Category Archives: home runs

[game 161] Two Perils

And now there are four outcomes left, and three of them are favorable. Hold onto that for a moment: three of them are favorable. If the Twins and Tigers both win Sunday, there’s a deciding game 163 at the Metrodome. Same if the Twins and Tigers both lose.

If the Twins win and the Tigers lose—which would require the odds-stretching outcome of three-game sweeps by both the Twins and the White Sox—the Twins take the division at the last possible minute, having never been in alone first place before.

And then there’s the fourth possibility, a Tigers win and a Twins loss. That would end it right there, break the tie and break the spell. But for now, there’s still a last possible bit of magic.

It felt like it took magic for the Twins to escape two mighty perils on Saturday. They faced Zach Greinke, who’d beaten them five days ago. Greinke isn’t just pitching to be a spoiler, he’s pitching for the Cy Young award. The only stat hindering his case right now is the win total, so getting another W is crucial. The entire Royals team wants to help him toward that trophy.

Facing him is Nick Blackburn, going on three days’ rest. It looks like a matchup tilted wildly KC’s way. But both pitchers are equally masterful for six innings, and the scoreless void felt as big as the inflated Metrodome. Then it was Greinke who cracked.

Joe Mauer got the hit that busted open those zeroes, scoring Nick Punto on a single. It was a long, careful at-bat, the mirror of last week’s showdown between Greinke and Mauer—the one that Greinke won with a K. This time, Mauer, converted a Greinke fastball into a base hit.

It looked like the inning was going to contain just that painstakingly put together run, built from Punto’s walk and Denard Span’s sacrifice to nudge him onto second, and Orlando Cabrera’s groundout that parked him on third. But the Twins had more in store.

Mauer’s hit unlocked something in the game: he put doubt in Greinke’s mind. With two outs, Jason Kubel doubled and then Greinke hit Michael Cuddyer to load the bases.

If you want to win a Cy Young, you’ll have to face more than a few of these situations, and bend them to your will. Greinke may still get the award, but it won’t be for this inning—he gave up a mighty three-run double to Delmon Young. Twins 4, Royals 0, most formidable pitching obstacle overcome. Greinke was finished after six innings.

The Royals tallied a run via a solo homer from Mike Jacobs in the next inning, but the 4-1 lead was comfortable enough for Blackburn to start the eighth. And once again the perils of baseball are made manifest. For to put it simply, baseball is not easy.

Miguel Olivo doubles to lead off the inning. It’s a walloping hit that bounces back off the rightfield wall to become a ground rule double instead of the homer it more closely resembled. Ron Gardenhire is in no-chances mode, so Blackburn is pulled after great and glorious service.

Lefthander Jose Mijares comes in to face Alex Gordon. Both players have intermittent success, and interludes of trouble. Mijares can shut down a string of batters, then flail to find the strike zone. Gordon has potential seething from every pore, but has yet to rack up the stats to match. So, who will prevail today?

It’ll be Gordon. He lofts a home run to right, scoring Olivo as well. The Twins’ lead is down to one.

Then it’s erased altogether. After Mijares allowed the next batter to reach on a single, Jon Rauch lumbered up to the mound. This inning now has the distinct tang of failure, but Rauch might be the right man to put a stop to that. He’s a giant presence up there, and he likes to throw strikes.

Which, in this instance, can be swung on. Willie Bloomquist singles to fill the corners. There are no outs, and if we don’t get a few right now, there will be no tomorrow either.

Rauch bears down. Mitch Maier hits a double play ball, but those two outs are poor consolation for the run that scores. The game is tied.

Rauch gets the third out against formidable Billy Butler. There’s a lot to feel good about—it’s only a tie, Butler’s been stopped in his tracks, and this immense inning is finally over. But it feels like a turning point, and not turning a happy direction. The second peril of the day rises up—we’ll have to do more than beat Greinke; we’ll have to beat the whole team.

In the bottom of the eighth, we see the difference between playing a game and playing for your life. The Tigers won’t start their showdown against the White Sox until tonight, but they’ll end up playing tight and tense. And losing, for a second time.

The Twins faced the toughest pitcher they had to beat to keep their improbable run alive, and they kept him from winning. And in the eighth, Michael Cuddyer came up to the plate and took an extremely pretty cut, looked high off to left and tossed his bat aside with joy.

Home run, Twins ahead to stay.

Playing loose, like there’s no tomorrow.

[game 144] Joy

You can count the rest of the season. You can count it in the seven games remaining against the Tigers, or against teams that ought to be (here’s hoping) pushovers. You can count the games remaining in the Metrodome itself, and the number is so small that this afternoon the TV crew was given a chance to have a last little pickup game on soon-to-be rolled up carpet.

But most of all, you can count the season in opportunities. We’re in that limbo now when it’s mathematically possible to win the division, but the likelihood dims each day. Yes, there are enough games left to do it in, but where will the spark come from to light up those chances?

Having failed to use the Oakland A’s as a punching bag, the Twins opened a series against the Indians at the Dome tonight. Would they oblige as patsies and let us take a few steps toward the Tigers?

They started lefty Jeremy Sowers, the pitcher who’d caused the Twins so much trouble in his last outing against them. And tonight he went seven shimmering innings, confining the Twins to a handful of little hits.

Sowers doesn’t mow batters down with strikeouts and doesn’t throw much above 90 mph, but he garners groundouts with the best of them. He tied Denard Span up in knots, and seemed to trick every other hitter into chopping the ball up the middle for an easy out.

Everyone but Joe Mauer, that is. Mauer continued his march toward the batting title by going 3 for 3 tonight, all singles. But no following batter was able to nudge him as far as third, and the Twins were blanked for seven innings.

Carl Pavano made few mistakes on the mound for the Twins, but two bad pitches were enough. He walked rookie catcher Lou Marson and then served up a home run ball to Trevor Crowe. Crowe, batting ninth, will remember the moment—it was his first big league dinger.

One inning later, Pavano allowed a solo homer to Shin-Soo Choo, and the Indians were up 3-0 with an apparently impregnable Sowers on the mound.

And in fact, the secret of winning this game was getting past Sowers to the bullpen. The normally hard as nails Tony Sipp faced Orlando Cabrera, who hit a bat-splintering chopper to short. Asdrubal Cabrera mishandled the ball, and on that error the eighth inning began.

Facing Mauer, who had placed his singles neatly to left, center, and right, Sipp may have been concerned that the necklace was missing the home run jewel. He walked Mauer, and the Indians trotted out righty Chris Perez to face Michael Cuddyer.

Here the game, and the season, balance for a moment. If Cabrera hadn’t made that error, and if Sipp hadn’t flinched against Mauer, the three-run lead might well have stood up. There weren’t a lot of fans on a Monday in the Metrodome to spur the team, but this was the time when the players themselves would have to pluck desire from the ashes. At this balancing point, it could have gone either way.

Cuddyer did the magical thing. There isn’t anything more magical than parking the ball in the seats to tie a game that had looked hopeless for two hours. With a brisk swing, Cuddy lifted us all as high as the ball he crushed to center.

A tie still requires a lot of tending to convert into a win. Perez started cleaning up his mess by getting an out, then faced Delmon Young.

It was Young’s birthday, and he already had the basis of a celebration by scratching out one of the six hits Sowers permitted. Perez tried to shake off the massive homer he’d allowed, but couldn’t. Young nicked his second single.

Matt Tolbert followed with a blooper hit that floated out of range in shallow left, and Young had the presence of mind to motor all the way to third base.

Jason Kubel came up, pinch hitting for Carlos Gomez. Good choice, Mr Gardenhire. Kubel was out of the starting lineup with a sore neck, but he limbered up enough to get the count to 2-2. Perez, showing real strain, unleashed a wild pitch that allowed Young to scoot home with the go-ahead run.

Oh, the ignominy. But it got worse for poor Perez. A few pitches later, Kubel found the fastball he was looking for and punched it into the plastic seats in right. 6-3 Twins, a comeback built from swings of pure joy.

There are some ways of showing that joy. Cuddy, for example, has been raising the stakes on his post-homer high fives all season. He’s taken to smacking the welcoming committee in the dugout so hard that his teammates must wince in pain. Tonight was no exception—Gardy yelped “Ow!”

Kubel isn’t as punishing in his happiness. He tends to beam like a cherub, and I can’t quite see what’s keeping his teammates from rubbing his buzz cut head after he tosses his batting helmet on the rack. There was a lot of exuberance in that eighth inning.

Joe Nathan is still dead set on showing a high degree of difficulty of his saves. These isn’t skating, Joe! You don’t have to add that triple axle! In any case, after two smooth outs he permitted Indians to occupy first and second before coaxing a grounder to end the game.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were behind the Blue Jays, but overcame a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to go on and win the game. The Twins managed to stay 5-1/2 games back—not gaining ground, but not losing any either. That Tigers win looked every bit as magical as the treat we had from Cuddy and Kubel. How can we catch those Tags?

On the heels of this happy win came the news that Justin Morneau will be out for the rest of the season. His dwindling batting average is now explained: he has a stress fracture in his back that will require rest. It’ll heal, but it will do so on its on, in its own sweet time.

A postseason push with Morneau feels nearly impossible. In fact, the recent drop in the standings ties in all too neatly with Morneau’s hitting woes. With him and Crede lost, it’s tough to strike fear in any playoff team’s heart.

Morneau’s season is now frozen with 30 homers and 100 RBI. I remember when those nice numbers rolled over his odometer last Wednesday. I had thought he might have fixed something and set himself back on the hitting path. But this is where he will leave off, and pick up next year.

His average had been plunging, and to have it come to rest at .274 seems unfair. He had something like 7 hits in his last 70 at-bats, and that’ll ruin any average. But his season was far better than these last numbers betray. He kept the team going for the entire month of April when Mauer was out, and then, when the two of them went marching shoulder to shoulder, it looked like the Twins could be champs of the central.

Technically, I am at pains to observe, this is still so. Tonight’s win shows a bit of the heat and light we must see. But the big concern right now is which force is stronger, the loss of Morneau or the beauty of this come from behind rally?

It was a wonderful night, outcome included. Span made an elegant sliding catch and a beautiful bullet of a throw to third. Nick Punto hustled himself a hit by diving across first base, and hustled himself a stolen base in the same dusty manner. Young collected two hits on his 24th birthday.

Cuddyer had a milestone too, for the homer tonight was the 100th of his career. If you value your hands, don’t want to high five him, but you do want to celebrate.

[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 93] Dewey Beats Truman

It’s baseball, the game with the best last chances ever invented. So if I write and post a recap of tonight’s game in Oakland in the bottom of the sixth inning, there are small baseball deities that could punish me. But I’ll risk it—the Twins are going to win tonight.

At the moment, the Twins lead 13 to 7. It’s 12:30 on the east coast, so I’m not going to be awake for the entirety of this sloppy slugfest. There are two errors in the game so far, one for each team, and the A’s and the Twins both have 14 hits. So far.

By which I mean, the A’s are not by any means out of this game. Nick Blackburn pitched five inning for the Twins, scraping along to qualify for the win but having trouble every inning. As a control pitcher, Blackburn is willing to allow some hits, but it’s fair to say that allowing 13 of them halfway through a game is not executing the strategy.

Blackburn just didn’t seem to enjoy the lead the team handed him. The Twins scored three in the top of the first—a glorious Jason Kubel 3-run homer—but Blackburn gave back two in the bottom of the inning. It was role reversal, with the Twins bashing their runs and the A’s chipping theirs out with a sacrifice from Jerry Hairston and an RBI single from Kurt Suzuki.

The Twins went right back to bashing in the second. Justin Morneau watched the orderly procession of men to load the bases with no outs and then hit a grand slam. Michael Cuddyer, batting right after him, hit a homer of his own.

Morneau’s four RBIs would make a nice full game’s worth, but that was just through two innings. In the third he’d homer again with two on base and match his career best of seven RBI. I eagerly point out that the game is not over as I type this.

The Twins give A’s rookie pitcher Geo Gonzalez a brutal time. A’s manager Bob Geren, following classic baseball tough love thinking, doesn’t yank his pitcher early. Give the guy a chance to see how bad it can be, since it’s getting pretty grim out there. The Twins get up to a 12-2 lead in the top of the third. But the A’s have been getting to Blackburn all night too, and in the bottom of the third they pound out three runs, anchored by a 2-run homer from Daric Barton. Key footnote: Daric Barton with his .150 average should not be hitting home runs against anyone, much less Blackburn with a fortress-like lead.

Runs and hits continue to pile up, but both teams turn to their bullpens and the game speeds up and the defense starts taking some measure of control again. Including a snappy play from Nick Punto. Only one other hit has been notched since I started this summary. The A’s now lead in hits with 15, even as they’re behind by six runs.

Even as this happy lead gives me enough confidence to sign off early, even as the A’s radio announcers move their chatter further and further away from the tragedy on the field and onto random topics, even as the entire Twins lineup but Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto have at least one hit—even in the midst of this, I can find reasons to fret. The essence of fandom is fretting in good times as well as bad.

I leave this game for a moment to recall last night’s 12-inning nail-biter against the Texas Rangers. The Twins were concluding the series, having won Friday and Saturday, and wanted to close out a sweep. They couldn’t pull that off, but the close game still confers some honor.

Until you look at Joe Mauer’s stats for the night. He played the entire, long game behind the plate and went 0 for 5. I have been observing our perfect ballplayer gather some chips and cracks in the last month, and now we have a full collection of ofer games. We also have Ichiro Suzuki going ahead in the batting average race.

It doesn’t mean Mauer is sunk. It doesn’t, I hope, mean that entering the stupid home run contest will twist a player’s mind into pretzel. But it does mean that Mauer will need to find some way to regroup, and it’s never clear whether playing more or sitting more is the best way to do this. Mauer will still contribute through the second half, but he may well become a regulation-grade hitter for a while.

Well, back to worrying in the present tense. While I wrote the last few paragraphs, the A’s did, in one inning, what few teams can muster through the balance of a game when behind by six runs.

They got ’em all back, the last four on a grand slam from Matt Holliday. We can pause to be happy for Holliday, whose season has started so badly but, according to the A’s broadcasters I’m listening to, had some of his best cuts and best hits tonight. Just needed some Twins pitching to come to life.

Then Ron Gardenhire, who hasn’t succeeded with Brian Duensing and Bobby Keppel in relief, brings in Jose Mijares. Jack Cust hits a solo homer to push over the seventh run of the inning. And that puts the A’s ahead 14-13. One of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. In A’s lore, I learn the largest deficit they’ve overcome for a win is eight runs. Poignantly, they once hacked through a nine-run margin but ultimately lost that game—perhaps it will be a template for tonight. But overcoming 10 runs would make this their greatest comeback in team history.

The Twins now have six outs to get another run to prolong this. Brad Ziegler starts the eighth for the A’s and immediately gives up a leadoff single to Brendan Harris. Mike Redmond fails to execute a sacrifice and instead grounds into a double play. Now it’s official: I don’t like our odds.

Mauer comes in to pinch hit for Alexi Casilla. The double play severely mutes the value of it, but Mauer hits a single to left. But this isn’t the miracle inning, as Denard Span grounds out.

I’m not going to edit this. I will leave it just as I wrote it, but instead of forecasting a Twins win, I will formally change my mind on that. Not only is it maddeningly difficult to get one run out of three outs while on the road, if any team is deflated now it’s the Twins. In fact, Mijares has just given up a leadoff single to Ryan Sweeney.

Morneau, who will be up in the ninth, might be happy with his 7 RBI, but Holliday is having the more glorious game. Both players have two homers, including a slam apiece, and Holliday only got 6 RBI on the board, but he came to life to galvanize his team.

Punto just deked Mark Ellis into a double play. Now Adam Kennedy has ripped a double and Gardenhire want to replace Mijares. I’ll guess he brings in RA Dickey, but who knows what you do on a night when the baseball wants to jump out of the park and every pitch seems to float to the plate like a grapefruit. It’s 1:30 am and I should put this post on auto-blog, but I don’t know how to leave.

Oh, baseball, game of crazy last chances, what will happen tonight?

Oh, it’s Kevin Mulvey, the new righty we just added to the bullpen. There are now a total of 27 runs and 38 hits in this game. The game’s about three and a half hours old. Mulvey gets the last out and now the Twins are at bat in the ninth.

The A’s rookie starter allowed 11 runs, but they’re on the brink of winning the game anyway. It’s up to Punto, Morneau, and Cuddyer to get something this inning, facing Michael Wuertz.

Punto strikes out. Punto! Who typically does strike out, but had a walk tonight and, I’m pleased to report, a homer in the game against the Rangers yesterday. Yow! Wuertz has just struck out Morneau.

In any case, it’s Michael Cuddyer, now with a 2-1 count, who can change all that. Line drive, double down the left field line. Oh yes: everything is included in the game of baseball. Everything.

Jason Kubel is up, who has homered, singled twice, and walked twice. An intentional walk does seem the smart play, and they make it. Now Delmon Young is up. Carlos Gomez comes in to run for Kubel.

This game could elevate Young from season-long disappointment to Twins hero. Pitch in the dirt, Cuddyer tries to sneak home, and Cuddyer is out at the plate. Out on a wild pitch. Suzuki hunted and hunted it and made the throw in time.  Replay shows he looks safe, but the call is made and the game is lost. The game ends, a 10-run deficit is erased, and the A’s are floating in air. Floating.

[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 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 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.