Category Archives: patterns

[game 79] Slow, Tough, Long

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.

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[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.

[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.

[game 43] Cycle Two: Michael Cuddyer

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.

[game 42] Rout

Baseball is simple, particularly if the wind is blowing out to left field on a warm, clear day.

The Twins dragged a six-game losing streak in behind them, but left Chicago with much lighter baggage. They concluded the three-game series with the White Sox with a walloping win, so bursting with superlatives it’s hard to convey the nutty, excessive joy of it.

The Twins scored 20 runs. The White Sox managed only one, in the eighth inning. This last, lonely bit of scoring elicited big cheers from the remaining fans in the seats, according to my radio broadcasters.

One doesn’t want to gloat, but the pure ease of coasting through a game in which the team scores in six of the innings, gets a lead in the first, totes up seven runs in the second to vanquish the starter, and still has another six-run inning to come—this is euphoric baseball.

Hyperbolic baseball, actually. Joe Mauer had the kind of stat line fantasy players fantasize about: 3 for 4, a grand slam, six RBI, a double, a sac fly. This is also game 14 in his current hitting streak. PS, he hit the grand slam with two outs.

Mauer was in the DH slot today, batting second in Ron Gardenhire’s shaken, not stirred, new lineup. The key change was doing away with the dual leadoff plan of Denard Span followed by whatever mild-hitting infielder fit the bill, typically Brendan Harris. Gardy cut to the chase with this lineup: Span, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, Morales, Tolbert, and Punto.

There is a much debate from many quarters about lineup tweaking, but I am fully persuaded by the folks at Baseball Prospectus that the optimal lineup is not based on alternating lefties and righties, or putting your mightiest hitting in the 4-hole, bracketed by the two sub-mightiest. No, the ideal order is a sequence beginning with the very best hitter, and then tailing off.

Gardy pretty well followed that pattern today, but he’d have to start with Morneau to get it exactly right. The logic is that you want your best hitters to have the most at-bats. Now, true, you don’t want all these at-bats to occur with the bases empty, a very real possibility if Morneau follows the likes of Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto. Even I can’t embrace the full statistical majesty of the Baseball Prospectus lineup, for I’ve seen too much evidence of innings that work because of the structure of the hitting sequence.

But the Baseball Prospectus theory is certainly going to be proven on a day when everyone hits and hits. Everyone in the lineup had six plate appearances, plenty of time to get some clobbering done, no matter who followed whom. Only Nick Punto wasted his ample opportunities. He went 0 for 5, but he did have a key sacrifice to get the second inning explosion started.

The Twins did so much power hitting that their 20 runs required just 20 hits. The air and breeze were so perfect, the opposition pitching so tasty, that Matt Tolbert got his first home run in the form of a 3-run blast. Michael Cuddyer had another 3-run dinger, and Joe Crede settled for a solo shot.

Nick Blackburn had the good fortune to be surrounded by all this hitting, and he also had a fine game of his own. He gave up four measly hits over seven innings and struck out two. Note: that lifting wind to left was blowing when the Sox were at the plate, too.

Jose Mijares pitched an acceptable eighth: he lost the shuout by giving up an RBI single to Carlos Quentin, but kept the Sox from nibbling further.

In the ninth, Joe Nathan made another appearance in a non-save situation, and I’ve seen some angry fan chat about Gardy’s penchant for running him out without the game on the line. I presume these complaints come from fantasy owners who are giving up a precious relief appearance without any points.

I’m not sure it’s helpful to Nathan. All I know is that he hasn’t looked indomitable this year, and if he needs some work to get there, give him the work. Today, with no pressure whatsoever, he gave up two singles to two of the Sox’s weakest hitters. Is Nathan a thrill seeker or just rusty? Or, more frightening still, is our ace closer floating back down to earth?

Bartolo Colon started for the White Sox, but was chased to the dugout in the second. It’s hard to know from TV and harder still from radio, but I think this was more a case of the Twins having great offensive strength than it was Colon being especially defensively weak. You do need the two to tango, but the three relievers Ozzie Guillen tried as the game wore on fared no better.

Because of an error on Punto’s sacrifice, Colon walked away from this train wreck with only one earned run, though he gave up seven. Lance Broadway was tagged for seven, and Jimmy Gobble gave up five runs. DJ Carrasco had the serene job of cleaning up from the seventh inning on. He only gave up one run, as the Twins settled down and agreed it was time to stop making the hometown crowd watch such a drubbing.

I listened to the White Sox broadcast of the game, and the announcers did their best to entertain their audience, but it wasn’t easy. When describing the positioning of the outfield late in the game, they observed that the Sox were sluggish out there. I imagined them shuffling, back on their heels, barely ready to make the effort to get the outs. After the 7-run second, the radio broadcaster noted that now the Sox knew how the Twins felt last night.

Precisely, though I don’t wish it on anyone. Today was such a shower of scoring that it seemed surreal. It was so effortless that it didn’t feel like some grand baseball balance was being re-established, that today made up for yesterday. From a statistical point of view, today’s outburst was the inevitable mathematical polishing of the numbers. But it didn’t feel as if today’s experience was on any kind of continuum with the sorrows of the last six games.

If averages are made up of such wild highs and excruciating lows, the averages don’t describe the game at all.

[games 39, 40, 41] I Am My Team

I am my team. The Twins are losing and it is affecting the quality of my play.

We lost all four games to the Yankees. The losing script was repeated almost identically in each game: score first, let the Yankees catch up, have some bullpen bumbling, then give up the winning run in withering walkoff mode.

Perhaps it was the repetition of this nasty ending; perhaps it was the fact that I began to doubt our chances even when a skinny little lead was in hand. If we were going to let it slip away, night after night, it didn’t feel like we had the power to control anything in the field.

I fell into a funk during Monday night’s game, the end of the Yankees’ sweep. PS: they have kept up winning ever since, as if the Twins are their personal launching pad. So much for the new stadium lifting the curse the Twins have felt in the Bronx.

Then I summoned hope, the best I could, last night as we started a series in Chicago. The White Sox had just been roasted and toasted mercilessly by the As, and had their own 5-game losing streak going. Two losing teams collide! Perhaps the Twins will be the first to recover.

Sorry: no. Last night, early lead, eventual loss. The Sox gave Scott Baker a bad inning in the second, but it wasn’t as bad as the meltdowns he had been sustaining. He only gave up 3 runs. Reason for hope? No. The Sox would just keep scoring in more than one inning, and distribute the home run duty over a variety of hitters.

It was such a thunking loss I couldn’t write about it. I am my team. My puny ability to write this puny blog dwindled away, just as Joe Mauer’s ability to get an RBI waned. I am in their slump.

This is ridiculous.

As I have learned from other, mightier sports fans, when your team is losing you can switch to the euphoric release of yelling at them. Condemn your players with righteous indignation. Negative energy like that always gives you a boost, doesn’t it?

Sorry to say it doesn’t work for me. I take it hard. Scott Baker! Come back to last year’s form! Francisco Liriano! Please pitch the way we have hope for three years you could!

Tonight Liriano had a fourth inning from hell. In the top of the inning, we have our standard bright ray of light: we score two runs. There’s something about these 2-0 leads—we can’t keep them. Liriano gave up a two-run homer to Paul Konerko to turn the advantage into a tie. Liriano kept the bases busy, and Josh Fields hit an RBI single to put the Sox ahead 3-2.

Liriano didn’t have, precisely, a bad inning. He had some terrible at-bats, and some good ones. He was as close to getting out of trouble and to getting in it, but the Sox had enough chances to do their damage.

With one out and Fields on first, Corky Miller doubled. Liriano fooled Scott Podsednik quickly, and he fouled out to Mauer on one pitch. Now we’re in the sleepier part of the batting order, and light-hitting Jayson Nix comes up. He runs the count full with a barrage of foul-offs and keeps Liriano working long enough to make a mistake and walk him. Bases loaded.

Two outs, but then that needless walk. Jermaine Dye makes use of grand slam conditions to put the Sox up 7-2. Just like that.

The Twins do not exactly rally, though Michael Cuddyer hits a home run with Mauer on base to nudge the score to 7-4. The other bright spot is Luis Ayala, whose middle relief work had been woeful lately. He pitched three neat scoreless innings. Jesse Crain also had a quick 1-2-3 eighth.

So we can stop blaming the bullpen and blame the starter instead. But in fact we have to give more credit to the White Sox’s John Danks, whose fastball had such tricky late movement that all our hitters looked pretty helpless up there.

The Twins had their best last chance in the eighth, but Scott Linebrink dispatched the best of the lineup, setting down Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer in order. The Twins can’t put off scoring when they have a lineup that skews so heavily toward these stars and away from everyone else.

As feared, in the ninth Bobby Jenks was able to get the save for Chicago. With his insanity-plea bleach blond chin beard, he faced down our best final efforts. After Jason Kubel and Joe Crede were set down, Brian Buscher pinch hit and got a single. Respectability, even in defeat. Jose Morales tried to keep it going, but grounded out, in a play that required Alexi Ramirez to cope with a hot shot to short.

A week ago, we were maybe a game out of first place. Now we’re 5-1/2 back. Detroit, whom we had the pleasure of sweeping, has gone on a tear to get the division lead away from Kansas City. They’ve won their last five; we’ve lost six in a row.

The Twins’ current record of 18-23 is a portrait of misery. But I must listen to manager Ron Gardenhire, who points out that those losses to the Yankees occurred while we were playing well, just not well enough to win. Sometimes you must accept the fact that victory doesn’t automatically follow a good effort. Keep playing.

Keep playing. It’s only baseball, and it can be fun, but baseball is tricky. It’s hard to hit a great fastball, hard to run down every fly ball, hard to locate every single pitch. So you will lose more times that you think your heart can bear. But you must keep playing.

[game 35] Sweep

It isn’t fair, but it is baseball. Justin Verlander pitched a gem for the Tigers this afternoon, but he didn’t get the win. He threw a career-high 13 strikeouts, and he sent the Twins down in weary rows, but he didn’t get the win.

Now, that’s largely because pitchers can only create conditions in which a win is possible; they can’t secure it. Wins make a crisp, intense stat, but they don’t illuminate a pitcher’s skill. A team wins or loses.

Verlander didn’t get a win, but neither did Scott Baker, who had yet another outing with one bad inning in it. This one was grievous, but let’s pause for a moment to consider the other five he pitched.

The game was scoreless until the sixth. I don’t mean scoreless like no one has gotten around to it, but scoreless as in this is an impossible goal. Both pitchers faced close to the minimum batters. Verlander tended to mow his down with Ks, while Baker courted fly outs, to foul or fair territory, but in both cases, the hitters were stone silent.

I had only the radio to guide me through the game this afternoon, so I’m limited to the cerebral, aerial view. That means I can gloss over Baker’s troubled sixth. The Tigers batted around, and between Brandon Inge’s lead off single to his strikeout to end the inning, five runs were scored.

Baker has the stuff but he seems to write singles and not albums. A full game, in which the pitcher must balance highs and lows, just seems out of reach. He kept the Mariners quiet for his first win last Friday, but that’s the only time a bad inning hasn’t bollixed Baker. There’s every reason to hope he’ll overcome this, but the pattern is getting hard to ignore.

Down 5-0, the Twins could have let the game go. After all, they had just finished a marathon about 12 hours before. Instead, they let Verlander slice and dice them for sixth innings and then start the seventh with his pitch count showing. Thirteen strikeouts will cost you in the pitch department.

Verlander fans Joe Crede to start the seventh, but then allows a single and a walk. It’s not as if he’s crumbling to the ground, but he’s well past the typical pitch allowance so Jim Leyland brings in Bobby Seay to handle Denard Span.

Span singles to load them bases. If you’re a Detroit fan, you can still see rays of light. They need eight more outs with a five-run cushion. Maybe they could part with a run or two here and just tidy up later.

Seay does the single ugliest thing he can do: he walks in a run as Matt Tolbert refuses to nibble on stuff out of the strike zone. Joe Mauer hits into a fielder’s choice, scoring one run, and the Twins have created a pretty throbbing nightmare for Seay.

Justin Morneau raps out a single, and batter by batter we’re tapping in runs. When Jason Kubel launches one to the center field fence, the Twins radio announcer is saddened to see it classified a ground-rule double. Only one run can score on it, but the Twins are now down by a single run, 4-5.

Leyland switches pitchers, but the spell isn’t broken. Zach Miner walks Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede, last night’s walkoff grand slam hero, is up.

The time all he has to produce is a single, but it scores two and the Twins, of all things, have the lead 6-5.

And that’s the game. Six good innings by Verlander, and one horrific one he starts and the bullpen finishes. Five good innings by Baker, and one disastrous one. No other scoring, very little other hitting.

The radio is sometimes a great window into a game, but it can be hard to put a pitcher’s duel into words. The majority of the game was pitching excellence, which takes the form of hitting silence. How do you describe a void?

But what did feel clear all along was that the Tigers had Verlander at his peak on the mound. A sweep of the Tigers would be asking too much, particularly after last night’s comeback. (And let this record show that I had to miss Tuesday’s game, but Twins win it was.)

Winning wasn’t possible, and then it was. The Twins are starting to show the grit and game-long concentration it takes to win a series, sweep a series, and perhaps win a division. That’s a long way off, since this victory brings the team a mere whisker above .500, but the ingredients of winning baseball are starting to show.

This is the first series sweep of the year, and it’s against a division heavy. Since we’ve spent the whole season below or near .500, we can’t start reading turnaround in our tea leaves, but these three wins have all shown some new strengths in the bullpen and the power game.

We get to test them over the weekend against the Yankees, and in that new ballpark, the one that seems to make the homers bloom to right. Well, of all things, we may have a lineup ready to capitalize.