Monthly Archives: October 2010

Charm Bracelet

In the American game show tradition, I’m sure there’s some type of consolation prize for baseball teams who make it to the postseason but don’t win anything. The Twins, for example, might get little charm bracelets. And game 2 of the ALDS could be commemorated by charms for the nice little positive moments that occurred. The nice little moments that didn’t in any way add up to winning what may be the last baseball game played in Target Field this season.

There could be a First Run Scored charm, in memory of Danny Valencia’s sac fly that sent Delmon Young across the plate in the second inning. That should be a shiny little spinning disk, the kind of thing that distracts you for a while until you happen to notice it’s meaningless. For the Twins in this decade, you can put ten of them on the charm bracelet and they’ll dangle and make lots of jangly noise while amounting to nothing.

I guess there should be a Futility charm; maybe it’s an anvil that could drop off the bracelet and maybe bruise your toe. Whatever it looks like, you’ll need to hang your head when looking at it.

But back to the bright side! We need an Unlikely Solo Home Run charm, to denote Orlando Hudson’s bright little blast to left field. It tied the game at two-all in the sixth inning, so the charm should be an insipid smiley face.

And, hey, we need a First Pitch Strike charm, in honor of Carl Pavano’s noble effort and consistent ability to execute the Twins’ pitching approach. Of course, when you throw a lot of strikes, a team like the Yankees might start hitting them. In the fourth, New York tried just that. Curtis Granderson doubled to lead off, and Mark Teixeira smacked a first pitch strike for a single that sent Granderson to third. Next, mighty Alex Rodriguez coiled himself up in his sulky stance and blasted a first pitch sacrifice fly to tie the game. The scoring didn’t end there, but the first pitch pounding did.

Another charm we should have: Holy Joe Mauer, Savior of St. Paul. In tonight’s game, Mauer struck out one less time than he did yesterday, grounded out twice, and got a hopeful-looking leadoff single in the ninth. In the ninth, when we needed three runs to tie and have a chance to head into Yankee Stadium with some of that polite, Minnesota-nice swagger Mauer exudes. Delmon Young would erase Mauer’s lonely hit by grounding into a double play. Joe, you are and remain my hero in every way I can have a baseball hero, but you have been playing like a passionless duffer in this series.

The charm bracelet should have also have a Bad Call charm, in the form of a little umpire’s eyeball. One can actually make a case that the entire game turned on a rather beautiful pitch the umpire neglected to consider a strike. After walking Jorge Posada to start the seventh inning, Pavano seemed to settle back down and laid a lovely trap for Lance Berkman. On a 1-2 count, Pavano carved a pitch just over the inside edge of the plate. It was the best kind of situational pitching, and it should have left a man on first with one out. Instead, the count moved to 2-2 and Berkman launched a deep double to center and scored Posada on Pavano’s next throw: Yankees 3, Twins 2.

I’m a big believer in the human limits of baseball, and I want nothing to do with television replay. I have been impressed time and again by how very good umpires are, and I accept the occasional mistakes they make as the texture on the backdrop of the game. Relying on an umpire’s calls mean granting authority to a powerful, human arbiter. It doesn’t mean every call is accurate, just that the game is played with someone in charge. Accuracy, particularly vaguely scientific accuracy, is overrated.

But back to the seventh inning. Now the Yankees have a man on second, no outs, and a run home. Quite the contrast to the conditions that would follow a correctly called third strike, but that’s baseball. (Yes, I keep muttering that tonight.) After a little bunt single from Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter gets to add still more to his mind-bending heap of postseason stats: an RBI single puts the Yankees up 4-2.

We need a charm for reliever Matt Guerrier’s 1-2-3 eighth inning, but maybe it should be a little cloud for the way his work was overshadowed. It has to symbolize the fact that anything good the Twins do the Yankees can do better. In this instance, consider Andy Pettitte’s 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh. He throttles the Twins, giving them no chance to answer back to the long scoring siege in the top half.

Well, that’s about all the charms I can think of to remember this night. We had such a beautiful season, and such a great ballpark to play in. Fan support, a cohesive team, even an answer—at last—to the dilemma of third base. So maybe there should be a fragment of Target Field limestone on the charm bracelet. That should do it.

I’m uncharacteristically bitter tonight. The Twins are wilting before my eyes, and I have no way to rattle them awake. The psychological aspect of baseball is one reason I love the game, but when I see my beloved team tied in knots by what appears to be abject terror of the Yankees, I am nearing a collapse myself.

There, I got it all out of my system. I can start all over this Saturday. I know, I just know, the Twins can play one game resembling the 94 handsome wins they had this season. They know how. They just have to decide they’re playing the White Sox.

Ten? Ten in a Row?!

So it’s going to be another grueling psychic bruising, is it? The Twins have a little postseason rut that grows deeper each time. They’ve faced the Yankees in four division series this decade, and bowed out meekly with a single win in the first two before offering themselves up to a sweep last time round.

Wait, it gets more gruesome: the Twins have lost ten straight playoff games to the Yankees, and in each one of them they had the early lead. Just as it played out tonight: a 3-0 edge against CC Sabathia disintegrated in the sixth and seventh innings. That lead had both hopeful flags flying for a while—defense and offense. Francisco Liriano masterfully held the Yankees in check, with all his pitches working, a few strikeout gems and 1-2-3 innings, and an especially gritty showing against Mark Texeira (fly out) and Alex Rodriguez (strikeout) with men on base. In turn, the Twins mustered trouble against Sabathia in most every inning. It wasn’t a slew of runs, but they were dispiriting ones: the last was on a passed ball with Orlando Hudson third, who scooted there during Texeira’s ragtag fielding of Joe Mauer’s groundout. It looked like we weren’t going to have another entry in the playoff Book of Doom.

But it’s still quite the bestseller when the Yankees are involved, and we had to scratch in yet another sad chapter. In the sixth, Liriano lost his way on the third trip through the Yankee batting order. The specifics include a nail-biting strikeout of Marcus Thames with two on (we exhale) and some more proof that the Yankees, yes, are that good. Jorge Posada, ahead in the count, deposits a fastball in that little infield slot toward right, the one you can use your bat to poke the ball into if you are an official Wily Veteran. Posada is an accomplished hitter—he knows how to get this particular hit, and with it he pushes the Yankees to within 1 run.

Curtis Granderson has had such trouble with lefties that he probably has founded a support group. I told myself that any lefty could get him out, and there might not be much difference between a manifestly tired Liriano and a fresh but less consistently reliable Jose Mijares.

But that’s why I’m not managing. Oh wait, Ron Gardenhire is, and he seems to have agreed with me. He left Liriano in and Granderson hit a miracle triple to center—a hit unlike any other I’d ever seen him wrench off a left-hander. The Yankees take the lead, 4-3.

It must officially be noted that Granderson is simply not capable of that hit under any conditions other than Postseason Yankee Victory Juggernaut Rules.

In the bottom of the inning, the Twins manage to tie it. But the seventh inning belongs to Mark Teixeira, whose two-run homer off Jesse Crain seemed to ooze Yankee mystique and entitlement. Yes, the Twins could not claw back, and all the happiness of starting this game off just right is lost.

The players, I suspect, don’t actually take it quite as hard as we fans do. Otherwise, how in the world would any of them crawl out of bed tomorrow? No, they must remain resilient, ready to spring right back as if nothing had happened. Because they’ve carried losses around all their lives. This is supposed to be one of the heartening, useful lessons of sport.

Still. How do you keep competing when it appears everything you have to offer is poured down into an abyss that will swallow the best you have? What does it take to keep trying?

Mariano Rivera curls himself down impossibly low, then rises up to whirl another cutter across the plate. Rivera is supposed to be mortal now, toward the end of his career, but the Twins can’t yet find the Deflate Mystique button.

Thursday night, another chance. Promise me this is not going to be a case of new ballpark, same old playoff result.

 

Playoff Eve

The eve of the playoffs. All is potential. But even more is speculation: can the Twins possibly overcome (in ascending order of difficulty) the championship-hardened Derek Jeter (no matter what his latest stats may say), CC Sabathia, the inexorable Yankee lineup, the loss of Justin Morneau, the grasping New York media, and the greatest obstacle of all, the pure and towering Yankee mystique?

It’s tempting to start answering these questions, complete with nuanced distinctions and research, but I have a larger question to ask. Why is it so important to predict the outcome? Why must we all weigh in on when and how and why certain players will or won’t help their teams to victory?

I’m sure it started with nothing more than the enjoyment of imagining a happy outcome. And right now, I have one very specific outcome in mind: the Twins, at home, get to Sabathia early, hold their lead with some solid innings from Francisco Liriano, and use their vast bullpen to keep the Yankees in check. Further, by starting with a win, the Twins remain buoyant all through their trip to the Bronx, while the Yankees experience a nasty, uncharacteristic bout of self-doubt. Twins win!

This is a possible scenario, and I could defend its likelihood with a variety of comments about the capacities and qualities of players on both teams. But it is, ultimately, a wish, not a prediction. I want it to be true, so I can channel my energy into mustering out the proofs. I have a hard time suppressing them right now—an especially intense Minnesota home field advantage, a complete pitching rotation versus a single star with shaky comrades, a younger, even a hungrier team. But does it matter that I can buff up my dream with such a delightful set of explanations?

It won’t make it come true. But I realize, tonight, it will do the next best thing. It will let me wish a little harder. It will elevate my wishes to stories, stories I can use to convince you to wish alongside me, or to jeer at my crackpot hopes. Tomorrow, I will surrender all my imaginings to the relentless randomness of sport, but I won’t let go quite yet. I’ll make up a story first before the event itself can trample on my hopes.

That explains what I get out of making a prediction, or even why I might take in some of the free-floating predictions of experts that clutter and clog the sports media right now. But what explains the experts’ endless  forecasting, this widespread need to pronounce judgment on the event before it has occurred? The pundits aren’t merely handicappers; they’re dead set on telling you what the outcome ought to be, to the point of implying there’s a higher calling in making up the results than in recording them.

The inescapable consequence is that the game itself is in the way. If the anticipated story of the game requires CC Sabathia to remain cool, calculating, and unhittable, then it would be quite a shame if, say, Michael Cuddyer managed a double. That started a rally. That ended in a handful of runs. That resulted in a Twins victory. My little riff there was a fantasy, not a prediction, but the wise baseball analyst dutifully weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, makes a judgment about momentum or some other slippery intangibles, and then tells you what will happen. Before it does.

Is there some reason we can’t just wait? I don’t know about you but I’m in no special hurry. Go ahead, Jason, take some time bouncing bat off your left shoulder. Delmon, it’s fine with me if you step out of the batter’s box a few times. Joe, feel free to tap the dirt off your cleats. And Francisco, I hope you can keep up a good rhythm up there, but I’ve got all the time in world if you want to accumulate some strikeouts. Let’s see what actually happens. Let’s let the postseason unfold—I’m in no rush to leave the most thrilling baseball month of the year.