Monthly Archives: August 2009

[game 130] Contending

The winner of Sunday’s final game in the series between the Twins and the Rangers will consider it consolation for a tough loss, for both teams have had one of those. The Twins scraped a victory on Friday, 3-2, while the Rangers won 3-0 yesterday. The shutout was brutal, of course, but it wasn’t as if the Rangers were feasting on Twins pitching either—two runs were assembled in a minor outburst in the first inning, with a solo homer in the ninth to complete the bookend.

So the game today must really decide the series. And it’s not so much which of these two teams has the better rotation, bullpen, or batting order. No, the real question is which one is ready to contend for postseason play.

The Rangers are trying to catch the Red Sox for the AL wild card. At 2-1/2 games back as of today, the dream is very real. They must also shake off the pesky Rays, two games behind them but perhaps looking winded—they just gave up Scott Kazmir to the Angels at the trading deadline, which looks like a surrender flag to me.

The Twins have no real hope of the wild card, but the Central division crown is within reach, thanks, largely to Detroit’s failure to fortify themselves in the top spot. The Twins have edged ahead of the White Sox for second place, but that’s still a full 4-1/2 games back.

Both the Twins and the Rangers have been showing off their pitching in this series, including the Twins’ newly-appointed bullpen. Considering the collective hitting prowess of these two teams, not to mention the presence of baseball’s current batting champ, hits and runs have been eerily scarce.

On Sunday, Scott Baker started for the Twins, and had two sharp innings, only to fall into his typical pit in the third inning. The recipe for trouble with Baker is: lots of pitches, including a steady, dreary rain of foul balls, plus two or three hits strung together for a run. It never looks like bad pitching until it’s over.

Baker was only touched for one run this time, on an RBI single from Elvis Andrus following a double from Ivan Rodriguez. If you ever want to remind yourself how thin the line between losing and winning can be, dissect a Scott Baker inning. Rodriguez’s hit came on a pretty good pitch, and though I didn’t see what Andrus hit, I doubt it was a howler of a mistake. Yet the Rangers were on the scoreboard first.

Baker bounced back with a quick 1-2-3 fourth inning, while the Twins collected isolated hits and walks for three innings, but couldn’t push anyone all the way around the merry-go-round.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Twins punch through the tissue paper between success and failure. They start the inning with a Justin Morneau double followed by a beefy Jason Kubel home run to right. Lead reversed on a single pitch, and the Twins were up 2-1.

Kevin Millwood, starting for the Rangers, has the nutty career distinction of never having beaten Minnesota. When Kubel rapped that homer, he may have realized he wasn’t going to complete that quest in the Metrodome itself. He will have to take the project on to Target Field next year.

Before the inning ended, Mike Redmond, typically the Twins Sunday catcher, hit a sharp line drive that rattled up to the base of the wall, giving the slow-footed Redmond more than enough time to collect a triple. He was exulting on third base while the cameras caught a dancing Carlos Gomez and a laughing Ron Gardenhire in a dugout that was celebrating Redmond’s three-bagger.

No, Redmond never scored and the triple isn’t significant, but the little sense of joy I saw there reminded me that playoff teams operate on fun as well as skill. The Twins were enjoying themselves today, close game or not.

Baker followed with a 1-2-3 fifth and an easy sixth to show the Rangers he can confine his woes to single innings, and single runs.

However, he had one more bad inning, and again, it was barely bad but it was bad enough to make a difference. A two-run homer from Nelson Cruz put the Rangers back on top, 3-2.

Time for another test of the potentially contending team. The Rangers passed theirs by snatching back the lead, and the Twins had a golden chance in the seventh, against reliever Jason Grilli. With one out, Denard Span doubled and Alexi Casilla followed with a hard-earned walk. That brings Joe Mauer to the plate.

Screenwriters must flinch when trying to write the story of a baseball game. I mean, how realistic is it to put your star player in the batter’s box with the game on the line? But it’s precisely what we have this afternoon, even if Mauer’s bat doesn’t have a lightning scar on it.

You could write us into this spot, but reality intrudes. Mauer’s arcing hit to center was gathered up by Marlon Byrd, who hustled hard to scoop it. Denard Span left second, all too certain of a hit, and became the final out by running as if there were already two outs. Opportunity lost.

Morneau led off the eighth with a walk against new reliever CJ Wilson. Kubel followed with a single, and Gardenhire sent Gomez in to run for the slow, stocky Kubel.

With no outs and two on and the game likely on the line, the Twins got another test of whether they want to contend. CJ Wilson struck out Michael Cuddyer to rebalance the inning in the Rangers’ favor. But they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Brendan Harris hit a grounder that shot through the infield, allowing Morneau to score the tying run. Cruz’ throw from the outfield went wide of the plate and allowed Gomez to advance to third and Harris to second.

On an infield chopper to Hank Blalock at first, Gomez took off for home. It was gutsy, but he had a good lead and beat the slightly offline throw. Now up 4-3, the Twins still have only one out and men on first and third.

Little Nicky Punto, master of the squeeze bunt, brought in Harris and was safe at first. Harris crossed home before Rodriguez could get a handle on the ball, and then Rodriguez’s throw to first was well behind the speedy Punto.

With two little infield hits—no power, only strategy—the Twins climb up 5-3. They used the talent they had and made it work. Sometimes being a contending team means admitting your shortcomings and making a virtue of them.

Joe Nathan always seems to find new ways to add excitement to the closer’s job. Here to preserve a two-run lead, he walked Hank Blaclock after starting him 0-2.

Nathan hunts around in his repertoire to find a double play ball to pitch to Cruz. He almost found it, too, but Cruz hit a lucky liner to left to put men on first and second. The ball poked through the left side of the infield, and suddenly Nathan looked terribly vulnerable.

Rodriguez took a swinging strike, then knocked the next pitch lazily straight to Nathan. This is the double play, no doubt about it. But Nathan seems to overplay it, rebalancing his feet and throwing flat and slightly wide to second. The ball bounced past the infielder and everyone was safe.

Bases loaded. Baseball never requires much math, and we’ve been answering one question all inning: where’s the tying run? At the plate, on first, on second. Far too close for comfort.

Who knows how Nathan survives these dramas. His shakes his head and exhales mightily, and I end up mimicking him from the couch. What other gesture is possible while watching someone move through a minefield?

Now Nathan settles down to collect his three necessary outs: strike out, fly out, groundout. Twins win.

Nothing I saw this weekend counts the Rangers out on their journey toward the postseason. But the main thing I saw was a sense of resolve, and a sense of fun, on the part of the Twins.

Yes, contending rhymes with pretending, making for some pretty catchy and sometimes superficial classifications. I know as well as anyone that the Twins have an extremely questionable starting rotation. And I know it’s important to start distancing yourself from your team about now, lest they break your heart. But the Twins have more than simple possibility on their side. They have Mike Redmond, playing once a week, hustling out that happy triple. That’s contending.

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[game 128] Three Scares

The Twins beat the Rangers tonight. The game had two simple themes: the Twins scored three quick runs in the first inning and then fell stone silent at the hands of the Ranger pitchers, and Brian Duensing pitched very well to silence Texas.

There were three good scares in the game, to match the three runs the Twins managed. Duensing had some trouble in the sixth, and finally gave up a run. Add that blemish to his one walk and three hits and you have an idea of how sharp he was for seven innings.

But the stats don’t paint the full picture. That walk? It was issued to the first batter of the game, and might be classified as something Duensing had to get out of his system to settle down into the game.

The free pass was counterbalanced by eight strikeouts, a career high for the young pitcher. Duensing isn’t a strikeout pitcher, by either temperament or talent. But he had something tonight that foiled the Texas hitters.

He allowed his first hit in the fourth, and then doled out two in the sixth. The Rangers turned those plus a fielder’s choice into a run. That’s all the scoring Duensing allowed.

But scare number two came in the eighth, with Matt Guerrier on in relief. Chris Davis led off with a single, and Guerrier looked pressured the entire inning. Elvis Andrus grounded into what would become only half a double play. Davis was cut down, but Andrus made himself comfortable on first.

He didn’t want to linger long, though. The Rangers had already stolen a base against Joe Mauer, with Ian Kinsler swiping second in the first inning. But Andrus’ attempt was foiled on a strong throw from Mauer, and the Rangers counterattack started to wilt.

Guerrier still courted danger. Kinsler got his second hit of the game and managed to steal second yet again. But with two outs, a runner on second isn’t quite so scary. Michael Young grounded out and Guerrier headed back to the dugout after narrowly preserving the 3-1 lead.

The third scare was the scariest, in true horror movie style. Joe Nathan checked off his first two outs swiftly. But number three was an entire baseball game in itself.

Ivan Rodriguez hit a fierce liner to right that bounced off the side of the baggie for a ground rule double. Skinny David Murphy was up next, and he sent Nathan’s first pitch deep to right, landing about a foot or so below the top of the baggie. It bounced back to the field to become a mere double, but the vivid possibility of a game-tying home run sucked all the air out of the Metrodome.

Nathan, off course, tried to puff all the air back in with his trademark big-cheek exhalations. He puffed and puffed to settle himself down after giving up a run. The runner behind him on second must have felt like a massive weight.

Nathan used all his facial tricks and tics, but he walked his next batter, Hank Blalock in for a spot of pinch hitting.

The game was getting easy to tie, and even easy to win now. But Chris Davis was called out on strikes to give the Twins a victory. I’ve chosen those words carefully, because the umpire’s call on that last 3-2 pitch was, shall we say, debatable. I don’t doubt that Nathan would have gotten there eventually, but that pitch looked more like the bases were going to be loaded than high fives with the catcher.

Now, even the Rangers might not kick too hard, as the strike zone was a tad elastic all night. But the game was balancing pretty precariously on that pitch, and you’d prefer the umpire got it right. Early in the game, home plate umpire Mike Estabrook seemed to be favoring Rangers starter Tommy Hunter by expanding the strike zone for him, even as he appeared to contract it unduly for Duensing.

One assumes most little vagaries in sports do eventually even out, but Nathan seemed quite the beneficiary tonight.

But we’ll take it, won’t we? The Twins have now scratched themselves up into second place in the division, 4-1/2 behind mighty Detroit. The White Sox lost today, but they are merely a half game behind.

No one would say Detroit was walking away with the Central, but that the Twins are in contention is due more to the embarrassing weakness in the division than their current .500 record. It’s simple: you really shouldn’t be collecting a lot of prizes with a .500 record, and the Twins have never exceeded that mark by much, or for long, all season.

The Rangers are poised to pose a lot of problems in the next two games this weekend. They’re 2-1/2 games behind Boston in the wild card chase, and this is looking like an especially golden season for them. They’ve groomed and buffed several hot young starting pitchers, and have some absolute flamethrowers in the bullpen. Add that to their standard hitting prowess, and Texas has a story to tell.

Tonight it was three scares and you’re out. Tomorrow the Rangers may do more than threaten. This series could help determine if the Twins are truly ready to contend.

They have no big mathematical obstacles, and with all due respect to the Tigers, their rival is within reach. The question is whether the Twins can sustain a winning drive with pitching that seems to come and go. Tonight Duensing proved he’s ready to press forward. It could be a rallying cry.

[game 126] Walking Off

Armando Gabino had his first major league start for the Twins tonight, facing Brian Matusz, who has a mere five games under his belt. The raw beauty of something done for the first time made me hope Gabino would have a fairytale debut.

Because a win would come in handy here. The Twins have reeled off four straight victories, the third time they’ve managed this high watermark this season. But five? Five in a row? That might really mean that little signs we’ve been seeing are true portents.

Signs like Alexi Casilla nudging his batting average steadily upward, even as he’s constructing a highlight reel of great catches at second base. And Delmon Young starting to hit consistently, even if not deep.

Signs like Joe Mauer regaining that exciting power stroke of late, using some homers in his serious quest of the AL batting crown.

Signs like the whole lineup stringing together hits, and cashing them in for wins. The bullpen hanging tough and shouldering the load of a lot of innings. The starting pitchers having some good games, intermittent though they be.

It’s too soon to call these patterns, but it’s never too soon to hope for the winning streak that signals a real run at the division crown. The Twins don’t have to be too gaudy about it. We don’t need an odds-defying winning streak; we just need to chip along and get the wins to outweigh the losses.

A win tonight will tie the Twins with the White Sox for second place in the division standings, after their loss to Boston. Should Detroit lose to the Angels, the Twins and White Sox would be three games back.

So a win would mean something to the team, but probably even more to young Mr Gabino. He makes his way through the first inning with but a walk to blemish his brief record. But in the second, some nasty firsts accumulate.

His first hit allowed, to Matt Wieters, the switch-hitting catcher. And then, too quickly, three more hits to push three runs across the plate.

Gabino even has time for his first error. He let a runner advance on a throwing error, and later blundered a bit in the field by failing to get to first quickly enough to accept a throw. It was not going to be fairytale night.

Gabino had three separate mound visits from pitching coach Rick Anderson, catcher Joe Mauer, and second baseman Alexi Casilla. All are hoping to settle him down and come up with the magic words that reconnects Gabino with the sharp sinking action his fastball, we hear tell, had in the minors.

Alas, no. The chats don’t help, and the sometimes punchless Orioles lineup doesn’t help. In the third, Gabino has the classic major league trial—he loads the bases with a double and two walks.

Ron Gardenhire pulls him, and chapter one in his big league education is complete. Phil Humber has his share of trouble with the baserunners he inherits. He walks the first batter to hand the Orioles another run, but ends the inning with a strikeout.

The Twins had a sloppy game offensively as well. They couldn’t scratch a single run after loading the bases in the first, and squandered opportunities throughout the night.

They were playing from behind all through the game, but kept showing sparks. Denard Span hit a happy-making triple in the second to score two runs, and Morneau proved he’s shaken the inner ear infection by launching a solo homer.

Baltimore led 6-3 when the Twins came up for their half of the sixth. This is their magic inning, remember, when the runs just tumble out.

Delmon Young led off with a single, his third hit of the night. Carlos Gomez followed with a base hit of his own. Pause to savor this pattern: consecutive hits from the bottom third of the batting order. If the Twins can do this once or twice a game, they can hoist themselves above .500.

And tonight they keep the momentum going, with Alexi Casilla parking a double in the deep recesses of right field, scoring one. Brian Bass, the Orioles reliever, is perhaps the key ingredient in this pleasant stew. Matusz has finished his five innings and left with a three-run lead, but Bass will fail to collect a single out.

Bass walks in a run, and when the inning is over the Twins have tied the game.

Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares pitch with grit to keep the Orioles from messing with that tie. But the Twins can’t make use of a lead-off walk in the seventh, and then are silenced completely in the eighth by imposing reliever Kam Mickolio, who throws with the special fury of a man nearly as tall as Randy Johnson.

A tie is like a protective amulet for the home team, but eventually you have to step beyond the armor to try to win. In the bottom of the ninth, we have Mauer, Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer, the best part of the batting order. Let it be now.

But Mauer and Morneau both ground out, victims of Mickolio’s big pitches. Its’ down to Cuddyer to prolong this inning, and he is barely safe on a infield single.

Jason Kubel didn’t start tonight against the left-handed Matusz, but now he’s tapped for pinch hit duty. He has a long, arduous at bat, and extracts a walk from Mickolio, moving Cuddy to second.

Young is up, on a 3 for 4 night. Let’s be realistic: Kubel, Cuddyer, Morneau, and Mauer couldn’t get it done. There are two outs. This pitcher can throw strikes. There’s always another inning coming with this tie in place. You really think Young can get four hits in a game?

Well, yes he can and this one is a walk-off. Cuddyer whips around from second to home on a single that trickles into right, and soon Young is mobbed at first base as the Twins gain their fifth consecutive win and perch at .500. Cuddyer’s face is one broad grin, and the Twins seem to be up to something. At last.

[game 124] Offense & Defense

The Twins and Royals played two games of baseball today, and I’m not referring to a doubleheader. Through the first six innings, the game was about how far you could stretch a single run. And then it became a classic clobbering, with the Twins raining down hits to sweep the series and inch up to two games below .500.

Carl Pavano started for the Twins, and he had a textbook day, almost escaping with a shutout. He pitched seven innings and allowed only two runs, one in the sixth that tied the game, and one in the seventh that meant nearly nothing.

Steering the team through five and two-thirds innings with a 1-0 lead, he was careful without cringing. He challenged the Royals hitters, with an answer for most any trouble they could pose.

The Royals’ Brian Bannister was nearly as good, but not for quite as long. In the third, the Twins got a single run as Carlos Gomez scored on an error by Mark Teahen. But Bannister, victim of that lousy fielding error, stayed splendid until the seventh.

I’m sure he felt great coming to the mound to start that inning. The Royals had finally tied the game, and the tense battle might finally be tipping his way. But on the first pitch, Michael Cuddyer blasted a ball to left to nudge the Twins back into the lead.

When we try to imagine a pitcher’s psychology, we are only imposing our own ideas of what we’d feel up there. There’s no knowing if that leadoff homer rattled him, but there are some facts in the case. The Twins followed with two more hits and another run scored, and Bannister had thrown 102 pitches. Time for a reliever to restore order.

Kyle Farnsworth was selected for this duty. When last seen, Farnsworth was objecting mightily to manager Trey Hillman’s disinclination to keep him in a game. So we presume he’s back with something to prove.

But maybe Hillman had something to prove as well. Farnsworth inherited a man on first, but promptly allowed first pitch singles to Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla to load the bases. There were no outs, and Farnsworth had thrown only two pitches. If there are baseball dreams of World Series-winning hits, this would be a baseball nightmare. And Hillman left Farnsworth in the game.

Still, the Twins were only ahead by a manageable two runs. If Farnsworth can tidy things up, starting with Denard Span at the plate, the Royals can stay in the game.

Not if Span has anything to say about it. His triple clears the bases, and he gets to cross home plate himself on a sac fly from Orlando Cabrera. Cuddyer gets another at bat in the inning after Joe Mauer singles, and this time Cuddy crushes the ball past the shimmering fountains in Kaufman Stadium.

It’s an eight-run inning, and the close game has become a laugher. The Royals chalked up two more runs, but even the KC fans saw them as feeble efforts. The final score was 10-3, and the Twins have the lift of a three-game winning streak

I’ve seen many games that followed the pattern of the first six innings today, and others that resembled the exhilarating hitting in the final innings, but it’s rare that both extremes occur in a single afternoon. It made me wonder exactly why the defensive advantage in baseball can suddenly collapse.

Because, for the most part, all sports favor the defense, if only subtly. If they didn’t, offensive skills would be too coarse and common, and it would be too easy for one team with even a small edge to crush another. If you want to invent a sport, start with the how the defense can stymie the offense, and then wait for the great players to burst through those barriers.

For about a decade, offense in baseball was defined by home run hitting. Thanks to various drugs and the financial incentive for many players to use them, the defense couldn’t contain the hitters. Because the financial incentives remain as powerful as ever, we have to assume that drugs remain a part of the game, but perhaps they are a bit less common.

The game in which a batter faced nine fielders, including a cunning pitcher, evolved into the game in which a batter faced an outfield wall between 350 and 400 feet away. Just hitting the ball that far was the object, not threading it through the fielders, hitting a sacrifice fly, or figuring out what the pitcher was about to throw.

The Twins never played that type of baseball, though they now have four batters with over 20 home runs for the season, and in Justin Morneau a serious power hitter. But they play baseball within the walls more than beyond them. And a good defense can shut them down awfully well, because the batting order has numerous weak spots.

This afternoon, the Twins could only peck at Bannister for six full innings, but in the outburst of the seventh, they suddenly overmastered Bannister and Farnsworth’s every move. Was Bannister that tired and Farnsworth that off? Or did the Twins lineup come to life, all together and in especially glorious fashion?

I may be guilty of imposing a story on what I saw, but the fusillade of hits in the seventh showed me that the Twins batting order should not be written off. Seven batters hit successfully, one of them twice, and an eighth got a sac fly. There’s no great mystery to what makes a big inning: you get two hits for every out. And today, hitters weak and strong all did something to the ball in the seventh.

It’s impossible to find the seam between offense and defense. For the first two thirds of the game, the defense did what it’s supposed to, perhaps aided just a tad by a semi-generous strike zone. None of the hitters had much to say about it.

But when the game broke open, it probably took both weakness in the defense and strength in the offense to do it. I will venture one supposition. Baseball acquaints each player, on a minute by minute basis, with success and failure. It may take less for the brain to flood with temporary certainty about one side or the other of that equation than we think.

Perhaps Bannister hated that home run and couldn’t settle down after allowing it. And perhaps Farnsworth was stunned by two consecutive first pitch hits and couldn’t summon up a shred of confidence afterwards. Finally, perhaps every Twins hitter came to the plate with an equally inaccurate conviction, but this time it was the belief that hits were easily to be had.

No sports performance is simply self-confidence. But all the training and natural skill in the world can’t ignite without some of that belief, a far stronger tonic than the drugs that cheapened the homer into a boring currency. The subtle mental lever is much, much harder to push.

[game 123] Floating

Baseballs float. Only occasionally, but they do. In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game against the Royals, Michael Cuddyer lofted a ball to shallow right. It was not far beyond first base, and it hung in the air with a rapturous pause. Three fielders converged on it, but some force of  fortune let the ball drop in the narrow patch of grass none of them could reach.

This hit would be classified as a blooper, as if we needed apologize for a double earned by the maddening geometry of a baseball field. And, in truth, it confers little glory on Cuddyer’s hitting prowess. But it essentially won the game, so let us now praise imperfect hits.

Cuddyer hit it right after a double play had erased a runner. But Orlando Cabrera escaped that carnage to find asylum on third base, and scored on Cuddyer’s bloop to give the Twins an 8-6 lead.

They would need it, for the Royals gave reliever Matt Guerrier all he could handle in the bottom of the ninth. (Joe Nathan wasn’t in his usual closer’s spot after pitching two full innings last night, blowing the save and then watching the Twins come back to hand him the win.) Guerrier notched a strikeout, but gave up two singles and then watched a run score on a fielder’s choice.

And the fielder appeared to make a poor choice at that. Alexi Casilla, at second base, threw to second for the sure force out while the runner was crossing the plate. But it looked like he could have started a double play to end the game. So it’s Twins 8, Royals 7 with one out to go.

Guerrier is not the majestic presence Nathan is, so the game was much in doubt here. But Royals right-fielder Josh Anderson rapped an easy grounder to second the end the game and allow the Twins to climb within three games of .500.

Baseballs floated and fell in funny ways all through the game. Early on, the Twins staked themselves to a 3-0 lead, on a solo homer from Cuddyer and a 2-RBI double from Jason Kubel one inning later. The Royals answered with a two runs of their own in the fifth.

Then the game got interesting.

Twins fans have set their alarm clocks for the sixth inning during this last week. Twice Minnesota rallied from massive deficits to tally comeback wins against the Rangers, garnering the majority of the runs in the sixth. And when they just happened to fail to obliterate another Rangers lead in the game last Thursday, it looked more like an oversight than conventional baseball odds.

So tonight, with a skinny lead in Kansas City, the Twins started the sixth by adding more proof that some minor baseball deity will smile upon their exploits in that one particular inning. Joe Mauer allowed two strikes to pile up on him, as he often does. This time he tried and failed to check a hopeless swing for strike three. But the pitch he flinched at bounced at the plate and skittered away from catcher Miguel Olivo.

Mauer, perfectly schooled in all the best baseball practices, took off immediately for first to outrun the throw on a dropped strike three. He won the race, and led off the inning on the deluxe strikeout/wild pitch combo.

Royals starter Kyle Davies banished Kubel on a fly out, but walked Cuddyer  and could only obtain a fielder’s choice from Delmon Young. There were men on first and third without a hit in the inning.

Then the Twins decided to do more than surf on the weird waves of their sixth inning mojo. Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, and Casilla hit three neat singles in a row, sending Davies to the showers and three runs across the plate. The Twins had a perky 6-2 lead.

The Royals went on the attack to score two in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh, but never gained the lead.

We always follow the score, but this was a game in which you wanted to watch the baseball itself. Denard Span misplayed a Royals hit to right that rattled to the wall in an eerie recreation of a Twins hit the bollixed the KC right-fielder the night before. I’d check that wall for hidden magnets, force fields, or maybe Severus Snape’s season ticket.

In the third inning, Alexi Casilla did a perfect Superman leap, the kind your mother doesn’t even want you trying on your bed. He followed the ball so well he was able to fly after it, laying out flat to catch it and throw to first for a double play that ended a scoring threat.

Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the pitches Brian Duensing threw for this first major league win were as fascinating as those floating, bouncing, or flying balls. Duensing faced some pressure most innings, but his final stats are pretty: a win, three strikeouts, one walk, and six hits. Yes, he allowed two earned runs, but they came on a double from Olivio, who would be his penultimate batter. Until the fifth, Duensing kept the Royals off the scoreboard.

The Twins built themselves an especially enjoyable win tonight, but they continue to languish on the far fringes of contention. Perhaps they will be buoyed up to run off a real string of wins, but until they can repeat this success at will, we are left with the pleasure of little gems like Casilla’s lunge in the air or Mauer’s pure presence of mind or Cuddyer’s ghost-floating double. I’m happy to have these joys, and am starting to feel they’ll be all I collect this season. So savor them I shall.

[games 114, 115, 116, 117] Suspense

The difference between the game summary and the game is suspense. Normally, the title gives it all away: Royals Squeak Past Twins 5-4 (Thursday’s game), Twins Annihilate Indians 11-0 (Friday) or Indians Prevail Over Twins 7-3 (Saturday). But today, there’s going to be no hammering, toppling, clobbering, or crushing. I want to look at suspense itself.

What makes a game interesting to watch? The plain, pure exhilaration of successful hitting is the typical reward for setting aside some hours for baseball. Some snappy fielding is pleasure, however ephemeral. Depending on your point of view (literally and figuratively), a top pitching performance can make a game great to watch.

But the truth is, over the three hours, these treats are doled out as sparingly as sunny days in Seattle. Sure, they happen, but if you’re building your world around them, you’ll often be disappointed. It’s not the hits themselves, it’s the suspense about when the hits will happen.

Sunday’s game against the Indians brought to an end a six-game home stand that could have given the Twins a big leg up on the divisional race. These games were little cauldrons of suspense, then—would the Twins catch the Tigers?

One point of suspense was over before today’s contest began. The Twins scratched out one win against the Royals and were 1-1 in the weekend series against the Indians. The best they could achieve across the two series is a 3-3 mark. That’s the best they could do, and it wouldn’t be an especially useful best.

Even before the game began, the Twins were slogging their way through the August schedule. Let’s zoom out a little further, where we see them swept by the Angels at the start of the month, then losing two of three apiece to the Indians and to Detroit on the road. If the home stand was going to turn that around, we’d need more than a .500 showing.

Some suspense, in other words, is gone already. The Twins simply aren’t that likely to win these days. Their 56-60 record coming into today’s game defines the low probability as a .474 winning percentage. Winning less than even half the time does not inspire much real suspense.

Central to suspense is the architecture of possibility. With 27 outs, a baseball game has a lavish number of chances; so much so that outs are routinely squandered. So we start today without much likelihood—that pesky winning percentage, the recent track record, and a hitting lineup in which a third of the players hit below .260. But we have 27 outs to get something from the other two-thirds, who hit near .300, never forgetting our .377-hitting catcher hero, Joe Mauer.

The Indians starter was lefthander Aaron Laffey, who’s been piling up wins lately: 4-1 in his last five, and getting there honestly, with a 2.03 ERA. Two probability pillars crumble here, as the Twins lineup leans so much on lefties that pitcher handedness ought to influence the outcome inordinately. It’s a tribute to how well Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel hit lefties that we have a fighting chance today.

The Twins started Nick Blackburn, fresh off a disastrous outing against Kansas City. Blackburn lasted less than two innings and allowed 6 of the 14 runs the Royals accumulated in a humiliating series opener last Tuesday. So another kernel of suspense arises: will Blackburn turn things around, or stay on a losing trajectory? His last win was July 10th, and he hasn’t gone over 6 innings since.

It’s hard to carve much suspense out of the conditions as the game begins, but there’s one stubborn fact we can’t ignore. The Twins still have a chance in this mediocre division, and have two remarkable players on their roster. And they get to play, at home, what’s left of the Indians after their fire sale. Winning remains possible.

Let’s fill in some blanks on the scorecard, then. The Twins have a hearty little inning in the bottom of the second. A single from Kubel was followed by a double from Michael Cuddyer, and with men on second and third, Joe Crede’s lightweight liner was enough to score one. Delmon Young capped things off with a two-out, two-run homer to give the Twins a quick 3-0 lead.

The Indians responded to this immediately. Very immediately—the first pitch out of Blackburn’s hand was blasted to the seats in left by light-hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach. Blackburn, mind you, had set the Indians down in order for two innings, and had appeared to shake off his recent pitching problems. His potential cakewalk through the bottom third of the order started ominously.

Blackburn had time to get one strike on Luis Valbuena, he of the .233 average, before Valbuena thwacked the next pitch high into the right field bleachers. Shoppach and Valbuena not only went back to back, they hit their measly tenth and sixth homers of the season. Blackburn was ladling balls over the plate.

The inning grew more gruesome. Andy Marte reached by being hit by a pitch. and sturdy Grady Sizemore did his duty by homering. The score kept tipping away from the Twins: 3-0, 3-1, 3-2, and then 3-4 on Sizemore’s blast. Losing the lead didn’t mean losing suspense, though. The Indians weren’t ahead by that much.

Then again, they weren’t done. Blackburn hadn’t gotten an out yet, and Jamey Carroll wasn’t about to be the first of them. He singled, and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a long double that rattled around in left long enough to score Carroll. 5-3, Indians.

Now the suspense concerns how long Blackburn will stay in this game. If he can get back on track, he could take some pressure off the bullpen, prove that he can buckle back down and find his groove, and give the Twins an opportunity to reply. But after Cabrera’s double, Ron Gardenhire tells Jesse Crain to start throwing in the bullpen.

Blackburn collects one out when Shin-Soo Choo grounds out to advance Cabrera to third. The tide could turn right here. Jhonny Peralta is up, a decent contact hitter but not an intimidating presence at the plate. But Blackburn is treating everyone to fat, fluffy pitches today, and Peralta carves out an RBI single.

Crain relieved Blackburn and restored order, but not before experiencing a bases-loaded jam built from a walk and an error. The Indians are up 6-3, having sent 12 men to the plate.

Suspense, however, is hardly gone. The game is young, and the lead is not towering. But once the bottom of the third passes with the Twins filing up to the plate and back to the dugout on a double play and a fly out, the Indians’ edge grows a little greater. By failing to answer back, the Twins have conceded a little more to the Tribe.

With six innings left, a Twins fan still has much reason to hope. In three of those innings, the leadoff hitter will reach first. Laffey never has a 1-2-3 innings, and the Twins bullpen in the person of Crain, Jeff Manship, and Jose Mijares, and Joe Nathan, will allow only 6 more hits. Crain allowed a run in the fourth on a pair of doubles, but the Indians had nothing more to say after their lavish 6-run third inning.

Is hope the same as suspense? This game is the kind of matchup the Twins simply have to win if they want to contend, but that’s hope, not probability. Hope rose and fell in waves in the eighth and ninth, as time ticked away.

Mauer led off the eighth with a single. Optimal conditions for a comeback: our best hitter gets his first hit of the day, and the best part of the batting order is poised to follow.

But we go from high to low here—Morneau finishes his 0-fer afternoon with a strikeout. The fragility of the Twins batting order is on stark display, for unless Mauer and Morneau both hit, the team simply doesn’t tend to score.

Hope flares back up during Kubel’s at bat. Mauer steals second and advances to third on Kubel’s ground out. Hope always flickers lower when there are two out, and indeed, Cuddyer can only manage a fly out. The potential comeback remains an entirely theoretical possibility.

And it looks still less likely as the ninth begins on a Joe Crede strikeout by Indians reliever Kerry Wood. The score still stands at 7-3, and it’s very hard to rap out four runs with the leadoff man retired. Make it harder still now, as Delmon Young ends his day with a K. His at bat was tough to watch. He’d hit our big homer back in the second, remember, and after hitting a massive foul to right, he had only distance on his mind. He struck out swinging on one of Wood’s fool-you-twice pitches, and the Indians had one out to go.

There is hope, which should never be quenched, and there is suspense, which must yield to probability on such occasions. The Twins let all their chances run through their fingers and were left with only one last out.

And Nick Punto refused to make it. He worked a walk on eight pitches and stood on first, precisely 25% of what the Twins needed to cross home plate to keep the suspense going into extra innings.

Denard Span is nearly an ideal hitter for such conditions. He won’t strive for that illusory five-run homer; he simply looks for a way to get on base and ward off the two-out juju. While he put Wood through his paces, Punto took second on fielder’s indifference, and then Span hit his neatly placed single that ran true through to center. Punto scores, and the deficit is shaved to three runs.

Orlando Cabrera is up, and if Span is perfect for two-out conditions, Cabrera is nearly the opposite. He has just that bit of hot dog in him to fantasize being the game’s hero before his at bat is done. Span takes second on yet another outburst of defensive indifference. But true to form, Cabrera strikes out swinging, strikes out reaching and flailing for a pitch that will only come to him in the imaginary ninth inning, the one in which the dreamer wins an otherwise unwinnable game

That’s the kind of game in which suspense hovers over the field, shrouding two equally possible outcomes in mystery. But there wasn’t much mystery today, only the passage of time as the Indians stood pat on the lavish 6-run inning and the Twins let every opportunity they had dissipate.

I watched the entire game looking for the fog of suspense to break open into a little vista of Twins hitting. It was always possible. It didn’t happen, and a more dispassionate viewer would realize it really, really couldn’t. But I watched the game with my brother Scott and his partner Kathy, and all the while I coaxed them to hope alongside me. They cheered me up when the Twins kept up their litany of failure, and they distracted me when all looked particularly grim. By the way, Scott finished all the potato chips.

[games 112, 113] Paint by Numbers

Whenever I’m about to lose heart, the Twins turn around and have a game like tonight’s 7-1 victory over the Royals.

Last night, just to keep this in perspective, the Twins lost 14-6. All hail the Royals, who deserve credit for the clobbering, but the real story was the bleakness of Minnesota pitching. We needed five pitchers to drag through the game, and only one of them pitched more than two complete innings.

It was such an ugly game, I literally looked away—turned it off the TV and followed it, preoccupied, on the radio until the fun finale: Brendan Harris hitting an adorably useless solo home run in the bottom of the ninth while behind by nine runs.

Bad games are one thing, but this was the kind of loss that rocks you to the core. The abject failure of starter Nick Blackburn and all the bullpen (until Jose Mijares brought some order in the seventh) raises concern about the rest of the season. Explain, exactly, how the Twins are going to weave their way into the postseason with a rotation of Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, and Anthony Swarzak.

Well, one answer popped up promptly today. Liriano pitched seven super-solid innings, collecting 8 strikeouts while allowing 3 hits and 1 walk. Among those scant hits was a home run in the first, from Willie Bloomquist.  We must file it under Fluke, as it was his fourth dinger of the season.

Lirianio retired 12 in row at one stage, and was never under pressure. The Bloomquist blast in the first was bookended by strikeouts, and Liriano had nearly a 3 to 1 strike to ball ratio while throwing 91 pitches. It was paint by numbers pitching—the sinker had nasty movement, the pitch choices confounded the hitters, and catcher and pitcher were in a groove.

Liriano had both location and velocity working perfectly for him. Which made me wonder: how often do pitchers get what they wish for? Certainly Blackburn, last night, had none of his hopes met, but that was a starkly bad outing. No, I’m wondering how much pitchers coast on gas, on luck, and on hitters’ foibles.

You can turn in creditable innings on fumes. Most pitchers have one or two luckless innings, and if they’re fortunate the damage is not too severe. And then, how does it feel to have a whole game go your way, as Liriano’s did tonight?

For that matter, how does it feel to be part of a batting order that scores five runs on five consecutive hits, with two outs no less? In the first, the Twins had an emphatic reply to the lone Royal homer. Royals starter Brian Bannister had a rocky night, but the Twins did their main damage in the first.

Joe Mauer shot a single to left to keep his magnificent batting average ticking on upward. Justin Morneau knocked in a matching base hit, and the M&M boys waited on first and second to see what the rest of the batting order could do with two outs.

Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer stayed with the Cavalcade O’ Singles theme, each notching an RBI. But I don’t know—sometimes you just have to bust out of these patterns. Joe Crede, laced with cortisone for his balky shoulder, crushed a homer to left to add three more runs. The Twins were playing happy, effortless baseball and enjoying every little moment in their win.

They scored two more in the fourth, Liriano kept up his attack on the strike zone, Matt Guerrier pitched a scoreless eighth, and Joe Nathan got to strike out the side in the ninth.

The central truth of baseball is that it’s a pleasant game laced with endless opportunity for failure. Tonight, when the hits came when they were needed and the pitches shut the opposition down, it was easy to forget how hard baseball is. It looked simple, even sweet.

Meanwhile, The Red Sox stymied the division-leading Tigers for the second straight night. Minnesota is now 4 games back, even with their lousy 55-58 record. They have the White Sox to worry about too, and need 3 games to catch them.

If they play like they did tonight, overtaking Detroit and Chicago is entirely feasible. But the starters and bullpen don’t look to have quite this much polish in them consistently. Even Liriano is no sure bet five days from now—this game may be a high water mark instead of a turning point.

A baseball season has the perfect suspense of a long, long series of very small events. Predicting is folly. The actual baseball aptitudes of the Twins roster are enough to allow many more games like tonight. And many more like last night, too.

Will they keep alternating, like a long S.O.S. signal, these wins and losses? Three games below .500 suggests that the great win streak really never will happen. But why predict? Why predict when the evidence we have, the evidence from which we’d try to build a prediction, says only one thing: you never know.