a team scoreless for six innings and then gave up three runs? How do you reconcile these truths?

And how would it feel to be competing every minute? To know that your success requires someone else’s failure, and as you rise through the minors, your friends will have to do the failing to let you through? How would it feel to have someone grading every element of your efforts, and seeing your work so dispassionately that the ability itself is lost under the microscopic scrutiny? To know that no error is forgiven?

We admire our sports heroes, and we love them, but I’m not sure we really would trade places if we could. I’m musing on these points tonight because for a full month I’ve been watching Joe Mauer sail along with such ease, adding power to his arsenal as he excels in almost very game. But, over the last few days, he’s looked a good deal more mortal. He has made little mistakes, normal, little mistakes. How would it feel to wrap your hands around the bat the same way you do every night and then swing just a little late or just a little high or just a little wrong, and not know where your skill went?

(Let it be noted that Mauer had a single, double, and triple tonight and once again resembles the idealized baseball player.)

I’m also musing like this because I’ve taken a night off from the Twins to watch the movie Sugar. It’s the story of a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who travels through some of the stages leading to the major leagues. It’s a fine film on many counts, but it especially reminded me of why this blog is doomed to be wimpy. I keep seeing the players as characters, and tragic ones often as not.

See Sugar. It will make you think about what it takes to get to the bigs today. In baseball, player supply exceeds demand. For thousands of hopeful ballplayers, that means picking through a minefield and facing more failure than most anyone can endure. It’s a bittersweet film, and you can draw your own conclusion about whether the ending is hopeful or sad. It let me step aside from baseball as I think I know it and see it a different way, so I found something wonderful there.

[game 49] Ejection Frenzy

In today’s final game against the Red Sox, Jason Varitek was the center of attention. His two homers won the game for the Sox—splitting the current series—and he was one of four players to draw the wrath of home plate umpire Todd Tichenor.

I got today’s game via radio, so I must rely especially heavily on announcers John Gordon and Dan Gladden to reconstruct the seventh inning showdown. Someone will soon let us know exactly how rare this is, but for now I’m going to assume it’s rare enough to be a first.

In one inning, Tichenor ejected both catchers and both managers. In the top half, the dispute arose from a close play at the plate. Gordon commented that if you had this play called by four umpires, you’d get two safes and two outs. It was as close as they come.

Dustin Pedroia his a sacrifice fly with Jeff Bailey on third. A beauty of a throw from Jason Kubel comes in to Mike Redmond, who sweeps a tag on Bailey. The AP game report says that replays show that Redmond’s tag beat Bailey’s hand to the plate.

So when Tichenor calls him safe, Redmond pops up to protest. The umpire has zero tolerance for this discussion and tosses him. A serious matter, as Joe Mauer is DHing. With Redmond ejected, Mauer will have to take up catching duties and the DH is forfeited. In theory, our pitcher will hit but in practice a pinch hitter will be used.

Provided we have an interim manager to pick one. Ron Gardenhire comes out to defend his catcher, but young Mr Tichenor has the shortest fuse in umpiredom. Gardy is tossed.

In the bottom half of the inning, Josh Beckett is continuing his fine work for the Red Sox. He gets Joe Crede to ground out and then faces Brendan Harris. A pitch that Beckett and his catcher Jason Varitek fervently believe should be called strike three is considered a mere ball. Beckett made a protesting grimace which, like all things, apparently, rubbed Tichenor wrong. When Varitek stood up to echo Beckett’s disgust, Tichenor made his favorite outtahere sign.

Manager Terry Francona then took his turn standing up for his player and became the fourth player ejected. It was fast and furious, and my play by play announcers could barely keep up. Now both teams had lost knights and rooks and play resumed.

By the way, my AP source says that pitch Beckett so loved really was outside—Tichenor got it right. Harris finished the at-bat, with backup catcher George Kottaras behind the plate, with a double.

If this were a movie, Harris would score and that lost strikeout would be the most significant play of the game. Alas, Harris remains stranded and the Twins failed to rally in the remaining two innings as well.

The Twins begin the scoring with a solo homer from Joe Crede in the second. May I pause to observe that the phrase “solo homer” is connected especially often with Crede. Is he hitting in the wrong part of the order? No one is ever on base for him, or the Mauer/Morneau train has already picked up all the passengers at the station.

The Twins lead 1-0 for rookie Anthony Swarzak in his second major league start. He keeps Boston quiet until the fifth, a total of 11 scoreless innings in his first two games. Varitek led off the fifth with a homer to tie the game.

Both pitchers had quick, strong innings. That tie looked like it wouldn’t budge, but in the seventh Varitek led off again and, just to enjoy his last visit to the Metrodome all the more, hit another homer, his tenth of the season.

Swarzak’s pitching line was six innings pitched, 3 earned runs, 5 hits, 3 strikeouts. The glaring glitch was four walks, though none of them scored. It was a solid effort—the only thing that unraveled in this game was the umpire’s temper.

Boston’s 3 runs were courtesy of the two bookend Varitek homers, plus the close play at the plate that scored Bailey. The Twins managed only 5 hits, and their only run was Joe Crede’s quiet little homer. After the raucous scoring fest against the White Sox and Brewers, the Twins have gone eerily silent.

Joe Mauer, for example, looked like a plain old baseball player, not our superhuman catcher. He didn’t get a hit, and collected one K. Yesterday, I believe he had only a single.

Ebb and flow is endemic to baseball, but I realize I had gotten used to the idea that when Mauer comes to the plate we are playing this special version of baseball, the kind in the movies or in the fantasies of young fans. Mauer and Morneau had started to wipe away all our disappointments, and now it’s tough to see that they are only baseball players from the planet earth. Dang!

[game 48] Wild Pitch

Kevin Slowey started for the Twins tonight, up against Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox. The two pitchers were stark opposites on the control continuum.

Slowey had excellent command but not too much longevity tonight. He threw a lot of pitches to hold the Red Sox to 2 runs and 6 hits over 6 innings. He struck out 5 and, uncharacteristically, walked one. With tonight’s win, Slowey is now 7-1.

Matsuzaka, on the other hand, was bouncing pitches and started a run of a wildness for the Sox. This was his second start after coming off the DL, and a return trip to the minors for a tune-up might be in order.

The three Red Sox pitchers combined to tie the modern record for wild throws with six. Matsuzaka hurled four of them. George Kotteras, giving Jason Varitek a day off at catcher, got all too well acquainted with the nether reaches behind home plate as he scuttled to round up the errant throws. Relievers Manny Delcarmen and Justin Masterson each threw one wild pitch, as if the concept was contagious.

The RBI went to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Brendan Harris, but the hitting story of the night was Denard Span. He was 4-for-4 plus a walk, scored two runs, and stole a base. Better yet, he was in the right place at the right time for a deluge of Red Sox wild pitches.

Perhaps Span’s presence on the base paths inspired the wildness. He was on base for five of them. In both the first and fourth inning, he took advantage of two apiece to advance to second and then to third. But the Twins didn’t cash in on either of these opportunities to score a run.

The Sox scored first, in the third, on a Kevin Youkilis sacrifice fly, to lead 1-0. In the bottom of that inning, the Twins scored 3 runs, and without any of that long ball funny stuff. This was classic Twins baseball: a leadoff single from Span, a Mauer sacrifice to score him; back-to-back doubles from Morneau and Kubel, scoring Morneau; and a Harris RBI single to send in Kubel.

In the sixth, the Sox tried to chip a little harder at Slowey. Jason Bay slugged a homer to left to bring the score to a precarious 3-2. In the bottom of the inning, the Twins got their run back. In this case, it was handed to them, gift wrapped.

This was the inning in which the wildness got wacky. Delcarmen started with an out, then gave up a single to Span, who was impossible to keep off base tonight. Mauer followed with a single, then Morneau struck out. While Jason Kubel was at the plate, Delcarmen threw his wild pitch, moving everyone up a base. With first base empty, an intentional walk loaded ‘em.

With two outs, Michael Cuddyer came to the plate with big hopes, but was happy to settle for being hit by a pitch to walk in a run. Now, that’s wildness.

The Twins are still below .500, 3-1/2 games behind the Tigers, scratching for a toehold in the division, while the Red Sox are enjoying life atop the AL East, with the Blue Jays’ threat fading and the Yankees just coming on.

Despite the Red Sox’s ascendancy, cracks are showing in their armor. David Ortiz has too suddenly, too sadly, lost his stroke. He’s been nudged down to sixth in the bating order after several weeks of godawful production, highlighted by leaving 12 men on base against the Yankees.

Last night, Ortiz got one of those now-elusive hits that used to flow like water off his swing, and there had to be some Twins fans who were happy for him—particularly because his accomplishment was wedged within a losing effort for the Sox. Ortiz, after all, started his career for the Twins. Somehow our hitting coach couldn’t spy the raw power there and pressed Ortiz to hit for average. He bloomed after he left the Metrodome.

Tonight, alas, Ortiz collected another 0-fer. Slowey struck him out on three pitches in the second. He flied out in his other three at-bats, and now has a Punto-esque .193 average. No one wants to see a great hitter baffled before his career should end. Find the magic again, Big Papi!

Twins win, but for the second night we’ve activated some of the lesser regions of the batting order. Last night, Nick Punto got a hit, and tonight Delmon Young halted his 0-for-19 death march. Now, the universe righting itself has some other consequences—Joe Mauer hasn’t homered for two nights. What’s that about?

[game 47] Home Run Baseball

The Twins beat the Boston Red Sox tonight, 5-2.

Once again, the victory rested on home run hitting. This was the team’s ninth straight game with a homer in it, and it was a decisive one. Justin Morneau launched a three-run blast to take the lead, and starter Nick Blackburn and the bullpen kept it safe. It was the Red Sox who tried sending runners round the bases one by one, but could only scratch out two runs.

If this homer fest continues, I will have to pick a different team for whom to root. What’s the point of loving singles hitters, of devoting myself to the Twins’ small ball ways, when the baseball leaves the field of play? Thanks for all this power, Twins, but you are joining the rest of baseball in reducing the game to brute force.

The home run is the one-up play, the moment of mastery against which no defense is possible. It’s the tennis ace, the boxing KO, the basketball half court three-pointer as time expires. There isn’t an equivalent in football, as even the most lopsided plays have the defense still on field—stymied but present.

Of course we love home runs. They are black and white, winner and loser. No nuance, just a pitch that the batter can figure out and a swing that meets the ball sweet and square. And though there are a few occasions when the edge of the field or foul pole is a tad tough to reckon, we even have TV replay now to confirm or deny.

When I was first introduced to baseball in the late 1950s, the home run was an exquisite possibility. Bottom of the ninth, two men on, two out, behind 5-3. But it’s Rocky Colavito at the plate, I would exclaim to my brother. He could hit a home run!

I was better at exercising my new powers of addition than I was at forecasting baseball outcomes. Yes, Colavito could hit a home run. He was far better suited than anyone else on the Cleveland Indians at doing so. And in 1958, 1959, and 1961 he hit more than 40 of them, overshadowed by few others. In 1959, for example, Mickey Mantle hit 31 to Rocky’s 42.

But the likelihood? In his most productive years, Colavito averaged a home run every 16 plate appearances, which means barely one per series. Yes, he could win the game with a homer. But it was the raw chance that titillated most, because the odds were against it. And no other member of the team was as likely to do so, so if Rocky failed the dream died.

The home run kept you watching the game, and kept you hoping. It was especially well suited to the seven-year-old fan, though the rarity of it was almost crushing at times.

To think about the numbers, I’ll go back 50 years to the 1959 Indians, team of my childhood. Colavito hammered 42 homers, his peak, and scratched out a .257 average and a .512 slugging percentage. He struck out 86 times in his quest to homer, and managed a .337 OBP.

His team members demonstrate the scarcity of the long ball. Cleveland led the majors in this category with 167 of them, a quarter of them Rocky’s personal contribution. The other two outfielders, Minnie Minoso and Jimmy Piersall, hit 21 and 4 respectively. Our corner men, George Strickland at third and Vic Power at first, hit 3 and 10. Then our freakish shortstop, Woodie Held, blasted 29, and Tito Francona (his dad, you understand, not the manager of the team the Twins faced tonight) hit 20.

In 1959, the Indians finished in second place with a .578 winning percentage. By 1959 standards, they used a lotta long balls to get there. By our standards, they were lightweights. Last year, the White Sox led the AL in home runs with 235, 40% more than the Indians of 50 years ago.

These particular White Sox had Jim Thome, Carlos Quentin, and Jermaine Dye to do the major swatting, none of whom have a steroids cloud above them. Quentin was a surprise rookie power threat who led the team with 36.

If we want to visit another decade, we can consider the Cardinals of 1999, when Mark McGwire hit his andro-aided 70 and the team led the NL with 223. Last year’s Sox had a balanced attack, with six players hitting at least 20, while these Cards had the McGwire show plus Ray Lankford (31), Ron Gant (26), and Brian Jordan (25). Everyone else hit homers in the single digits.

So let’s say you’re a seven-year-old, getting used to the exhilaration and heartbreak of baseball. Which team would you rather watch, the 1959 Indians who had a single power star, the 1999 Cardinals who offered pretty much the same concept with much greater HR frequency, or the 2008 White Sox who had serious sluggers at every position but shortstop.

I think the average fan is going to enjoy the White Sox most. Every inning has big-time scoring potential, and you don’t have to pin all your hopes on Colavito or McGwire. But if you’d prefer a personal hero, take the Cards, because Big Mac will do his best to send a ball into the stands every single night. And maybe you’ll catch it!

Since I was the seven-year-old cheering for the Indians, I can tell you they were plenty fun too. But they were teaching me, whether I wanted to learn it or not, that baseball doesn’t work well as an all or nothing proposition. I would jiggle the dial on my little red plastic Motorola radio to tune in the broadcast as clear as I could when Colavito was at the plate, but I was getting taught that Billie Martin, over there at second, would sometimes lay down a key bunt, or that the power-free Vic Power was getting on base often enough to score a lot of runs.

There are plenty of fans who think the home run is what baseball is all about. Now that we’re leaving the steroid era behind, we’re heading toward a time when big power production comes from a collection of players, like the 2008 White Sox or, strange to say, the 2009 edition of the Twins. The days of teams like the 1999 Cardinals are over, at least until a new way of cheating is found.

But cheating may not always lead to cheering. Fans feel burned, and I don’t know what to do with just about every baseball memory from the 1990s. No one wants power at such a cost.

I am a baseball fan formed by a certain era, and a certain path through the game. To me, the home run is best as an amazing possibility, not a strategy to summon. You can give the bunt sign or call for a hit and run, but if you can snap your fingers and make a homer appear, it’s not an especially interesting play.

I like waiting for one, daring to hope for one when the game is on the line, and being reminded that seeing the one pitch and making the one swing that can make it come true is special. Worth wiggling the dial on the radio for.

[game 46] Missing Mauer

The Twins started a four-game series with Boston at the Metrodome this afternoon. In many ways, the only thing we want out of this is a chance to wash off the stink of the tragic day-night doubleheader we ended up playing in Boston when rain dogged the schedule. Two ugly losses on a wet, whirlwind trip to Fenway.

We don’t need to crush the Red Sox or sweep the series or do anything superhuman. Just play respectably to reassert basic baseball dignity.

Now why I should find it important to do this team by team I don’t know, but the idea that the Red Sox can consider the Twins chumps just rankles. And Yankees, your time is coming: three games at the beginning of July to try to make up for the four ghastly losses two weeks ago.

Here is a fact-let to ponder. The Twins were 11-11 in April, without the services of uber-catcher Joe Mauer for the opening month. As of today, we’re 11-13 for the month of May, and cumulatively 22-24.

Yes, we lost to the Red Sox today, but I’m not going to dwell on one stinking game. I’m looking for the broader arc.

My tiny fact-let is not suggest that Mauer has made no difference. In fact, he’s galvanized the batting order, hit a whopping 11 home runs, and collected a batting average of .444. He’s done everything one player can to rally the team, including getting off to an unimaginably strong start considering the time he missed.

The idea of looking at Mauer’s individual contribution occurred to me because he was given a full day off today: no catching, no DHing, just spitting seeds in the dugout.

With that great pair of sideburns on the bench, Ron Gardenhire returned to his more typical batting order: two light hitters who might get on base (today, Carlos Gomez and Matt Tolbert), two lefty power threats (Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel), a righty with power (Michael Cuddyer), and then the motley array of so-so swingers (Brian Buscher, Mike Redmond, Delmon Young, and Nick Punto).

With small variations, this was the batting order until a week ago. Gardy shuffled it to say something about the six-game losing streak, and the team took off.

Not so fast, I first concluded—the batting order was not the causal element. But the return to a more conventional sequence didn’t help today. However, I suspect the problems today did not lie in who hit when but who hit at all.

Like Gardy, I love Nick Punto, and relish his earnest efforts and fielding prowess. A good team should have room for a light-hitting shortstop; let’s forgive the .181 average.

I also have a king-size soft spot for Carlos Gomez, whose transition to the major leagues is still going all too slowly. But today he made a leap to snare a likely homer from Jason Varitek, and it looked like he had jet pods on his ankles to rocket him up to do it. Later he dove and skidded across half the outfield to scoop a line drive off the carpet. I still want a Designated Fielder position for anyone with his heroics. Yeah, OK, a good team should have room for a circus act like Gomez, even if he can’t hit or draw a walk.

For that matter, let’s add Matt Tolbert, a second baseman who positions himself perfectly for nearly every batter and is a sure-handed fielder and, doubtless, overall charming man. Hey, a good team can have a no-hit second baseman.

Make me stop. Make me not point out that Delmon Young’s lost “upside” will probably never be found, that our offense hinges far too much on the exploits of Mauer and Morneau, with happy occasional bright spots from Kubel and Cuddyer. Make me stop.

Today’s lineup was missing Mauer, Joe Crede (injury) and Denard Span (I’ll have to apologize—his flu-like symptoms include dizziness and are not the residue of a bender). With all three out, the team had a distinct minor league quality.

Then too we had a less than lustrous outing from Francisco Liriano. And faced a strong Brad Penny for the Sox. Penny gets extra credit—a post game report revealed that he was ill and vomiting between innings.

The Twins lost, but should we conclude that missing Mauer was the matter? We are tantalized into asking the question by this scoring sequence. The Red Sox are leading 5-1 in the sixth. The Twins haven’t been able to do a thing except watch Cuddyer’s fine solo home run in the second.

A little scoring explosion, and we notch two runs to bring the game back within reach. In the top of the eighth, the Red Sox get themselves what’s called an insurance run to lead 6-3.

Our best chance to win the game is in the bottom of the eighth. There are things you don’t put off, particularly with a batting order with so many holes. We’ll have to face demon closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth, but here’s a chance against Hideki Okajima to send up Gomez, Tolbert, and Morneau. Get a few on base and we’ll be seeing Kubel and Cuddyer.

Okajima says no thank you to that scenario and retires the side.

In the ninth, Kubel leads off with a single. Bear in mind that Papelbon just blew a save last Saturday and is much in the mood to make amends. But forming little cracks in his psyche may be possible.

Cuddyer’s up, eager to hit. Too eager—Papelbon strikes him out on three pitches. Kubel stays stranded on first.

Brian Buscher comes to the plate, and there’s extra mathematical pressure on the man. Joe Mauer is now in the on-deck circle, ready to pinch hit. Of course, pinch hitting will only be of greatest value if Buscher can get on base. Mauer would then represent the tying run.

Oh, Brian Buscher. Oh, baseball. Papelbon toys with him and induces a fly out to short center.

Mauer is not pulled back, however. He steps to the plate. His right hand was smashed yesterday, but he’s not wearing any bandages or showing any signs of pain. During the at-bat, Kubel squirts to second on defensive indifference. It won’t matter. Mauer homers to right field, a booming shot into the blue football seats.

Oh, Brian Buscher, because the score is now 6-5 Red Sox. But Joe Mauer has once again demonstrated his super powers. He is not just seeing the ball well, he’s handling any pitcher any time. It’s intoxicating.

But it’s not enough. The game ends with Delmon Young flying out, so Mauer’s thrilling effort to save the day ends up doing nothing more than boosting his average and reducing yet further the number of at-bats per homer. (It’s getting around an ungodly 8.)

Would we have won with Mauer in the lineup all day? Does he mean that much?

Fantasy baseball is the art of pretending only players, not teams, play baseball. It’s a great way to look at individual stats and learn a great deal about players and even the more subtle elements that affect performance. Playing fantasy baseball makes you watch the game intelligently.

But it also makes your susceptible to believing that adding and subtracting players as components causes games to be won or lost. That’s how you win the fantasy championship, after all.

But not baseball games. I wish Mauer had played the whole game today because it’s great to watch him, but he can’t win single-handedly. The team records shows this. We had a weak pitcher and far too many weak hitters, facing a hot team.

Winning, or losing, almost always rests on dozens of actions, including those that put the team in a position to benefit from the single dazzling play that you recall, the play that seemed to win the game. Mauer is magnificent, but we have to win with him as part of the team, not making up for it.

[game 45] Reversed Call

Two weeks ago, the Twins were 15-17, hanging on in the AL Central thanks to a division-wide inability to climb much above .500.

After tonight, the team is 22-23, and the 13 games formed a neat pattern: a three-win sweep of the Tigers, six straight losses, and now four wins in a row. Emphatic pendulum swings, and not much change in final outcome. We’re 3-1/2 behind Detroit, a half game back of KC.

The Twins swept the mighty Brewers, who now slip a notch to make room for the Cardinals in  tie for first in the NL Central. They didn’t see the Twins coming. For weeks, the Brewers had been playing so well they had a 21-5 winning patch. In this series, their power seemed to desert them. It’s also fair to give the Twins pitchers a tip of the hat.

Tonight Scott Baker had his best game of the season. He had had a collection of very fine innings so far, amounting to five losses, one squeaker of win plus one blowout victory.

Baker pitched into the ninth, but after getting one out and giving up a two-run homer he made way for Joe Nathan. Nathan, I’m happy to report, looked like rock solid Joe again—two strikeouts, no funny stuff.

Since missing the first two weeks of the season, Baker has never seemed in full possession of his game. Except for the easy-breezy 11-0 win against Seattle, Baker has given up at least four runs in each of his seven prior starts. And these runs were usually in big fat clusters, many times looking like meltdowns.

But Baker-watchers, take note. There is a trend here, and it’s not Scott Baker falling apart. Here’s his ERA after each start, in order: 13.50, 12.46, 9.82, 9.15, 6.83, 6.95, 6.98, 6.32. Here’s the innings pitched: 4, 4.2, 6, 6, 7, 6, 5, 8.1.

Now, this doesn’t chart like a rocket going off, but we need to stop making every game fit the memorable pattern of one hideous inning ruining the other decent ones. Baker gave up a solo homer to Mike Cameron in the fourth, but that single run was all the Brewers managed until the ninth.

His final line was three earned runs, seven hits, six strikeouts, no walks. Those other two runs came after Casey McGehee scored on Prince Fielder’s one-out homer in the ninth. Baker has bottled up Prince Fielder, big power threat, all night, but somehow the big guy found a way to get his last homer in the Metrodome.

Baker may not have cured all his crochets, but I’d advise the fantasy players who are repulsed by his ghastly ERA to scoop him up off waivers and start him.

The Twins have still not come down from their scoring high in Chicago on Thursday. In this fun four-game win streak, they’ve scored 43 runs, including six tonight.

It didn’t look like another scoring barrage was in store until late in the game. Joe Mauer homered in the first for our typical early, skinny lead. In the fourth, the Brewers tied it on Cameron’s blast.

Joe Crede answered back right away in the bottom on the fourth with, yes, another solo homer. That tense 2-1 lead kept Milwaukee’s Dave Bush dueling Scott Baker.

In the seventh inning, the turning point for so many games, Bush got two quick outs. Nick Punto, who got to start today in hopes of nudging his average above the Mendoza line, did the only thing he really could do to get on base: he walked.

Carlos Gomez was batting leadoff to give Denard Span time to recover from “flu-like symptoms” (amazing that sports reporters don’t get to the bottom of this one—it’s a hangover, right?). Gomez is still a lovable, enthusiastic young player, but he’s no longer bunting for dollars, which means he’s limited to the very occasional single. But, happy day, he gets one: an infield dribbler that he can just beat out.

Joe Mauer is up. So far, he’s homered, singled, and flied out. Ken Macha sent in Mitch Stetter, something of a specialist in retiring pesky lefities, to relieve Bush. Mauer looks at a strike and lets two balls go by. The next pitch whips in high and tight, smashing Mauer’s hand wrapped around the bat.

The umpire calls it a foul tip while Mauer presents his wounded paw to trainers who watch the bruise bloom. Mauer starts walking to first but home plate umpire Adrian Johnson calls him back: you’re not done here, son.

Mauer, our franchise player and hero of heroes, may have had his hand crushed and you want to call it a foul tip? Ron Gardenhire is instantly out of the dugout. Big shouting match with the home plate umpire, but this one has visual aids. Mauer presents his swollen right hand. Johnson and Gardenhire keep yelling, and now Gardy’s cap is off and there’s the classic picture of fury.

But this time, the heavens part: Mauer is sent on to first, and Johnson overturns his call. You couldn’t tell it from the demeanor of the umpire or the manager, but they actually reached agreement out there. Maybe this is how all conversations with umpires go: (indignantly) Thanks for lending me your belt sander! (angrily) You’re welcome!

This little hit by pitch call will end up mattering. Justin Morneau is up next and he would need to see but one pitch from Mr Stetter to find the one he likes: grand slam hit to that high right field spot Morneau likes to tag.

Twins win, 6-3, and all nine runs were scored on home runs. The Twins’ power surge is getting positively scary now. I’m not entirely ready to exult in it, because home run power tends to ebb and flow. The ability to beat out a steady tattoo of singles and doubles, to construct scoring opportunities, and to rely on all the moving parts of the team to get the job done are the attributes that made me love the Twins in the first place. If they’re going to pound their way to victory it simply won’t be as interesting.

But for now, I’ll make an exception and savor the win.

[game 44] Rookies

All sports, even baseball, have a clock. The ticking you only barely hear is the lifespan of a player.

Every one of them has an arc, and sometimes it’s quite pronounced with a great crown of excellence. Excellence that, still, only lasts awhile. Others march along, perhaps for a very long time, manifesting their median over and over.

Whoever they are, and however we might measure their skills, the shape of the arc is unknown until the last play of the career is made.

We like to get a drop on anointing the truly remarkable ones though, trying hard to sift through the stats and the early efforts to foresee the hall of fame voting. We want to know right away, long before the work is finished.

And we are usually too generous. In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela became the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young. He deserved it: he pitched eight shutouts that year, lead the league in strikeouts, and had a sweet 2.48 ERA. His career had some other fine moments, most of them in just the next five years, but it’s fair to say his peak was brief, unrepeatable, glorious, and gone.

We don’t need any more instructive examples of how fleeting talent can be. Who wants to be reminded? But sportscasters and my fellow bloggers today devote great attention to picking the players who will rise the highest and the fastest.

The obsession with rookies shows up in many quarters. Topps and Upper Deck devote lavish attention to rookie baseball cards  these days, minting up great batches of them. Here are potential heroes, all glossy and bright, photographed with bats on their shoulders in uniforms they haven’t once gotten dirty. A vast number of these baseball cards will be worthless in a year or two, but because one of them will be another Albert Pujols, we collect them and hope. I have an absurd number myself. Say, when is Ryan Garko going to get to the next level?

There are endless websites and magazine articles dissecting rookies. Steven Strasburg, the hellfire pitching prospect who will top the draft next month, appears more often in Sports Illustrated than Justin Morneau. Have you seen Strasburg’s furious pitching glare? But other than seeing his vicious gameface, all I know about him is that he is the greatest pitcher of all time except he hasn’t pitched yet.

Baseball’s draft pales compare to football’s, where even the combine auditions are on TV, and the draft itself is sold as a competition with winners and losers. It’s common for football rookies to earn more than many of the veterans on the team they are joining. These players who haven’t even survived a pro training camp are being paid entirely on the basis of speculation.

Speculators we are, even the fans. Where to place my affections this season, and my precious time? I don’t want to be late finding the next great rookie.

The rookies flow on in a constant stream. The veterans depart with less fanfare. Suddenly you realize: hey, no Fred McGriff this year. No more Eric Karros. And whatever happened to Marquis Grissom?

But you can only notice the holes they left if you concentrate, because the rookies filling those spots redirect your attention. It’s the triumph of youth over age, potential over old news. I grow old, my sports team stays eternally young.

Tonight, against the Brewers, the Twins sent 23-year-old Anthony Swarzak to the mound. He was called up a few days ago to fill the hole Glen Perkins made while on the DL. Swarzak gets to pitch his first game in the majors on a home field, with Joe Mauer calling the game, and his mom and stepfather sitting behind home plate.

Nice touches, but he’s still gotta be nervous, right? The rookie must show that special balance of bravado and awestruck humility. We don’t want him steamrollering our existing heroes, but on the other hand we need that galactic-size confidence that signals success.

Swarzak appeared pretty cool up there, and he weight of the occasion didn’t affect him.  He ended up with a solid starter’s line: seven innings pitched, 98 pitches, five hits allowed, 3 Ks, 2 walks. And no runs. No runs at all.

The shutout was squandered in the eighth, by Matt Guerrier, but the Twins won the game on both offense and defense. In addition to Swarzak’s fine debut, Joe Mauer started his next hitting streak by going 3-for-3 with two RBI and a homer, Joe Crede popped another solo shot, and the team scored a total of six runs.

Swarzak had his share of self-induced pitching jams. He had runners on base most innings and did not have the strike zone pegged at times, but wiggled out of trouble each time. Some of the Brewers’ hits were lucky liners; the three walks actually were the bigger blot on Swarzak’s first outing.

Swarzak was drafted high by the Twins in 2004, and has generally progressed well. He got himself a 50-game suspension in 2007 for a positive drug test, but CBS Sports reports that it wasn’t a performance enhancer. Does that mean it was recreational? Who knows what they do and don’t test now. In any case, he appears ready to work at what Bert Blyleven loves to call “the major league level.”

When Perkins comes off the DL next week, the Twins will probably make room for Swarzak in the bullpen. Craig Breslow, a lefty, has been lost on the waiver wire, but he was replaced by recent callup Sean Henn as the southpaw companion to Jose Mijares. There is still plenty of room for someone like Swarzak to contribute.

Swarzak’s first game has a whole list of happy things for him to remember for the rest of his life. A win, scoreless innings, a happy crowd welcoming him to the bigs. No one knows how this game fits in with the rest of his career, but there’s no reason to dial down the hope yet.

I’m thinking about rookies tonight because the game began with a goodbye before this hello. Corey Koskie was honored after officially retiring this year. He left baseball far sooner than he wanted to, after a concussion kept him out for a season and his comeback finally sputtered.

Here’s Koskie, reminding me of the Twins of his era, and though it seems like it wasn’t long ago, none of his teammates remain. He played for the Twins from 1998 to 2004, and was part of the seismic shift that got the team back into contention.

I can recall the lineup around him from memory: AJ Pierzinski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Christian Guzman, Matt Lawton, David Oritz (you can look it up), and Shannon Stewart. I’m not sure I got the exact team from any given year, but the players are there in my memory. Nudged aside, one by one, by rookies.