Category Archives: playoffs

Charm Bracelet

In the American game show tradition, I’m sure there’s some type of consolation prize for baseball teams who make it to the postseason but don’t win anything. The Twins, for example, might get little charm bracelets. And game 2 of the ALDS could be commemorated by charms for the nice little positive moments that occurred. The nice little moments that didn’t in any way add up to winning what may be the last baseball game played in Target Field this season.

There could be a First Run Scored charm, in memory of Danny Valencia’s sac fly that sent Delmon Young across the plate in the second inning. That should be a shiny little spinning disk, the kind of thing that distracts you for a while until you happen to notice it’s meaningless. For the Twins in this decade, you can put ten of them on the charm bracelet and they’ll dangle and make lots of jangly noise while amounting to nothing.

I guess there should be a Futility charm; maybe it’s an anvil that could drop off the bracelet and maybe bruise your toe. Whatever it looks like, you’ll need to hang your head when looking at it.

But back to the bright side! We need an Unlikely Solo Home Run charm, to denote Orlando Hudson’s bright little blast to left field. It tied the game at two-all in the sixth inning, so the charm should be an insipid smiley face.

And, hey, we need a First Pitch Strike charm, in honor of Carl Pavano’s noble effort and consistent ability to execute the Twins’ pitching approach. Of course, when you throw a lot of strikes, a team like the Yankees might start hitting them. In the fourth, New York tried just that. Curtis Granderson doubled to lead off, and Mark Teixeira smacked a first pitch strike for a single that sent Granderson to third. Next, mighty Alex Rodriguez coiled himself up in his sulky stance and blasted a first pitch sacrifice fly to tie the game. The scoring didn’t end there, but the first pitch pounding did.

Another charm we should have: Holy Joe Mauer, Savior of St. Paul. In tonight’s game, Mauer struck out one less time than he did yesterday, grounded out twice, and got a hopeful-looking leadoff single in the ninth. In the ninth, when we needed three runs to tie and have a chance to head into Yankee Stadium with some of that polite, Minnesota-nice swagger Mauer exudes. Delmon Young would erase Mauer’s lonely hit by grounding into a double play. Joe, you are and remain my hero in every way I can have a baseball hero, but you have been playing like a passionless duffer in this series.

The charm bracelet should have also have a Bad Call charm, in the form of a little umpire’s eyeball. One can actually make a case that the entire game turned on a rather beautiful pitch the umpire neglected to consider a strike. After walking Jorge Posada to start the seventh inning, Pavano seemed to settle back down and laid a lovely trap for Lance Berkman. On a 1-2 count, Pavano carved a pitch just over the inside edge of the plate. It was the best kind of situational pitching, and it should have left a man on first with one out. Instead, the count moved to 2-2 and Berkman launched a deep double to center and scored Posada on Pavano’s next throw: Yankees 3, Twins 2.

I’m a big believer in the human limits of baseball, and I want nothing to do with television replay. I have been impressed time and again by how very good umpires are, and I accept the occasional mistakes they make as the texture on the backdrop of the game. Relying on an umpire’s calls mean granting authority to a powerful, human arbiter. It doesn’t mean every call is accurate, just that the game is played with someone in charge. Accuracy, particularly vaguely scientific accuracy, is overrated.

But back to the seventh inning. Now the Yankees have a man on second, no outs, and a run home. Quite the contrast to the conditions that would follow a correctly called third strike, but that’s baseball. (Yes, I keep muttering that tonight.) After a little bunt single from Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter gets to add still more to his mind-bending heap of postseason stats: an RBI single puts the Yankees up 4-2.

We need a charm for reliever Matt Guerrier’s 1-2-3 eighth inning, but maybe it should be a little cloud for the way his work was overshadowed. It has to symbolize the fact that anything good the Twins do the Yankees can do better. In this instance, consider Andy Pettitte’s 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh. He throttles the Twins, giving them no chance to answer back to the long scoring siege in the top half.

Well, that’s about all the charms I can think of to remember this night. We had such a beautiful season, and such a great ballpark to play in. Fan support, a cohesive team, even an answer—at last—to the dilemma of third base. So maybe there should be a fragment of Target Field limestone on the charm bracelet. That should do it.

I’m uncharacteristically bitter tonight. The Twins are wilting before my eyes, and I have no way to rattle them awake. The psychological aspect of baseball is one reason I love the game, but when I see my beloved team tied in knots by what appears to be abject terror of the Yankees, I am nearing a collapse myself.

There, I got it all out of my system. I can start all over this Saturday. I know, I just know, the Twins can play one game resembling the 94 handsome wins they had this season. They know how. They just have to decide they’re playing the White Sox.

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Playoff Eve

The eve of the playoffs. All is potential. But even more is speculation: can the Twins possibly overcome (in ascending order of difficulty) the championship-hardened Derek Jeter (no matter what his latest stats may say), CC Sabathia, the inexorable Yankee lineup, the loss of Justin Morneau, the grasping New York media, and the greatest obstacle of all, the pure and towering Yankee mystique?

It’s tempting to start answering these questions, complete with nuanced distinctions and research, but I have a larger question to ask. Why is it so important to predict the outcome? Why must we all weigh in on when and how and why certain players will or won’t help their teams to victory?

I’m sure it started with nothing more than the enjoyment of imagining a happy outcome. And right now, I have one very specific outcome in mind: the Twins, at home, get to Sabathia early, hold their lead with some solid innings from Francisco Liriano, and use their vast bullpen to keep the Yankees in check. Further, by starting with a win, the Twins remain buoyant all through their trip to the Bronx, while the Yankees experience a nasty, uncharacteristic bout of self-doubt. Twins win!

This is a possible scenario, and I could defend its likelihood with a variety of comments about the capacities and qualities of players on both teams. But it is, ultimately, a wish, not a prediction. I want it to be true, so I can channel my energy into mustering out the proofs. I have a hard time suppressing them right now—an especially intense Minnesota home field advantage, a complete pitching rotation versus a single star with shaky comrades, a younger, even a hungrier team. But does it matter that I can buff up my dream with such a delightful set of explanations?

It won’t make it come true. But I realize, tonight, it will do the next best thing. It will let me wish a little harder. It will elevate my wishes to stories, stories I can use to convince you to wish alongside me, or to jeer at my crackpot hopes. Tomorrow, I will surrender all my imaginings to the relentless randomness of sport, but I won’t let go quite yet. I’ll make up a story first before the event itself can trample on my hopes.

That explains what I get out of making a prediction, or even why I might take in some of the free-floating predictions of experts that clutter and clog the sports media right now. But what explains the experts’ endless  forecasting, this widespread need to pronounce judgment on the event before it has occurred? The pundits aren’t merely handicappers; they’re dead set on telling you what the outcome ought to be, to the point of implying there’s a higher calling in making up the results than in recording them.

The inescapable consequence is that the game itself is in the way. If the anticipated story of the game requires CC Sabathia to remain cool, calculating, and unhittable, then it would be quite a shame if, say, Michael Cuddyer managed a double. That started a rally. That ended in a handful of runs. That resulted in a Twins victory. My little riff there was a fantasy, not a prediction, but the wise baseball analyst dutifully weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, makes a judgment about momentum or some other slippery intangibles, and then tells you what will happen. Before it does.

Is there some reason we can’t just wait? I don’t know about you but I’m in no special hurry. Go ahead, Jason, take some time bouncing bat off your left shoulder. Delmon, it’s fine with me if you step out of the batter’s box a few times. Joe, feel free to tap the dirt off your cleats. And Francisco, I hope you can keep up a good rhythm up there, but I’ve got all the time in world if you want to accumulate some strikeouts. Let’s see what actually happens. Let’s let the postseason unfold—I’m in no rush to leave the most thrilling baseball month of the year.

[ALDS game 2] Possibility

When you have to start bringing up the fact that baseball is only game, you’re probably about to apologize for something. And I suppose the Twins do need excuses, but right now I’m thinking about how one goes about watching a game like tonight’s.

Baseball is especially prone to little surprises, and anyone who’s enjoyed watching major leaguers knows that hope is always a reasonable emotion. We’re watching precisely because there is still no limit to the possibilities inside that well-designed diamond, or within the fences of each idiosyncratic ballpark.

Of the eight teams in the 2009 postseason, the Twins are given the least chance to move any closer to a World Series game. They are filler, really—a team for the Yankees to beat. But do not discount the crapshootical qualities of the postseason. It may take very little to lose a game, but it can also take only a lucky hit or two to win one.

So I tell myself as I watch them try to win their first game of the year against the New York Yankees. To make the project more painful, they held the lead in every game they played against New York this season, surrendering it as late as the eighth or ninth inning a few times. They scored the first run and had a (brief) lead in the first game of this playoff series, for that matter.

Though the teams only faced off seven times this year, the two series mattered. The Yankees count their May sweep of the Twins with turning their season around, and the Twins can mark their low point in July, when the Yankees stopped by the Metrodome to clobber them. Immediately after, the Twins picked themselves up with a 20-run onslaught against the White Sox, a lovely over-reaction to the damage the men in the real pinstripes did.

But it’s not possible that it’s actually impossible to beat the Yankees. Hell, the Twins might have been saving it all up for now. What’s so crazy about splitting the series in New York, and moving on to the Metrodome to capture, just maybe, enough home field advantage to win the ALDS?

To prove such a possibility, you’d have to play the first 8-1/2 innings pretty much just as they were played tonight. Nick Blackburn, probably underestimated by New York, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, or a run until the sixth. It was another A-Rod RBI, sending Derek Jeter in after a double got him on base. Not bad pitching, Mr Blackburn, particularly considering the one run scored merely tied the game.

The Twins scored first, and it’s fair to say no one saw it coming. AJ Burnett had been issuing walks or hits in every inning, but the Twins conducted nothing more than a simple sightseeing tour of the new Yankee Stadium by trotting out to the bags. Burnett shut down the hitter that mattered most each time.

In the sixth, with Delmon Young the latest beneficiary of a free pass, Carlos Gomez tied himself up in eager knots to strike out swinging, but Young made it to second on the contact play, credited with a stolen base.

With two outs, we now get the bad news that Matt Tolbert, never a powerful hitter but at least capable of some clutch-style hits in the Twins dogged campaign of the last three weeks, is out of the lineup. Brendan Harris replaces him, and my first thought is, playing the lefty/righty orientation against Burnett just doesn’t make much sense when your hitters have such gossamer batting averages. I’m unaware that Tolbert has strained his oblique muscle to scuh a degree that he’ll miss the rest of the playoffs . . . what little of them there may be.

In any event, here’s likeable, light-hitting Harris with two outs. Dream on if you consider this a scoring opportunity on a par with, say, Jeter on second and Rodriguez at bat.

But it must be remembered: to have made it to the major leagues at all, and to be standing here in October, your aptitudes are not nothing. Harris plucks himself a triple, swatting the ball to an unpatrolled space in deep center. Young scores, Twins lead, Harris claps dust off his hands as he stands up safe at third.

But our story is not fiction. In the bottom of the same inning, the Yankees administer the antidote, in perfect proportion—Jeter doubles, A-Rod scores him, tie game, harmony of the universe maintained.

But a backwards look must be permitted. In fact, this game is an especially burnished example of a sporting event that includes a “what if” in the telling. In the fourth, Young was on base, this time courtesy of Burnett’s veering fastball that clipped Young near the elbow. Carlos Gomez is up, with two outs, and his repertoire of ways to get on base in such a situation is limited. Fortunately, Burnett thought of one all on his own: hit two consecutive batters!

Here’s Matt Tolbert, and he delivers a single, just as he often did in the long race to bring the Twins to the postseason. Young is motoring hard for home and Gomez, without the most burnished baseball instincts, assumes the play will be at the plate. He skids a bit past second and stumbles on his way to third, then realizes these professional Yankee baseball players know where to throw the ball.

Gomez, stricken with guilt, starts clawing his way back to second, as if he might beat the ball, as if suddenly remembering he has a really important appointment at second.

I’ve played a little softball, enough to experience a tenth of a percent of game situations. I would surely have made the same mistake Gomez did. But baserunners groomed for the majors are supposed to know a simple and pretty infallible trick—turn for third and demand a rundown play, so your teammate can make it home before the last out of the inning is recorded. If the fielders insist on getting you out instead of tackling the lead runner, let them, and make them pay the one-run price. It’s a race, between the man heading home and the last out—and Gomez let them tag him before Young was home. Run lost.

This missing run would loom large throughout the game. Tied in the sixth, any Twins fan just wanted to affix an additional 1 up on that scoreboard. But in the eighth, it looked like we could finally forget about Gomez’s blunder. The Twins scored two, starting their attack with a Gomez walk and a Harris single.

It was Nick Punto who conducted another of his Scrappy Batter clinics, this time securing a single off reliever Phil Hughes. Even when the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera to quiet these rowdy, childish Twins, Denard Span got a base hit to score another run.

Now, was it OK to start feeling hopeful? Six outs remained, and Matt Guerrier quickly got three of them in the bottom of the eighth, facing down Jorge Posada, Jeter, and Johnny Damon. Is it reasonable to enjoy this moment, this place on the edge of victory?

It’s the bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, and Joe Nathan is up to send the Twins off to Metrodome for game 3 in a 1-1 series tie. That’s the objective, and Nathan is the perfect closer to do it. All I want is a low-stress version of the closing process. OK, Joe?

Nathan lets his first batter, Mark Teixeira, beat him. It’s a single, but it’s a gruesome scar. A-Rod’s up, and has been drinking the special elixir that eliminates all pressure from years of wilting in the postseason. No, A-Rod is going to be perfect from here on in, never again letting an RBI opportunity go to waste in October. He homers. The single most brutal attack upon a closer, and Rodriguez does it with a swift, elegant swing that leaves no doubt.

If there’s a crumb to be scraped up here it’s that Nathan finishes the inning with three straight outs to limit the damage to a tie. And as we go into extra innings, the lost run looms yet again.

The game ends in the eleventh, on the first batter of the inning. Mark Teixeira has the most intoxicating joy in all of sports, hitting a walkoff homer in Yankee Stadium. What compares with that?

I watched this game, feeling hope, watching the Twins strive and fail, and watching the Yankees face some legitimate competition. But as Teixeira’s blast sailed into the leftfield seats, hundreds of happy hands extended for it, I felt the pure and direct kick in the gut. Were the Yankees toying with us all this time? Was I a chump to dream?

Because a loss humiliates not the effort made but the ability to imagine something that in the end can’t be achieved. It mocks dreams.

It does, that is, if you let it. Because I am watching sports for one thing only, and it’s the amazement I feel when the greatest efforts are made, and what’s possible still lies ahead, possible. I’m watching for the rapture of possibility, and even the Yankees are not strong enough to take that away from me.

[ALDS game 1] Playoff Chum

If you root around long enough on the web, you can find a few souls willing to imagine the Twins winning one whole game in the ALDS. There are even some freak-out style commentators who give the Twins a chance to overturn the Yankees, but I suspect they’re saying this for the shock value. No one really expects Minnesota to serve as anything more than chum, thrown over the playoff fishing boat transom.

The Yankees are hungry, and have been stoking their appetite all season. They have reached new levels of financial perfection. Their lineup includes the highest-paid player at every position except outfield and second base, and usually by a big margin. They have the best record in baseball, with 103 regular-season wins.

They have a ballpark that favors home run hitting, and many players able to take advantage of it. They have a young manager with something to prove, spending the season wearing  a 27 on his uniform in homage to the 27th World Series Championship this year could include. They have fans who won’t settle for less, and players accustomed to a very intoxicating level of worship.

They. Can’t. Lose.

In game one on Wednesday, Brian Duensing starts for the Twins. We’re all hoping he’s a little too young to know what’s hit him and can survive in the majesty of the new Yankee ballpark. He faces CC Sabathia, one of the prize Yankee acquisitions this year, who has settled in well amidst the hype and hope.

For two innings, both pitchers look calm and in command. The Twins start with a hopeful double from Denard Span, and the Yankees counterpunch with a leadoff single from Derek Jeter, but neither team assembles a threat.

In the third, the Twins are first to score, often a happy little indicator of success. They start with a leadoff single from Nick Punto, who proves his scrappy at-bat intensity even works on the big stage. Span, alas, erases him with a double play, but a little whisper of the chance of getting to Sabathia arises.

The Twins reel off three consecutive hits, from Orlando Cabrera, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer, who gets an RBI and sees Cabrera cross home. Cooking this up with two outs starts to feel very invigorating. Jason Kubel can’t exactly cap it off—he’s at the plate when Sabathia launches a passed ball that allows Mauer to score, but ends up a strike out. It’s Twins 2, Yankees nothing.

If you’re looking for a fairytale, go to sleep right here and forget the rest of the game. But if you want to face facts, watch the Yankee lineup systematically solve Duensing on their second trip through.

Jeter starts the cavalcade with the two-run homer in the bottom of the third, allowing the Twins to lead the game for approximately seven minutes—and I’m including the break between innings. Nick Swisher smashes a double that rumbles along the leftfield fence long enough to score another run in the fourth, and put the Yankees up 3-2.

Things are going well for the Yankee hitters. They’re not precisely eviscerating Duensing yet, but then again, it might be more productive to toy with him. More chum off the boat, please!

The Yankees may no longer even be concerned about winning the game; that problem seems solved already. They’ve seen Sabathia settle in to a productive groove, and shake off at least some of his communication problems with Posada that led to that passed ball. They’ve seen the Twins hitters shoot liners to perfectly placed infielders, or strike out against CC’s sharp cutter. But there is one last small test.

Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the most synthetically perfect player of all time, with his tense jaw, tightly scrubbed face, stare-through-the-pitcher hazel eyes, and perfectly ordered muscles, always turns in immaculate season stats. He hit his quota precisely this year: 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, like punching a clock. But he has not yet distinguished himself in a playoff game. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s quite let down the side in these October events.

There are New York fans who are horrified enough at his artificial perfection to continue to wish him ill, and others who yearn to see him triumph. In the fifth inning, he begins improve his postseason record. He shoots a swift line drive to left with two out, and scores Jeter. An RBI gleams in his crown, at last.

The Yankees would garnish the inning with two more runs off a Hideki Matsui homer, now leading 6-2. As the Twins shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, collecting a meager few hits and no more runs, the Yankees take their feet off the gas. They only score one more run, but it’s another A Rod RBI, just for good measure.

Yankees 7, Twins 2. Not much debate about the better team tonight. The Yankees got 6-2/3 great innings from Sabathia, who struck out 8. Manager Joe Girardi also rolled four relievers through, probably to give them experience and comfort in the setting as much as anything. Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Joba Chamberlain each collected one or two outs.

Then Mariano Rivera was brought in for a shut-you-up ninth inning. It felt like overkill, really, especially against the bottom of the Twins bating order. Punto managed a walk and Span a single, but of course Rivera had his way in the end.

If Girardi gave his middle relievers some time just to get comfortable in the playoff mode, you might even wonder if the Twins are a tad buoyed up by having two on base against the Mighty Mo. But it’s stretch to find a lot of hope here.

They say defense and pitching wins championships. The Twins showed off some good defense, particularly in Nick Punto’s running snare of a groundball that required him to make the throw to first while spinning into a sideways somersault.

But they also showed a defensive lapse. Delmon Young made a weak throw from left, and Orlando Cabrera handled it poorly in the relay, allowing that run to score on Swisher’s hit. The Twins have cut down runners in that situation, but failed to do so tonight.

The defense, though, will probably do us justice. But Twins pitching, at its very finest, is of the pitch to contact flavor. They don’t have a single pitcher who can hurl pure flames at the plate. Yankee hitters can’t be fooled by much, and can’t be fooled for long, as their second look at Duensing showed. They can be stymied only by pure firepower—Justin Verlander had a chance against them. But the Twins crew will have trouble in every game ahead.