Category Archives: pitching

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

Among baseball matchups, Twins-Yankees contests have moved deep into hyperbolic territory. Obviously, they’re not keen regional rivals, but over the last decade these teams play to settle one single question: Under what planetary alignment could the Twins possibly beat the Yankees?

The Yankees win when it counts. In four Division Series against the New York, Minnesota’s record is 1-3 (2003), 1-3 (2004), 0-3 (2009), and 0-3 (2010). A decade of making noise in the AL Central, only to have the Yankees (and in 2002 and 2006, the Angels and As) shut you up.

The postseason deflatings have been gruesome, but they simply carry on the rich regular season tradition of pure Yankee dominance. Before the four-game series that started this Monday, the Twins had played 73 regular season games against the Yankees since 2002. The Twins have won 20 of them, a statistically distressing 27% success rate.

And it’s anomalous. In that same span, the Twins have suffered against the Blue Jays, but only to a 30-41 record. The Yankees have clobbered the Royals nearly as well—a 68% beatdown pace—but KC lost to everyone in that decade. Something just happens when hallowed pinstripe meets Midwestern pinstripe.

Add in the bonus oddity that Yankee Stadium, old or new, is especially well suited to the hitting skills of the Twins’ predominantly lefty lineup and you are left wondering why an interlocked N and Y have such a definitively mesmerizing effect on the Twins. They fare no better at home, whether in the Metrodome where they used to enjoy a decisive home field advantage against all teams not from the Bronx, or in new Target Field.

For a decade, the Twins’ sole project has been to offer themselves up for the Yankees to devour.

So when I settled in for this series, played in New York, I began with a simple, feeble hope: just win one of the four games to shake off at least a little of the feeling of doom. The Twins 2012 season is off to a predictably lousy start—2-7, dead last in the division, with the only bright spot confined to a Justin Morneau homer that might (might!) signal that his concussion symptoms have truly started to dissipate. The Yankees are 5-4, tied atop the AL East with Baltimore and Toronto.

Even staunch Twins fans can’t expect much from the team this year. They’ve brought in Josh Willingham to try to make up for the power lost with the exodus of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. The rotation is rickety, and now Scott Baker will be lost to Tommy John rehab for the year, leaving behind Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins made a madcap, high-risk pick of closer free agent Joel Zumaya, who didn’t make it past spring training before suffering the type of injury that every other general manager in baseball adequately foresaw. Sift the roster however you like—there’s little there but some hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau might hit a little and Danny Valencia can finally win manager Ron Gardenhire’s love with some handy hitting.

The Yankees, on the other hand, replace All-Star with All-Star whenever an injury or a more favorable pitching matchup requires. However, for all the glory in their stat lines, it’s important to note that it’s an aging hitting lineup: catcher Russell Martin is the youngest of the offense at 29. They’re tall, they’re trim, they’re well-conditioned and cared for, but trying to wring a little more out of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones starts to look a little like a rich man’s a creepy kind of science experiment.

The pitching staff has a bloom of youth in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, but they’re joined by oldsters CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda, hope of the future, is nursing his shoulder back to health. As reluctant as they are to shed any bit of the luster that was Yankee glory in the 90s, Jorge Posada has retired and Andy Pettitte is standing by in the minors, while Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter continue to merit spots on the roster.

Jeter is off to a hot start this season, his perfect career evolving into a perfect and long one. So, for game one, Carl Pavano versus Freddy Garcia, my lowered expectations were as follows: win one game of the four, and maybe get Derek Jeter out a couple times.

Yes, well, that will not be possible. The Twins start strong, scoring 2 in the first, but if you really want to feel gloomy, you can remind yourself that the Twins started with the lead for so many of the games they lost to the Yankees that it’s almost an eerie prediction of failure. Still, a double from Mauer and a single from Morneau, plus RBIs from Willingham and Doumit make it feel like the turning point might at last be at hand.

But in the bottom of the first, Jeter needs only two pitches from Pavano to find the one he’d like to launch to his right field homer zone. It’s the standard punch in the gut, but perhaps Pavano can reinflate himself? Not quickly enough. Curtis Granderson also likes the look of the second pitch he sees and whips his bat around to park it a little higher in the same right field porch.

Two lead off homers and this is starting to look like a classic Yankee massacre. Classic, as in Why did you bother to try to play against us? The frail little tie lasts a few minutes, but Mark Teixeira drives in Alex Rodriguez to make it 3-2. The entire universe settles: Yankees ahead, Twins paralyzed.

I could dream about a turning point, but there’s a grim sameness now. The good news is that Pavano regains every speck of his composure after that insta-collapse first inning. He becomes efficient, focused, and deals a few crisp strikeouts while leaning on a double play to solve the third.

Garcia, meanwhile, also got said mojo back and began dispatching Twins at a brisk clip until the fifth, when the Twins retook the lead on a double from Alexi Casilla, a single from Jamey Carroll, and a double from Mauer. It looked like more was building: with Mauer on second, up comes Willingham, the Twins best hitter at the moment. It’s an ideal scoring opportunity, but Willingham settles for a fly out.

The Yankees were done for the night; Pavano made it through seven without the slightest flashback to his first inning woes. But the Twins notched a few more runs, the most encouraging of which was Morneau’s lofty solo homer to deep center. Final score: 7-3. Essence of a turning point.

Tuesday’s game pits Liriano against Sabathia. Liriano has already had two miserable starts, but I’m not the only observer who can’t shake memories of the brilliance of his first full season, in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP. There have been surgeries, injuries, lost seasons, stumbles, and just about every disappointment you can name, but the image of 2006 persists. I watch because there’s always this wild chance Liriano will bloom again.

Wait a minute—flowers don’t do that. Baseball is so good at lodging stories about players in our heads, but I’ve got to let the real evidence chip away at my idealized Dominican lefthander. Well, the Yankees are happy to slam me back to earth.

Liriano has a shaky first but escapes after allowing a double and a walk. The Twins score in the second, with Willingham keeping his 11-game hitting streak going with a homer off a pitch Sabathia hangs. It’s a puny lead, but I’m no longer willing to write it off as another Twins folly. Last night they not only held on, they got better as the game progressed.

But Liriano is not comfortable on the mound tonight. A feeling of pure Twins futility returns, and it’s such a familiar feeling. It’s clear Liriano no longer has the velocity, location, or the requisite pride in his calling. In fact, pitching may no longer be his calling. Time and injuries have turned a 95-mph fastball into a 91-mph not-fooling-anyone pitch. One only wants Liriano lifted as the hits and runs keep clunking over on the odometer. Rick Anderson sedately visits the mound with the same implacable expression—largely constructed from a motionless salt and pepper mustache—and Liriano stays in, not least because the Twins have little else in the bullpen to offer up to the hungry Yankees.

The Twins tick off two more runs, but the Yankees go on to take four more off Liriano, and three from Minnesota’s motley relief staff. Final score: 8-3 Yankees, and the turning point seems to have turned back to the inexorable Yankees.

Yet there is a bright spot. If Yankee mystique has overwhelmed the Twins for ten years, the new players in the lineup seem a tad less sensitive to the virus. There’s that little sleight of hand in a lineup like the Twins’, where low expectations allow for surprises. Tonight Clete Thomas, Jamey Carroll, and Alexi Casilla all get hits. These pale before the Yankees’ clobberings—only A-Rod goes hitless, while little-known backup catcher Chris Stewart has two hits and three RBI. The Yankees even win on unlikely sources of hits.

Sabathia has an OK night, with seven Ks and only four hits, though he does give up three earned runs. This is an improvement on his two previous outings this season, but it’s not easy to tell if his season will settle around his career averages or show some real decline. For now, the Yankees sleep calmly with the series split 1-1.

Game 3 features a pitching matchup that no fantasy team is sporting this season: Hideki Kuroda versus Jason Marquis. Kuroda has a rocky first inning, precisely in keeping with the tenor of this series. Denard Span leads off with a hit, Carroll follows right along with a single, and Mauer hits a sweet double to score two. Josh Willingham’s bullet to left is snared by Derek Jeter, but Justin Morneau hits his second happy homer of the series, deep to right center. The inning ends with Twins up 4-0—what better present for Jason Marquis in his Twins debut?

Well, it’s the first inning. It’s a bottomless pit for pitchers in this series, so Marquis proceeds to give up 3 runs and fidget with two on and one out. It looks like a pure and absolute collapse—30 pitches worth—when Alexi Casilla starts a double play that gets the Twins out with the lead intact.

Neither pitcher has much of a grip on things tonight. The big suspense is whether Marquis can survive the fifth inning. With the game at the halfway point and the Twins up 6-4 after a second homer from Morneau in the top of the inning, there’s still no sense yet that momentum has tipped Twinsward. Thanks to a double play that, honestly, appeared not quite swift enough to snare Cano at first, Marquis notches his 15 outs and is done for the night.

The seventh begins to look like more trouble. Jeter leads off with a single against Brian Duensing, who’s given up a leadoff hit in all three innings he’s pitched this season. The bullpen is warming up and the great weight of Yankee destiny is felt again. Teixeira rips one to left and it’s men on first and second, one out. Cano is up, and he’s already turned in an RBI double and solo homer tonight. The Twins slim edge here is the lefty-lefty matchup.

Cano hits a grounder to Casilla, but it becomes a fielder’s choice instead of a double play. Teixiera’s erased, Jeter’s swaying proudly at third, and Cano stands at first. Jared Burton comes in to face Nick Swisher.

If I’m so keen on turning points, I have one now. The series is even, the Twins are ahead in the game, and the Yankees are threatening. Put them away and the 2-run lead may stay safe for a victory. Crumple, and the whole series is lost.

Burton’s first two offerings are balls so far out of deception range they wouldn’t lure a child. I remain convinced this is the critical at-bat of the game, but it’s plainly not going to be one of those heroic showdowns of might against might. Swisher fouls one off. Burton produces a nifty changeup for a swinging strike and now I lean forward in anticipation. Something is materializing here.

Swisher fouls off another. It’s 2-2, 2 on, 2 out, with a 2-run lead—as twoish as it gets. Baseball often suspends itself on twos; three is always the final note, the last beat, the one you can almost hear before it falls.

Another foul back, another delay in reaching whatever conclusion this confrontation has to offer. It feels like the ninth inning to me.

Burton hurls a splitter and earns a swinging strike. That’s it!

If this is the turning point, if one could actually see a turning point as it happens, it has unspooled itself slowly over a long inning, with two pitchers struggling slowly. It will take time to prove whether anything turned or not, but I think I feel a few atoms realigning.

Matt Capps does the honors in the ninth. With one out, Jeter munches through 10 pitches to achieve his desired, god-like result: a solo homer that cuts the lead in two and opens the door for further Yankee settling of accounts. Capps dispatches Granderson and Teixeira, though, and the Twins lead the series 2-1. Final score: 7-6.

By game 4, irrational hopes sprout up. The Twins could take home quite a pretty scrapbook here if they pulled off a decisive 3-1 series win. It will be up to Anthony Swarzak, the best hope in the Twins’ depleted rotation, who faces Phil Hughes.

Once again, the first inning is a banquet. The Twins score 4, the Yankees 3. There’s something so prompt about these Yankee responses to an opponent’s runs—it feels like they’re staying on top of their e-mail. In this case, Granderson starts off with a home run, as if cluttering the bases with singles would just take too long. He has a whippy swing, and it looks almost like the bat head is spinning away from him, that he’s barely harnessing the centrifugal force as he lunges out to the ball. His homers are so brisk they feel inevitable.

The Twins try their own version of answering back in the second, and this time it’s Mauer, with one on, hitting the ball deep to left. This is the spot where he can hit opposite field homers; in his 2009 overachiever season, even Yankee Stadium wasn’t safe. This time, the ball lands in Ibanez’s glove with plenty of warning track to spare.

Mind you, the Twins are still ahead in the second, but now it’s time for Derek Jeter to flick his wand and send in the tying run. Then Granderson hits his second home run in a 40-minute span to push the Yankees ahead.

To unravel how they can make such things come true, we need to look at what constitutes the bottom of their order. Swarzak was not able to retire Eduardo Nunez, playing second base tonight to give Cano a DH turn. New York has strength wedged against strength.

By the fourth, the Yankees are in cruise control. The Twins have yanked Swarzak and are trying on Jeff Gray in middle relief. After one out, when Granderson steps up, it simply doesn’t seem necessary for him to keep hitting. But there is a tuning fork he can hear especially perfectly today—his swing is in some special Yankee ballpark harmony. Third home run of the night.

Phil Hughes never exactly overwhelms, but he keeps the Twins at bay. Hughes looks a bit like Beetle Bailey on the mound. His has is not pulled especially lower than other players’, but with his mouth always half open and the dark shadow of the hat bill making it impossible to read his eyes, there’s a regular schlub’s mild helplessness about him. But hapless GI or not, Hughes has turned the page from his first inning’s troubles.

Hughes even glides past the gnat-like irritation of stout Ryan Doumit getting his first Twins homer, with Morneau on base, bringing the score to 7-6 in the sixth. There it stays for Rivera to make it official with his darting cutter, retiring Carroll, Mauer, and Willingham—seven pitches, three outs, good night.

Splitting the series 2-2 constitutes an improvement for the Twins, but it’s no full bore turning point. And for the Twins to whip themselves into contention in the Central this season would require miracles outside my range of hope. It’s easier to cheer for the odd little accomplishment while understanding that no big dreams can be attached to this team.

The Yankees, meanwhile, impress well past mere payroll. I complain about them, groan about them, suffer their annihilating force—but I must concede their majesty. These guys are good. They’re making the most of a less than stellar rotation; they’re sending up a lineup organized around a sequence of strengths; they’re keeping players healthy. Heck, they’re fine-tuning Granderson’s swing to the point of a 3-for-5, 3 homer night.

There are times the Yankees look like a synthetic collection of talent—fantasy baseball run wild. But when you see them play the game, they do the little and large things, and they do them with each other. Hustling to make plays, advancing runners, keeping their heads in the game. Money makes them impregnable, but talent and desire make them win.

game 3 Adaptation

Basbeball’s long string of games is built from thousands of at-bats, but these aren’t a test of endurance. They’re a test of adaptation.

Batter and pitcher are usually so evenly matched that the advantage arises from finding one small point of weakness, chipping away until it’s visible and then pouncing.

Today the Marlins and Reds concluded their series, after the Reds won their home opener and the Marlins claimed victory last night. The final game of a tied series may not mean much at this stage of the season—if we can call the trickle of games played so far a stage at all. But as managers busily calculate the pace they must flog their horses to emerge atop a division in October, winning the series is the benchmark to heed.

The Marlins send up Carlos Zambrano, the pitcher rescued from his weird captivity in Chicago. He spent 2011 having tantrums, “retiring” from the team, and intermittently claiming that he’d solved his anger management issues. Needless to say, one doubts that a pitcher like Zambrano will emerge calm and collected, even given the benefit of a brand new team and a manager who is especially good at distracting the media from his players by having outbursts of his own.

Zambrano has a first inning that should go in the cautionary tales video collection for major league pitchers. First innings are a special trial for many pitchers, for a hitter is more likely to arrive ready to make contact than a pitcher is ready to organize his full catalog of pitches into the mix that baffles or defies.

Zambrano is a tall, big man who seems to mutter on the mound. He has an angry energy that some might celebrate as competitiveness but that I always see as loathing—for the hitter, even for the game. He rarely seems happy about anything that happens on a baseball diamond.

And so when his first pitch, to Brandon Phillips, is firmly singled to center, you sense Zambrano’s joylessness climbing a degree. Now he faces Zack Cozart, the rookie shortstop who has begun this season with a homer and is batting .675 over two games. Ah, the distortions of the small sample size at the beginning of the season. Cozart is, for now, striding like a titan. So he takes a strike from Zambrano and then launches a double to very deep left center, which scores Phillips easily. Three pitches from Zambrano and it’s 1-0 Reds.

Joey Votto, a solid power threat, is the beneficiary of Zambrano’s mood plunge, drawing a walk. The pitcher has little better to offer to cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick: walk number 2.

Jay Bruce is up with that most golden situation: bases loaded, no outs, and a pitcher on the rails. On a 2-1 count, he offers up a measly infield grounder that the Marlins can’t quite convert into a double play ball. It scores one run, erases the runner at second, and leaves the Reds with two on, one out, up 2-0.

Zambrano, I assume, is reaching meltdown temperature. His pitches and his fielders are deserting him. Miguel Cairo, however, is not in great command of his at-bat, but his ground out to third scores the third run of the inning. Zambrano finally escapes with a strikeout to Drew Stubbs.

My memory can’t be definitive here, but as I think of this inning as whole, it seemed to me the Reds swung at any pitch Zambrano placed in the strike zone. Plenty of his offerings moved well out of it as the inning decayed. But if a pitch crossed the zone, a Reds batter made contact. Zambrano’s velocity is well down from his heyday. He’s trying to make 86 mph work, and he didn’t appear comfortable building his game around location and pitch selection.

In short, the Reds were feasting. It looked like it might be a laugher of a day, with the score run up and a homer or two launched over the riverboat smokestacks.

Meanwhile, Bronson Arroyo starts for the Reds. He is an immensely beautiful pitcher to watch. So much so that I am guilty of failing to understand how mediocre are his results. Last year he was 17-10 with a 3.88 ERA, allowing 59 walks to 121 strikeouts. Put all that in a blender, and it comes out a 1.145 WHIP. Nothing to build your fantasy team around, but I think his delivery makes up for it.

Arroyo is 6’4”, slender as a skewer, and his legs are so long he verges on standing on stilts. His signature move is a high leg kick. His left leg rises to ninety degrees, as effortlessly as a flag run up a pole, and then it hinges cleanly downward as he completes his throwing motion. There is an otherworldly elegance to the balancing point he achieves.

In the stuff dimension, however, he has a little less working for him. His approach is simple, and heartily recommended by many pitching coaches: throw the first pitch for a strike. Make the count work for you.

This sensible approach is going to include giving up a good number of hits, but Arroyo isn’t surrendering them in bouquets. The Marlins scratch at him for three innings but never mount a threat.

In the fourth, though, a lightbulb goes off somewhere. If he’s offering a first pitch strike like a toaster with every new account, we might as well collect. The Marlins begin swinging at the first pitch, quite certain of what they’ll find. Three singles and they’ve scored a run, then manage another in the sixth. They’ve cracked the code.

On the other side of the scoresheet, Zambrano has done the very thing I expected least. He has not only settled down, he has made his own use of the first pitch strike principle. He doesn’t seem content on that mound, but he has found a way to bottle up the Reds. He retires 12 straight. That sweet streak ends with a Jay Bruce homer to nudge Cincy up 4-2.

The score tells a story based on the damage the early runs did, but I saw the tide of adjustments inexorably moving in favor of the Marlins. And in the seventh, they got their three runs to take the lead. Arroyo did not adjust, but the hitters did. Two of the hits in the inning were on first pitch swings, and the others came after foul balls.

After an interim reliever stopped the bleeding, the Reds brought in gangly flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the eighth and ninth. He mowed the Marlins down in a holding action while the Reds offense collected themselves for an assault on that one-run deficit.

The Marlins relief corps appears undistinguished to me, but it takes a long time to see enough work from middle relievers to know them. What I do know is that they brought in Heath Bell, a prize new acquisition, in the ninth. Bell saved 42 or more games in each of the last three years for San Diego, so one imagines a one-run lead, frail as it is, can stand up.

Jay Bruce leads off, and works the count to 2-1 and then scalds a homer to left. Game tied.

Now, for pure strategy, one would prefer a man on base to a dinger. Bell retires the next batter, then sees Stubbs send a liner to Hanley Ramirez, still getting accustomed to the hot corner. Ramirez leaps and reaches but can’t time the move and the ball clips over his glove for a single.

Bell makes some pickoff attempts, and he’s wise to worry about a runner getting to second with only one out. Who’s to say if his zeal on this point blinds him to the batter, but Ryan Hanigan does indeed produce a single. Stubbs is running hard for third, and the ball from the outfield is over thrown. If Bell hadn’t backed up the play and snared the ball, the game would have ended right there, with Stubbs scuttling home on a wild throw.

But that would have deprived venerable Scott Rolen, now in a pinch-hitting role, of a shining ninth inning opportunity. With Stubbs at attention on third and the game tied, Rolen punctures Bell’s first save attempt with a simple single and the Reds win.

Whether it will be true next time or not, I saw a pattern today. Arroyo is a pitcher that hitters can figure out. He’s a soft tosser with some good ideas about approaching hitters, but he can be dissected and beaten. Zambrano is able to rebuild his concentration after adversity, and is actively exploring ways to work around his reduced power.

The Marlins hitters were able to adapt to Arroyo, while the Reds mashers appeared puzzled at how their prowess deserted them. It came back, of course, when it really counted but it felt more like luck than cunning in that ninth inning.

And I had to adapt too. What I thought I knew about Carlos Zambrano was, today anyway, dead wrong.

game 1 Opening Night

Major League baseball, ever on the prowl for more income, has now sliced Opening Day into so many slivers it’s unrecognizable. The first day of baseball season was always a peak moment of spring for me, but with MLB trying to rub its little head over and over, they’ve ground it down into nothing.

The baseball season began with two games just about no one saw, with Seattle and Oakland playing in Japan. I am told they split the series, but as far as most fans are concerned, these games were conducted as Playstation simulations.

Tonight, we have the season’s first night game in North America. Yes, all those adjectives are necessary to distinguish it from tomorrow’s wave, in which day baseball begins, and with multiple teams taking the field. Tonight, MLB guaranteed the Marlins a sellout in their new ballpark by scheduling it as a standalone game.

Even when MLB lets multiple teams out of the gate tomorrow, they still dole them out grudgingly, painstakingly focusing our attention on seven games. We don’t have a full slate until Saturday. Remind me: what constitutes the first pitch of the season in all this throat clearing?

The old rules were gloriously simple: the Cincinnati Reds, ever honored as the oldest team in baseball, got to throw out the first pitch at 1:05 pm in their home field, followed in a thrilling fusillade when all the other teams launched themselves throughout the afternoon and deep into the evening.

It was too much baseball, sure, but only a ritual soaking in the game could set me up for the monumental march through a 162-game season. And after six months wandering in a baseball-free desert, I want that firehose.

Tonight I must be content with a single game, played against a tangy lime green backdrop no less. The new Miami Marlins ballpark is probably a wonderful place to watch a game, but what ESPN nudged me to notice first were the gimmicks: fish tanks, a still-silent home run celebration feature, and a tropical look that seems to integrate the place nicely with its Little Havana environs.

The place was packed tonight, but even the Expos used to sell out their home openers. We need a full season to answer the two big questions: will the ball carry with the roof open, and can the Marlins solve the problem of attracting fans in Florida?

They made bold gambles to do so, and it’s not clear which will be the more attention-getting, the color scheme or non-stop-loudmouth Ozzie Guillen as manager. And they brought in some serious, and costly, talent to compliment a nucleus that was already bursting with potential. Well, did the 37,000 people in the stands see some good omens?

Because an Opening Day always teases us into thinking we’re in on the ground floor, already detecting a direction. Baseball is so absurdly cumulative—a team’s season accretes like barnacles—that no single game holds a clue, but we look anyway.

Marlins fans won’t have liked what they saw. The Cardinals won smoothly, 4-1, with last year’s postseason hero David Freese picking up so literally where he left off it was nearly magical. (It wasn’t just two RBI, it was on a two-strike count with two outs. Again!)

As a box score, the game will look lopsided, even dispiriting to a Marlins fan. But I saw several positive signs. First, Josh Johnson’s return from an injury-shortened 2011 began with a sloppy first inning and a walk-sac-single run scored in the second. After that, Johnson settled in, collecting four strikeouts over 6 innings. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but Johnson could still be capable of building on his 2010 Cy Young season and continue to whittle his WHIP into persistent All-Star territory.

New centerpiece Jose Reyes was the only bright light of the Marlins’ night. The rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize on his two leadoff hits, but Reyes was doing the job they asked him to do. However, the new infield that slides Hanley Ramrirez to third base to make room for Reyes did a lot of staring at a Carlos Beltran single trickling between them in the second. Eeek.

If the Marlins must content themselves with tomorrow-is-another-day, the Cardinals have retained some sweet World Series swagger to start the season. Subbing for an injured Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, who is no one’s idea of an Opening Day ace, kept the Marlins hitless through six innings. It was an ace performance, with single earned run, two hits, and three Ks. Lohse didn’t labor to achieve the win; he was neatly in control all night, locating pitches and baiting nearly every batter with a first pitch strike.

And that earned run that blots his record? Oh, the cruelties of baseball scoring. Let’s break it down as an object lesson in what can make a player, or a fan, mutter. Logan Morrison led off the eighth with a single. We might suspect Lohse is tiring, or running out of shtick on the third trip through the order, but he turns around to strike out Gaby Sanchez. Brand new manager Mike Matheny makes his first pitching change, playing by the book to bring in Fernando Salas. It’s now one out, 4-0 Cardinals.

Salas’s first pitch is a double play ball to Omar Infante. Except the umpire couldn’t quite agree that first baseman Lance Berkman leaned, scooped, caught, and raised his glove holding the ball all before Infante touched first. This wasn’t one of those nanosecond plays, this was a first baseman with his hand raised in success who took about five strides toward the dugout before the umpire’s “safe” call registered.

Well, this appears like nothing more than a mild delay in the end of inning proceedings and the stately glide to a shutout. But I paused to wonder: would it matter?

It did. John Buck chipped a few fouls before hitting a sound double to center that scored Infante. And Lohse is assigned the run, since Morrison was out in what became a fielder’s choice when the botched call granted Infante first. Infante becomes an inherited runner. Dang.

In the span of a season, absolutely none of this will be material. The pesky earned run Lohse must lug around, the crummy first inning Johnson must put behind him, the lost and lonely leadoff hits Reyes tossed into the wind, even Freese’s 3-for-5, 2 RBI resumption of last year’s momentum—these aren’t omens, but they are the way a season starts. One game at a time, some of them distinguished by coral and lime green accents.

[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 128] Three Scares

The Twins beat the Rangers tonight. The game had two simple themes: the Twins scored three quick runs in the first inning and then fell stone silent at the hands of the Ranger pitchers, and Brian Duensing pitched very well to silence Texas.

There were three good scares in the game, to match the three runs the Twins managed. Duensing had some trouble in the sixth, and finally gave up a run. Add that blemish to his one walk and three hits and you have an idea of how sharp he was for seven innings.

But the stats don’t paint the full picture. That walk? It was issued to the first batter of the game, and might be classified as something Duensing had to get out of his system to settle down into the game.

The free pass was counterbalanced by eight strikeouts, a career high for the young pitcher. Duensing isn’t a strikeout pitcher, by either temperament or talent. But he had something tonight that foiled the Texas hitters.

He allowed his first hit in the fourth, and then doled out two in the sixth. The Rangers turned those plus a fielder’s choice into a run. That’s all the scoring Duensing allowed.

But scare number two came in the eighth, with Matt Guerrier on in relief. Chris Davis led off with a single, and Guerrier looked pressured the entire inning. Elvis Andrus grounded into what would become only half a double play. Davis was cut down, but Andrus made himself comfortable on first.

He didn’t want to linger long, though. The Rangers had already stolen a base against Joe Mauer, with Ian Kinsler swiping second in the first inning. But Andrus’ attempt was foiled on a strong throw from Mauer, and the Rangers counterattack started to wilt.

Guerrier still courted danger. Kinsler got his second hit of the game and managed to steal second yet again. But with two outs, a runner on second isn’t quite so scary. Michael Young grounded out and Guerrier headed back to the dugout after narrowly preserving the 3-1 lead.

The third scare was the scariest, in true horror movie style. Joe Nathan checked off his first two outs swiftly. But number three was an entire baseball game in itself.

Ivan Rodriguez hit a fierce liner to right that bounced off the side of the baggie for a ground rule double. Skinny David Murphy was up next, and he sent Nathan’s first pitch deep to right, landing about a foot or so below the top of the baggie. It bounced back to the field to become a mere double, but the vivid possibility of a game-tying home run sucked all the air out of the Metrodome.

Nathan, off course, tried to puff all the air back in with his trademark big-cheek exhalations. He puffed and puffed to settle himself down after giving up a run. The runner behind him on second must have felt like a massive weight.

Nathan used all his facial tricks and tics, but he walked his next batter, Hank Blalock in for a spot of pinch hitting.

The game was getting easy to tie, and even easy to win now. But Chris Davis was called out on strikes to give the Twins a victory. I’ve chosen those words carefully, because the umpire’s call on that last 3-2 pitch was, shall we say, debatable. I don’t doubt that Nathan would have gotten there eventually, but that pitch looked more like the bases were going to be loaded than high fives with the catcher.

Now, even the Rangers might not kick too hard, as the strike zone was a tad elastic all night. But the game was balancing pretty precariously on that pitch, and you’d prefer the umpire got it right. Early in the game, home plate umpire Mike Estabrook seemed to be favoring Rangers starter Tommy Hunter by expanding the strike zone for him, even as he appeared to contract it unduly for Duensing.

One assumes most little vagaries in sports do eventually even out, but Nathan seemed quite the beneficiary tonight.

But we’ll take it, won’t we? The Twins have now scratched themselves up into second place in the division, 4-1/2 behind mighty Detroit. The White Sox lost today, but they are merely a half game behind.

No one would say Detroit was walking away with the Central, but that the Twins are in contention is due more to the embarrassing weakness in the division than their current .500 record. It’s simple: you really shouldn’t be collecting a lot of prizes with a .500 record, and the Twins have never exceeded that mark by much, or for long, all season.

The Rangers are poised to pose a lot of problems in the next two games this weekend. They’re 2-1/2 games behind Boston in the wild card chase, and this is looking like an especially golden season for them. They’ve groomed and buffed several hot young starting pitchers, and have some absolute flamethrowers in the bullpen. Add that to their standard hitting prowess, and Texas has a story to tell.

Tonight it was three scares and you’re out. Tomorrow the Rangers may do more than threaten. This series could help determine if the Twins are truly ready to contend.

They have no big mathematical obstacles, and with all due respect to the Tigers, their rival is within reach. The question is whether the Twins can sustain a winning drive with pitching that seems to come and go. Tonight Duensing proved he’s ready to press forward. It could be a rallying cry.

[game 126] Walking Off

Armando Gabino had his first major league start for the Twins tonight, facing Brian Matusz, who has a mere five games under his belt. The raw beauty of something done for the first time made me hope Gabino would have a fairytale debut.

Because a win would come in handy here. The Twins have reeled off four straight victories, the third time they’ve managed this high watermark this season. But five? Five in a row? That might really mean that little signs we’ve been seeing are true portents.

Signs like Alexi Casilla nudging his batting average steadily upward, even as he’s constructing a highlight reel of great catches at second base. And Delmon Young starting to hit consistently, even if not deep.

Signs like Joe Mauer regaining that exciting power stroke of late, using some homers in his serious quest of the AL batting crown.

Signs like the whole lineup stringing together hits, and cashing them in for wins. The bullpen hanging tough and shouldering the load of a lot of innings. The starting pitchers having some good games, intermittent though they be.

It’s too soon to call these patterns, but it’s never too soon to hope for the winning streak that signals a real run at the division crown. The Twins don’t have to be too gaudy about it. We don’t need an odds-defying winning streak; we just need to chip along and get the wins to outweigh the losses.

A win tonight will tie the Twins with the White Sox for second place in the division standings, after their loss to Boston. Should Detroit lose to the Angels, the Twins and White Sox would be three games back.

So a win would mean something to the team, but probably even more to young Mr Gabino. He makes his way through the first inning with but a walk to blemish his brief record. But in the second, some nasty firsts accumulate.

His first hit allowed, to Matt Wieters, the switch-hitting catcher. And then, too quickly, three more hits to push three runs across the plate.

Gabino even has time for his first error. He let a runner advance on a throwing error, and later blundered a bit in the field by failing to get to first quickly enough to accept a throw. It was not going to be fairytale night.

Gabino had three separate mound visits from pitching coach Rick Anderson, catcher Joe Mauer, and second baseman Alexi Casilla. All are hoping to settle him down and come up with the magic words that reconnects Gabino with the sharp sinking action his fastball, we hear tell, had in the minors.

Alas, no. The chats don’t help, and the sometimes punchless Orioles lineup doesn’t help. In the third, Gabino has the classic major league trial—he loads the bases with a double and two walks.

Ron Gardenhire pulls him, and chapter one in his big league education is complete. Phil Humber has his share of trouble with the baserunners he inherits. He walks the first batter to hand the Orioles another run, but ends the inning with a strikeout.

The Twins had a sloppy game offensively as well. They couldn’t scratch a single run after loading the bases in the first, and squandered opportunities throughout the night.

They were playing from behind all through the game, but kept showing sparks. Denard Span hit a happy-making triple in the second to score two runs, and Morneau proved he’s shaken the inner ear infection by launching a solo homer.

Baltimore led 6-3 when the Twins came up for their half of the sixth. This is their magic inning, remember, when the runs just tumble out.

Delmon Young led off with a single, his third hit of the night. Carlos Gomez followed with a base hit of his own. Pause to savor this pattern: consecutive hits from the bottom third of the batting order. If the Twins can do this once or twice a game, they can hoist themselves above .500.

And tonight they keep the momentum going, with Alexi Casilla parking a double in the deep recesses of right field, scoring one. Brian Bass, the Orioles reliever, is perhaps the key ingredient in this pleasant stew. Matusz has finished his five innings and left with a three-run lead, but Bass will fail to collect a single out.

Bass walks in a run, and when the inning is over the Twins have tied the game.

Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares pitch with grit to keep the Orioles from messing with that tie. But the Twins can’t make use of a lead-off walk in the seventh, and then are silenced completely in the eighth by imposing reliever Kam Mickolio, who throws with the special fury of a man nearly as tall as Randy Johnson.

A tie is like a protective amulet for the home team, but eventually you have to step beyond the armor to try to win. In the bottom of the ninth, we have Mauer, Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer, the best part of the batting order. Let it be now.

But Mauer and Morneau both ground out, victims of Mickolio’s big pitches. Its’ down to Cuddyer to prolong this inning, and he is barely safe on a infield single.

Jason Kubel didn’t start tonight against the left-handed Matusz, but now he’s tapped for pinch hit duty. He has a long, arduous at bat, and extracts a walk from Mickolio, moving Cuddy to second.

Young is up, on a 3 for 4 night. Let’s be realistic: Kubel, Cuddyer, Morneau, and Mauer couldn’t get it done. There are two outs. This pitcher can throw strikes. There’s always another inning coming with this tie in place. You really think Young can get four hits in a game?

Well, yes he can and this one is a walk-off. Cuddyer whips around from second to home on a single that trickles into right, and soon Young is mobbed at first base as the Twins gain their fifth consecutive win and perch at .500. Cuddyer’s face is one broad grin, and the Twins seem to be up to something. At last.

[games 112, 113] Paint by Numbers

Whenever I’m about to lose heart, the Twins turn around and have a game like tonight’s 7-1 victory over the Royals.

Last night, just to keep this in perspective, the Twins lost 14-6. All hail the Royals, who deserve credit for the clobbering, but the real story was the bleakness of Minnesota pitching. We needed five pitchers to drag through the game, and only one of them pitched more than two complete innings.

It was such an ugly game, I literally looked away—turned it off the TV and followed it, preoccupied, on the radio until the fun finale: Brendan Harris hitting an adorably useless solo home run in the bottom of the ninth while behind by nine runs.

Bad games are one thing, but this was the kind of loss that rocks you to the core. The abject failure of starter Nick Blackburn and all the bullpen (until Jose Mijares brought some order in the seventh) raises concern about the rest of the season. Explain, exactly, how the Twins are going to weave their way into the postseason with a rotation of Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, and Anthony Swarzak.

Well, one answer popped up promptly today. Liriano pitched seven super-solid innings, collecting 8 strikeouts while allowing 3 hits and 1 walk. Among those scant hits was a home run in the first, from Willie Bloomquist.  We must file it under Fluke, as it was his fourth dinger of the season.

Lirianio retired 12 in row at one stage, and was never under pressure. The Bloomquist blast in the first was bookended by strikeouts, and Liriano had nearly a 3 to 1 strike to ball ratio while throwing 91 pitches. It was paint by numbers pitching—the sinker had nasty movement, the pitch choices confounded the hitters, and catcher and pitcher were in a groove.

Liriano had both location and velocity working perfectly for him. Which made me wonder: how often do pitchers get what they wish for? Certainly Blackburn, last night, had none of his hopes met, but that was a starkly bad outing. No, I’m wondering how much pitchers coast on gas, on luck, and on hitters’ foibles.

You can turn in creditable innings on fumes. Most pitchers have one or two luckless innings, and if they’re fortunate the damage is not too severe. And then, how does it feel to have a whole game go your way, as Liriano’s did tonight?

For that matter, how does it feel to be part of a batting order that scores five runs on five consecutive hits, with two outs no less? In the first, the Twins had an emphatic reply to the lone Royal homer. Royals starter Brian Bannister had a rocky night, but the Twins did their main damage in the first.

Joe Mauer shot a single to left to keep his magnificent batting average ticking on upward. Justin Morneau knocked in a matching base hit, and the M&M boys waited on first and second to see what the rest of the batting order could do with two outs.

Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer stayed with the Cavalcade O’ Singles theme, each notching an RBI. But I don’t know—sometimes you just have to bust out of these patterns. Joe Crede, laced with cortisone for his balky shoulder, crushed a homer to left to add three more runs. The Twins were playing happy, effortless baseball and enjoying every little moment in their win.

They scored two more in the fourth, Liriano kept up his attack on the strike zone, Matt Guerrier pitched a scoreless eighth, and Joe Nathan got to strike out the side in the ninth.

The central truth of baseball is that it’s a pleasant game laced with endless opportunity for failure. Tonight, when the hits came when they were needed and the pitches shut the opposition down, it was easy to forget how hard baseball is. It looked simple, even sweet.

Meanwhile, The Red Sox stymied the division-leading Tigers for the second straight night. Minnesota is now 4 games back, even with their lousy 55-58 record. They have the White Sox to worry about too, and need 3 games to catch them.

If they play like they did tonight, overtaking Detroit and Chicago is entirely feasible. But the starters and bullpen don’t look to have quite this much polish in them consistently. Even Liriano is no sure bet five days from now—this game may be a high water mark instead of a turning point.

A baseball season has the perfect suspense of a long, long series of very small events. Predicting is folly. The actual baseball aptitudes of the Twins roster are enough to allow many more games like tonight. And many more like last night, too.

Will they keep alternating, like a long S.O.S. signal, these wins and losses? Three games below .500 suggests that the great win streak really never will happen. But why predict? Why predict when the evidence we have, the evidence from which we’d try to build a prediction, says only one thing: you never know.