[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.


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