Monthly Archives: July 2009

[game 102] Sweep

The trading deadline is two days away, and the Twins will not be solving their infield problems by acquiring Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates. That’s certain now, as the Giants have snapped him up. Other than some call-ups from the minors, we are finishing the season with Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Alexi Casilla.

It’s now officially fashionable to write the Twins off, precisely because of those six hitting lightweights. My theory is that any one or two of them would be fine on a major league roster, but all six become a collective liability.

Now, don’t look to a daily account for trend detection, but I’ve seen this motley group contribute to all of the recent wins, including tonight’s 3-2 squeaker that sweeps the White Sox. Maybe we can return to snapping, scarpping piranha glory again.

 

Alexi Casilla had two RBIs, with smooth leadoff hitter Denard Span collecting the other. The runs were all scored by the bottom of the order: Crede, Gomez, and Punto.

Add to this a bullpen that held the Sox scoreless for four innings, and an emergency start from rookie Brian Duensing, who acquitted himself well for five innings, and you have a team using all its bits and parts to stay in contention.

Duensing has been seen lately in middle relief, but tonight he was tapped to start when Francisco Liriano was pronounced in need of rest. After two serene innings, Duensing allowed a homer to Jayson Nix. In the fifth, Carlos Quentin likelwise lead off with a homer, but that was all the damage done. During the three-game series, Chicago has only been able to score on the long ball.

Jose Contreras started for the Sox, and pitched in his typical slow, lumbering manner. The Twins tapped out some hits, but had trouble putting much scoring together. But in the second, Gomez singled and Punto walked. With one out, Casilla hit an RBI double, and Span followed with a groundout that scored Punto.

At last we’re around to the mighty section of the batting order, but all Joe Mauer can do is walk. Justin Morneau doesn’t top it all off, but strikes out. It’s the bottom of the order that do the job.

The Sox hit their two solo homers to tie it, and this game looks like it’s stuck in the same mud of the close Chicago-Minnesota playoff last season. We’re seeing a combination of pretty good—but not great—pitching and pretty poor—but not awful—hitting.

Both teams want the win fiercely. With it, the Twins can sweep the series and break out of a tie for second place in the division with the Sox. Chicago wants to avoid the sweep and not surrender the position they’ve held over the Twins for most of the season.

Tense and slow it goes, particularly when Contreras makes his languid, hypnotic throws. In the sixth, Crede leads off with a walk and Gomez executes a tidy sac bunt to advance him. Punto flies out, but Casilla raps a liner through to center to score Crede. Tie broken, slender advantage achieved.

This is not a comfortable lead, and Joe Nathan does not have a quiet ninth. Gordon Beckham leads off with a single, and the game seems ready to tilt toward the Sox.

Nathan is heading into a tough part of the order, but he grits his teeth and puffs out his cheeks to strike out Jermaine Dye. Ever so delicately, the balance leans a little Twins-ward.

But Paul Konerko won’t play along with any of that swinging at strikes business. He works a walk, and the tying run is now on second. This is what they mean by a save opportunity, because it’s just as much a loss opportunity. Ozzie Guillen brings in Dewayne Wise to run for Beckham.

Chris Getz strikes out swinging, but Mauer can’t corral the wild pitch that fooled Getz so. The runners advance.

The runners loom. It’s up to Mark Kotsay with two outs, and Nathan summons his closer’s chutzpah and throws one pitch. Kotsay bites and flies out. The sweep is complete.

[game 101] Perfection

In his last start, against the Tampa Bay Rays, Mark Buehrle was perfect. And perfection is something so rare and beautiful that all we can do when we’re near it is try to seal it tight to preserve it, and then ask and hope and plead that we can have it again.

Tonight, starting against the Twins, Buehrle complied with our wishes for five more innings, running his streak to 45 straight batters retired, extending back to the start before the perfect game.

I expected quite a different game; I expected Buehrle to show either fatigue or lack of focus. I even thought the Twins had been especially lucky to catch him after his feat. But he was both commanding and loose, easy, and fluid. His quick smiles over to his infielders and his consummate ease on the mound showed me the Twins were in trouble.

A perfect game is so rare I can toss out the entire, small treasury of stats on the subject in a few sentences. There have been 18, over 129 years. Two in this decade, the last before Buehrle’s five years ago, thrown by Randy Johnson, at 40 the oldest pitcher to do so. We once went 34 years without one, from 1922 to 1956, and the drought ended in the most spectacular perfecto, Don Larsen’s World Series gem of all gems.

There are a few hall of famers on the very short list—Cy Young, Sandy Koufax—but a surprising number of near-nobodies—Len Barker, Mike Witt. And that fact gives a clue about how and why a perfect game comes to be.

 

You will need, first of all, a willing opponent, a team to pick on. The Twins have offered themselves up to such service twice, as have the Dodgers. David Cone was able to feast on the Expos, and Kenny Rogers had the Angels of 1994. In pitching a perfecto against the Rays, Buehrle conquered a mighty team at a mighty time.

You will also need a few great fielding plays. Dewayne Wise provided one for Buehrle by robbing Gabe Kapler of a home run. The fielders, if they are typical of our human species, will grow tenser as the innings mount up, knowing that they may be called upon to save the gorgeous artifact the pitcher is creating. And while they wait for this life-and-death duty, they are often very idle in the field while the pitcher deals out strikes and coaxes easy two-hoppers.

Finally, you will need luck. There is no other word for it. In the long journey of collecting 27 outs, way too much can happen. A pebble can happen; a bunt can happen (poor sportsmanship, most would say); a dropped popup can happen. The perfect game requires the stars to align.

So, tonight, as Buehrle notches out after out, I pause to ask myself, What is it I am watching here? No pitcher has thrown two. And back-to-back-ism is just out of the question—that would only be occurring in one of the twelve extra dimensions conceived of in string theory, right?

But the innings roll on. Bear in mind, Buehrle has a no-hitter to his credit as well as his perfecto. And he has gotten just about every Minnesota batter to chop a frail grounder to his alert and able infielders. Through six innings, all Beuhrle has done is get the ball, throw the ball, and retire the batter. He throws strikes and he works at a brisk and apparently happy pace up there.

In the sixth, he clicks off two more outs, and faces Alexi Casilla. Not a formidable hitter under any conditions, but against Buehrle tonight you give Casilla the odds of a bug near a moving windshield.

Buehrle gets two strikes on him, no balls, and you are ready for him to notch his fourth strikeout and end the inning. But Casilla watches a ball, then lays off another outside pitch. He fouls the next pitch off, and then is curious and patient enough to work the count full.

Buehrle throws a pitch inside and we have a walk. It’s truly inside, but it’s close enough to demonstrate the tissue-thin border between baseball success and failure. End of perfection.

As these things often do, the crack widens fast. Denard Span hits a clean and solid and no-doubt-about-it single to center—end of the no-hitter. With two on, Joe Mauer hits an authoritative double that scores Casilla—end of the shutout, and the game is tied.

Buehrle completes the inning by getting Justin Morneau to ground out with the same trademark gentle chopper he’s induced all night. And the White Sox bring him back up for the seventh. This isn’t a pretty inning, for Buehrle will dispense a hit by pitch, three singles, and three runs. After getting another run off Octovio Dotel, the Twins lead 5-1, and Buehrle has no chance of a win after five magnificent innings and two lousy ones.

Scott Baker spent the entire night much in Buehrle’s shadow. As he’s been doing lately, Baker grinds through his outs, throwing a lot of pitches and engendering a lot of foul balls. He gets the outs, mind you, but he needs a lot of pitches to do it and is always on the brink of a sudden homer.

Baker pitches six complete innings and needs 115 pitches to do it. His only blemish is a solo homer from Jermaine Dye in the sixth. Like Buehrle, a long night of excellent pitching doesn’t get on his won-loss record, for the win goes to reliever Jose Mijares, who presides during the Twin’s outburst in the seventh. Joe Nathan gets the save and the Twins are now tied with the White Sox at two games behind Detroit.

The quest for the postseason is advanced by the win, and the rivalry with the Sox is tilted our way by the two wins in the series. But the scoreless game that played out over the first five innings, and even the single runs that each team scored in the sixth, were much more interesting than the mere won-loss result. Baker fought every batter tooth and nail, while Buehrle tossed bait over the side that the Twins quickly nibbled. Baker was trudging and careful; Buehrle relaxed and cool. They both got similar results, but pitched so differently.

Minnesota fans consider the Chicago rivalry their most bitter. It was just last season that we came down to a single game playoff against the Sox and lost the chance to enter the postseason. So when Buehrle got genuine cheers and a standing ovation when he left in the seventh, it was a moment that reminded me of the honorable nature of baseball. He tipped his cap, and I tip mine.

[game 100] The Vermont Mountaineers

The Twins have won, let’s get that out of the way. They beat the White Sox by a single run, an auspicious start to the series. But that’s not where my baseball attentions were tonight.

It’s summer, and while big league baseball grinds on, spewing revenue and glory, there’s another kind of baseball game being played most every night in most every town.

The major leagues are the top of a very visible pyramid, but the base of that pyramid is vast. Baseball seeps out and becomes intensely local. You can touch it.

In Montpelier, Vermont, for example, you can attend a game in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. This is a 12-team league, split into east and west divisions. The teams travel from Maine to Connecticut, playing a two-month schedule that ends this week, followed by some playoffs.

The Vermont Mountaineers were formed in 2003, and have already claimed two championships. The fans in Montpelier are proud of the team, and fill the stands most every game. The team is out of contention this year, but tonight we still got all those bleachers filled.

And what uncomfortable seats they are. Ringed around home plate are deep stands of benches where you sprawl or budge up with your family and friends. You stare through the netting, and as rock-like as those benches become, they bring you very close to the field. The vantage point is ideal for watching the pitch come over the plate.

You will recognize people you know shuffling by to the concession stand; you will recognize people you’d never guess would go to a baseball game, and others who have started to make it a regular commitment. You’ll see babies and teens and young parents and retired folks, many of them smart enough to being cushions for the benches.

I can’t help but paint an idyllic portrait, because a baseball field, any baseball field, will force your attention on the late sun of summer and the lazy vigor of running out to the positions in the field. The games start at 6:30, the better to get kids and their parents out of the house. That means the sun is still high for the first pitch, but will start painting the clouds pink and blue by the fifth. And in the seventh, when the game gets all serious and the plays mean the most, the home team uniforms snap white under the lights, glowing while the dark blue sky dissolves to ink.

A lovely atmosphere, but what about the quality of play? Down on the field, there are some good college players who have tumbled out of sight of the major league scouts. Some are too short (scrappy, fun Henry Dunn, our centerfielder). Some have poor batting judgment (strapping Esteban Rosado, our right fielder, with 18 Ks to his 5 walks—but a perky .317 average). Some are not destined to hit much better than they are right now, and maybe just about all of them are on that list.

In Moneyball, Billy Beane observed that he’d prefer to recruit players after they’d reached college. There’s a longer book on them, they’ve begun to learn something, and you can judge more clearly. The mania for gobbling up 15-year-olds leads to a lot of mistakes by comparison.

I think Beane is correct. And I also think the doughty, charming players of the NECBL have put enough credentials on the table to be accurately judged as short of major league material. But when they play against each other, when they play at the level they’ve all achieved, the baseball is just as compelling.

And for all that, there is still, always, the chance. AJ Pollock, of the 2007 Mountaineer championship team, was selected in the first round of this year’s draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Five other former Mountaineers are toiling in the minors for major league teams, and all it takes is one example to inspire every other hopeful.

Tonight’s game is all pitching for the first half of the game. Starting for the Mountaineers is Andrew Benak with a middling 3.00 ERA and a sad 1-3 record. But he’s a tall, commanding presence on the mound, and he munches up the North Adams Steeplecats for five full innings. I can’t tell how fast the fastball is humming, but I can see that there’s some movement on it. The Steeplecats hit harmless flies and gummy grounders.

The pitcher for North Adams, Tim Boyce, likewise bottles up the Mountaineers, but he relies more on location than power. Someone seems to have told him it’s better to miss low and outside than to throw a meaty pitch in the zone, and Boyce obeys. He keeps trying to lure the batters to chase balls in and out, but that isn’t what’s defeating the Vermonters. When they make contact, they tend to get under the ball and send up sky high outs over the infield.

In the bottom of the third, Dunn leads off and is quickly sent down swinging. Our shortstop, Jantzen Witte, grounds out and it looks like another routine, scoreless inning. It’s at this point, after we’ve all had out first round of ballpark food, that one of my companions muses, “What happens if they haven’t scored by the 13th inning?” I assure him that baseball always accommodates a run or two.

Boyce issues a walk to our not-so-towering DH Clay Jones. Then Steven Felix, our catcher with such a happy name, hits an RBI double, and the clunky scoreboard lights record the first run of the game.

I should say they record the first lasting run. In the bottom of the first, we thought we had an inside the park home run. The scoreboard operator and every single fan in the stands could only make out Witte circling the bases while an umpire quietly watched his progress and the North Adams centerfielder remained on his knees. The throw never came in, and the runner kept running. Unbeknownst to us, without cameras and replays and announcers, a Steeplecat caught the ball and simply fancied sprawling there in tribute to his diving catch.

But now we have a real run, one we can keep. This slender lead may have to last us awhile, but Benak has some pretty efficient innings. In the sixth, he’s tagged for a run when a single plus a bunt plus a sacrifice fly plus a single equal one run. Notably, the bunt in question was a dangerous one—Grant Gajdosz, the Steeplecat DH no less, made two bunt attempts that were fouls and went right ahead and tried a third time. Fortune smiled on his chutzpah or ignorance, or both.

Tie game, top of the seventh. The evening air is cooler now, and the mugginess of the night is easing up. You can still smell the fries drenched in ketchup, but most fans have finished their ballpark dinners, their guilty, greasy pleasures. Benak probably hasn’t thrown more than 80-some pitches, but he has a rough, tough seventh. The first two batters reach base, and a sacrifice advances them. An RBI single nudges North Adams ahead, and Benak is feeling the strain. He walks the bases loaded.

We’re sitting right behind home plate, a little to the left of the batter. I can watch Benak putting a little extra on his pitches now, trying to get out of his jam with pure power. Unfortunately, he’s losing the finish to his pitches, and as his release point varies, the balls are flying low and outside. Felix blocks one that would have scored a run if he hadn’t muscled it to the ground.

It looks to me like Benak is pitching angry. It could be a good thing, it could be a terrible thing. I know nothing about him, but I do know enough to realize that with one out and the bases loaded, the best possible outcome here is a strikeout. There are too many ways to score a run with any ball put in play.

And Benak has the very same thought in mind. He strikes out Gajdosz—no more stinking bunts!—and the crowd makes a loud display of relief. Benak may have turned his inning around with the loss of only one run.

It was a turnaround, all right, until the Steeplecats turned it back. A single from centerfield Patrick Johnson scores two. Now North Adams leads 4-1.

I’m like all the fans here tonight. I don’t spend the whole time riveted on the game, so I’ll lightly summarize the rest of the scoring. Vermont scratches out an answering run in the seventh, North Adams piles on two more in the eighth, and then we get the special miracle of a home run in the eighth from our third baseman Kevin Vance—the team’s top home run hitter with six on the season. A home run, you see, is very rare in a regulation size ballfield populated with so-so college players.

Then we keep it just interesting enough to the very end. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, we mange one run—but only the one. North Adams 6, Vermont 4.

Over those last three innings, I amble into the ice cream line for a while, and chat with my friends. The lines in the batter’s box are erased by a night of cleats scuffing in and out, and the uniforms have grown dusty. The umpire takes a little longer to straighten back up from his crouch, and all of us in the stands are feeling the unforgiving planks of the bleacher seats.

It’s baseball, simple as summer, win or lose. Tonight’s game pretty much seals the season for the Mountaineers, but they dive and run and hustle and fling themselves flat to catch grounders. Few of these players will be climbing higher in the baseball hierarchy, but they seem to have realized that they can enjoy these days, these days in bright white uniforms with tiny, happy crowds cheering for them. We are rooting for you, Henry Dunn.

[games 98, 99] Fourth Inning

Two games, two fourth innings, two teams.

On Saturday afternoon, Nick Blackburn had three perfect innings, keeping the Angels well in check. There wasn’t a hint of a hit or a walk, and Blackburn pitched with a brisk, confident rhythm.

I will always hold onto the possibility of a perfect game until something takes it away from me. There is usually one or none per season, so I must hope to be in the right place at the right time to witness it. And this year my odds of seeing a Twin pitch it ran down near zero, as Mark Buehrle accomplished it on Thursday. The chance that there would be two of these in the same season, let alone the same week, were astronomical.

Still, we had three players hit for the cycle in one week this year, and then we had two players on the same team do it—and the pair were Twins. So I won’t give up hope before I have to. And then there is the matter of my blog thesis, that in the course of a season one team would supply all the events I’d need to chronicle all the essential aspects of baseball.

So, I’m clinging, however unrealistically, to the notion that Blackburn could keep this gem going. He is the type of pitcher to do it, by the way. It’s early to imagine it with the game only a third over, but each step along the way gets Blackburn closer.

Three perfect innings means a single complete trip through the batting order. And the fourth inning of a perfect game means all the hitters have had a chance to mutter together and come up with a plan to foil you. In the fourth inning, the pitcher of a perfect game either takes his next big step or the hitters take theirs.

Chone Figgins leads off the fourth. He’s an admirable leadoff hitter who takes pitches, scopes out weaknesses, and tries to deposit tidy singles to launch the Angel scoring machine. Figgins was an easy out in the first. Blackburn isn’t tired or taxed, but he may be just microscopically overconfident, because Figgins crushes his second pitch for a home run.

So that’s that—perfection is shattered. It’s as abrupt as a trash can clattering over in a quiet alley, but Blackburn is a pro. Unlike me, he’s not stitching together a fantasy of the best game ever. He’s just out there doing his job. And right now, he’ll have to get some hitters out to hang on to the Twins’ now meager 2-1 advantage.

Maicer Izturis is the next batter, a slap hitter who’s there to set the table like Figgins. But Blackburn’s unbeatable pitches are eminently beatable now—Izturis drills a double, then scores on Bobby Abreu’s single.

The Angels will get five consecutive hits and score three runs before Blackburn can even catch his breath. The Twins had scored first and looked well poised to take this game, but now the Angels are hitting everything Blackburn dishes out.

Erick Aybar grounds into a double play in which the runner is cut down at home. Blackburn can limit the damage if he can just get that third out. There must be some especially brilliant reason for requiring three whole outs, because Blackburn finds number three especially elusive.

My window into the game is the radio broadcast from Angels announcers Rex Hudler and Steve Physioc. I’ve heard them before, and even during this debacle I can’t resist Huddy’s insane cheerfulness and hearty Halo partisanship. Now, as Howie Kendrick laces a single to center to score another run, Huddy is in his element: cheerleading and being overwhelmed at the greatness of the Angels.

“Sometimes they’re just like this. They’re frenzying. The hitters get to frenzying, and you can’t contain ‘em,” he says. He’s captured it exactly, if ungrammatically. They send 13 men to the plate, get ten hits and nine runs, and humiliate the Twins.

Blackburn exits after walking Gary Matthews Jr. He has allowed six runs and six hits, with every batter putting the ball in play in the fourth, and none of them touching him in the previous three innings.

It’s a stark contrast. The Angels are quite a good team this year and Huddy’s not wrong to love them so. But they came to life so suddenly, and so perfectly, it almost sounds like artificial baseball. There’s a Disney-esque quality to this inning, as if animatronic batters put on this display every afternoon at 3:00 pm.

And as puzzled as Blackburn was about where his stuff went, RA Dickey is equally stumped. Give credit to the Halos, then, as Hudler and Physioc are doing. The frenzy of singles and doubles continues, as Dickey doles out the two singles necessary to get the rest of the batters Blackburn allowed on base to reach home.

Dickey’s knuckleball is not fooling anyone, but he does, finally change the complexion of the inning. It started, maybe a half an hour ago, with a solo homer from Figgins, his third of the year. Then the steady stream of hits to advance runners, like a little assembly line. Now Dickey faces light-hitting Izturis with two men on.

Izturis wallops one out of the park, and his three RBI make it Angels 9-Twins 2. Dickey allows one more single but finally the conveyor belt of baserunners stops on a fly out.

To complete the game account, the Twins do a little catching up and score three in the seventh, but the outcome is not in doubt. The Angels see fit to collect two more runs in the eighth, and even Huddy is out of superlatives. The game ends 11-5.

On Sunday, the Angels are primed to seek a sweep of the four-game series. The Twins send up rookie Anthony Swarzak against Ervin Santana, and in the first inning both pitchers have their troubles.

Santana falls victim to the M&M boys—Joe Mauer singles and Justin Morneau hikes a homer over the right field scoreboard. It may be another of those frail 2-0 leads that the Twins have let crumble lately, but it’s the best way to begin the game.

In the bottom of the first, Swarzak is perhaps intimidated by these bruising Angels, who lead the AL West and have been munching up the Twins for three straight days. He walks Figgins, leading off, then watches Izturis fly out. But Bobby Abreu coaxes a walk and now there are two on and only one out.

This is a good situation for any team, but it’s a prime situation for the Angels on a sunny afternoon in southern California. But Swarzak regains control. The two outs that end the inning are harmless enough shallow fly balls, but they signal a full turnaround for the Twins.

Swarzak would go on to pitch an excellent game. The first hit of the measly four he would allow was a solo homer to Kendry Morales, but that was plainly an aberration. He buttoned up the Angels when the Twins needed a win, and he even helped the bullpen out by nearly completing seven innings.

By rights, he should have gotten all three outs in the seventh, but a fielding breakdown kept the Angels alive. Michael Cuddyer played first to give Morneau the half-day off of the DH spot, and Cuddy couldn’t pick a low throw from Nick Punto on Erick Aybar’s leadoff at bat in the seventh. It was ruled Punto’s error, but Cuddyer and Punto should share this one on their mantelpieces. Another two hits squeaked by flailing fielders, and though Swarzak allowed no runs and only one hit, Gardenhire didn’t take any chances and brought Matt Guerrier in to get the last out.

Swarzak held up his end of the bargain, and the Twins hitters finally did their share in, of course, the fourth inning. It was as if they wanted to shake of all bad memories from yesterday.

It wasn’t anywhere near the onslaught the Angels managed, but the Twins got their runs in particularly heartening ways. Morneau led off with a walk, and when Jason Kubel fouled out the inning started to look like another of those case studies in how the Twins batting order peters out so weakly after the mighty Mauer and Morneau.

But Cuddyer singled, and Brian Buscher matched him. The bases were loaded. Now the batting order gets even thinner—it’s Carlos Gomez’s turn. In his previous at bat, he was so easy to strike out he reminded me of what I’d look like at the plate. And now he makes contact in a pretty Twins-destructive way—the ball scoots toward Santana who throws it home for the easy force out at the plate.

There’s a titanic difference between the bases were loaded with one out and with two outs. That’s the situation Nick Punto faces, gamely carrying his weeny .198 average to the plate. Punto has a clutch hitter’s mentality, though he lacks the skill set. But today he hits that single, that single he is always seeking, and this time it scores two.

We know Santana is in trouble when he allows Alexi Casilla to negotiate a walk a from him. Then Denard Span singles and scores two more. The Twins get four runs and are now up 6-0, and they have used their typically unproductive hitters to do the job.

The Twins will score some more, but the fourth is the meaningful inning of this game. Morneau hits a second homer, a solo shot, and Denard Span surprises and elates with a two-run homer to right. The Angels? All they produce is a single run, on that homer from Morales. The Twins win by nine, the kind of nutty margin that has been the fashion this past week.

The west coast road trip has gnawed at me. The games are late and hard for me to take in, and there have been some gruesome losses in there. But the team has ended its four-game losing streak and is still only four games back in the Central. Thanks, Swarzak and Punto, for righting the ship.

[games 96, 97] Odi et Amo

The story so far: the Twins have never won more than three games in a row all season; they have never been more than three games above .500 and have spent considerable time below that equator; they just lost two of three games against Oakland and two against the Angels.

These are bad things. They’re not apocalyptic things, like what’s happening to the Washington Nationals. They’re not even lovably lousy things, like the 10-game losing streak the Royals may or may not extend tonight, or the experience of living in last place like the perpetually dormant Pirates.

But they are troubling things, things that make it hard to be a fan.

But fans have deep resources for coping with trouble. In fact, fans don’t really experience trouble as trouble, because they can decide how they want to feel about it.

There are two basic tactics, and the Twins support both of them right now. You can detest them, or you can delude yourself about them.

Loathing the Twins is, ultimately, just too cruel. But in short spurts, all of us can master it. Right now, it involves making brutal remarks about the uselessness of Alexi Casilla, the pathetic failings of the bullpen, the tragic limitations of Delmon Young, etc.

In addition to bad mouthing individual players, the furious fan can denigrate the Twins system, the low payroll, the difficulty of building a team around two superstars and a raft of grade C players, or the inability to retain top talent after free agency.

Despising the team essentially is knowing it too well—reciting the flaws proves your savvy. It’s hard to resist spouting such intimate knowledge, so a certain degree of dislike is always the badge of the serious fan.

But this form of hate is also a perfect defense. By distancing yourself from your team, you are spared certain sorrows. Or at least you hope to avoid them. I recall the documentary about the Red Sox made during their 2003 season. Still, We Believe followed several fans who revealed their “wicket hahd” devotion to the team. I thought I knew something about the hate and love of being a fan until I saw Bill in this movie.

Bill is angry. Infuriated, in fact. Bill is nearly out of control—his team keeps hurting him, and he doesn’t know how to relieve the pain. In one sequence, he fumes at the game on his television and then just walks out, stalking out of his apartment.

When he returns with his dry cleaning, the Sox have already mounted their comeback. He’s missed it. He’s missed the one little gift his team can give him. Now he’s furious with himself, but it’s just one more station on this karmic wheel of suffering—love the team, have that love betrayed, seek revenge on the team, miss the chance to love the team.

Bill’s effort to harden his heart against the Red Sox is poignant. We all want this armor, yet the defense is really so unsatisfying. Do I really want to be embittered about Carlos Gomez’s myriad hitting problems? Will this, ultimately, save me from wishing he could overcome these hitting problems and be the thrilling, energizing player I hoped he’d be?

And so we turn to the other strategy: apologize for the team. I can make excuses for Carlos Gomez, and the rest of them, for pretty much an entire season. I can look up, find it’s late September and we’re 10 games out and be, in essence, surprised. Honestly—we’re not going to make it?

We’re not going to make it. We’ve played almost 100 games and though there have been some happy wins and wonderful moments, thinking that Scott Baker is just about to rip off five consecutive wins, or that Delmon Young is going to find his power stroke, or that Joe Crede is going to stay off the DL for the rest of the season—thinking such things is delusional.

But it’s possible. It’s easy to imagine Mauer have a September like his May, and Kevin Slowey coming off the DL to finish with 18 wins, or the bullpen becoming impregnable. We aren’t so very far from these things that they can’t be visualized in stunning detail.

So we apologize, or find the silver lining, or just plain wait for the good, nice thing that’s due to occur. And here there’s a fine line between rational hope and delusion. If you have no hope whatsoever, you honestly cannot participate in baseball as fan or player. It’s the baseline requirement for this sport.

But excessive hope leaves you out there, swinging in the breeze, while your team forsakes you. And they will let you down sometimes and make you fall harder than they do. The players dust themselves off and continue to lead the charmed lives of major league baseball players. You go back to work without the one particular ray of light you count on.

Hope can be dangerous. But bitterness is not the perfect antidote, because it’s hope that carries you to the rare but delicious moments of elation that makes sports so satisfying. If you do not hope, you’re disqualified from fully savoring the comeback, the clutch hit, the miracle catch, and the no-hitter. You don’t have a ticket to these events, because only hope admits you.

The Twins have just lost two games to the Angels. One in which they had a narrow lead, allowed the Angels to tie, and then lost in the tenth. Another in which the Angels just chewed ‘em up and spat ‘em out.

Hard as it is to muster, I am going to go on hoping. We’re nearly through 100 games, and there are probably only about ten games in which the Twins have actually played as if they’re collectively ready and able to stride onward into the World Series. But I see little pieces, little fragments in any game, and I can still imagine them coming together into one glorious possibility.

Odi et amo, Catullus wrote: I love and I hate. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior—You ask how this can be? I don’t know, but I feel the agony of it.

[game 95] Hard to Watch

Today was a day when you’re grateful for the long season, because it’s big enough to bury a complete collapse of offense and defense. The Twins made this three-game series with the Oakland A’s a crazy-making saga of extremes.

On Monday, the Twins managed to misplace a 10-run lead. That’s correct, they pretty much left the keys in the car and the doors unlocked and just, uh, kinda forgot where they parked it. The A’s drove off, and their final tire squeal was a blown home plate call. Michael Cuddyer actually was safe, and the Twins actually did tie the game, but a man in blue waved the A’s out of the parking lot anyway.

Yesterday, the game was a long duel, tied 2 to 2 all the way to extra innings. The Twins squeaked through on a Cuddyer RBI triple to avenge, very quietly, the previous night’s debacle.

This afternoon is getaway day, but the A’s don’t seem to care how late they’ll be arriving in New York for a series with the Yankees. They got some scoring to do.

The Twins actually strike first, with a Justin Morneau solo homer off rookie Trevor Cahill in the first. It would have scored Denard Span too if he hadn’t gotten eager enough on the base paths to get caught stealing. Well, 1-0 Twins. Off we go.

Glen Perkins is pitching. When I last saw him, he was still visibly muzzle-headed from a cold. Today I have only the A’s radio announcers to rely on, but I don’t need much in the way of description. The results are telling enough. Perkins allows five runs in the first.

Matt Holliday has officially come to life in this Twins series. And I don’t think we can just blame it on Twins pitching, because Holliday has chosen an interesting moment to become a valuable hitter. The trading deadline is a little more than a week away, and the A’s are going nowhere. They will be happy to deal him, and his price is finally rising.

Nasty baseball economics aside, I’m happy for Holliday, who is finally looking at ease as an A, however briefly he may remain one. A little too at ease, for he drives in the first Oakland run. The A’s bat around, with backup catcher Landon Powell nabbing another RBI, but it looks like it might be a manageable inning until Rajai Davis triples in three runs. Ugly. Perkins has nothing out there.

And it’s not a brief loss of command but a full meltdown. He allows a single and a walk to start the second, and then gets right to dishing out the home run balls. Scott Hairston smashes in three runs and Perkins is sent to the showers.

I am busy visualizing this as he radio provides the bare framework of details. Kevin Mulvey, our brand new middle reliever who hasn’t yet suggested he will plug our bullpen holes, is up next. Is he ready to shut the A’s down, or can they feast on him too?

The answer is: pass the salt, for Mulvey gives up four more runs. The A’s, I must remind you, are one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball, but this afternoon they’re ripping line drives left and right. It begins to look like the baseball rulemakers may have made a grave error in not putting in a clock to limit such scoring sprees, because the A’s don’t seem capable of running out of gas. Finally, mercifully, Scott Hairston, the twelfth batter of the inning, flies out. It’s 12-1 A’s.

Having just had the object lesson of being on the losing end of a massive comeback two days ago, the Twins may well have nursed some hope. Being so far down so early, you have only two choices: succumb or scrap on.

The Twins do not, in effect, do any scrapping. Cahill’s worst moment came and went in the first on Morneau’s long ball. He allows only six hits through seven innings, and not a whisper of a run.

Meanwhile, RA Dickey finally puts a cap on the gusher the A’s struck. He pitches two scoreless innings, but then that pesky hitting itch strikes Oakland again. The lash out for three more in the fifth—15-1.

Later, with Brian Duensing on the mound, the A’s go for an even number of runs when Brendan Harris makes an error to allow Kurt Suzuki to drive in Ryan Sweeney.

Yes, Kurt Suzuki is in the game. Of all things, backup catcher Powell has to leave with an injury and on getaway day the catcher they’re trying to rest has to come in and join the scoring parade. Perhaps it’s an invigorating interlude for him.

The score is 16 to 1, and the Twins haven’t threatened to do anything more than sullenly field their positions since the first inning. They will amass a treasure trove of six hits through the game. They will do next to nothing with the five walks the A’s bestow on them. They will, it must be said, stink.

In the ninth, manager Bob Geren wants to try out rookie reliever Edgar Gonzalez. It’s very hard for a game like this to have an interesting ninth inning. In fact, one has to assume that players and staff are restless to get on with their getaway. But Gonzalez wants to keep us engaged.

He gets Michael Cuddyer out leading off, then walks Brendan Harris. Then he walks Brian Buscher. And then, just because there are three bases, he walks Nick Punto.

This is not the time to be experimenting with pitches. The tried and true strike is all you need to throw with a 15-run lead. Yet somehow Gonzalez is losing the knack for it.

Now, if this were the fourth inning we’d have time for the comeback that comes back from Monday’s blown lead. But it’s the ninth, with one out. Alexei Casilla has a chance to get an RBI or two, but not much chance to launch us off on a brand new winning streak.

The game ends in a swift double play, and both teams get their luggage and go. For the A’s, who take the series 2-1, there is bound to be pure joy as they head out of town. For the Twins, who have seen every possible baseball sorrow in the last three days, there is surely gloom.

I’m glad I didn’t have to watch, but the radio told me more than enough.

[game 94] Slump

Sports outcomes are random. They are more random than we can possibly tolerate. They are so random that we are forced to tell stories to stitch them back together, to explain the randomness. What would be the point, after all, of watching people play games at a very high level if their skill wasn’t enough to banish the randomness?

Joe Mauer’s season contains too stark a contrast for us to endure the randomness in it. Right now, the random matter of his batting success has split his season in two, between a remarkable beginning and a grisly slump.

But I think his complete season will probably resemble a five-act play, not a black and white contrast.

Act One: he’s missing. He has surgery to relieve back problems stemming from a kidney blockage, and misses all of spring training and the first month of the season. His absence hangs over the Twins, and the team gets off to a mediocre start.

Act Two: he returns in the most triumphant fashion imaginable. Any rational fan reconciled himself to patience—Mauer couldn’t possibly have all his baseball powers fully at his fingers after such an absence. In fact, who knows how well he’ll bounce back from his back woes. But he starts May with a home run, and starts hitting for average and for power. We have never seen him look better.

Act Three: the power quietly leaks away. Mauer still hits some homers and beefy doubles, but he’s back to lacing liners into left. The swing is still shimmering, the average is still otherworldly. But that whole miracle of equaling his last year’s home run total in about one month is over.

And the glory of the average is hidden under a cloud. Missing the first month, Mauer doesn’t collect enough at bats to be in league lists until right before the All-Star break. He is at .400 for a time, but when he finally cracks the official tabulations, he’s in .380 territory.

Act Three ends with Mauer trudging off to the All-Star festivities with a cold he’s had trouble shaking and big expectations for his participation in the Home Run Derby. A week or so before, he’s treated to the Sports Illustrated cover curse—his .400 average has disappeared two days before the magazine hits the stands with a discussion of whether he’s the guy who can match Ted Williams’ feat.

Now we’re in Act Four. And what once was so startlingly easy for Mauer has become impossible. In the last game before the All-Star break, he struck out four times. He was 0 for 6 against Texas on Sunday, for the first time in his career.

His July batting average is .264, sucking his cumulative BA down to .353. After hitting better than anyone in any league at any time this season, he’s now parked behind Ichiro Suzuki. He’s struck out 11 times this month.

In tonight’s game against the A’s, so far he has a strikeout and a hit. A single that advances a runner but leads to no runs. The kind of hit we fans are now looking at with our microscopes, picking it up in our tweezers to see this endangered species, Maueronomous Hittibus.

Yes, that’s how we dissect these things. We’re baseball fans, off on the sidelines, no more capable of hitting a single 90-mph pitch than we are of curing cancer. But we’re experts, and we’re desperate for meaning. Mauer’s problems are our problems, but at the exotic distance of problems we can blame on someone else. Joe! Joe!

We’re indignant, or cynical, or passionate with grief. But we’re not indifferent. It can’t be randomness. Not possible. You can’t do something beautifully for two months and then, suddenly, stop. You need magic, voodoo, superstition to break out of a slump. Because it couldn’t be random.

So now I’ll introduce some game narrative. The game was a 2-2 tie since the fourth inning. Dallas Braden started for the A’s and kept the Twins quiet but for a small outburst in the fourth, pitching seven strong innings. Anthony Swarzak started for the Twins and gave up 4 hits and 2 runs over seven innings.

We’re in the tenth. Mauer’s slump is still hanging over him, but with one out he gets a solid hit. And on Michael Cuddyer’s triple, he scores the tie-breaking run. Then in the bottom of the inning, Joe Nathan mows them down 1-2-3 to preserve the one-run lead for a Twins win.

What is a slump? It’s not merely and purely randomness. There is a massive psychological component to most slumps. Mauer’s cloud is of his own making, but he’s a distinctively well-integrated young man, from all we can tell watching him.

Remember Paul O’Neill, the Yankee right fielder who nearly exploded in fury when he struck out? Mauer is his baseball opposite. It’s reasonable to expect Mauer to work his way calmly out of this particular pit.

And while he does, none of us will be able to acknowledge the randomness of it. We literally can’t see such things. We see stories. We need stories. We have to explain the ability to hit precisely because it is a nearly inexplicable skill. Joe, I’m waiting for Act Five.