Category Archives: players

Fenway at 100

The Red Sox honored Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary by recreating as much of the ballpark’s 1912 debut as possible. Conveniently, their first opponent remains their rival today, though they had to morph from the NY Highlanders into the Yankees.

The game itself failed to duplicate Boston’s 100-year old win (Red Sox 7, Highlanders 6), but New York did score precisely the same number of runs in a 6-2 victory. Both teams wore throwback uniforms: gray for the Yankees with a splashy NY on the chest, and serene white shirts, pants, and hats for the Sox. No uniform shirts were besmirched with player names, or even numbers; the teams looked pleasantly casual, and Boston’s bright red bands on their high socks seemed exotically old-fashioned.

The first pitch was at 3:05 pm on a Friday, a time so inhospitable to viewership and advertising that the Sox are either remarkably pure in their homage to history or supremely confident that the money will follow them wherever they lead.

Of course, the money followed. Via TV, I joined those taking time off work on Friday, and the pre-game celebration launched me into observations on how baseball measures time.

The ceremony was simple. The Red Sox invited all living players who’d suited up for Boston to come to Fenway and stroll out of the big left field maintenance door to stand, once again, at their position on the field. The procession was not orchestrated as a parade, or in any order of ascending majesty, save for holding Carl Yastremski for the finale and starting off with Jim Rice.

The 216 players and coaches who appeared qualified solely by the credential of serving time on the team. Perhaps some winced when Jose Canseco was eager to take them up on their offer so he could strut to right field, flexing his biceps the whole way. And the host of players I couldn’t recognize by sight or place by name were there not to give me the little thrill of seeing a hero but the deeper knowledge that baseball is better characterized by the small successes and failures of dozens of journeymen than by Carlton Fisk’s delightful hopping up the first base line, willing the ball fair.

Click to see that hopeful hopping one more time.

But Fisk was there, of course, and a little flood of Fenway memories that I never bothered to inspect came roaring out. I’ve seen more games there than any other park, and I spent some of my most worshipful moments slinking down in the late innings to lurk behind the batter’s on deck circle, rapturously watching Fisk swing with the donut on, tap it off, stretch, and kneel to wait his turn.

Now, let’s not over-love Fenway. I’ve spent some games craning around an iron post, or retreating from the heat and humidity in the second deck by leaning out into the scant breeze accessible from the dimly lit concession area. The seats are skinny and hard, and the sight lines sometimes woeful.

But it was in Fenway Park that I once saw Pedro Martinez pause, pace, mutter, and sink down to a crouch on the mound briefly. He was in a typical pitcher’s jam, and it was the Yankees that got him there to boot. His fastball wasn’t much that night. He was on the ropes. He raked his hand through the dirt a couple times and then he simply willed himself to roar back at them. I remember staring at him, and wishing he could do just that, unlikely as it seemed. I remember staring at him composing himself in the least private place on earth, the pitcher’s mound in the middle innings of a Red Sox-Yankee game, and if there is a collective intelligence that forms in crowds, when he stood back up he drew our need from us and packed it inside that baseball and threw it for a strikeout.

I’ve felt the crowd in Fenway at other times too. Something pulses, connecting us all, and if Fred Lynn manages to convert it into a home run, or Nomar Garciaparra into a single, or Dustin Pedroia into a sac fly, well, you can’t deny you had something to do with it. You sat right there, rooting, with nothing but this moment on your mind.

Today as the former players and coaches began dotting the diamond in their Sox jerseys, we were watching little collisions in the dimension of time. There was more than a moundful of pitchers, a battalion of catchers, and an especially dense crowd at second base, where Bobby Doerr held court as the player with the longest reach back into Fenway’s past: he started his career in 1937.

But one of the clearest statement’s of Fenway’s history came from the much smaller pool collecting in left field. Yes, there’s some recent clutter there, but the Red Sox have a true Shaker elegance in the lineage from 1939 to 1989: Ted Williams (through 1960), Carl Yastremski (61 to 74), and Jim Rice (to 1989). I still prize this piece of trivia: Rice was succeeded by Mike Greenwell, pretty much breaking the spell.

In sports, one aspect of time turns backward. Each spring it’s a new wave of players—I can age, but the starting shortstop need not. But on Fenway’s warm field today, we looked back and saw many of the men who’d taken that field. I realized how long I’d been watching baseball, and how the Red Sox had been the team that drew me back to it, once I moved from Ohio to New England. Suddenly I’m shocked to realize how long it’s been since Dwight Evans (Dewey!) was rocketing the ball back in from right field, or Wade Boggs was eating pregame chicken before manning third. These and other players are now my collection of antiques, unimaginably distant for the modern fan, endlessly comforting those whose baseball investment is measured in decades.

This afternoon we all gaze on the powdery green walls of Fenway, projecting ourselves back in time and trying to grasp what it means for a place to have contained so much. The players summoned today are only a subset. This field has held hundreds more, and just to try to imagine all the games played half hurts, half overjoys.

The Red Sox mingle recent history with their deepest past by having their most recent retirees Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield pilot the wheelchairs Doerr and Johnny Pesky now require. Here I pause to think what ending a sports career must feel like. Yes, you’re invited back; yes, you can wear your World Series ring or tote whatever other memorabilia you’ve acquired. But what looks like a pretty pageant to me this afternoon has to have its wistful side for the men on the field.

No matter how magnificent the athletic accomplishment, the simple fact that you have to live so many years after it’s occurred is a bit harrowing. What does the future look like to, say, Jason Varitek? He may be able to keep a nice glow of money and fame about him, but presumably the new things he has to hope for pale beside the past.

Sports always makes a taunting little jab at death because it celebrates youth and physical power. We watch, and we age, and the players—effortlessly young—enliven us. But in this arc of entertainment, the players are consumed. We cheer, we offer as much devotion as possible, but we replace them one by one.

The field at Fenway is finally filled with chatting, milling ballplayers. And then the members of the current team spring from the dugout and trot to their positions, joining their predecessors in crowds clotting each base and outfield spot. What is today is superimposed, literally, on what is yesterday. The tunnel of time becomes, briefly, a cascade of sparks. Fireworks blazing, burning out, and glowing on in memory.

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 2 Does It Matter How You Win?

Winning, we are pounded to understand, is everything. Coaches, fans, and players are in fervent agreement here—nothing matters except winning, and winning it all: the World Series is all that counts. Everything short of that is practice or failure.

The hyperbolic extension of this motivational speech is that there’s nothing to sports but the score and, for that matter, no reason to watch a game until October. But most of us want to follow the path to the outcome, not just tick off a win or a loss.

On the second day of play, I am nothing but a sponge ready to soak up some baseball. In many ways, winning is not on my mind at all. I’m curious to see Detroit’s new lineup, with Prince Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera shifted to third. I’m eager to see if Justin Verlander can prove that the offseason has not eroded his velocity, competitiveness, and serene composure on the mound. And I want to watch the Red Sox, with Bobby Valentine newly at the helm, try to wipe the slate clean after last September’s collapse.

But before too long, it’s clear that I’ve made up my mind about this game. Verlander should win it, as the first step on another season’s march to results like last year’s 21-4 record. I polish up this hope after three solid innings by both pitchers, with Verlander and Jon Lester both mowing down opposing hitters. If I’m here to see some pitching prowess, let’s wish for Verlander to reveal that staggering edge he has.

It’s a day game, the first true Opening Day contest, and the temperature’s in the mid-40s in Detroit, under cloudy skies. Why do I love Verlander? And why does his unpretentious ease with throwing baseballs impress me so? Today it tells in his nutty choice to go with short sleeves, white polyester fluttering lightly over bare arms. Lester, sensibly, is wearing a red long-sleeved shirt beneath his Boston grays. Is Verlander from our planet?

Both pitchers continue gathering quick outs. Detroit musters leadoff hits in the first, second, and third, only to have Lester passionlessly erase them with double play balls. Lester is a quiet pitcher, prone to curling his wrist to bend his gloved hand up flat along his shoulder, like a violin, while he waits for the sign. His eyes are starkly shaded by the cap he’s pressed down into a simple round dome, in the peakless style now in favor. He doesn’t seem to be hearing music up there, and that black wing of leather perched on his shoulder is less an instrument than an appendage. He hurries, betraying no emotion.

By the fifth inning, Lester gets into a genuine jam after giving up a leadoff hit and then walking the next batter. Now Alex Avila is up, the Detroit catcher who earned, and deserved, the starting All-Star spot last year. I watched him many times, and learned to respect his hitting abilities that well outdid Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, the player I confess to loving beyond all reason.

Well, in this at-bat Avila does not impress. He lunges, without a lick of timing or balance, to stab his bat into bunting position but punches nothing but air. He is flailing, as only a player not quite burnished from spring training can. Lester strikes him out. Was 2011, Avila’s second full year, his apogee?

Lester converts the rest of Detroit’s threat into fly outs, and the game stays scoreless. Verlander has had fewer brushes with danger, but he was called upon to strike out David Ortiz with a man on second, which he did by dialing up the velocity on his fastball. Clearly, both pitchers would take us into that most dangerous time in baseball, the seventh inning.

In the American League, if a starting pitcher is on his game, the seventh inning will surely decide how firmly he’s on it. It will be the third trip through the order, and the pitch count will be nudging ninety. All flaws will now be revealed.

Verlander handles his half with dispatch. His fifth strikeout of the day is on a curveball that freezes Kevin Youkilis down to his ankles. Ryan Sweeney is retired looking at another of these plummeting curves. Twelve pitches, two strikeouts and a fly out, case closed.

Lester starts off with two swift outs. Funny thing about two swift outs—it seems to suggest a kind of power, a strict momentum that cannot be budged, but there is no such thing as one out causing the next.

Indeed. Jhonny Peralta doubles to left on the first pitch. It could be one of those classic cleavings-open to which seventh innings are subject. Or it could be an idle moment in the game. But now Avila is up for another try, lefty against lefty. He looks at a strike, perhaps unwilling to flounder as he did in the last at-bat. Accepts a ball, then lunges grotesquely at an outside pitch to bring the count to 1-2. Now he lays back while Lester tries to bait him again. Two balls bring the count full. Is Avila ready to start his 2012 season now, or is he still hunting for that maddeningly elusive timing that spring training did not restore?

Ah. The pitch is up on the outside edge of the plate and Avila shoots the thing deep into the leftfield corner. Cody Ross gallops to overrun the ball, which thuds to a stop by the 345’ mark as the first run of the game scores.

This hit was on Lester’s 103rd pitch, another irritating piece of evidence in support of pitch count limits. But this game seems to showcase the Seventh Inning Turning Point still more. Does the arc of the game wear pitchers down, the sheer concentration on at-bat after at-bat? Is it trips through the order, which bends in favor of the hitter’s adjustments? Does the pitcher-catcher game plan begin to unravel under game conditions? Or is it, of course, pure exertion, as the pitch limits partisans say?

I have only the limited insights of a fan, but I don’t believe that it’s a physical wall these well-conditioned pitchers hit. I think it has more to do with the subtle, constant, mental agility that it takes to play baseball—refining a swing, rethinking a pitch sequence, anticipating a location. The game lasts nine innings not to repeat itself but to grow into pattern upon pattern.

Lester bars the door against further damage. It’s a 1-0 game, and no margin is smaller. Verlander strides out for the eighth and crosses the 100 pitch mark while easily retiring the side in order. The Red Sox, however, have finished with Lester and send up Vicente Padilla, whose first pitch becomes a triple off Austin Jackson’s bat. Valentine gets to move his bullpen chess pieces during a grinding, pesky inning which includes Prince Fielder using his uppercut in nearly golf mode to produce the sac fly necessary to score Jackson. 2-0 Tigers.

Cue Jose Valverde to whip through the bullpen gate, make a knees-to-chest energy hop, and take the mound. Everything is as it should be. Verlander has picked up right where he left off and so should Valverde, who completed 49 consecutive save chances last year.

He faces Dustin Pedroia, a player so scrappy he’s exhausting. Pedroia is in a mood to tussle, and he drives up the count and then knocks a hit into the right field gap for a double. Pure Pedroia, and you have to admire a man who revels in the fact that there’s no clock in baseball.

Well, the inning unravels and pretty soon Valverde is looking at a mess he can’t clean up. I saw him take things to the brink last season yet always pull back in time. Today, he allows Ortiz to hit a sac fly to score Pedroia and just as we’re all congratulating ourselves on that go-ahead run Fielder punched in last inning, Valverde serves up a triple to Sweeney that ties the game.

You can’t do worse by a starter than let him pile up eight innings and seven Ks, while allowing two hits, one walk and no runs, and then take away his win. But it’s gone now.

The Tigers now try to make amends for this tragedy, and after starting off the bottom of the ninth with an out, Peralta raps out a single. Avila is up again, which seems to be the signal that we’re at another key juncture in this game. He spends a good bit of the at-bat fouling pitches off—I really feel I can hear the gears grinding as he tries to find his form so he can emerge from this defensive posture. Now he finds that last little bit of inspiration and singles to left. The Tigers are back to having an opportunity.

I’ll skip over the pitching changes and intermediate batters. Our hero is revealed: it’s Austin Jackson, who goes 3 for 5 by ripping a sharp liner past the diving third baseman to score the run.

If winning is everything, all is well in Detroit. The danger’s past, and we really only had to survive suspense for a half inning. I got the outcome I wanted, but I’m not so sure winning feels like everything right now.

The win in the score book actually goes to Valverde, along with an awfully big meatball of an ERA—he’ll be trying to digest that 18.00 for quite some weeks. Verlander sees his team in the win column and gets to carry around a 0.375 WHIP and 0.00 ERA for a while. What he doesn’t get is the win.

But we do. If winning is everything, it’s a dull and brutal and black and white world. I enjoyed the journey much more than the result today.

[game 152] Nick Punto

When you watch the Twins, you want to see Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau—the big guns. Or maybe you want to see the hot hand of the month, Michael Cuddyer, or the other big lefty, Jason Kubel. But no one comes to see Nick Punto.

He’s a bottom-of-the-order hitter who plays good defense. (And there are people who are quick to claim he’s lost a step, but I happen to believe he’s still a true defensive asset.) He hustles hard, and happens to have earned the respect of manager Ron Gardenhire. If he hadn’t, he’d have been languishing not on the Twins bench, but a bench deep in the minors.

Punto looked like very much the odd man out when the Twins acquired Orlando Cabrera at shortstop just before the trading deadline. Alexei Casilla had just completed a successful rehab stint in the minors and came back hitting decently, and able to keep his mind on the plays in the field when on defense. Punto had filled various voids at short and second, and those positions looked to have gained much better hitters.

Never mind that Cabrera probably doesn’t have quite the defensive range of Punto at short. Or that Casilla still suffers the odd lapse in the field at second. Both pulled their hitting weight in the lineup.

Punto has spent a lot of his major league career barely hanging on to his place on the team. And this season he had his biggest challenge. From April to August, Punto often could only get on base with a walk. He tended to pop balls up, or chip weak grounders into the waiting hands of opposing second basemen. His batting average dwindled, and it grew harder and harder to justify his spot on the team.

Yet Gardy often played him. There are plenty of bloggers and sports chatters who called for his ouster, who thought Gardy was blind or foolish. I hung on, solidly pro-Punto, but I had a lot of apologizing to do.

As the season wore on, Punto kept working on his hitting.  He worked when nothing he did seemed to be paying off. He focused on coaxing out walks and looking for ways to make better contact. And he tried to chase his batting averages of yore; not that they were such gems, but that he would have to boost himself to reprise them.

When you watch the Twins, you want to see the heroes, but Punto is the definition of the only type of hero the rest of us can be. He didn’t quit when things looked darkest. He didn’t doubt himself when his skills—never dazzling—seemed to desert him. And he looked for every scrap of practice and coaching to overcome his problems.

In recent weeks, when the Twins have needed every player on the team, Punto has been fouling off pitches that he used to deposit dutifully into the gloves of infielders. He has been poking hits to center, or hitting to the opposite field. He has been working counts against pitchers, and looking for every edge. And he has been delivering.

Tonight, in the midst of a 8-6 win for a sweep of the White Sox, Punto got the critical hit in the seventh inning. It came at a key point. The Twins had let a 5-0 lead wither away to 5-4, and the Sox were ready to make a stand after scoring in three consecutive innings, most recently in the form of a two-run homer from Jermaine Dye.

In the seventh, the Twins loaded the bases on two walks and a Delmon Young double. But there were two out when Punto came to the plate.

Maybe nothing would come of the inning. Maybe the Twins would have to cling to that 1-run lead, or count on a bigger hitter to do some damage later. After all, Punto is not the go-to guy for clearing the bases.

But he stood in there, fouling off pitches, looking for the way to do some damage. With two outs, the bases loaded feels like a grim responsibility for a hitter.

Punto stayed at it. He watched a ball outside, and looked at a strike. He fouled a pitch over the dugout in left, and another to the home plate screen.

Carlos Torres, the pitcher who had relieved Mark Buehrle in the fourth, labored on. There was considerable momentum behind the Sox now, despite those crowded bases. Get this last out and the White Sox could return to hitting their way back into the game.

On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Punto fouled off another. He had the feel of Torres. Until a few weeks ago, he wasn’t able to make even this kind of contact, and struck out swinging all too often. Seventh pitch: he has a good enough eye to spot a ball and leave it alone. It’s a full count.

And then he took a clean, straight swing and shot the ball to center. A single, but a beefy one that scored two. Punto pushed the lead back up to 7-4. And he single-handedly returned all the momentum to the Twins.

He went on to steal second and then watch another run score on a fielding error. For the night, so far, he was two for three with three RBI and a run scored.

If you watch the Twins, you want to see the big heroes, but look at Punto too. He has to nibble his way on base, but working hard to get there should count, arguably, a little more than gliding on with the great gifts of hitters like Mauer and Morneau.

And he’s so seriously mortal he might as well be your cousin. He had the key hit tonight that sealed the lead, but he also struck out in the ninth with two men on. It was a moment equally tense, when the Twins had to try to respond to yet another challenge by the White Sox who’d nudged the score to 8-6.

He will fail, and fail often. He won’t appear in every set of baseball cards. He’ll have to take extra batting practice every day just to stay where he is now. He won’t withstand a lineup challenge from a hot, young second baseman with a bit better command of the bat.

So little Nick Punto lives on the edge of extinction. He offers everything he has, but those skills just don’t rank that high. For hard work and absolute commitment, he’s admirable to a fault. But we don’t admire hard work quite as much as we do the superpowers of the superstars.

I’m glad Gardy showed such dogged confidence in him. It took him almost all season to nudge himself up to a .229 average. Big market teams wouldn’t have the patience, or need it. And even the Twins could easily have given up.

In sports, you need the skills, and you need the chances. Both are hard to find, but the switch-hitting Punto has made the most of his. The faith of a coach and hard work—the best message you can get out of baseball.

The Twins have 10 games left and a formidable foe in the Tigers. For Minnesota to climb higher than the 2-1/2 games back where they now dwell, they’ll need everyone, Nick Punto included. And they’ll need the attitude he embodies to enjoy it all, too.

[game 106] Starting Over

In baseball, you start over. Fresh batter, fresh inning, fresh game, fresh series—but they’re only as good as your ability to ignore the past. The Twins started their series against the Indians with a brisk and certain win, step one in forgetting all the hits the Angels rained down last weekend.

Scott Baker pitched seven serene innings, and allowed only three hits, no runs. From time to time, he teetered in that area he can grind himself into: pitch after pitch just good enough to foul off, just bad enough not to lead to an out. But tonight he seemed to shake himself out of the serious dangers in this little pit.

Or maybe it was the Indians’ batters obliging. They saw Baker well enough to work the count along, and to send some impressive fly balls to the warning track. But they only once had two hits in a row against him, and Baker spent the game building a solid fortress for the Twins.

Which the Twins hitters used to good effect. Jason Kubel hit a solo homer in the second, but the team wasn’t going to let Indians starter David Huff off that easy. Huff still seems to be an experimental model of a starting pitcher, and the Twins had more damage to do. Delmon Young hit a clean two-out single and advanced to second on a wild pitch with Carlos Gomez at the plate.

Gomez has been starting in center every day for the past week or more. It appears Ron Gardenhire has gritted his teeth and decided to indoctrinate the young man into the great truths of baseball by playing him every day. A clubhouse report said that he told Gomez if he missed the cutoff man one more time, Gardy would find another player who wouldn’t. Perhaps they’ve aired it all out—well, let the healing begin.

In any case, Gomez is at the plate with two out. If such a distinction is possible, Gomez has seemed to me to be an impulsive hitter, waiting on a pitch and, if not finding it, swinging as if he had. His swing has a rather mighty architecture given his small size. As Rick Manning, the Indians commentator noted tonight, “He’s got such a big swing and with, you know, just the two homers on the season, you’d think it would sink in.”

Alas, the long project of reining in Carlos Gomez continues apace. He makes crazy throws and tries crazy swings, but somewhere in there is a player with speed and enough contact hitting to create a nice career. If only Gomez would learn to start over.

 

Two outs, full count, pitcher ready to get to that dugout after giving up only a single run, and Gomez delights us—stuns us—with a sweet single dumped into center, just dribbling enough to score Young and give the Twins a 2-0 lead.

Baker kept the Indians off the scoreboard while the Twins set to re-enacting some of the Angels’ “frenzying.” In the fifth, the inning began with a walk, a double, a double, and a single. Three more runs in, and just when it looked like reliever Jensen Lewis would settle the Twins down, Gomez thwacked a three-run homer to give the Twins a towering 9-0 lead. Take that, Rick Manning!

Actually, it looked more as if Gomez might be taking heed of the problem Manning diagnosed. His swing did look a bit shorter and simpler tonight, as if he was going to rely on his hands and his bat speed instead of not-so-bulging biceps. The home run was a neat little triumph, but channeling what he did with his earlier single is a better path for the rest of the season.

It appears playing every day is a good prescription for Gomez. Or perhaps the amazing novelty of major league baseball is finally wearing off for this exuberant player. In addition to going 3 for 4 with four RBI, he made a glorious, run-saving catch. With two outs in the fourth, Jhonny Peralta singled and Travis Hafner followed with a double. Baker was finally in a genuine jam. Rookie Chris Gimenez, the catcher striving to make up for the trade of Victor Martinez, hit a monster shot to center. Gomez leapt and plucked it from the air at the wall, preserving Baker’s scoreless game.

The Indians would eventually get a run. In the ninth, against reliever Bobby Keppel, Travis Hafner hit an RBI single, but I’m not sure the Twins technically noticed. Final score: 10-1.

Baseball allows you to read too much into any one little event. Tonight the Twins looked fresh, vigorous, and ready to contend for the Central. But we also got some bad news. Kevin Slowey is out for the season, having surgery on a bone chip in his wrist.

We’ll need to do a lot more starting over to climb over that .500 wall and make some inroads in the division, but you can’t want a better first step than what the team did tonight.

[game 102] Sweep

The trading deadline is two days away, and the Twins will not be solving their infield problems by acquiring Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates. That’s certain now, as the Giants have snapped him up. Other than some call-ups from the minors, we are finishing the season with Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Alexi Casilla.

It’s now officially fashionable to write the Twins off, precisely because of those six hitting lightweights. My theory is that any one or two of them would be fine on a major league roster, but all six become a collective liability.

Now, don’t look to a daily account for trend detection, but I’ve seen this motley group contribute to all of the recent wins, including tonight’s 3-2 squeaker that sweeps the White Sox. Maybe we can return to snapping, scarpping piranha glory again.

 

Alexi Casilla had two RBIs, with smooth leadoff hitter Denard Span collecting the other. The runs were all scored by the bottom of the order: Crede, Gomez, and Punto.

Add to this a bullpen that held the Sox scoreless for four innings, and an emergency start from rookie Brian Duensing, who acquitted himself well for five innings, and you have a team using all its bits and parts to stay in contention.

Duensing has been seen lately in middle relief, but tonight he was tapped to start when Francisco Liriano was pronounced in need of rest. After two serene innings, Duensing allowed a homer to Jayson Nix. In the fifth, Carlos Quentin likelwise lead off with a homer, but that was all the damage done. During the three-game series, Chicago has only been able to score on the long ball.

Jose Contreras started for the Sox, and pitched in his typical slow, lumbering manner. The Twins tapped out some hits, but had trouble putting much scoring together. But in the second, Gomez singled and Punto walked. With one out, Casilla hit an RBI double, and Span followed with a groundout that scored Punto.

At last we’re around to the mighty section of the batting order, but all Joe Mauer can do is walk. Justin Morneau doesn’t top it all off, but strikes out. It’s the bottom of the order that do the job.

The Sox hit their two solo homers to tie it, and this game looks like it’s stuck in the same mud of the close Chicago-Minnesota playoff last season. We’re seeing a combination of pretty good—but not great—pitching and pretty poor—but not awful—hitting.

Both teams want the win fiercely. With it, the Twins can sweep the series and break out of a tie for second place in the division with the Sox. Chicago wants to avoid the sweep and not surrender the position they’ve held over the Twins for most of the season.

Tense and slow it goes, particularly when Contreras makes his languid, hypnotic throws. In the sixth, Crede leads off with a walk and Gomez executes a tidy sac bunt to advance him. Punto flies out, but Casilla raps a liner through to center to score Crede. Tie broken, slender advantage achieved.

This is not a comfortable lead, and Joe Nathan does not have a quiet ninth. Gordon Beckham leads off with a single, and the game seems ready to tilt toward the Sox.

Nathan is heading into a tough part of the order, but he grits his teeth and puffs out his cheeks to strike out Jermaine Dye. Ever so delicately, the balance leans a little Twins-ward.

But Paul Konerko won’t play along with any of that swinging at strikes business. He works a walk, and the tying run is now on second. This is what they mean by a save opportunity, because it’s just as much a loss opportunity. Ozzie Guillen brings in Dewayne Wise to run for Beckham.

Chris Getz strikes out swinging, but Mauer can’t corral the wild pitch that fooled Getz so. The runners advance.

The runners loom. It’s up to Mark Kotsay with two outs, and Nathan summons his closer’s chutzpah and throws one pitch. Kotsay bites and flies out. The sweep is complete.

[games 98, 99] Fourth Inning

Two games, two fourth innings, two teams.

On Saturday afternoon, Nick Blackburn had three perfect innings, keeping the Angels well in check. There wasn’t a hint of a hit or a walk, and Blackburn pitched with a brisk, confident rhythm.

I will always hold onto the possibility of a perfect game until something takes it away from me. There is usually one or none per season, so I must hope to be in the right place at the right time to witness it. And this year my odds of seeing a Twin pitch it ran down near zero, as Mark Buehrle accomplished it on Thursday. The chance that there would be two of these in the same season, let alone the same week, were astronomical.

Still, we had three players hit for the cycle in one week this year, and then we had two players on the same team do it—and the pair were Twins. So I won’t give up hope before I have to. And then there is the matter of my blog thesis, that in the course of a season one team would supply all the events I’d need to chronicle all the essential aspects of baseball.

So, I’m clinging, however unrealistically, to the notion that Blackburn could keep this gem going. He is the type of pitcher to do it, by the way. It’s early to imagine it with the game only a third over, but each step along the way gets Blackburn closer.

Three perfect innings means a single complete trip through the batting order. And the fourth inning of a perfect game means all the hitters have had a chance to mutter together and come up with a plan to foil you. In the fourth inning, the pitcher of a perfect game either takes his next big step or the hitters take theirs.

Chone Figgins leads off the fourth. He’s an admirable leadoff hitter who takes pitches, scopes out weaknesses, and tries to deposit tidy singles to launch the Angel scoring machine. Figgins was an easy out in the first. Blackburn isn’t tired or taxed, but he may be just microscopically overconfident, because Figgins crushes his second pitch for a home run.

So that’s that—perfection is shattered. It’s as abrupt as a trash can clattering over in a quiet alley, but Blackburn is a pro. Unlike me, he’s not stitching together a fantasy of the best game ever. He’s just out there doing his job. And right now, he’ll have to get some hitters out to hang on to the Twins’ now meager 2-1 advantage.

Maicer Izturis is the next batter, a slap hitter who’s there to set the table like Figgins. But Blackburn’s unbeatable pitches are eminently beatable now—Izturis drills a double, then scores on Bobby Abreu’s single.

The Angels will get five consecutive hits and score three runs before Blackburn can even catch his breath. The Twins had scored first and looked well poised to take this game, but now the Angels are hitting everything Blackburn dishes out.

Erick Aybar grounds into a double play in which the runner is cut down at home. Blackburn can limit the damage if he can just get that third out. There must be some especially brilliant reason for requiring three whole outs, because Blackburn finds number three especially elusive.

My window into the game is the radio broadcast from Angels announcers Rex Hudler and Steve Physioc. I’ve heard them before, and even during this debacle I can’t resist Huddy’s insane cheerfulness and hearty Halo partisanship. Now, as Howie Kendrick laces a single to center to score another run, Huddy is in his element: cheerleading and being overwhelmed at the greatness of the Angels.

“Sometimes they’re just like this. They’re frenzying. The hitters get to frenzying, and you can’t contain ‘em,” he says. He’s captured it exactly, if ungrammatically. They send 13 men to the plate, get ten hits and nine runs, and humiliate the Twins.

Blackburn exits after walking Gary Matthews Jr. He has allowed six runs and six hits, with every batter putting the ball in play in the fourth, and none of them touching him in the previous three innings.

It’s a stark contrast. The Angels are quite a good team this year and Huddy’s not wrong to love them so. But they came to life so suddenly, and so perfectly, it almost sounds like artificial baseball. There’s a Disney-esque quality to this inning, as if animatronic batters put on this display every afternoon at 3:00 pm.

And as puzzled as Blackburn was about where his stuff went, RA Dickey is equally stumped. Give credit to the Halos, then, as Hudler and Physioc are doing. The frenzy of singles and doubles continues, as Dickey doles out the two singles necessary to get the rest of the batters Blackburn allowed on base to reach home.

Dickey’s knuckleball is not fooling anyone, but he does, finally change the complexion of the inning. It started, maybe a half an hour ago, with a solo homer from Figgins, his third of the year. Then the steady stream of hits to advance runners, like a little assembly line. Now Dickey faces light-hitting Izturis with two men on.

Izturis wallops one out of the park, and his three RBI make it Angels 9-Twins 2. Dickey allows one more single but finally the conveyor belt of baserunners stops on a fly out.

To complete the game account, the Twins do a little catching up and score three in the seventh, but the outcome is not in doubt. The Angels see fit to collect two more runs in the eighth, and even Huddy is out of superlatives. The game ends 11-5.

On Sunday, the Angels are primed to seek a sweep of the four-game series. The Twins send up rookie Anthony Swarzak against Ervin Santana, and in the first inning both pitchers have their troubles.

Santana falls victim to the M&M boys—Joe Mauer singles and Justin Morneau hikes a homer over the right field scoreboard. It may be another of those frail 2-0 leads that the Twins have let crumble lately, but it’s the best way to begin the game.

In the bottom of the first, Swarzak is perhaps intimidated by these bruising Angels, who lead the AL West and have been munching up the Twins for three straight days. He walks Figgins, leading off, then watches Izturis fly out. But Bobby Abreu coaxes a walk and now there are two on and only one out.

This is a good situation for any team, but it’s a prime situation for the Angels on a sunny afternoon in southern California. But Swarzak regains control. The two outs that end the inning are harmless enough shallow fly balls, but they signal a full turnaround for the Twins.

Swarzak would go on to pitch an excellent game. The first hit of the measly four he would allow was a solo homer to Kendry Morales, but that was plainly an aberration. He buttoned up the Angels when the Twins needed a win, and he even helped the bullpen out by nearly completing seven innings.

By rights, he should have gotten all three outs in the seventh, but a fielding breakdown kept the Angels alive. Michael Cuddyer played first to give Morneau the half-day off of the DH spot, and Cuddy couldn’t pick a low throw from Nick Punto on Erick Aybar’s leadoff at bat in the seventh. It was ruled Punto’s error, but Cuddyer and Punto should share this one on their mantelpieces. Another two hits squeaked by flailing fielders, and though Swarzak allowed no runs and only one hit, Gardenhire didn’t take any chances and brought Matt Guerrier in to get the last out.

Swarzak held up his end of the bargain, and the Twins hitters finally did their share in, of course, the fourth inning. It was as if they wanted to shake of all bad memories from yesterday.

It wasn’t anywhere near the onslaught the Angels managed, but the Twins got their runs in particularly heartening ways. Morneau led off with a walk, and when Jason Kubel fouled out the inning started to look like another of those case studies in how the Twins batting order peters out so weakly after the mighty Mauer and Morneau.

But Cuddyer singled, and Brian Buscher matched him. The bases were loaded. Now the batting order gets even thinner—it’s Carlos Gomez’s turn. In his previous at bat, he was so easy to strike out he reminded me of what I’d look like at the plate. And now he makes contact in a pretty Twins-destructive way—the ball scoots toward Santana who throws it home for the easy force out at the plate.

There’s a titanic difference between the bases were loaded with one out and with two outs. That’s the situation Nick Punto faces, gamely carrying his weeny .198 average to the plate. Punto has a clutch hitter’s mentality, though he lacks the skill set. But today he hits that single, that single he is always seeking, and this time it scores two.

We know Santana is in trouble when he allows Alexi Casilla to negotiate a walk a from him. Then Denard Span singles and scores two more. The Twins get four runs and are now up 6-0, and they have used their typically unproductive hitters to do the job.

The Twins will score some more, but the fourth is the meaningful inning of this game. Morneau hits a second homer, a solo shot, and Denard Span surprises and elates with a two-run homer to right. The Angels? All they produce is a single run, on that homer from Morales. The Twins win by nine, the kind of nutty margin that has been the fashion this past week.

The west coast road trip has gnawed at me. The games are late and hard for me to take in, and there have been some gruesome losses in there. But the team has ended its four-game losing streak and is still only four games back in the Central. Thanks, Swarzak and Punto, for righting the ship.