Category Archives: fielding

[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 87] Team Victory

It took the whole team to win tonight. The credit for RBI can be individually allocated, but the win took offense and defense, and every man on the team can feel like the player of the game.

This was the first of three games against the White Sox, the last series before the All-Star break. There seems to be something about being ripped to shreds by the Yankees—it makes you want to beat up on the next guy. When the Twins last met the White Sox, after losing four games in Yankee Stadium, all by slim margins, they ended a 7-game losing streak by clobbering the Sox.

Tonight was no score-fest, but might have been demoralizing to Chicago in an entirely different way. The Twins had a lead and lost it, then used all their defensive prowess to stay in the game, and finally got past a tie late in the game to carve out a 6-4 win.

Nick Blackburn was good enough to pitch seven innings, but bad enough to have some trouble every inning. In this game, it wasn’t a pitcher as an individual hero or goat, but a pitcher as one of the nine men making each out.

Blackburn is a contact pitcher, so his wins always owe something to sure hands in the infield. In addition to solid routine plays, we had a few sparklers in this game. Brendan Harris ran hard to catch a line drive, tumbled to throw to first, where Morneau dug out the low toss for an out. Nick Punto sealed up the slot between first and second and made two superhero snares.

But the highlight reel play belonged to Michael Cuddyer. The Sox mounted a threat in the sixth, starting the inning with two hits. Chris Getz hit a massive fly ball to right. While it was in flight, I considered the likely outcomes—either a three-run homer or double scoring two. Interpreting fly balls from a television picture means listening to the crowd gasp or cheer and watching the intensity of the outfielder’s scramble. This one looked, and sounded, bad.

Michael Cuddyer kept pedaling back and back, the prelude to letting a home run sail over the blue plastic. But he pedaled and planted, and then leapt to slam into the fence and grab the ball. Sac fly, the alternative I’d overlooked. And a rally-sapping sac fly. The White Sox get only that run in the inning.

The Twins started the game playing with house chips. John Danks had one of the ugliest first innings imaginable. He simply couldn’t find the strike zone, and while hunting and pecking for it, he walked the first four batters he faced. Four—you read that right. He walked in the first run of the game.

The Twins went on to score three more on a Jason Kubel double and a Michael Cuddyer single. I watched the hits mount up, but I kept feeling that Danks was going to get his control back just as suddenly as he’d lost it and that we needed to be careful not to coast.

It was a different type of control he got back. Cuddyer was lounging off the first base bag and Danks picked him off for the first out of the inning. It was just the lift the pitcher needed. He struck out Joe Crede and got Delmon Young to line out.

Blackburn let the Sox chip away at that 4-0 lead. They scored single runs in the second, third, fourth, and sixth. Meanwhile, the Twins seemed unable to get over the gifts they received in the first inning. Then too, Danks returned to form and had a string of 1-2-3 innings. The last good thing that happened to the Twins was Cuddyer’s hit; the first of a long list of bad things was Cuddy getting picked off.

In the bottom of the seventh, tied 4-4, Nick Punto makes a key contribution. It’s not a hit, because that’s just plain unlikely for him these days. It’s not a bunt, because that’s going to take a little too much luck with his good but not supergood speed. It’s a walk, because a walk is all he can get out of reliever Octavio Dotel.

Denard Span hopes for a hit, settles for a sacrifice and Punto’s at second. Brendan Harris notches an out, and Joe Mauer’s up. Joe Mauer is almost a good-luck charm you simply rub for a hit or a win, but lately, it must be said, the power surge of May is falling off, and the high average of June is trickling down just a bit. In other words, Mauer has human DNA. He’s been grounding out to second a lot lately, so nothing’s automatic with him at the plate.

It’s not automatic, but it’s beautiful enough. Punto steals third, and Mauer plants a single straight through to center. Tie broken.

It’s not a great Twins game if Mauer and/or Morneau don’t get in on the scoring, so we almost all the elements of a sweet Twins win. The last two pieces: a hit from one of the scrappier hitters, and a Joe Nathan sweated-out save.

In the eighth, Kubel leads off with a double and the desired insurance run seems within reach. But then it begins receding from view after two outs. All we have now is Carlos Gomez coming to bat, and Gomez is in about the same hitting pit that is currently swallowing up Punto.

Ron Gardenhire has already brought Matt Tolbert in to run for Kubel, but Gomez is going to need a true hit to collect an RBI and give the Twins a cushion. He hits what I will freely proclaim his best bunt of the season. It wanders straight toward the mound, and Bobby Jenks can’t begin to corral it before Gomez rockets to first and Tolbert scores. This play goes into workbook they’ll use at The Carlos Gomez Bunting Academy.

Nathan takes it hard on the mound, and his duel with Chris Getz takes eight pitches. Nathan is not a fast worker, and he seems to marshal his courage all over again for each pitch. But he gets Getz—ground out—and the next two hitters as well.

It’s Blackburn’s win and Nathan’s save, but this game took every player to win.

[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 82] Day Game after Long Night

After last night’s marathon, a day game against your prime divisional foe probably requires a lot of Red Bull. The Twins and the Tigers seem to have maintained the determination they showed last night, but my window into the game is the radio broadcast. I get a fair flavor of things from John Gordon and Danny Gladden, but I don’t feel like an eyewitness.

It’s Francisco Liriano versus Edwin Jackson. Liriano has lately been fulfilling the promise of three seasons ago, and today he’s good for seven innings and eight strikeouts. He was sailing along with a scoreless game until the seventh, when he doled out two singles and then met up with Magglio Ordonez.

Ordonez, a hitter of some magnificence for the White Sox and lately the Tigers, has had a sharp drop in production this season. Heads have been scratched, and even with the microscopic reach of this blog I pause before I raise the obvious question: could there, perhaps, be a drug he’s no longer taking? I merely ask; I know nothing about it. I only know I’m a fan who has seen everything associated with power hitting tainted by steroid stories.

In any case, last night Ordonez was seen saying “What?” when the bunt sign was put on for him. A hitter of his prowess may not know the bunt sign, but last night it appeared to be under consideration. Today, I was prepared for Ordonez to pose no threat to Liriano’s sharp game plan.

Wrong assumption: Ordonez hits a three-run homer to put the Tigers ahead 3-2. A lead built on solo homers from Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau is now lost, and the Twins run the risk of repeating last night’s epic loss.

Jackson is pitching a solid game for the Tigers, but the seventh is his downfall as well. The Twins tie the game on an RBI single from Morneau.

The actual game-winning RBI is from little Nicky Punto, the scrappiest player on a scrappy team. Punto had a little bench time after some sore ribs and other aches got to him, and he’s come back from it hitting pretty neatly in the last week. His single in the eighth sends Matt Tolbert across the plate, and the 4-3 lead stands up as Joe Nathan sets the Tigers down 1,2,3 in the ninth.

Let me also note that Tolbert was running for Brian Buscher, who led off with a single. The game-winning combination, then, came from the generally quiet bats of Buscher and Punto. Buscher gets only occasional playing time, and Punto is buried at the bottom of the lineup. Today, they’re the heroes.

[game 75] Inching Over .500

The Twins started a three-game series against the Cardinals tonight. Our interleague tour comes to an end against one of the tougher teams. St Louis will host the All Star Game in a little over two weeks, but this matchup already has, arguably, the American League’s best hitter in Joe Mauer versus the National League’s best, Albert Pujols.

This is my first chance to see Denard Span back from the DL. He leads off, after having a great return in the day game against the Brewers Thursday. The Twins won, and Span came back from his viral bout with a triple and a couple runs scored.

Tonight, all he can manage is a ground out to second against Adam Wainwright, starting for the Carindals. Brendan Harris follows, and strikes out. It’s early, but Wainwright looks sharp, and it’s hard to imagine us punching a hole in the Cards big enough to keep Pujols from filling it back up.

But Mauer bats third and intimidates Wainwright into a walk. Morneau radiates the same menacing rays with the same results, and it’s men on first and second with two out.

Jason Kubel deposits a single to right that scores Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer shoots a liner toward third; good, but not good enough for a hit. But Cardinals third baseman Joe Thurston bobbles it and Cuddyer is safe while Morneau rumbles home. The Twins score first, and are up 2-0.

That little part of the winning equation is all well and good, but can Glen Perkins handle his defensive duties? Specifically, Prince Albert?

I will save you the slightest suspense: Perkins strikes out three and allows four hits and one run over seven innings. He is even more in command than those numbers suggest, conducting scoreless 1-2-3 innings in the second through the sixth. He lets a hit leak through in the first when Pujols pounds a drive right along the first base line that Mornea can’t dive to snare. It’s a double, but it’s sandwiched between two outs and an instant fly out from Ryan Ludwick.

Perkins gives up a run in the seventh, but he’s cruised there on a very low pitch count. The inning begins with Colby Rasmus bunting safely. It appears the Cards have searched hard for a way to break through against Perkins and have come up with a desperation play.

The threat doesn’t build, as Perkins gets Pujols and Ludwick to fly out. The bunt single looks like a lonely little stab, but then Rick Ankiel cashes it in with a double. The Cardinals have a run at last, but Perkins doesn’t appear ruffled.

The Twins acquired a third run in the sixth, on a Cuddyer single that scored Kubel. It was never much of a offensive show, but with Perkins bottling up the Cardinals like fireflies in a jar, it didn’t need to be.

The most exciting play of the game didn’t figure in the outcome, but at the time it looked like it could be pivotal. In the third inning, Mauer led off with a single. Morneau left him marooned there by flying out, and all Kubel could manage was a groundout that advanced him to second.

Cuddyer is up with two outs and hits a single to left, where Rick Ankiel patrols the outfield. Ankiel’s great quest to stay in the majors has survived the harrowing bout with pure wildness that doomed his pitching career. He steadfastly rebuilt himself as a hitter, and is now batting a so-so .240 after a few better years.

So Ankiel, you see, is called upon to throw. To throw out Mauer, who is hustling toward home. To throw out Mauer and keep the Twins from increasing their early lead. To throw a perfectly targeted bullet, unlike those pitches that sailed so unpredictably.

There is a certain grace in the pressure of speed. Ankiel’s throw comes in just where catcher Yadier Molina can snatch it and swipe a tag across Mauer, a foot or two from the plate. Molina’s expert handling of the ball foils Mauer’s handsome slide—out.

Plenty of times, I’ve seen the consequences of hurrying a big heave form the outfield. Even these major league pros can get rattled, overthrowing the cutoff man or sending the ball wailing wide. But what used to trouble Ankiel as a pitcher disappears when he hasn’t the time to doubt himself.

Joe Nathan seals the victory with a save, and faces Pujols to do so. Nathan always seems to show the mortal side of closing, and he begins by allowing a double to Rasmus. A 3-1 lead doesn’t look especially sound with a man on second and Pujols at the plate.

Nathan digs in, suffers and sweats and puffs out his cheeks. And strikes out Pujols. Ryan Ludwick pokes at the first pitch he sees and grounds out to Nathan. And Ankiel ends the game, swinging at a strike.

The Twins are now 38-37. They have never been more than one game above .500 this season, and that’s no longer looking like enough to stay alive in the division. The Tigers have been tearing it up while the Twins keep loping along around this equator of .500. The Tags are leading the Astros as I write this, and will remain 5 games ahead of the Twins if they log that win.

The good news is that the rest of the AL Central keeps hitting the snooze button. The White Sox are two games back of the Twins, and KC and Cleveland have fallen even more sharply off the pace. You can’t entirely count out a team with Greinke on it, but the race looks like it will belong to the Tags, Twins, and perhaps the Sox.

A win to start a series is always a glorious thing. If the Twins can keep it going tomorrow and finally plant their little flag a full two games over .500, perhaps we can keep Detroit from running away with it. And now, I check in and see the Astros have come back in the eighth to win. Ooooh. Now the Tiger lead is down to four games.

In baseball, one remains hopeful about absolutely nutty things, but hoping to stay in contention in the Central doesn’t seem all that crazy right now. We have Kevin Slowey starting tomorrow, and I’m eager to know if he can outmaneuver Pujols with his control.

[game 70] The Rundown

Carlos Gomez dodged two bullets tonight. In a fictional baseball universe, his good fortune would have made all the difference, but the Twins lost to the Astros, 6-5.

There is only so much Gomez can do at the plate, but wiggling out of trouble is one of his strong suits. With two strikes on him, he checks his swing on a pitch high and tight from Brian Moehler. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez is so confident that the ball has been tipped before he caught it that he tosses it down to third base. The umpire neither heard nor saw said tip and signals the at-bat to continue.

Much gesturing and indignation from Pudge, and then the obligatory flak-catching visit from manager Cecil Cooper. Coop is thrown out after a lengthy but rather tasteful argument. The Astros’ gestures all hint that the foul tip was audible. We get to watch replays, but the combination of pitch speed and ambiguous three-dimensional planes of bat and ball are entirely inconclusive. Future baseball audiences will doubtless have a sophisticated matrix vision apparatus that allows certainty on such points; for now, no one knows.

But the umpire has the last word, and that word leaves Gomez in the batter’s box. Well, it would be one thing if the call just prolonged the at-bat, but Gomez hangs tough and wheedles a walk out of Moehler. He’s on first with one out.

A threat to steal, Gomez attracts way too much attention from the Astros. They try a pickoff and a pitchout, but Carlos is serenely stationed near first. A few pitches to Nick Punto, and then another pickoff try. This one catches Gomez leaning very much the wrong way.

He has no choice but to try to scamper on to second, and you get the feeling that Gomez, even when trapped in the iron grip of a rundown, doesn’t really believe his feet will let him down. Why not just keep running and hope for the best? It’s been his game plan all his career, really.

And it’s a solid game plan for a cheerful, enthusiastic, occasionally witless ballplayer like Gomez. First baseman Lance Berkman falls in love with brandishing the baseball high in his hand, crowding Gomez harder and harder. Miguel Tejada, covering the second base bag is waiting for the exchange, but Berkman holds onto his Zeus-with-thunderbolt act too long. Gomez crow hops his way closer and closer to second and finally dives for the bag.

He beats the toss and tag. Safe.

So far, from the Astros’ point of view, he’s been out at the plate and out in a rundown, but he’s standing on second base. A rundown is the fiercest baseball ever gets. It’s the walls closing in, the inevitability of doom. The runner is helpless yet must persist in the drama as long as he can. In case, as we just saw, he can keep alive long enough to squeak all the way out of trouble.

I’m with Gomez: Baseball is so much fun.

Our attention returns to Punto at the plate. He has been hitting much better lately, but the sacrifice remains his best play. He grounds out to first, but puts everything he has into a face-first slide to try to beat out the throw. He almost makes it, and he does advance Gomez to third as consolation. His all-in bellyflop slide costs him some rib bruises, and he leaves the game after this inning.

With two outs, Gomez can’t get home on a squeeze, like the pretty one the Twins used last night. Brendan Harris is up, and he’s been having a sweet day. He led off the game with a home run, and then thwacked a nice double. I’m ready for another Twin to hit for the cycle, or at least for Harris to go 3 for 3.

We are, for the record, in the fifth inning and ahead by the skinny score of 2-1. In addition to Harris’ homer, Delmon Young has uncorked a solo blast. The Astros notched their run on an RBI double from Pudge that scored the speedy, tightly wound Hunter Pence all the way from first.

In other words, runs are needed. This is no time to let Gomez’s escape act go to waste. But while baseball allows many possibilities, it does hew back to probabilities. Harris strikes out and the inning is over.

Later, the Twins manage to pick up a run in the sixth on a solo homer from Mauer that moves his hitting streak to 12 games and gives him a career-best 14 home runs.

But in the seventh, Scott Baker’s beautiful game is shattered. He has scattered a few hits but kept the Astros firmly in check until Hunter Pence gets his second hit and it’s immediately followed by another from Rodriguez that scores Pence. As we’ve seen before, when Baker allows the hits to accumulate, he tends to lose his way.

Tonight Ron Gardenhire has a quick hook, pulling Baker immediately. He leaves still one run ahead, but with the tying run on first.

Sean Henn, in relief, fails to solve the problem. He allows a double to the first batter he faces, and Pudge scores to turn Baker’s strong outing into a no-decision. Then Henn gives up a home run to Michael Bourn and the Astros pull ahead.

And stay ahead. Berkman adds a solo homer in the eighth. The Twins almost answer back in the bottom of the frame. Jason Kubel homers with Mauer on base to bring the Twins within one run. Then there are two quick outs in the ninth before the we get one last chance.

Jose Morales, backup catcher and decent hitter, is brought in to pinch hit for Carlos Gomez. Now, I know what you’re thinking: leave him in—Gomez is Mr Lucky tonight. Perhaps, but I think it was enough for Morales to figuratively rub his head on the way to the batter’s box, because he ends a prolonged at-bat with a sharply hit double.

Our next pinch hitter is Joe Crede, perfectly capable of the walk-off winning home run. Also capable of the stately, solid single that could keep things going. Alas, Crede inspects two balls without nibbling then tries to do it all in one swing. He flies out to deep right.

For a moment, of course, it all seemed possible. The comeback win, the annihilating walkoff homer, the punctuation mark. But baseball includes possibilities while hewing to probabilities.

[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.