Category Archives: hits

[game 128] Three Scares

The Twins beat the Rangers tonight. The game had two simple themes: the Twins scored three quick runs in the first inning and then fell stone silent at the hands of the Ranger pitchers, and Brian Duensing pitched very well to silence Texas.

There were three good scares in the game, to match the three runs the Twins managed. Duensing had some trouble in the sixth, and finally gave up a run. Add that blemish to his one walk and three hits and you have an idea of how sharp he was for seven innings.

But the stats don’t paint the full picture. That walk? It was issued to the first batter of the game, and might be classified as something Duensing had to get out of his system to settle down into the game.

The free pass was counterbalanced by eight strikeouts, a career high for the young pitcher. Duensing isn’t a strikeout pitcher, by either temperament or talent. But he had something tonight that foiled the Texas hitters.

He allowed his first hit in the fourth, and then doled out two in the sixth. The Rangers turned those plus a fielder’s choice into a run. That’s all the scoring Duensing allowed.

But scare number two came in the eighth, with Matt Guerrier on in relief. Chris Davis led off with a single, and Guerrier looked pressured the entire inning. Elvis Andrus grounded into what would become only half a double play. Davis was cut down, but Andrus made himself comfortable on first.

He didn’t want to linger long, though. The Rangers had already stolen a base against Joe Mauer, with Ian Kinsler swiping second in the first inning. But Andrus’ attempt was foiled on a strong throw from Mauer, and the Rangers counterattack started to wilt.

Guerrier still courted danger. Kinsler got his second hit of the game and managed to steal second yet again. But with two outs, a runner on second isn’t quite so scary. Michael Young grounded out and Guerrier headed back to the dugout after narrowly preserving the 3-1 lead.

The third scare was the scariest, in true horror movie style. Joe Nathan checked off his first two outs swiftly. But number three was an entire baseball game in itself.

Ivan Rodriguez hit a fierce liner to right that bounced off the side of the baggie for a ground rule double. Skinny David Murphy was up next, and he sent Nathan’s first pitch deep to right, landing about a foot or so below the top of the baggie. It bounced back to the field to become a mere double, but the vivid possibility of a game-tying home run sucked all the air out of the Metrodome.

Nathan, off course, tried to puff all the air back in with his trademark big-cheek exhalations. He puffed and puffed to settle himself down after giving up a run. The runner behind him on second must have felt like a massive weight.

Nathan used all his facial tricks and tics, but he walked his next batter, Hank Blalock in for a spot of pinch hitting.

The game was getting easy to tie, and even easy to win now. But Chris Davis was called out on strikes to give the Twins a victory. I’ve chosen those words carefully, because the umpire’s call on that last 3-2 pitch was, shall we say, debatable. I don’t doubt that Nathan would have gotten there eventually, but that pitch looked more like the bases were going to be loaded than high fives with the catcher.

Now, even the Rangers might not kick too hard, as the strike zone was a tad elastic all night. But the game was balancing pretty precariously on that pitch, and you’d prefer the umpire got it right. Early in the game, home plate umpire Mike Estabrook seemed to be favoring Rangers starter Tommy Hunter by expanding the strike zone for him, even as he appeared to contract it unduly for Duensing.

One assumes most little vagaries in sports do eventually even out, but Nathan seemed quite the beneficiary tonight.

But we’ll take it, won’t we? The Twins have now scratched themselves up into second place in the division, 4-1/2 behind mighty Detroit. The White Sox lost today, but they are merely a half game behind.

No one would say Detroit was walking away with the Central, but that the Twins are in contention is due more to the embarrassing weakness in the division than their current .500 record. It’s simple: you really shouldn’t be collecting a lot of prizes with a .500 record, and the Twins have never exceeded that mark by much, or for long, all season.

The Rangers are poised to pose a lot of problems in the next two games this weekend. They’re 2-1/2 games behind Boston in the wild card chase, and this is looking like an especially golden season for them. They’ve groomed and buffed several hot young starting pitchers, and have some absolute flamethrowers in the bullpen. Add that to their standard hitting prowess, and Texas has a story to tell.

Tonight it was three scares and you’re out. Tomorrow the Rangers may do more than threaten. This series could help determine if the Twins are truly ready to contend.

They have no big mathematical obstacles, and with all due respect to the Tigers, their rival is within reach. The question is whether the Twins can sustain a winning drive with pitching that seems to come and go. Tonight Duensing proved he’s ready to press forward. It could be a rallying cry.

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[game 124] Offense & Defense

The Twins and Royals played two games of baseball today, and I’m not referring to a doubleheader. Through the first six innings, the game was about how far you could stretch a single run. And then it became a classic clobbering, with the Twins raining down hits to sweep the series and inch up to two games below .500.

Carl Pavano started for the Twins, and he had a textbook day, almost escaping with a shutout. He pitched seven innings and allowed only two runs, one in the sixth that tied the game, and one in the seventh that meant nearly nothing.

Steering the team through five and two-thirds innings with a 1-0 lead, he was careful without cringing. He challenged the Royals hitters, with an answer for most any trouble they could pose.

The Royals’ Brian Bannister was nearly as good, but not for quite as long. In the third, the Twins got a single run as Carlos Gomez scored on an error by Mark Teahen. But Bannister, victim of that lousy fielding error, stayed splendid until the seventh.

I’m sure he felt great coming to the mound to start that inning. The Royals had finally tied the game, and the tense battle might finally be tipping his way. But on the first pitch, Michael Cuddyer blasted a ball to left to nudge the Twins back into the lead.

When we try to imagine a pitcher’s psychology, we are only imposing our own ideas of what we’d feel up there. There’s no knowing if that leadoff homer rattled him, but there are some facts in the case. The Twins followed with two more hits and another run scored, and Bannister had thrown 102 pitches. Time for a reliever to restore order.

Kyle Farnsworth was selected for this duty. When last seen, Farnsworth was objecting mightily to manager Trey Hillman’s disinclination to keep him in a game. So we presume he’s back with something to prove.

But maybe Hillman had something to prove as well. Farnsworth inherited a man on first, but promptly allowed first pitch singles to Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla to load the bases. There were no outs, and Farnsworth had thrown only two pitches. If there are baseball dreams of World Series-winning hits, this would be a baseball nightmare. And Hillman left Farnsworth in the game.

Still, the Twins were only ahead by a manageable two runs. If Farnsworth can tidy things up, starting with Denard Span at the plate, the Royals can stay in the game.

Not if Span has anything to say about it. His triple clears the bases, and he gets to cross home plate himself on a sac fly from Orlando Cabrera. Cuddyer gets another at bat in the inning after Joe Mauer singles, and this time Cuddy crushes the ball past the shimmering fountains in Kaufman Stadium.

It’s an eight-run inning, and the close game has become a laugher. The Royals chalked up two more runs, but even the KC fans saw them as feeble efforts. The final score was 10-3, and the Twins have the lift of a three-game winning streak

I’ve seen many games that followed the pattern of the first six innings today, and others that resembled the exhilarating hitting in the final innings, but it’s rare that both extremes occur in a single afternoon. It made me wonder exactly why the defensive advantage in baseball can suddenly collapse.

Because, for the most part, all sports favor the defense, if only subtly. If they didn’t, offensive skills would be too coarse and common, and it would be too easy for one team with even a small edge to crush another. If you want to invent a sport, start with the how the defense can stymie the offense, and then wait for the great players to burst through those barriers.

For about a decade, offense in baseball was defined by home run hitting. Thanks to various drugs and the financial incentive for many players to use them, the defense couldn’t contain the hitters. Because the financial incentives remain as powerful as ever, we have to assume that drugs remain a part of the game, but perhaps they are a bit less common.

The game in which a batter faced nine fielders, including a cunning pitcher, evolved into the game in which a batter faced an outfield wall between 350 and 400 feet away. Just hitting the ball that far was the object, not threading it through the fielders, hitting a sacrifice fly, or figuring out what the pitcher was about to throw.

The Twins never played that type of baseball, though they now have four batters with over 20 home runs for the season, and in Justin Morneau a serious power hitter. But they play baseball within the walls more than beyond them. And a good defense can shut them down awfully well, because the batting order has numerous weak spots.

This afternoon, the Twins could only peck at Bannister for six full innings, but in the outburst of the seventh, they suddenly overmastered Bannister and Farnsworth’s every move. Was Bannister that tired and Farnsworth that off? Or did the Twins lineup come to life, all together and in especially glorious fashion?

I may be guilty of imposing a story on what I saw, but the fusillade of hits in the seventh showed me that the Twins batting order should not be written off. Seven batters hit successfully, one of them twice, and an eighth got a sac fly. There’s no great mystery to what makes a big inning: you get two hits for every out. And today, hitters weak and strong all did something to the ball in the seventh.

It’s impossible to find the seam between offense and defense. For the first two thirds of the game, the defense did what it’s supposed to, perhaps aided just a tad by a semi-generous strike zone. None of the hitters had much to say about it.

But when the game broke open, it probably took both weakness in the defense and strength in the offense to do it. I will venture one supposition. Baseball acquaints each player, on a minute by minute basis, with success and failure. It may take less for the brain to flood with temporary certainty about one side or the other of that equation than we think.

Perhaps Bannister hated that home run and couldn’t settle down after allowing it. And perhaps Farnsworth was stunned by two consecutive first pitch hits and couldn’t summon up a shred of confidence afterwards. Finally, perhaps every Twins hitter came to the plate with an equally inaccurate conviction, but this time it was the belief that hits were easily to be had.

No sports performance is simply self-confidence. But all the training and natural skill in the world can’t ignite without some of that belief, a far stronger tonic than the drugs that cheapened the homer into a boring currency. The subtle mental lever is much, much harder to push.

[game 123] Floating

Baseballs float. Only occasionally, but they do. In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game against the Royals, Michael Cuddyer lofted a ball to shallow right. It was not far beyond first base, and it hung in the air with a rapturous pause. Three fielders converged on it, but some force of  fortune let the ball drop in the narrow patch of grass none of them could reach.

This hit would be classified as a blooper, as if we needed apologize for a double earned by the maddening geometry of a baseball field. And, in truth, it confers little glory on Cuddyer’s hitting prowess. But it essentially won the game, so let us now praise imperfect hits.

Cuddyer hit it right after a double play had erased a runner. But Orlando Cabrera escaped that carnage to find asylum on third base, and scored on Cuddyer’s bloop to give the Twins an 8-6 lead.

They would need it, for the Royals gave reliever Matt Guerrier all he could handle in the bottom of the ninth. (Joe Nathan wasn’t in his usual closer’s spot after pitching two full innings last night, blowing the save and then watching the Twins come back to hand him the win.) Guerrier notched a strikeout, but gave up two singles and then watched a run score on a fielder’s choice.

And the fielder appeared to make a poor choice at that. Alexi Casilla, at second base, threw to second for the sure force out while the runner was crossing the plate. But it looked like he could have started a double play to end the game. So it’s Twins 8, Royals 7 with one out to go.

Guerrier is not the majestic presence Nathan is, so the game was much in doubt here. But Royals right-fielder Josh Anderson rapped an easy grounder to second the end the game and allow the Twins to climb within three games of .500.

Baseballs floated and fell in funny ways all through the game. Early on, the Twins staked themselves to a 3-0 lead, on a solo homer from Cuddyer and a 2-RBI double from Jason Kubel one inning later. The Royals answered with a two runs of their own in the fifth.

Then the game got interesting.

Twins fans have set their alarm clocks for the sixth inning during this last week. Twice Minnesota rallied from massive deficits to tally comeback wins against the Rangers, garnering the majority of the runs in the sixth. And when they just happened to fail to obliterate another Rangers lead in the game last Thursday, it looked more like an oversight than conventional baseball odds.

So tonight, with a skinny lead in Kansas City, the Twins started the sixth by adding more proof that some minor baseball deity will smile upon their exploits in that one particular inning. Joe Mauer allowed two strikes to pile up on him, as he often does. This time he tried and failed to check a hopeless swing for strike three. But the pitch he flinched at bounced at the plate and skittered away from catcher Miguel Olivo.

Mauer, perfectly schooled in all the best baseball practices, took off immediately for first to outrun the throw on a dropped strike three. He won the race, and led off the inning on the deluxe strikeout/wild pitch combo.

Royals starter Kyle Davies banished Kubel on a fly out, but walked Cuddyer  and could only obtain a fielder’s choice from Delmon Young. There were men on first and third without a hit in the inning.

Then the Twins decided to do more than surf on the weird waves of their sixth inning mojo. Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, and Casilla hit three neat singles in a row, sending Davies to the showers and three runs across the plate. The Twins had a perky 6-2 lead.

The Royals went on the attack to score two in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh, but never gained the lead.

We always follow the score, but this was a game in which you wanted to watch the baseball itself. Denard Span misplayed a Royals hit to right that rattled to the wall in an eerie recreation of a Twins hit the bollixed the KC right-fielder the night before. I’d check that wall for hidden magnets, force fields, or maybe Severus Snape’s season ticket.

In the third inning, Alexi Casilla did a perfect Superman leap, the kind your mother doesn’t even want you trying on your bed. He followed the ball so well he was able to fly after it, laying out flat to catch it and throw to first for a double play that ended a scoring threat.

Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the pitches Brian Duensing threw for this first major league win were as fascinating as those floating, bouncing, or flying balls. Duensing faced some pressure most innings, but his final stats are pretty: a win, three strikeouts, one walk, and six hits. Yes, he allowed two earned runs, but they came on a double from Olivio, who would be his penultimate batter. Until the fifth, Duensing kept the Royals off the scoreboard.

The Twins built themselves an especially enjoyable win tonight, but they continue to languish on the far fringes of contention. Perhaps they will be buoyed up to run off a real string of wins, but until they can repeat this success at will, we are left with the pleasure of little gems like Casilla’s lunge in the air or Mauer’s pure presence of mind or Cuddyer’s ghost-floating double. I’m happy to have these joys, and am starting to feel they’ll be all I collect this season. So savor them I shall.

[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 94] Slump

Sports outcomes are random. They are more random than we can possibly tolerate. They are so random that we are forced to tell stories to stitch them back together, to explain the randomness. What would be the point, after all, of watching people play games at a very high level if their skill wasn’t enough to banish the randomness?

Joe Mauer’s season contains too stark a contrast for us to endure the randomness in it. Right now, the random matter of his batting success has split his season in two, between a remarkable beginning and a grisly slump.

But I think his complete season will probably resemble a five-act play, not a black and white contrast.

Act One: he’s missing. He has surgery to relieve back problems stemming from a kidney blockage, and misses all of spring training and the first month of the season. His absence hangs over the Twins, and the team gets off to a mediocre start.

Act Two: he returns in the most triumphant fashion imaginable. Any rational fan reconciled himself to patience—Mauer couldn’t possibly have all his baseball powers fully at his fingers after such an absence. In fact, who knows how well he’ll bounce back from his back woes. But he starts May with a home run, and starts hitting for average and for power. We have never seen him look better.

Act Three: the power quietly leaks away. Mauer still hits some homers and beefy doubles, but he’s back to lacing liners into left. The swing is still shimmering, the average is still otherworldly. But that whole miracle of equaling his last year’s home run total in about one month is over.

And the glory of the average is hidden under a cloud. Missing the first month, Mauer doesn’t collect enough at bats to be in league lists until right before the All-Star break. He is at .400 for a time, but when he finally cracks the official tabulations, he’s in .380 territory.

Act Three ends with Mauer trudging off to the All-Star festivities with a cold he’s had trouble shaking and big expectations for his participation in the Home Run Derby. A week or so before, he’s treated to the Sports Illustrated cover curse—his .400 average has disappeared two days before the magazine hits the stands with a discussion of whether he’s the guy who can match Ted Williams’ feat.

Now we’re in Act Four. And what once was so startlingly easy for Mauer has become impossible. In the last game before the All-Star break, he struck out four times. He was 0 for 6 against Texas on Sunday, for the first time in his career.

His July batting average is .264, sucking his cumulative BA down to .353. After hitting better than anyone in any league at any time this season, he’s now parked behind Ichiro Suzuki. He’s struck out 11 times this month.

In tonight’s game against the A’s, so far he has a strikeout and a hit. A single that advances a runner but leads to no runs. The kind of hit we fans are now looking at with our microscopes, picking it up in our tweezers to see this endangered species, Maueronomous Hittibus.

Yes, that’s how we dissect these things. We’re baseball fans, off on the sidelines, no more capable of hitting a single 90-mph pitch than we are of curing cancer. But we’re experts, and we’re desperate for meaning. Mauer’s problems are our problems, but at the exotic distance of problems we can blame on someone else. Joe! Joe!

We’re indignant, or cynical, or passionate with grief. But we’re not indifferent. It can’t be randomness. Not possible. You can’t do something beautifully for two months and then, suddenly, stop. You need magic, voodoo, superstition to break out of a slump. Because it couldn’t be random.

So now I’ll introduce some game narrative. The game was a 2-2 tie since the fourth inning. Dallas Braden started for the A’s and kept the Twins quiet but for a small outburst in the fourth, pitching seven strong innings. Anthony Swarzak started for the Twins and gave up 4 hits and 2 runs over seven innings.

We’re in the tenth. Mauer’s slump is still hanging over him, but with one out he gets a solid hit. And on Michael Cuddyer’s triple, he scores the tie-breaking run. Then in the bottom of the inning, Joe Nathan mows them down 1-2-3 to preserve the one-run lead for a Twins win.

What is a slump? It’s not merely and purely randomness. There is a massive psychological component to most slumps. Mauer’s cloud is of his own making, but he’s a distinctively well-integrated young man, from all we can tell watching him.

Remember Paul O’Neill, the Yankee right fielder who nearly exploded in fury when he struck out? Mauer is his baseball opposite. It’s reasonable to expect Mauer to work his way calmly out of this particular pit.

And while he does, none of us will be able to acknowledge the randomness of it. We literally can’t see such things. We see stories. We need stories. We have to explain the ability to hit precisely because it is a nearly inexplicable skill. Joe, I’m waiting for Act Five.

[game 89] Ending on an Up

Who knows if momentum matters. Who knows if it’s real. And who knows if it will last long enough to be waiting for the Twins when they return from the All-Star break. But the Twins end with a win against the White Sox and get to peek just above that big wall labeled .500.

Scott Baker started for the Twins, and he seemed to have shrugged off his last loss. He was pitching with a brisker pace and more command, and the White Sox paid for it.

While Baker held up his end, the Twins pounded on Mark Buehrle. The distinctive point was who did the pounding. Denard Span and Brendan Harris both had excellent games, with three RBI apiece, but the standout was Carlos Gomez.

Gomez was last seen tugging his batting average upwards to .220. Perhaps he’s on a steady climb, or perhaps the Sox bring out the best in him. In any case, he hit a three-run homer in the second inning to give the Twins a 5-0 lead. And he wasn’t done—he also had a double and a two-run single. Add the snappy shoestring catch and a couple good throws from center, and you can salute the player of the game. His average is now up to .235.

The Twins gave Buehrle trouble, and he had uncharacteristic struggles. He’s one of those fast-working pitchers who likes to get a little conveyor belt of outs going. But the Twins never let him settle in.

The first batter he faced set the tone. Denard Span worked the count a while and then tried to bunt himself on base. The bunt was rolling in that no-man’s-land along the first base line. Buehrle charged it in case it would be plainly fair, then realized it would roll foul. Buehrle had to make an acrobatic step or two to avoid touching the ball, but the big man pulled it off.

It looked like Span had been well and truly outfoxed. But on the next pitch, Span shifted from first gear to overdrive and parked a homer in right. There would be no luck for Buehrle the rest of the outing, and he left after one out in the fourth, with the Twins up 8-1.

In the sixth, Baker showed some of that troubling inability to finish hitters and innings off. With two outs, he walked Alexei Ramirez, then gave up a single to Jermaine Dye.

That brings Jim Thome to the plate. Thome is a true professional hitter,looking for his pitch, knowing what he’s paid to do with it. Baker can’t trick him, Baker can’t dodge him, and finally, Baker can’t beat him. Thome hits a three-run homer to re-energize the Sox. They’re still behind by four runs, but that big Twins lead has quickly wilted away.

The Sox score another run in the seventh, off Jose Mijares in relief, and I pause to wonder if the tide is turning for good. But in the bottom of the seventh, the entire Twins lineup comes to the plate, and five more runs are up on the board.

That’s the way to re-deflate the White Sox—get 13 runs on the board. But Chicago stays scrappy, and musters a single run in both the eighth and ninth. These are meaningless to the outcome, but self-respect counts when going into the All-Star vacation. The final score is 13-7, and the Twins take the series 2-1.

The All-Star break may actually hold some peril for the Twins. Beloved Joe Mauer is entitled to the same ebb and flow as any baseball player, but I don’t think I’m the only fan wracked with worry at the pattern discernable in Mauer’s last several games.

He’s been grounding out to second, or flying out well short of the left field wall that was his home to his homers in May and June. The delightful burst of power he brought when starting his season in May is trickling away. We can live without it, but what does it mean to get that power swing going and then to lose it?

Of further concern, Mauer is not rapping out the singles and doubles that are his stock in trade. This afternoon, he did the unthinkable—struck out four times.

Mauer is a collected young man, capable of disregarding the slings and arrows of baseball fortune. He can have slumps and rise again. But I confess to concern as he has several lousy days at the plate and then marches off to participate in the freak show that is the current incarnation of the Home Run Derby.

This hitting display used to be a fairly low-key competition between the American and National Leagues. Now, as Fox likes to say, This time it counts. As in, this time it puts individual hitters under an idiotic blend of pressure and self-aggrandizement.

Remember Bobby Abreu? He won the contest, handily, and then spent the rest of the season in the greatest power drought of his career.

Everyone is watching, and they’re watching for only one thing—more homers! Further! Deeper! Faster! No matter how sweet the tosses, no hitter can keep launching blast after blast. And any hitter will feel pressure to swing at everything, even balls that couldn’t be turned into home runs by Barry Bonds at his most juiced.

So I stand concerned about Mauer getting himself into this stinking contest. Notably, Justin Morneau, last year’s winner, declined to make a second showing. I hope Mauer stays mellow, falls out in the first round, and enjoys his All-Star start. And then comes back having forgotten the last week of regular season play. Conserve yourself, Joe, for a fresh start for the second half.

[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.