Category Archives: errors

[game 83] So Close

Nick Blackburn has flirted with a shutout in several of his starts this season. Each time, Lucy has reached in and yanked the football away, and I hope Blackburn is as good a sport as Charlie Brown. Today, he gets a complete game win, and the Twins take the series from the Tigers, two games to one.

Blackburn faced Rick Porcello, a Tiger rookie. At their last meeting in early May, Porcello pitched very well and glided through the game behind an offensive outpouring from Detroit to win 9-0. Today, their roles were nearly reversed: Blackburn won 6-2, and carried a 6-0 lead into the ninth.

For eight innings, Blackburn frustrated the Tigers with his pitch selection and location. Blackburn induced 12 groundball outs, threw six strikeouts, and let 10 outs fall harmlessly into outfielder’s gloves. But what he wants back are two fly balls.

In the ninth, with one out, low power threat Don Kelly skies one high to left center. Carlos Gomez is in center as a defensive replacement to preserve Blackburn’s gem, and Denard Span is patrolling left. They converge on the ball. Gomez may not be seeing it too well, so Span leaps for it and snags it too, too briefly. The ball pops out of his glove and Kelly hustles to second on the error.

Blackburn had gotten out of a bigger jam this afternoon, with two on in the sixth and one out. He can handle these last two outs, so let’s let that error go. Shake it off; shutout’s still intact.

Brandon Inge bats, and takes the measure of Blackburn. Is he tiring? Not appreciably—he starts with a called strike. Is he still locating pitches? Seems so—Inge fouls off a pitch, refuses to be deceived by a ball, and fouls off another. Is he, by any chance, willing to hang one of those sliders on a nice little trajectory, the only bad pitch of the entire afternoon?

Sadly, yes. Inge homers and the Tigers claim two runs, only one of them earned. The shutout is lost and Blackburn composes himself. It takes a moment: Magglio Ordonez sneaks a single on the first pitch. Then Blackburn gets Josh Anderson to ground out, but that advances Ordonez to second. Next, Gerald Laird reaches on a lowly bunt single and you start to feel Blackburn may want some cheering up out there.

With the score 6-2 and men on first and third, the man on deck constitutes the tying run. That makes this a save opportunity, and Joe Nathan has been warming up since the inning began. Ron Gardenhire doesn’t want to take the complete game away from Blackburn, but he will if he must.

One out to go, and if Blackburn doesn’t make it, Nathan will surely be summoned. Opposing manager Jim Leyland would probably already have pulled his pitcher, as he demonstrated with his quick hook Friday night and his win-at-all-costs style. But Gardy gives Blackburn the chance, and Adam Everett grounds out. CG in the books, but no shutout.

The Twins did all their scoring in a rowdy fourth inning rampage. They sent ten men to the plate, and at one point eight consecutive Twins got on base with a hit or a walk. Joe Mauer laced a single into a hole the Tigers made by overthinking the infield shift to confound mighty Mauer. Justin Morneau cashed it in with interest with a home run, his 21st of the season. Yes, I know Mark Teixeira is starting the All-Star Game at first base, but Morneau is every bit as good, losing out only on market size.

Jason Kubel, the only Twin to get a hit off Porcello in the early May game, proved he’s got some Rubik’s Cube shortcut on the guy and singled.

The inning would have been a still bigger one if Kubel or Michael Cuddyer hadn’t failed to read the hit and run sign correctly. Kubel took off with Cuddy calmly watching the pitch at the plate; easy out at second. It’s impossible to tell who had it wrong, but the mistake cost an out.

Cuddy got a walk out of it, and Joe Crede and Delmon Young hit consecutive singles to get one more run across. Now it falls to Nick Punto to keep the surge alive. He’s been hitting a bit better lately, and got the game-winner yesterday. He relaxes at the plate and outwits Porcello to get a walk. Bases loaded.

Denard Span hits what might have been a double play ball, or at least a lowly single. But shortstop Everett tries to make an off-balance throw and sends the ball sailing. Three more runs score.

That’s all the Twins need or want. It’s Blackburn’s second complete game this season, and it may be some solace for his start a week and a half ago against the Brewers. That was another complete game bid, but in the eighth inning two errors let the Brewers take the lead. One of the errors was Blackburn’s own errant throw to third. He ended up with a loss on eight innings pitched.

His start immediately prior to that little bit of baseball sorrow was a complete game against the Pirates. He’s had some hard luck losses, and his June record is tragedy itself: five starts and only one win, but an ERA that falls through the month to 3.10 and a total of 12 runs allowed. He turned in 7, 8, 9, 8, and 6 innings pitched. It’s everything you want from a starting pitcher, without the offense to back it up; those four losses were by at most two run margins.

Blackburn, one hopes, is simply waiting for things to even out. Baseball is notorious for not balancing heartbreak and joy, but with this win, Blackburn at least starts July in the happiest way possible.

I see signs of hope everywhere. In the month of June, the Twins lost only two series, against the pesky Mariners and the fortunate Astros. They won five series and split two others. They start July by gaining two games on the Tigers. It’s easy to be too hopeful (or too despairing) in baseball, but I’m in the hopeful column today. The team is three games over .500 for the first time this season, and a little momentum going into the series with the Yankees feels good.

[game 79] Slow, Tough, Long

For all 20 players, four umpires, two bullpens, coaches, managers, and 19,310 fans, tonight’s game between the Royals and Twins was not so much a game as an arduous siege. The game took 3 hours and 17 minutes, and, of all symmetries, 317 pitches were thrown.

The score, the payoff of all that pitching? 2-1, Twins.

The Twins won this glacial contest by means of two simple plays, mixed in with a long evening of suffering. Justin Morneau hit a solo homer in the fourth in a little isolated moment of excellence. The ball splashed in the pretty Kaufman Stadium fountain, and Morneau trotted home. It looked just like baseball, baseball you’d love to play.

But around it, mostly darkness. That homer tied the game, after KC went ahead swiftly in the first inning by nudging a runner home on a double and a single with two out. The Twins went ahead in the sixth when the Royals botched a double play and an unearned run scored.

Now, this game was not badly player, you understand. There was but the one error between both clubs. It was actually played very well, with each side holding the other in check. It was a game that seemed to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that offense and defense in baseball are perfectly matched.

The essence of the game was the foul ball. Scott Baker threw 111 pitches in just five innings, and a large proportion of them became crowd souvenirs. It seemed that every hitter managed to get into a 3-2 count against Baker. It was eerie, as if time had stopped again and again. Each at bat was frozen into permanence, only to be succeeded by another laborious one.

Baker didn’t make many mistakes, but he never had an easy time of it. He gave up five hits, two in the first inning and three clustered in the fourth. Getting out of that inning was an ordeal. It took 28 pitches, and with the bases full, Baker ended it by facing Tony Pena.

Here’s the sequence: foul, strike looking, ball, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, strikeout on foul tip.

Gruesome, really, for both players. Baseball looked so hard tonight I don’t know why anyone would want to play it. The Twins batters pecked out a total of 8 hits, including Morneau’s shining blast and a stack of isolated singles. The Royals also managed 8 hits.

But neither pitcher was especially overwhelming. Brian Bannister started for KC and went seven innings. His highlight is a collection of six strikeouts, and the Twins did a lot of flailing as they struck out swinging. Bannister’s stuff wasn’t otherworldly, but the Twins couldn’t read him well at all.

Baker ended up with the win, but his high pitch count after five innings made it look like one of his weaker outings. He left with the game tied, but the Twins took advantage of Mike Jacobs’ errant throw that should have started a double play but instead allowed a run to score. Baker was in the dugout, sudden recipient of a lead.

To keep the Royals at bay, the Twins brought in Bobby Keppel for his second relief appearance. He earned a hold by facing nine batters, striking out three, walking one, and giving up a double to Mark Teahen. Where Baker had pitched through foul after foul, Keppel’s counts were brisker, and from these first two appearances, I’m hopeful he can be productive in the bullpen.

Everything was hard tonight. A 1-2-3 inning was hard. A foul popup was hard to catch, with some wind swirling in the ballpark. And an umpire was hard to impress. Denard Span ran down a fly ball and scooped it in a diving catch. He rolled over and help up his snow cone glove, only to have the ump rule the ball trapped. Span came back to life and made the throw to keep the runner from advancing further. Replays aren’t absolutely definitive on this one, but it looks like Span made the catch.

The play of the game might have been Brendan Harris’ diving grab in the sixth. With two out and two on, Jose Guillen punched the ball hard to short, but Harris laid out to snare it and then fed the ball from his probe position to Nick Punto, who tagged out the runner from first to end the inning. The Royals never scored after the first inning, thanks to Baker’s work in the fourth and Harris’ nab in the sixth.

Joe Nathan’s save was not his most nail-biting, but like everything tonight, it was a grind. He struck out the first two batters, but once again you felt the balance was poised equally between pitcher and hitter. David DeJesus, who started the game with a double and ended up scoring KC’s only run, was the final hitter. Nathan gets a called strike, and then DeJesus is prepared to end the long, grueling contest. He grounds out to first.

The pace of the game was slow, with hitters stuck in full counts and fielders waiting, waiting, and waiting. The foul ball is like the filibuster, and it felt like everyone on the field just wanted that 60-40 margin to rise up and do away with it. But batter and pitcher remained in evenly matched duels.

There was little excitement and euphoria in this game, but it was worth watching for another reason. The game was a long (too long, really) demonstration of how hard baseball is (too hard, really). If you were trying to get an alien interested in the sport, this would not be the first game you’d want him to see. Nor maybe even the two hundreth.

But watching Baker suffer through it gave me an appreciation of how hard a pitcher works to execute each and every pitch. Ron Gardenhire reported that Baker said in the dugout, “I was making just a bad enough pitch for them to foul it off or just a good enough pitch not to make them out.” Exactly.

The Twins end June 40-39, four game back of surging Detroit and tied with Chicago. Splitting wins and losses so closely makes you ask, at the end of a long game like tonight’s, if there’s a point to baseball after all. But the point is that something difficult is worth trying even if the best you can do is reveal how difficult it is.

[game 73] E 1

I want complete games just as much as Nolan Ryan does. I prefer valiant, sturdy pitchers who can handle nine innings to tightly-wound specialists who can throw 96 miles per hour but not 96 times.

So I rejoiced in Nick Blackburn’s complete game against the Pirates last week, and was eager to see his start against the Brewers. One of the corollaries of the theory of pitch count is that the next three games after a start of over 100 pitches will show some weaknesses.

For that matter, I agree with much of the pitch count regulation philosophy. I’ve seen that particular corollary come true—the impact of a 100+ pitch outing seem to reverberate for about a month. And the early hook seems more likely to bring in a successful reliever than an inept one. We’ll never know, most games, if the starter can hold up past the seventh inning, but we can see him rest in the dugout and earn the win the bullpen preserves.

So, aesthetically, I love the idea of watching a pitcher command an entire game. I love the need for a pitcher to pace himself to serve his team for nine innings. I love, above all, that a win means 27 outs.

But I can’t ignore the current science of pitch count control. It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it keeps on coming true.

Tonight, Nick Blackburn had scattered nine hits and held the Brewers to two runs when he started the eighth inning. He’d been efficient, having thrown 84 pitches. The Twins had a squeaker lead with the score 3-2. Nothing to fear, I told myself, when Blackburn took the mound. But I didn’t like the odds.

Prove me wrong, I thought. Get that win. And he promptly induced an easy groundout from Corey Hart. Eighty-six pitches. Next he gets a pop out to short from Mike Cameron. Eighty-eight. Two outs. This is possible.

So given all that build up, all that gloomy foreshadowing, I still want to point out that it is possible. All Blackburn does next is give up a sleepy single to JJ Hardy on a 2-2 count. We never see his pitch count do him in, we see something else.

Jason Kendall, the wiry, battle-scarred catcher, is up. He contributed the RBI single in the sixth that brought the Brewers to within one run. Blackburn is cool; Kendall is intense. Ball one.

On the next pitch, Kendall hits a fly ball deep to left center. The ball lands at the base of the wall and bounces tightly there as Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez close in. I believe it’s Gomez who finally throws it in to Brendan Harris, the cutoff man.

Hardy is being waved along the basepaths. There’s a good chance to score on this hit, because the ball has stuck and died in front of one of the deeper fences. But it’s no sure thing—the Brewers are taking a risk. Hardy is booking and Harris is hurling. Joe Mauer looks to his left at the runner but must lunge to his right to get the throw—Harris sends it way wide of the plate.

For a moment it looks like Mauer has saved the day and stitched the Twins together again by pulling in the ball, but he’s merely faking, bringing his empty glove in for a phantom tag. Throwing error on Harris. As Hardy scores to tie the game, the ball is rolling toward the backstop.

That’s where the pitcher belongs in such a situation, backing up the play. There’s Blackburn, at his station, grabbing the ball and firing hard to third base, where Kendall is motoring. A good throw is going to beat him for the third out; Kendall got a little greedy.

But Blackburn’s throw is wide and wild, and the ball rattles on to left field as Kendall makes full use of the governor’s pardon and runs on home. It’s 4-3, Brewers.

Blackburn stops and stares. He may have just thrown away his win. Thrown it, literally, away.

He collects himself and returns to the mound. On the first pitch, Casey McGehee hits a shallow fly ball to center. Ninety-six pitches. Inning over.

The pitching, you see, wasn’t the problem. In the top of the ninth, the Twins have a chance to save the sorry mess, but Trevor Hoffman has his tricky changeup working well. He strikes out Jose Morales. He strikes out Brendan Harris, who is surely keen to atone for his throwing error.

But now the lineup gets tough in here—we have Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Cuddyer ready. Joe Mauer inspires a steady string of pitches outside the strike zone, and he walks. Justin Morneau with two outs is a steely hitter, ready to find the weak spot. He can do the obvious and retake the lead with a homer, or he can tack on a single just to keep things going.

Hoffman is steering clear of Morneau just as he gave Mauer a wide berth. The count is 3-1. Let’s fix this problem and give the game back to Blackburn.

But, it’s baseball. It’s unforgiving baseball, where hits are always scarce. Morneau grounds out to second and the Brewers have their first win of the season against the Twins.

Last night the Brewers gave us the game with a wild pitch and a missed double play that had major consequences. Tonight we gave them a win. That’s the equilibrium of baseball. An error is enough to tip the balance.

[game 72] Wild Pitch

The Twins started a 9-game road trip tonight, in which they face three of the most dominant teams in the Midwest: the Brewers, Cardinals, and Royals. Milwaukee is now a single game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, and they have the bonus regional rivalry incentive to foil the Twins. They also have the memory of being swept in their 3 game series at the Metrodome in May to fuel them.

The Brewers generally aim to win by mashing. Prince Fielder is the obvious slugger, but Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron, and Corey Hart are a pure power outfield, and infielders JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks can clobber too. Weeks is out on the DL, so I see Casey McGehee at second base. I am braced for a Brew Crew wrecking ball.

We have Francisco Liriano on the mound, and I have officially reached the stage of assuming the worst. Liriano still shows flashes of talent and he may yet come to fulfill the promise of his rookie year, but I expect he won’t flower until he has a new season, new team, or new pitching coach.

With Denard Span still on the DL, Ron Gardenhire has shuffled the lineup back to a more conventional order. Instead of moving up Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau into second and third, he has them at three and four. Carlos Gomez leads off, followed by Brendan Harris. Both Gomez and Harris have sleepy batting averages, though they have been improving lately. In other words, I have yet another reason to fear the worst.

So I start the game like one of those desperate fans who can only bear to watch his team by drenching himself in cynicism. This is not, I assure you, my usual mode. I just want to root and enjoy the exploits of my squad. But there’s something about nearly three months of staying stuck at .500 or below that’s wearing me down. A win tonight and we’re back at .500; a loss and we’re two games below.

The Brewers start Jeff Suppan. I don’t have long to stay gloomy or guarded—Gomez leads off with a hit. It’s a little dunk job, spooned into center off the very end of the bat. A lucky Texas Leaguer is all, but Gomez is making contact. He had some similar hit-lets in the Cubs series over the weekend, and perhaps he’s got himself a little hitting plan. Go, Gomez.

Suppan settles down to get two outs, but Mauer makes his out count by advancing Gomez to second. The Brewers then get all careful with Morneau. When he won’t nibble outside the strike zone, Suppan finishes him off with an intentional walk.

Michael Cuddyer is up. And Suppan strikes him out. He does indeed—Cuddyer flails at the pitch. But it’s a wild pitch that catcher Jason Kendall can’t grab and lets roll far to the backstop. By the grace of baseball, Cuddyer has the right to run to first and try to beat the throw, which he does handily.

Two outs, bases loaded, but the inning should be over. Joe Crede cracks a double to center—a far more authoritative hit than Gomez’s little poke—and three runs score. Two hits, three runs, poor Suppan. But happy Twins.

Liriano lets Brewers leak onto the bases every inning, but holds them to 3 runs over 5 innings. After allowing two runs in the first, Liriano has a rocky second inning, highlighted by a hit from pitcher Suppan. Suppan will score from first on a double from McGehee, but the following two hitting thoughtfully prolong the inning to allow their pitcher some rest on the bench.

Suppan also has all his trouble in the first three innings. After the tragic wild pitch the prolonged the first, he faces Gomez again in the second. With two out, Gomez doubles to center. His hitting style is all elbows and knees, but when you wind up this elastic young player, sometimes he spins. Harris follows him with an RBI single.

In the top of the third, the Twins take advantage of another Brewer failing. With one out, Cuddyer singles. We’re in classic double play territory, and Suppan tries to coax one from Crede. It’s picture perfect, right at the shortstop, but Hardy can’t close his glove cleanly around it and the balls flops onto the infield dirt. Cuddy and Crede are safe.

Delmon Young seizes his opportunity and uncorks a double, scoring Cuddy and moving Crede to third. And now we have a little scene that can pretty much only unfold in a National League park. I hope Nick Punto keeps a good souvenir from this game, because our ultra-light-hitting second baseman is intentionally walked.

This masterwork is designed to fill the bases with Liriano coming to the plate. A fine strategy if you can get the pitcher to oblige with the wobbly groundball that ends the inning in a double play. Not so perfect if Liriano follows orders and stays wooden at the plate, accepting a strike three call.

This leaves it all up to Gomez, who is having a bright night. The Brewers have seen him single and double, and really should be fearing him by now. Over the weekend, the Cubs were showing him some respect as Gomez starts solving all his hitting woes by visiting the National League.

Now, I know Gomez well. I know that he needs to be reminded there are two outs. I know that bunting is still his strong suit, and it won’t avail him here. I know that going 3-for-3 is nearly out of the question.

Well, snap—doesn’t he wheel the end of the bat around just in time to slap another hit to center? His sloppy single scores two, and puts the Twins up 7-3.

That’s where they stay. For the next six innings, both teams stay off the scoreboard, though baserunners scratch and peck from time to time. The Twins trot out three relievers. Luis Ayala has been released, so we see steadfast RA Dickey handle the sixth and seventh, and Matt Guerrier resolve the eighth.

Joe Nathan doesn’t add any suspense to close the game. Though the Brewers have the best part of the order up, Prince Fielder sends the second pitch he sees to shallow left, and Corey Hart and Mike Cameron strike out. Twins win.

The victory is legitimate in all baseball respects, but it hinges entirely on two mistakes from the Brewers that have outsize consequences. The wild pitch that Kendall couldn’t corral opens the door to three runs, and a missed double play leads to another three.

Baseball, perhaps more than other sports, lends itself to imaginary reconstructions. If Kendall had made the throw to first in time to make good on Suppan’s strikeout, would the Brewers have won the game? And don’t even begin to rebuild games by correcting missed double plays. Bill Lee still relives the missed DP in the World Series against the Reds, as do all Red Sox fans. Because baseball plays are such defined little increments, we like to add and subtract them to imagine different outcomes.

It’s not always intellectually sound, but it’s how we experience the game. And some what ifs aren’t small speculations—everyone knows what would have happened if Bill Buckner had fielded that ball that dribbled between his ankles. Tonight, we can’t subtract the two Brewer blunders, but we know this win rested on them.

[game 64] New York Basbeall

The Twins are doing a fine job of winning without me. They beat the Cubs 2-0. Rookie Anthony Swarzak got his second win by holding the Cubs to 4 hits over 7 innings. Outstanding work, but the current wave of injuries will require the Twins to send Swarzak back to the minors for a while as they call up catcher Jose Morales. Michael Cuddyer is now out a while with his slow-to-heal right finger, and Denard Span remains on the DL with dizziness the injury report doesn’t clarify further. Swarzak will be back. Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel got the RBIs, and the Twin are finally doing well on the road.

I sampled another game today, with the Twins under their usual Fox Saturday blockade and me trying to reexamine this blog’s mission by visiting new teams. And I really haven’t been getting out much—I didn’t know JJ Putz was on the DL until it came up in passing during game two of the Mets-Yankees Subway Series.

I decided to let Fox clobber me with New York baseball, the only games they ever want to broadcast. It infuriates me that to Fox there is baseball, and then there is Yankee baseball. The idea that the Yankees somehow play a different game because they have more local fans and a bigger payroll is ultimately insulting to any baseball fan. But ratings are all Fox cares about, and you get them when you control the broadcast in the NY metro area.

The new Yankee Stadium looked the most filled I’ve seen it so far. The Yankees have re-priced some tickets in an admission that a single baseball game is not, really, a luxury item that should cost a week’s salary to witness in person. But I suspect the prime seat-filling force was the Mets fans, eager to see how many home runs their team could hit in this homer-happy ballpark. The answer today: two.

In New York, you play baseball, and then hope you can thread your way through the newspaper and sportstalk coverage. I have some built-in bias toward the value of the press, but I have to admit that they load up on

impossible, baited questions in what really aren’t interviews but pure efforts to waylay players into making sensational quotes.

In New York, this is intensified because there are more outlets dissecting every play and every statement, and because the criticism is harsher. The theory seems to be, the more millions a player earns, the more unforgivable his errors. I have my own set of irrational player loathings, but I don’t delight in seeing Manny Ramirez belittled, or in hearing Kevin Youkilis sound like a dolt. (Well, maybe I find a little joy in the latter, but I try to take the long, compassionate view.) But sportschat is all about righteous indignation, the negative emotion that gives such a big energy boost.

In this context, we have the sorrows of Luis Castillo. Castillo is quite familiar to Twins fans. GM Terry Ryan scooped him up when he was overlooked after a bad year or two for the Marlins, and he proved to be one of the big finds of the 2006 season, for any team. He played so well that the Twins could keep him only until the middle of the 2007 season. The Mets swooped in with their millions and he was gone.

Castillo is an excellent second baseman. Just today I saw him cover a great distance to snare a line drive from Derek Jeter. He got the ball falling forward, nearly about to take a header, and facing to right field. He switched direction and got the throw off to first and missed getting Jeter by inches. It was a heroic effort, though a run did score. I mention it because it reminds me of the energy Castillo always shows in the field.

Last night, the Subway Series opened with the Mets on their way to humiliating their crosstown rivals. Always a satisfying prospect, if you happen to be the humiliator, not the humiliatee. It’s the ninth inning, and ace closer Francisco Rodriguez has two outs. Derek Jeter is on second and Mark Teixeira is on first, and the Yanks are down 7-8.

Alex Rodriguez hits a simple pop-up and Castillo, who knows how or why, lets the ball bounce out of his glove.

Two runs score and the Mets lose and the full, painful extent of baseball possibilities is once again visited. Yes, players will miss easy pop-ups. It will happen so rarely that it will seem they owe us a bigger than usual apology, but it will happen.

Today, Castillo fields just fine, gets two hits, and the Mets cruise to a beefy 6-2 victory behind Fernando Nieve. One of the truly useful qualities in any sport is that playing well demands that you shake off mistakes. When they talk about handy life lessons from gym class, this is actually what they mean. The ability to bounce back from an error is probably more important than the skill that got you into the sport in the first place. Luis Castillo bounced back.

As we expected he would. But consider the case of Chuck Knoblauch (another former Twin, of all things), who inexplicably began to make wild throws from second base for the Yankees. It became a destructive mindset, and Knoblauch left baseball unable to cure it.

I don’t envy the players for the Mets and Yankees. The pressure would so quickly obliterate the pleasures of baseball that you would lose everything except the chance for glory. How much fun can baseball actually be for A-Rod? For Johan Santana?

But perhaps it will be enough for Luis Castillo that he can shake off Friday night’s mistake and go back to playing the way he’s always capable of playing. Stay loose, Luis.