Category Archives: interleague play

[game 78] Flat Bats

The Twins started their series against Kansas City today as if Monday really was an off day. The bats were flat, and it wasn’t so much KC starter Luke Hochevar’s prowess as the Twins’ early retirement plan.

To wrap your mind around this game, consider that the Twins had one hit through six innings against a pitcher who spent the first third of the game vaguely hunting the strike zone.

For the Twins, Nick Blackburn pitched respectably until the sixth. He had an unearned run score in the second on a throwing error from Michael Cuddyer, but kept the Royals from pecking any harder until the sixth. Then two solo homers, from low-power threats Alberto Callaspo and Miguel Olivo, put the Royals up 3-0.

What Blackburn did do was dole out hits. He allowed 10 and walked one, while the Twins committed two errors, so the bases were busy. Blackburn didn’t look especially wobbly up there, but pitching to contact is a risky business and the Royals took advantage. Olivo, for example, had a beautiful night, an ended up a double short of the cycle. His triple in the seventh, off RA Dickey, scored Callaspo and for the Royals’ fourth run.

Blackburn’s high water mark occurred in the fifth. Tony Pena Jr, who really is barely beyond hitting off a T, led off with a single. Bear in mind, what Blackburn does is allow controlled contact, but hitters like Pena shouldn’t be succeeding under this game plan. David DeJesus follows with a companion single, scooting Pena on to the third. Willie Bloomquist offers up a sac fly to get both runners in scoring position.

This is turning into a full-fledged pitching jam. Blackburn has allowed the weakest part of the lineup to climb all over the bases, and now he faces Billy Butler. Butler is still developing, but he has power and potential. But Blackburn defeats him: he flies out to center, and the presence of two outs brings us down from red alert to orange.

Mike Jacobs, his jaw slung wide with a tobacco chew the size of a jam jar, steps up. He chews and spits his way into a walk. With first base open and raw power from the left side, this evolves into a sensible plan, but now Blackburn has a tidy ring of Royals around him and Mark Teahen at the plate.

This is the fire in which pitchers are annealed. This is the test pitchers must pass. And Blackburn does. He remains in control of his full pitching arsenal and gets Teahen to strike out swinging. Blackburn may have lost this game, but he won the fifth inning, when the winning was tough.

After a rickety first and second inning, Hochevar truly settled down for the Royals. His seven scoreless innings included six at-bats with runners in scoring position. When John Bale took on the eighth inning in relief, the Twins finally punched their way onto the scoreboard. With Denard Span on third and two out, Justin Morneau lifted a long ball to right to cut the Royals’ lead to 4-2.

But this wasn’t a glorious scoring outburst. The inning had already had its moment of deflation, for it began with consecutive singles from Span and Brendan Harris. Joe Mauer had his most un-Mauerlike at-bat of the year, swinging at the first pitch to ground into a double play. Morneau’s homer felt more like scraping up crumbs than a three-course meal.

The loss puts the Twins back at .500. This will be the seventh time this year they’ve failed to pull themselves above the median. We’re just about at the halfway point, and the Twins persist in balancing every win with a loss.

I’ve assembled some little statistics, and though they aren’t entirely dispiriting, they don’t lead to resounding cheers. The April W-L record was 11-11, May’s was 14-16, and June will be finished off tomorrow at either 15-12 or 14-13. The Twins will either be one game over or one under .500 with 49% of the season complete.

We’ve had two 3-game winning streaks and one real corker of a 4-game spree, but otherwise we stack the wins right next to the losses. There is little sense of momentum.

Still, what inspired my tabulations was the hope that I would find some hope in the results of interleague play, now complete. The Twins are a sparkling .666 (12-6) against the National League. They quite laid waste to the Brewers, going 5-1, and won every series except the battle with the Astros.

And they won on the road. After starting the season with a massive home/road skew, they are completing their travels in this KC series by taking two of three against both Milwaukee and St Louis.

The most melancholy little interleague stat is that Twins pitchers are precisely 0 for 19—not even a bunt single in the 9 games played in NL parks. On the plus side, no pitchers were injured in the making of this film.

By tally of games played, we’re three away from the midpoint of the season, but the crucial division battle is only one-third complete. If the Twins would care to get hot, July is the time to do it. We’ll have six games against the White Sox and three against mighty Detroit, plus a 10-game visit to the AL West. Hotness, please. And anything to make me forget tonight’s sluggish sortie.


[games 76, 77] Two Games, Two Sports

For a while, it looked like the games would stay in eerie parallel, with each of my teams out to an early lead. I was toggling between the Twins concluding their series with the Cardinals and the US soccer team trying to upset Brazil in the Confederations Cup. My husband observed that merely mentioning soccer in this blog could easily cost me a quarter of my precious readers, but I’ll risk it.

The Twins have a penchant for scoring early, but it’s a trait widely shared—the first inning has by far the largest average runs per inning. The mechanism is easy to understand: the pitcher finding his sea legs, versus the batting order in its theoretically optimal trim.

Today was a case in point. The Cardinals started Joel Piniero who, at 6-8, hasn’t revived his career with the move to St Louis. (For that matter, we will start Francisco Liriano, 3-8, who was in danger of losing his rotation spot.) Denard Span leads off and is safe on an error, Brendan Harris advances him to second on a groundout, and Joe Mauer fluffs up his batting average with a single. First and third, one out.

This is what we like to call a Justin Morneau situation. It’s a three-run homer, then, and the Twins look ready to bounce back from yesterday’s game.

A brief digression to recap Saturday’s contest: Albert Pujols hit a double helping of two-run homers to set the Cards on to win 5-3. Kevin Slowey doled those runs out and lasted a mere three innings as his attempt to be the first AL pitcher with 11 victories was foiled early. I had to watch these events crawl by on my computer’s game update, as Fox and MLB form an impenetrable wall shielding me from all Saturday afternoon baseball. The fiends.

Today, however, none of that loss lingers over the Twins. Liriano keeps the Cards, and Pujols in particular, in check for seven innings, allowing 4 hits and 2 runs. The Twins tack on another run on a Harris sac fly, and collect their fifth run in the ninth when Harris pushes Joe Crede in to score on an RBI single.

But I’m spending much of that time savoring the soccer. I doubt my eyes as the US scores first, and twice. The first goal, from Clint Dempsey, requires threading the needle through defenders. The second, by Landon Donovan, is a little case study in ball control, as he splits defenders, passes left, receives the return, does that shoulder drop/knee bend that drives the defender the wrong way, and then plants a shot squarely by the goalkeeper.

There are three great pleasures in being a soccer fan. First, the game is a beautiful flow of motion, and the exotic scarcity of scoring makes every goal a stunning triumph. Second, no commercial breaks. Third, you have to root for Italy, Argentina, France, Germany, Brazil, England, Croatia, Spain—anyone but the US, which musters out unspectacular team after unspectacular team.

So I’m not watching today as a US partisan, though I admit that this fairy-tale ride into the finals is remarkable. The US was nearly eliminated from the tournament by losses to Brazil and Italy. Their only chance of staying in was a 3-0 win against Egypt (unlikely, given their level of play to date) and a 3-0 loss by Italy to Brazil (virtually impossible, as Italy last suffered such a shutout before, I don’t know, something like Marconi’s invention of the radio.)

But the unlikely/impossible is why we have sports, and the scores come true. The US plays with heart and vigor to overcome Egypt. And Italy, I don’t know how this could have happened. I was frantically cheering for the Azzuri in the 2006 World Cup and shall continue to consider them campioni del mondo until the calendar requires me to concede.

In any case, next up, another miracle. The US edges Spain to get into the championship match. Spain, top team by many measures, can’t slow down this surge from Team USA.

Simply appearing in today’s championship match puts the US men in new territory. They haven’t reached a FIFA final before, let alone won a tournament. The odds favor Brazil, overwhelmingly. It’s time, of course, for this string of stunning surprises to come to an end.

So I lean back, ready to see the Brazilians do their beautiful dance with the ball as Donovan & Co. struggle to keep up, but the match starts off far differently. Here’s USA keeping firm possession, playing with confidence and flow. And the first goal, within ten minutes, is a pure shock.

I know I should tear my eyes away and return to my baseball world, but I can’t let go. I tell myself that I will see baseball better if I train my gaze here for a while, the better to appreciate the contrast. After all, the best way to learn what something is is to see clearly what it is not.

Soccer is a restless flow, and I know why it can seem dull to Americans glancing by: much of the movement is irresolute, and all of it appears in a TV camera long shot. Baseball, by contrast, is a game of close-ups. And even if every baseball event has a long prelude of cap adjusting, spitting, cleat scratching, and bat wiggling, the pure purpose is always clear.

In soccer, the prettiest thing you can see in ninety minutes usually looks like an accident, not least because no one can seem to do it twice. Baseball is like a vast ocean of failure, with an unbearably precise statistical record of every shortcoming, but each isolated burst of excellence—the pinpoint pitch, the perfect swing, the hustle and glide of the double play—echoes an unchanging ideal. We know those plays. We know they aren’t easy, but that practice and skill makes them possible.

In soccer, emotion and happenstance make each goal—any goal—a miracle bordering on pure innovation. When Donovan carves out his this afternoon, he runs toward the sidelines in his happy exuberance, repeatedly tapping his own chest as if to say, “Me! Me! I did what’s never been done before!” Because there is no template, and almost no true strategy to soccer. I acknowledge there are styles of play, and ways of connection on the field, and overall coaching vision. But soccer is a game of vast space, and even the dive of the goaltender can only ever cover so much of it. Soccer is entropy with a scoring mechanism.

The US has a stunning first period, and their 2-0 lead will certainly hold up if they can continue to move the ball and bewitch Brazil as they have just done for 45 minutes. But halftime divides the game distinctly in two. Brazil is newly energized. In the first minute of the second half, they score and break the wall keeper Tim Howard had tended so firmly the first half.

Now Team USA can’t stop reeling from the blow. They stop controlling the ball and pursuing their defense. In the 60th minute, Brazil’s Kaka drives a header past Howard, who handles it behind the post but sends it out so promptly the referee is convinced it never crossed the plane of the goal. Replays make the point evident, but Brazil has not yet tied the game.

It will be another 15 minutes before they do, but the equalizer is struck. This entire half, the US has mounted barely a threat. You can’t help feeling like they’re returning to earth, and with a thud, their passport to miracles having expired. The tie, though, still allows hope.

Until Brazil turns the clock against them by scoring in the 85th minute. It begins off a corner kick, and when Howard lies flattened with failure, the team has collectively given up. It’s Brazil 3-2, and the end of upsets for this tournament.

When I turn back to baseball, I contrast the flow and beauty of the two games. Here’s Joe Mauer taking a ball, and then the pause filled with preliminaries for the next pitch. It’s a strike. Mauer’s average had been above .400 for a while today, but grounding into a double play has him in need of a hit. The shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, the pitcher’s little prefaces to pitching, and then the play: Mauer grounds out, and will end the day at .394.

There were a dozen shifts and sniffs and scratches necessary to reach that outcome. Baseball is hitch and go and hitch again. Finally, after all that running on the soccer pitch, I get the clumsiest version of motion baseball provides. In the bottom of the ninth, as the Twins are trying to preserve their lead, Joe Thurston is caught in a rundown. He was on first and Jason LaRue on second when Chris Duncan singled. That hit should have filled the bases and put the Twins’ 4-run lead in pretty sharp danger. But Carlos Gomez fielded the ball quickly and Brendan Harris saw Thurston dashing too far past second, hoping LaRue was going to score. No sir. Gomez threw cleanly and Harris tagged him out. Twins win, in the particular halting flow that is baseball.

[game 75] Inching Over .500

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[game 73] E 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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