Category Archives: blog concept

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.

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[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.

[game 63] The Sacrifice

The Twins won today, playing a day game at Chicago to start their weekend series against the Cubs. I salute day baseball, but I also can’t usually watch it. The box score tells me Kevin Slowey has gotten himself to 9-2, Joe Nathan has gotten a save, and Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel both homered. Yay, Twins.

But I’ve decided I’ve got to mix up this blog a bit. My initial thesis was that something specific and unique occurs in every game; that it’s possible to write an insightful little essay that helps polish the definition of baseball with the raw material of each game. It’s proving harder than I thought.

Lacking much in the way of reader interaction, I began to swing the blog toward something it appeared my husband enjoyed: chronicles of game outcomes, written with as much pep and wit as I could muster. I stopped ruminating on managerial strategy or pitching statistics, not least because the entries I produced on those subjects needed more research and polish than I could given them in a single night. But in abandoning the theoretical investigation of how baseball is played in favor of a fan’s delight in the specific exploits of Mauer and Morneau, I didn’t have much new to say each night.

I’ve been brooding on this, and looking for solutions. What I’m going to try for the next week is writing about different teams. I will, of all things, cut the Twins loose for a while, though I’ll monitor their box scores closely.

Tonight I watched the Tigers visit the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The game had instant appeal—the Twins are about to face the Pirates next week, and the Tigers constitute our primary foe in the division. And, fun sports parallel fact: the Pittsburgh Penguins simultaneously played the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals in Detroit. Major upset there—the Penguins won, and I would like to call into question the planetary alignments that have visited so many woes upon Detroit while allowing so little respite via their sports teams. You will recall that Michigan State couldn’t overcome North Carolina in March Madness; now the Red Wings. Dang!

But only baseball really concerns us here. I just can’t root against the Tigers, despite the fact that somehow that Twins would need to climb over them to win the division.

Rick Porcello, the rookie righthander for the Tigers, is having a solid season. He cruised to a 9-0 victory against the Twins in early May, and I essentially discounted his skills in favor of seeing that game as very hot Tigers versus stone cold Twins. But I see tonight he has promising pitching skills. Porcello has had some tribulations, but since two especially bad outings in April, he’s been working his ERA back down. It’s currently 3.71, and he’s 7-4.

Tonight Porcello had something of a dream experience with interleague play. He won a close game 3-1, pitched 7 innings (after generally not lasting past 6), and had two RBI singles to do as much as he could to win the game by himself. A sweet night for the 20-year-old.

But my main point of focus was on two instances in which runs weren’t scored. In the third, with the Tigers up 1-0, the Pirates led off with two consecutive singles. Pitcher Ian Snell then sacrificed to advance the runners. It’s the typical choice for any pitcher in the NL playbook, and it got the Pirates to the top of the order with one out and men on second and third.

It didn’t work, though. Andrew McCutchen grounded into the worst kind of fielder’s choice in which a runner is out at home. The next batter grounded out to end the inning.

There’s a reason there are four bases and three outs. You can’t keep trading outs for advancing runners.

In the top of the seventh, it’s the Tigers’ turn to try a sacrifice. In this case, Placido Polanco led off the inning with a single. Batting second, Don Kelly was asked to sacrifice Polanco to second. Now, I happen to know nothing about Don Kelly. Perhaps he’s an especially weak hitter and should be used as an NL pitcher is at the plate—asked to sacrifice in order to avoid grounding into the double play. But he hits second in the batting order and I think a bit more should be expected.

The game at this point is 2-1 Tigers, and I know intellectually and emotionally that the sacrifice is the wrong play. Pete Palmer and other baseball mavens have been slicing and dicing this one up for the last 20 years, and the central truth that emerges statistically is that trading outs for bases does not increase a teams chance of scoring. Generally, it isn’t even neutral—it makes it less likely a run will score.

As this inning plays out, we tally up another failure of the sacrifice strategy: mighty Miguel Cabrera, for whom Kelly might have been making way, grounds out and Polanco hikes over to third. I won’t credit Cabrera with a sacrifice because the hit was toward the shortstop and could have cost them Polanco. With the man on third and two outs, Magglio Ordonez must hit successfully or the Tigers lose the opportunity. Yep, it’s a routine grounder.

The moral of the story is that outs are more valuable than bases. Giving one or two hitters a chance to bomb sac flies or place well-engineered bunts is only deferring the moment when a player has to get a true, honest hit. Yes, I’ve seen runners add in a steal or a wild pitch to make that four-base journey without using up all the outs as sacrifices, but as the Win Expectancy calculations from Baseball Prospectus show, rare are the times when playing for one run via a sacrifice succeeds.

The tabulations have all been done, but managers still signal the sacrifice. There are some nuances that the statisticians haven’t accommodated, chief among them the fact that certain hitters are more likely to be successful at accomplishing the sac play than any other. The National League gives us an example with every pitcher, but the Twins have a ready-made sacrifice machine in Carlos Gomez.

So sometimes the play is not a technique for advancing the runner so much as it is a way to avoid letting a hitter bollix up an inning that has a scoring opportunity. It’s also worth noting that anything which moves a runner from first to second greatly diminishes the likelihood of a double play, giving the next hitter a bit better opportunity as well.

There’s justification for the sacrifice, but every time I see one tried, I ask if losing the out is truly the better situational decision. The best justification I can give is that scoring in baseball is so difficult that anything must be tried, but tonight no runs were attributable to sacrifices, and several men were left on base when the sac was tried.

So, the perfect design for frustration: four bases, three outs.

[game 55] Away Awhile

I miss the Twins and I miss this blog. But I also missed today’s day game against the Indians. The Twins won, 11-3, that much I know. The box score shows me that almost everyone was hot today, especially Jason Kubel, who hit two homers. Scott Baker got his third win, and is apparently in a good groove now.

Yes, box score facts will have to do for now.

Tomorrow the Twins are off on a 10-game road trip to Seattle, Oakland, and then Chicago. If the first two months of the season are any indication, they will need the happy lift of today’s win, as they have a miserable record on the road. The Metrodome, in its last year, seems to be the only place in which they want to play.

They have their woes, and I have mine. I got off the rails last Saturday when Fox boxed me out of seeing the game, and this Saturday I’ll have the same problem. When Fox considers the Twins’ opponent worthy, they get the game scheduled during the day. Then, via my Fox network, they proceed to show me either the Red Sox or the Yankees. Thanks for blockading my team.

If the Twins elude the evil Fox searchlight, the game is on at night and I can watch it; if not, not. It was bad enough last week, but this will be two weeks in a row of baseball-less Saturdays.

More trouble lies ahead. I will also face the west coast schedule until Thursday, with games starting at 10:00 pm and ending at 1:00 am. Even if I watch them, I can’t stay up to write about them.

So, this is just excuses, then? That’s all you’ve got?

Right now, yes. I will get something written about Friday’s game, but I’ve tossed the notes I made about Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, Tuesday’s victory over Cleveland, and last night’s depressing loss—10-1, I believe it was. I just don’t have good stories about those three games.

This is placeholder blogging. Classic placeholder stuff. It doesn’t get any better!

The commitment

It’s too soon to think of baseball, far too soon. And once it starts, it will be endless enough, so why ponder it now? Today I’ll just try to introduce this blog chronicle.

I’m setting out to write about every Twins game in 2009. Well, that’s not going to be entirely possible. I practiced last year, and I’m bound to miss plenty of games for various reasons. First, I’m tethered to a satellite TV MLB package that won’t show every game. Fox, for example, demands hegemony over Saturday day games and the Twins, needless to say, never make Fox’s schedule.

I’m watching via DirecTV because as hard as I may root for the Twins, I’m watching from another time zone, in Vermont. There are, most likely, no other Twins fans in Vermont. My interest in baseball, let alone the Twins, is nearly incomprehensible to all my friends. It’s kinda lonely—hence, this blog.

I’ll miss some games for reasons great and small, but that’s not what worries me. The scary part in commencing this is that I must keep up a merciless pace in writing up each day’s baseball doings. It’s good discipline and I’m temperamentally suited to such things, but one can’t help feeling that this little tapestry I’m hoping to weave will come all unraveled if I miss a single day. It’s like one bad hop and I lose the game.

So I’ve made my pledge to pull this off and I know some days it will be tough. But others, it will be the highlight of my day. My thesis, still to be tested, is that there is something to be learned from any baseball game. I admit I’m already impatient to begin.

A small baseball blog plan

Here’s my plan: I will write about every Twins game in the 2009 season. This is an experiment to investigate a theory I have that every baseball game has something new and interesting about it, despite the fact that games superficially appear to be very similar. I plan to concentrate on a variety of perspectives, from the individual at-bat to the season a player is having. I’m focusing on the Twins because their low payroll requires that they play all aspects of baseball, from bunting to shaky relief pitching. Also, I love the Twins. This cannot be denied.

OK. Please come back every day during the season to follow the Twins and this highly intellectual baseball view of the universe.