For all 20 players, four umpires, two bullpens, coaches, managers, and 19,310 fans, tonight’s game between the Royals and Twins was not so much a game as an arduous siege. The game took 3 hours and 17 minutes, and, of all symmetries, 317 pitches were thrown.
The score, the payoff of all that pitching? 2-1, Twins.
The Twins won this glacial contest by means of two simple plays, mixed in with a long evening of suffering. Justin Morneau hit a solo homer in the fourth in a little isolated moment of excellence. The ball splashed in the pretty Kaufman Stadium fountain, and Morneau trotted home. It looked just like baseball, baseball you’d love to play.
But around it, mostly darkness. That homer tied the game, after KC went ahead swiftly in the first inning by nudging a runner home on a double and a single with two out. The Twins went ahead in the sixth when the Royals botched a double play and an unearned run scored.
Now, this game was not badly player, you understand. There was but the one error between both clubs. It was actually played very well, with each side holding the other in check. It was a game that seemed to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that offense and defense in baseball are perfectly matched.
The essence of the game was the foul ball. Scott Baker threw 111 pitches in just five innings, and a large proportion of them became crowd souvenirs. It seemed that every hitter managed to get into a 3-2 count against Baker. It was eerie, as if time had stopped again and again. Each at bat was frozen into permanence, only to be succeeded by another laborious one.
Baker didn’t make many mistakes, but he never had an easy time of it. He gave up five hits, two in the first inning and three clustered in the fourth. Getting out of that inning was an ordeal. It took 28 pitches, and with the bases full, Baker ended it by facing Tony Pena.
Here’s the sequence: foul, strike looking, ball, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, strikeout on foul tip.
Gruesome, really, for both players. Baseball looked so hard tonight I don’t know why anyone would want to play it. The Twins batters pecked out a total of 8 hits, including Morneau’s shining blast and a stack of isolated singles. The Royals also managed 8 hits.
But neither pitcher was especially overwhelming. Brian Bannister started for KC and went seven innings. His highlight is a collection of six strikeouts, and the Twins did a lot of flailing as they struck out swinging. Bannister’s stuff wasn’t otherworldly, but the Twins couldn’t read him well at all.
Baker ended up with the win, but his high pitch count after five innings made it look like one of his weaker outings. He left with the game tied, but the Twins took advantage of Mike Jacobs’ errant throw that should have started a double play but instead allowed a run to score. Baker was in the dugout, sudden recipient of a lead.
To keep the Royals at bay, the Twins brought in Bobby Keppel for his second relief appearance. He earned a hold by facing nine batters, striking out three, walking one, and giving up a double to Mark Teahen. Where Baker had pitched through foul after foul, Keppel’s counts were brisker, and from these first two appearances, I’m hopeful he can be productive in the bullpen.
Everything was hard tonight. A 1-2-3 inning was hard. A foul popup was hard to catch, with some wind swirling in the ballpark. And an umpire was hard to impress. Denard Span ran down a fly ball and scooped it in a diving catch. He rolled over and help up his snow cone glove, only to have the ump rule the ball trapped. Span came back to life and made the throw to keep the runner from advancing further. Replays aren’t absolutely definitive on this one, but it looks like Span made the catch.
The play of the game might have been Brendan Harris’ diving grab in the sixth. With two out and two on, Jose Guillen punched the ball hard to short, but Harris laid out to snare it and then fed the ball from his probe position to Nick Punto, who tagged out the runner from first to end the inning. The Royals never scored after the first inning, thanks to Baker’s work in the fourth and Harris’ nab in the sixth.
Joe Nathan’s save was not his most nail-biting, but like everything tonight, it was a grind. He struck out the first two batters, but once again you felt the balance was poised equally between pitcher and hitter. David DeJesus, who started the game with a double and ended up scoring KC’s only run, was the final hitter. Nathan gets a called strike, and then DeJesus is prepared to end the long, grueling contest. He grounds out to first.
The pace of the game was slow, with hitters stuck in full counts and fielders waiting, waiting, and waiting. The foul ball is like the filibuster, and it felt like everyone on the field just wanted that 60-40 margin to rise up and do away with it. But batter and pitcher remained in evenly matched duels.
There was little excitement and euphoria in this game, but it was worth watching for another reason. The game was a long (too long, really) demonstration of how hard baseball is (too hard, really). If you were trying to get an alien interested in the sport, this would not be the first game you’d want him to see. Nor maybe even the two hundreth.
But watching Baker suffer through it gave me an appreciation of how hard a pitcher works to execute each and every pitch. Ron Gardenhire reported that Baker said in the dugout, “I was making just a bad enough pitch for them to foul it off or just a good enough pitch not to make them out.” Exactly.
The Twins end June 40-39, four game back of surging Detroit and tied with Chicago. Splitting wins and losses so closely makes you ask, at the end of a long game like tonight’s, if there’s a point to baseball after all. But the point is that something difficult is worth trying even if the best you can do is reveal how difficult it is.