[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.

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