Interleague play began tonight, and the Twins got their geographical rivalry assignment: the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers happen to be one of the hottest teams in all of baseball right now, with an impressive 26-16 record, second only to the Dodgers in winning percent. They’re keeping both the Cardinals and the Cubs out of first place in the NL Central.
In other words, the happy high of yesterday’s rout of the White Sox might be short lived.
The Twins started Kevin Slowey, a pitcher I find new reasons to admire every time I watch him. Tonight he bottled up the Brewers with his trademark control. He kept them altogether off the bases until the third inning, when he hit DH Mat Gamel with a pitch a bit too high and tight. A double play quickly righted things.
Slowey was sailing along until he started the fourth with a tendency to let the ball loft up. Fewer strikes, juicier pitchers, but above all, not his game. Suddenly he wasn’t executing perfectly. You won’t find this problem in the box score, however. He gave up a lonely double to JJ Hardy, but ended the inning with a strikeout, back in control.
In the fifth, Slowey had some more wobbles. Mike Cameron led off with a single, the first time a Brewer had gotten on base with no outs. Cameron was erased on a fielder’s choice, but Corey Hart stuck around on the bases, and finally scored on a sac fly. The shutout was gone, but the Brewers were doing more whimpering than banging.
Slowey’s razor-sharp control faded a bit late in the game. He notched four strikeouts, but ended up allowing three runs (two earned) and eight hits over seven and a third innings. Though the Brewers had some opportunities, at no point did they appear ready to turn the tables on Slowey. He limited them to small outbursts, nothing more.
When we last left the Twins hitters, they were clobbering the White Sox in an exuberant scoring display. They faced Manny Parra today, and kept up the barrage. The final score was 11-3, so the Twins have scored 31 runs in their last two games.
They couldn’t even wait: it started in the first with Mauer engineering a walk and Morneau a single. In Gardenhire’s new lineup—don’t change a thing!—Spans leads off and then we go straight to the M&M show. Michael Cuddyer got the 4-spot tonight, though Jason Kubel would have occupied it were he not a late scratch with a knee problem.
Welcome to the cleanup spot, Michael Cuddyer. I have to be honest. I saw Cuddyer start the season in ho-hum fashion, and then watched happily as he seemed to find his stroke. It was a bit of a light switch being flipped, and I confess I doubted he could hold on to the solid hitter’s groove.
But as his eye traveled like a laser down his bat as he located a fat pitch from Parra, he extended his arms and laced the ball deep to left. It was such a sweet, clear swing—a perfect coil of power and grace. The three-run homer got the Metrodome fans rocking and the Twins off to an early lead.
They would go on to score in every inning but the fifth, seventh, and eighth, the precise pattern they used against Chicago yesterday. It looks a bit like they’re being true Minnesotans: they stop scoring for the last two innings to avoid any sign of rudeness.
But scoring over multiple innings is not a minor matter. All through the six-game losing streak, we tended to get a little lead and then retreat. Keeping up the pressure and even the rhythm of scoring is essential.
To score 11 runs takes contributions from almost everybody, but we had a true player of the game. In four at-bats, Cuddyer hit for the cycle. He started with the homer, got a double in the third, and a single in the fourth. By then, he had four RBIs, had scored two runs, and was 3-for-3.
In the sixth, Denard Span led off with a homer, Mauer struck out, and then Morneau singled. Cuddyer is up. Yes, it’s yet another time when a player is but a triple away from hitting for the cycle. In Cuddyer’s case, this looks like an especially academic possibility.
A few weeks ago, we saw Jason Kubel complete the feat, and he has a similar physique. By which I mean, a bit too thick and stout to make triples hitting anything but a statistical abnormality.
Brewers manager Ken Macha has seen enough from Cuddyer tonight, so he brings in a new relief pitcher, Jorge Julio, to try to quiet him down. And at first Julio looks like the man for the job. Two quick strikes. Then a ball. Then a classic Julio surprise, a wild pitch.
On his next delivery, Cuddyer splinters his bat as he deposits the ball in the luckiest little line over the third base bag, barely fair, totally unfieldable. The ball rockets along the foul line all the way to the left field corner. Brewers are chasing it no doubt, but Cuddyer is running his heart out. First. Second. And a gasping plunge into third—safe.
The cycle is an arbitrary expression of skill. There are more profound ways to affect the outcome of a game, and any night with four hits is arguably just as impressive. But the certain poetry of it is undeniable—all possible hits, hit!
This season threatens to cheapen the miracle. Kubel accomplished his during a week when two other players also bucked the odds. Now we have two Twins in one season. The last time two teammates had cycles was in 2003, when Vladimir Guerrero and Brad Wilkerson hit ‘em for the Montreal Expos.
Oddly, two Twins have shared cycle honors in the same season: Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock did it in 1976.
I hope we haven’t seen a real end to the exotic rarity of the cycle, because I still want to stand up and cheer when it happens. Tonight Cuddyer went 4 for 5, with a career-high five RBI. This was also his third consecutive game with a homer.
Cuddyer gives the Twins a great arm in right field. I have had some doubts as to his significance at the plate, but I’m ready to let this year’s performance change my mind. After his slow start, Cuddyer is still hitting only .275, with a .364 OBP. That puts him around the league average.
Cuddyer had his best year in 2006, playing in 150 games and getting his average to .284 and OBP to .362. He had a big power surge that year too, hitting 24 homers to notch .504 in SLG. His OPS was .867. All these numbers were above average, and the Twins have been waiting for that player to come back.
In 2007 the drop off was most acute in the power department: he hit only 16 homers, and the RBI dropped from 109 to 81. Just as telling, his doubles were down by a third, just like the homers. Last season, he had a thumb injury that cut his playing time in half. It was a rickety year all around, and he managed a .249 average.
In the last three weeks, Cuddyer has shown the great swing of his past peak, and I believe he may be combining it with greater plate discipline and insight into opposing pitchers. We may be seeing a real blossoming, not just a temporary spike.
He is still only on pace to match that 24-home run high, but more importantly he appears to be the strong right-hand bat the Twins need to keep the lineup a minefield for opposing pitchers.
Cuddyer is 34, so a career year is unlikely. But a solid, consistent contribution to the team is all we’re asking and, it appears, we’re going to get our wish.