Category Archives: runs

[game 124] Offense & Defense

The Twins and Royals played two games of baseball today, and I’m not referring to a doubleheader. Through the first six innings, the game was about how far you could stretch a single run. And then it became a classic clobbering, with the Twins raining down hits to sweep the series and inch up to two games below .500.

Carl Pavano started for the Twins, and he had a textbook day, almost escaping with a shutout. He pitched seven innings and allowed only two runs, one in the sixth that tied the game, and one in the seventh that meant nearly nothing.

Steering the team through five and two-thirds innings with a 1-0 lead, he was careful without cringing. He challenged the Royals hitters, with an answer for most any trouble they could pose.

The Royals’ Brian Bannister was nearly as good, but not for quite as long. In the third, the Twins got a single run as Carlos Gomez scored on an error by Mark Teahen. But Bannister, victim of that lousy fielding error, stayed splendid until the seventh.

I’m sure he felt great coming to the mound to start that inning. The Royals had finally tied the game, and the tense battle might finally be tipping his way. But on the first pitch, Michael Cuddyer blasted a ball to left to nudge the Twins back into the lead.

When we try to imagine a pitcher’s psychology, we are only imposing our own ideas of what we’d feel up there. There’s no knowing if that leadoff homer rattled him, but there are some facts in the case. The Twins followed with two more hits and another run scored, and Bannister had thrown 102 pitches. Time for a reliever to restore order.

Kyle Farnsworth was selected for this duty. When last seen, Farnsworth was objecting mightily to manager Trey Hillman’s disinclination to keep him in a game. So we presume he’s back with something to prove.

But maybe Hillman had something to prove as well. Farnsworth inherited a man on first, but promptly allowed first pitch singles to Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla to load the bases. There were no outs, and Farnsworth had thrown only two pitches. If there are baseball dreams of World Series-winning hits, this would be a baseball nightmare. And Hillman left Farnsworth in the game.

Still, the Twins were only ahead by a manageable two runs. If Farnsworth can tidy things up, starting with Denard Span at the plate, the Royals can stay in the game.

Not if Span has anything to say about it. His triple clears the bases, and he gets to cross home plate himself on a sac fly from Orlando Cabrera. Cuddyer gets another at bat in the inning after Joe Mauer singles, and this time Cuddy crushes the ball past the shimmering fountains in Kaufman Stadium.

It’s an eight-run inning, and the close game has become a laugher. The Royals chalked up two more runs, but even the KC fans saw them as feeble efforts. The final score was 10-3, and the Twins have the lift of a three-game winning streak

I’ve seen many games that followed the pattern of the first six innings today, and others that resembled the exhilarating hitting in the final innings, but it’s rare that both extremes occur in a single afternoon. It made me wonder exactly why the defensive advantage in baseball can suddenly collapse.

Because, for the most part, all sports favor the defense, if only subtly. If they didn’t, offensive skills would be too coarse and common, and it would be too easy for one team with even a small edge to crush another. If you want to invent a sport, start with the how the defense can stymie the offense, and then wait for the great players to burst through those barriers.

For about a decade, offense in baseball was defined by home run hitting. Thanks to various drugs and the financial incentive for many players to use them, the defense couldn’t contain the hitters. Because the financial incentives remain as powerful as ever, we have to assume that drugs remain a part of the game, but perhaps they are a bit less common.

The game in which a batter faced nine fielders, including a cunning pitcher, evolved into the game in which a batter faced an outfield wall between 350 and 400 feet away. Just hitting the ball that far was the object, not threading it through the fielders, hitting a sacrifice fly, or figuring out what the pitcher was about to throw.

The Twins never played that type of baseball, though they now have four batters with over 20 home runs for the season, and in Justin Morneau a serious power hitter. But they play baseball within the walls more than beyond them. And a good defense can shut them down awfully well, because the batting order has numerous weak spots.

This afternoon, the Twins could only peck at Bannister for six full innings, but in the outburst of the seventh, they suddenly overmastered Bannister and Farnsworth’s every move. Was Bannister that tired and Farnsworth that off? Or did the Twins lineup come to life, all together and in especially glorious fashion?

I may be guilty of imposing a story on what I saw, but the fusillade of hits in the seventh showed me that the Twins batting order should not be written off. Seven batters hit successfully, one of them twice, and an eighth got a sac fly. There’s no great mystery to what makes a big inning: you get two hits for every out. And today, hitters weak and strong all did something to the ball in the seventh.

It’s impossible to find the seam between offense and defense. For the first two thirds of the game, the defense did what it’s supposed to, perhaps aided just a tad by a semi-generous strike zone. None of the hitters had much to say about it.

But when the game broke open, it probably took both weakness in the defense and strength in the offense to do it. I will venture one supposition. Baseball acquaints each player, on a minute by minute basis, with success and failure. It may take less for the brain to flood with temporary certainty about one side or the other of that equation than we think.

Perhaps Bannister hated that home run and couldn’t settle down after allowing it. And perhaps Farnsworth was stunned by two consecutive first pitch hits and couldn’t summon up a shred of confidence afterwards. Finally, perhaps every Twins hitter came to the plate with an equally inaccurate conviction, but this time it was the belief that hits were easily to be had.

No sports performance is simply self-confidence. But all the training and natural skill in the world can’t ignite without some of that belief, a far stronger tonic than the drugs that cheapened the homer into a boring currency. The subtle mental lever is much, much harder to push.

[game 103] Hit and Run

There are two guaranteed arguments for baseball fans: the value of the designated hitter and the wisdom of the hit and run. Tonight we had a successful hit and run, so somebody somewhere has a point for his side, and somebody somewhere else has a rationalization.

Debates about the hit and run are essentially varying views on baseball risk management. Managers like Earl Weaver think it’s nuts to gamble a possible out for advancing a runner. Managers like Mike Scoscia, tonight, think the reward outweighs the risk, particularly if it takes the opponent by surprise.

It took the Twins by surprise, all right. After a four-pitch walk to Erick Aybar started the eleventh inning with the score tied 5-5, Scoscia called the play with Gary Matthews Jr at bat. The Twins had been expecting a bunt to nudge the runner over, and the fielders left a hole Matthews exploited for a single.

Now, there’s no question the hit and run worked in this instance. It was even something of the centerpiece of the Angels’ comeback. They would go on to hit six singles, collect one more walk, and score six runs to win 11-5. The Twins tried to staunch the bleeding with three different relievers, but once the Angels set to hitting, they really don’t stop.

The hit and run has a pretty problem—if it fails, it often leads to a double play, which is the very outcome it is designed to forestall. The play affects the actions of both baserunner and batter, but it is called before either can judge the pitch. It’s a blind commitment, and both players had better read the sign correctly or it unravels before it starts.

The idea is simple: the runner starts running before the ball is hit, giving him a splendid head start. If the batter fails to make contact, the runner is now trying to steal, but is more likely than usual to be thrown out, because his lead is not based on the normal read of the pitcher, or even trying to search for a slower pitch on which to run. In a hit and run, the runner just breaks away as the pitch is thrown, without the lead he might use on a true steal.

The batter has to put the ball in play, and if he’s a good contact hitter he even gets some help here. A runner on first breaking for second obligates either the second baseman or shortstop to cover the bag, leaving a little lane for the hitter to poke a ground ball through.

If the hitter misses, the runner is usually out; if he strikes out or pops up, they both are, unless the fielders muff their chance. Try it with a bunt and two runners on base and you have the ingredients of the fabulous unassisted triple play.

 

Yet the rationale of the hit and run is reducing the chance of a double play by giving the runner a massive head start. The other, quieter, reason for using it is to compensate for limited power hitting skills. A clean double may be hard to come by, but getting the bat solidly on the ball is all that’s needed for a hit and run to move a runner to third on a single, or score him on a double. At worst, a fielder’s choice that cuts down the batter at first instead of the lead runner sets up the next hitter without the possibility of the classic second-to-first double play looming over him.

The batter has some important tasks. He needs to foul off any pitch he can’t rap out into play, and he needs to hit behind the advancing runner. Obviously, the play is not smart at certain points in the count. Tonight, Mike Scoscia used it before the Twins could see it coming.

Bobby Keppel was in for the eleventh inning. Joe Nathan had already been used to preserve the tie, and both teams were juggling their bullpens. Keppel began by walking Aybar, and instantly the inning started to have that faint whiff of trouble about it. Matthews discharged his hit and run duties perfectly, and Aybar advanced to third.

There are two basic ways to break a tie: scratch out a run using every out available, or pound your way through. The Angels started this inning as if they’d need gamble their outs for a single run, but the Twins bullpen didn’t get around to charging them any tolls on the highway. Howie Kendrick hit a single to score Aybar, and there were still no outs.

Ron Gardenhire tried to stop the misery quickly, and switched pitchers, but Jessie Crain had no better luck against the swarming singles attack of the Angels. Put it this way: you can win a lot of games with .250 hitters if they have the uncanny knack of getting their single hit of the night all in the same inning.

Chone Figgins singles to load the bases, and Maicer Izturis follows with, what else, another simple single, this one of the RBI variety. Bobby Abreu breaks up the tedium by scoring two runs on his hit, and then Juan Rivera walks.

That’s a lot of Angels marching over the basepaths, so Gardy tries the bullpen again. RA Dickey falls under the Angels’ hypno-hitting spell and dispenses a single to Kendry Morales, than snaps himself out of it. He strikes out Mike Napoli, but allows a fielder’s choice from Aybar to score one more run. Dickey strikes out Matthews, but you almost get the feeling the Angels are ready to get back in the field and enjoy their 6-run lead.

The Twins don’t come close to answering back in the bottom of the inning. They are dispirited, even stunned. It had been a close game up to the eleventh, with good spurts of hitting by both teams.

Nick Blackburn and Ervin Santana were the starters, meeting up again, this time in the Metrodome, after last squaring off in a game the Angels took in crushing style. In that game, Blackburn had been perfect for three innings, only to unravel completely in the fourth as the Angels took a clobbering lead they would never surrender.

Tonight Blackburn gets it over with quickly by giving up a hit to Figgins to start the game. The Angels end up scoring two in the inning.

Joe Mauer sends the Twins ahead in the third with a three-run homer. He was driving in Alexi Casilla and Denard Span, and once again the Twins are working from the template of place-setting hitters getting themselves on base.

This afternoon, the Twins completed a trade for Orlando Cabrera, a traveling shortstop who moves from team to team with the sterling credential of having participated in the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory. The .280 hitter is going to displace one of our infield lightweights, and that puts Nick Punto in the crosshairs. Tonight could be his last game for a while, maybe forever.

He doesn’t have much of a line score until the fourth inning, in which he smacks a hearty triple to score Carlos Gomez. Watching him motor hard to third is cheering. Gardenhire has an obvious soft spot for Punto, and this RBI moment may be enough to turn attention to Brian Buscher or Alexi Casilla as the player who’s forced down.

The fourth inning includes an RBI from Span, scoring Punto and placing the Twins ahead 5-2. Blackburn pitched on into the seventh, but the Angels caught up to him. There were baserunners in every inning, against both pitchers, but now the Angels cash in on two of theirs, with an RBI from Izturis and a homer from Abreu.

A one-run lead is such a rickety thing. You can keep propping it up, but the smallest puff of wind is enough to collapse it. Matt Guerrier starts off the eighth inning by giving up a solo homer to catcher Mike Napoli. Guerrier proceeds to corral three straight outs, but the tie is in place. Both teams are quiet for the ninth and tenth, and then the hit and run triggers a scoring cascade in the eleventh.

A close game disintegrated into a rout, and the Twins don’t manage that miraculous four-game win streak they need. The team has clung close to .500 all season long, and tonight’s a little example of how one startling play can set off big inning against a Twins team that can’t quite take that next step up. There’s always tomorrow, but not an infinity of tomorrows.

[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.

[game 93] Dewey Beats Truman

It’s baseball, the game with the best last chances ever invented. So if I write and post a recap of tonight’s game in Oakland in the bottom of the sixth inning, there are small baseball deities that could punish me. But I’ll risk it—the Twins are going to win tonight.

At the moment, the Twins lead 13 to 7. It’s 12:30 on the east coast, so I’m not going to be awake for the entirety of this sloppy slugfest. There are two errors in the game so far, one for each team, and the A’s and the Twins both have 14 hits. So far.

By which I mean, the A’s are not by any means out of this game. Nick Blackburn pitched five inning for the Twins, scraping along to qualify for the win but having trouble every inning. As a control pitcher, Blackburn is willing to allow some hits, but it’s fair to say that allowing 13 of them halfway through a game is not executing the strategy.

Blackburn just didn’t seem to enjoy the lead the team handed him. The Twins scored three in the top of the first—a glorious Jason Kubel 3-run homer—but Blackburn gave back two in the bottom of the inning. It was role reversal, with the Twins bashing their runs and the A’s chipping theirs out with a sacrifice from Jerry Hairston and an RBI single from Kurt Suzuki.

The Twins went right back to bashing in the second. Justin Morneau watched the orderly procession of men to load the bases with no outs and then hit a grand slam. Michael Cuddyer, batting right after him, hit a homer of his own.

Morneau’s four RBIs would make a nice full game’s worth, but that was just through two innings. In the third he’d homer again with two on base and match his career best of seven RBI. I eagerly point out that the game is not over as I type this.

The Twins give A’s rookie pitcher Geo Gonzalez a brutal time. A’s manager Bob Geren, following classic baseball tough love thinking, doesn’t yank his pitcher early. Give the guy a chance to see how bad it can be, since it’s getting pretty grim out there. The Twins get up to a 12-2 lead in the top of the third. But the A’s have been getting to Blackburn all night too, and in the bottom of the third they pound out three runs, anchored by a 2-run homer from Daric Barton. Key footnote: Daric Barton with his .150 average should not be hitting home runs against anyone, much less Blackburn with a fortress-like lead.

Runs and hits continue to pile up, but both teams turn to their bullpens and the game speeds up and the defense starts taking some measure of control again. Including a snappy play from Nick Punto. Only one other hit has been notched since I started this summary. The A’s now lead in hits with 15, even as they’re behind by six runs.

Even as this happy lead gives me enough confidence to sign off early, even as the A’s radio announcers move their chatter further and further away from the tragedy on the field and onto random topics, even as the entire Twins lineup but Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto have at least one hit—even in the midst of this, I can find reasons to fret. The essence of fandom is fretting in good times as well as bad.

I leave this game for a moment to recall last night’s 12-inning nail-biter against the Texas Rangers. The Twins were concluding the series, having won Friday and Saturday, and wanted to close out a sweep. They couldn’t pull that off, but the close game still confers some honor.

Until you look at Joe Mauer’s stats for the night. He played the entire, long game behind the plate and went 0 for 5. I have been observing our perfect ballplayer gather some chips and cracks in the last month, and now we have a full collection of ofer games. We also have Ichiro Suzuki going ahead in the batting average race.

It doesn’t mean Mauer is sunk. It doesn’t, I hope, mean that entering the stupid home run contest will twist a player’s mind into pretzel. But it does mean that Mauer will need to find some way to regroup, and it’s never clear whether playing more or sitting more is the best way to do this. Mauer will still contribute through the second half, but he may well become a regulation-grade hitter for a while.

Well, back to worrying in the present tense. While I wrote the last few paragraphs, the A’s did, in one inning, what few teams can muster through the balance of a game when behind by six runs.

They got ’em all back, the last four on a grand slam from Matt Holliday. We can pause to be happy for Holliday, whose season has started so badly but, according to the A’s broadcasters I’m listening to, had some of his best cuts and best hits tonight. Just needed some Twins pitching to come to life.

Then Ron Gardenhire, who hasn’t succeeded with Brian Duensing and Bobby Keppel in relief, brings in Jose Mijares. Jack Cust hits a solo homer to push over the seventh run of the inning. And that puts the A’s ahead 14-13. One of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. In A’s lore, I learn the largest deficit they’ve overcome for a win is eight runs. Poignantly, they once hacked through a nine-run margin but ultimately lost that game—perhaps it will be a template for tonight. But overcoming 10 runs would make this their greatest comeback in team history.

The Twins now have six outs to get another run to prolong this. Brad Ziegler starts the eighth for the A’s and immediately gives up a leadoff single to Brendan Harris. Mike Redmond fails to execute a sacrifice and instead grounds into a double play. Now it’s official: I don’t like our odds.

Mauer comes in to pinch hit for Alexi Casilla. The double play severely mutes the value of it, but Mauer hits a single to left. But this isn’t the miracle inning, as Denard Span grounds out.

I’m not going to edit this. I will leave it just as I wrote it, but instead of forecasting a Twins win, I will formally change my mind on that. Not only is it maddeningly difficult to get one run out of three outs while on the road, if any team is deflated now it’s the Twins. In fact, Mijares has just given up a leadoff single to Ryan Sweeney.

Morneau, who will be up in the ninth, might be happy with his 7 RBI, but Holliday is having the more glorious game. Both players have two homers, including a slam apiece, and Holliday only got 6 RBI on the board, but he came to life to galvanize his team.

Punto just deked Mark Ellis into a double play. Now Adam Kennedy has ripped a double and Gardenhire want to replace Mijares. I’ll guess he brings in RA Dickey, but who knows what you do on a night when the baseball wants to jump out of the park and every pitch seems to float to the plate like a grapefruit. It’s 1:30 am and I should put this post on auto-blog, but I don’t know how to leave.

Oh, baseball, game of crazy last chances, what will happen tonight?

Oh, it’s Kevin Mulvey, the new righty we just added to the bullpen. There are now a total of 27 runs and 38 hits in this game. The game’s about three and a half hours old. Mulvey gets the last out and now the Twins are at bat in the ninth.

The A’s rookie starter allowed 11 runs, but they’re on the brink of winning the game anyway. It’s up to Punto, Morneau, and Cuddyer to get something this inning, facing Michael Wuertz.

Punto strikes out. Punto! Who typically does strike out, but had a walk tonight and, I’m pleased to report, a homer in the game against the Rangers yesterday. Yow! Wuertz has just struck out Morneau.

In any case, it’s Michael Cuddyer, now with a 2-1 count, who can change all that. Line drive, double down the left field line. Oh yes: everything is included in the game of baseball. Everything.

Jason Kubel is up, who has homered, singled twice, and walked twice. An intentional walk does seem the smart play, and they make it. Now Delmon Young is up. Carlos Gomez comes in to run for Kubel.

This game could elevate Young from season-long disappointment to Twins hero. Pitch in the dirt, Cuddyer tries to sneak home, and Cuddyer is out at the plate. Out on a wild pitch. Suzuki hunted and hunted it and made the throw in time.  Replay shows he looks safe, but the call is made and the game is lost. The game ends, a 10-run deficit is erased, and the A’s are floating in air. Floating.

[games 80, 81] Opportunity

The Twins are three games behind the Tigers, and commence a three-game series against them in the Metrodome. Opportunity!

Kevin Slowey, in a three-way tie for most pitching victories, just had a disappointing outing against the Cardinals in which Albert Pujols & Co. banished him after three innings. He starts tonight against Tiger rookie Luke French. Opportunity!

Denard Span is back from the DL, Michael Cuddyer’s swollen finger seems fully healed, and Joe Crede is not, for now, bothered by his back. Opportunity!

Yes, all these opportunities arose Friday night, but the Tigers found a few of their own. To chronicle the game itself runs the risk of being excruciating, for it lasted over five hours, took 16 innings, emptied the bullpens of both teams, and ended with one team beating another. Given how hard fought the battle was, it’s hard to declare any team the loser, but the score is indisputable: Tigers 11, Twins 9.

Slowey had an especially sharp first inning, and looked like he had fixed whatever mechanical problems troubled him against St Louis. But a triple from Josh Anderson in the second anchors a quick Detroit 3-0 lead. Slowey lets them pad it by another three runs in the third, and doesn’t return for the fourth. He’s now on the 15-day DL with a wrist strain, according to CBS Sports.

The Twins are in a pretty deep hole, and young French may not be dazzling but he’s notching outs at a steady pace. In the third, the Twins weakly answer the Tigers’ six runs with a little RBI from Justin Morneau, who drives in Nick Punto.

The Tigers would like to maintain that comfortable 6-run margin, and promptly get it back on a homer from catcher Gerald Laird, off reliever Brian Duensing. But mark the fourth inning down in your notebooks—the Tigers will not score again for ten more innings.

Despite Slowey’s early exit, despite the massive run deficit, the Twins are far from conceding the game. Both teams, and both managers, see this series as a crucial stage in winning the division.

Tiger skipper Jim Leyland is the one jittering around the dugout like a frayed wire. He pulls French one out away from five full innings, just short of the required outs to record his first major league win. Sorry, Luke, you gave up a homer to Delmon Young last inning and allowed two singles in the fifth. I’m not letting you face righty Michael Cuddyer, even with two outs and a five-run lead. To the showers!

Leyland will manage the entire game looking for any edge he can find, and his decision to bring in Zach Miner might have been the best way to end the fifth, but it’s of no help in the sixth.

Ron Gardenhire is just as intent on winning as Leyland, though his dugout demeanor is more along the lines of a contemplative Santa Claus. And there is to be something in the Twins’ stockings after all. Joe Crede leads off the sixth with a homer.

Now, the home run is often a rally killer. In this very game, the Tigers pounded a series of hits off Slowey in the third, but the attack ended on Marcus Thames’ homer that scored two. Even with only one out, the Tigers mustered nothing more.

So to start with a homer may be to end with a single run. It’s now Tigers 6, Twins 2, and the gulf feels just as big as it did before Crede’s punch. But the rally continues. With two on, Denard Span hits a perfectly placed triple for two RBI. The next batter is Brendan Harris, and he decides the best way to get Span home is to hit a triple of his own.

Tigers 6, Twins 5. Not exactly what you’d call a tie, but threatening to Leyland. He brings in another reliever, Fu-Te Ni, to face Joe Mauer.

To no avail. Mauer hits a sacrifice fly to tie the game. It’s 6-6, end of the sixth, and, if I may preview things, end of scoring until the fourteenth.

I will flash forward to the next scoring events, but only after noting that the Twins bullpen bottles up the Tigers for ten innings. We see everyone, including Joe Nathan in the ninth, and the relief corps looks in fine, fighting trim. Likewise the Detroit relievers. Joel Zumaya lights up the radar gun at 105 mph, and routinely clocks in over 100. His biggest jam is in the eleventh, when the Twins load the bases and Zumaya gets Cuddyer to strike out to end the inning.

In the fourteenth, RA Dickey faces the Tigers and cannot keep the bullpen’s scoreless streak intact. With two out and a man on second, Placido Polanco wants to make contact. What he doesn’t want is the contact from his own foul ball, which slams up into what I believe we call the protective cup region.

Polanco’s misery is palpable. A trainer visits, the umpire stalls, and Polanco tries various flexing motions. He finally returns to the batter’s box. I assume his train of thought goes as follows: if we have to play this many innings, and I have to feel my testicles throbbing this hard, well, let’s just win this goddamn game.

Polanco singles in the go-ahead run, and men everywhere feel a little lift of vindication.

The Twins last scored in the sixth inning, and have squandered some chances while this tie kept them safe. Now they have to answer back. Mauer leads off and uses his batting superpowers to single. Morneau is up, and could end the game with a home run. Don’t think the idea hasn’t crossed his mind, but Morneau is smart about taking what a pitcher gives him. He hits a single and moves Mauer to third.

No outs, tying run on third, go-ahead run on first. Opportunity!

Michael Cuddyer singles, and Mauer locks in the tie again. Morneau makes a bad baserunning judgment by trying to get to third. He’s thrown out, while Cuddyer motors on to second. But it’s still . . . an opportunity.

But the Tigers squelch it, and we go on through the lineups again. In the sixteenth, with Dickey still on the mound with no one to replace him, Polanco gets to complete his feel-good (make that feel-miserable) evening. With two on, Polanco singles in a run to retake the lead.

The Tigers know by now a one-run lead is nothing in a game this hard-fought. They tack on two more and are now ahead 11-8.

In the bottom half, the Twins show no fatigue, no irritation, no sense of defeat. Mauer is safe on an error, and Morneau doubles to send him to third. Cuddyer grounds out, but scores Mauer.

It’s 11-9 Tigers, with two outs and the tying run at the plate. Opportunity!

And this opportunity is handed to Joe Crede, who bashed the Tigers with a walk-off grand slam earlier in the season. He can’t repeat that wonder, however, and grounds out to end the game. Tigers win, and boost their lead over the Twins to four games.

The remarkable thing about this game was how intently both teams played. It may have been only early July, the precise midpoint of the season, but the Tigers and Twins were playing as if it were September. It wasn’t an angry, snarling battle, but a passionate contest played with respect. Each team wanted to win for all the right reasons, all the right ways.

In the normal tide of baseball, games do get conceded. Sometimes subconsciously, sometimes overtly. But tonight, there were 16 full innings of serious play. The Twins entered the game after a win against Kansas City on Wednesday, that gave them that series 2-1 and put them, for the first time, two games over .500. They do not look like they want to return to the midline any more.

The little moments of opportunity, you see, were all occasions to deal with woes and defeats; opportunities to turn the tide. Because the Twins seemed to see those chances more than the problems underlying them, they played with zeal all night. And so, even after this loss, we look to tomorrow: opportunity.

[game 70] The Rundown

Carlos Gomez dodged two bullets tonight. In a fictional baseball universe, his good fortune would have made all the difference, but the Twins lost to the Astros, 6-5.

There is only so much Gomez can do at the plate, but wiggling out of trouble is one of his strong suits. With two strikes on him, he checks his swing on a pitch high and tight from Brian Moehler. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez is so confident that the ball has been tipped before he caught it that he tosses it down to third base. The umpire neither heard nor saw said tip and signals the at-bat to continue.

Much gesturing and indignation from Pudge, and then the obligatory flak-catching visit from manager Cecil Cooper. Coop is thrown out after a lengthy but rather tasteful argument. The Astros’ gestures all hint that the foul tip was audible. We get to watch replays, but the combination of pitch speed and ambiguous three-dimensional planes of bat and ball are entirely inconclusive. Future baseball audiences will doubtless have a sophisticated matrix vision apparatus that allows certainty on such points; for now, no one knows.

But the umpire has the last word, and that word leaves Gomez in the batter’s box. Well, it would be one thing if the call just prolonged the at-bat, but Gomez hangs tough and wheedles a walk out of Moehler. He’s on first with one out.

A threat to steal, Gomez attracts way too much attention from the Astros. They try a pickoff and a pitchout, but Carlos is serenely stationed near first. A few pitches to Nick Punto, and then another pickoff try. This one catches Gomez leaning very much the wrong way.

He has no choice but to try to scamper on to second, and you get the feeling that Gomez, even when trapped in the iron grip of a rundown, doesn’t really believe his feet will let him down. Why not just keep running and hope for the best? It’s been his game plan all his career, really.

And it’s a solid game plan for a cheerful, enthusiastic, occasionally witless ballplayer like Gomez. First baseman Lance Berkman falls in love with brandishing the baseball high in his hand, crowding Gomez harder and harder. Miguel Tejada, covering the second base bag is waiting for the exchange, but Berkman holds onto his Zeus-with-thunderbolt act too long. Gomez crow hops his way closer and closer to second and finally dives for the bag.

He beats the toss and tag. Safe.

So far, from the Astros’ point of view, he’s been out at the plate and out in a rundown, but he’s standing on second base. A rundown is the fiercest baseball ever gets. It’s the walls closing in, the inevitability of doom. The runner is helpless yet must persist in the drama as long as he can. In case, as we just saw, he can keep alive long enough to squeak all the way out of trouble.

I’m with Gomez: Baseball is so much fun.

Our attention returns to Punto at the plate. He has been hitting much better lately, but the sacrifice remains his best play. He grounds out to first, but puts everything he has into a face-first slide to try to beat out the throw. He almost makes it, and he does advance Gomez to third as consolation. His all-in bellyflop slide costs him some rib bruises, and he leaves the game after this inning.

With two outs, Gomez can’t get home on a squeeze, like the pretty one the Twins used last night. Brendan Harris is up, and he’s been having a sweet day. He led off the game with a home run, and then thwacked a nice double. I’m ready for another Twin to hit for the cycle, or at least for Harris to go 3 for 3.

We are, for the record, in the fifth inning and ahead by the skinny score of 2-1. In addition to Harris’ homer, Delmon Young has uncorked a solo blast. The Astros notched their run on an RBI double from Pudge that scored the speedy, tightly wound Hunter Pence all the way from first.

In other words, runs are needed. This is no time to let Gomez’s escape act go to waste. But while baseball allows many possibilities, it does hew back to probabilities. Harris strikes out and the inning is over.

Later, the Twins manage to pick up a run in the sixth on a solo homer from Mauer that moves his hitting streak to 12 games and gives him a career-best 14 home runs.

But in the seventh, Scott Baker’s beautiful game is shattered. He has scattered a few hits but kept the Astros firmly in check until Hunter Pence gets his second hit and it’s immediately followed by another from Rodriguez that scores Pence. As we’ve seen before, when Baker allows the hits to accumulate, he tends to lose his way.

Tonight Ron Gardenhire has a quick hook, pulling Baker immediately. He leaves still one run ahead, but with the tying run on first.

Sean Henn, in relief, fails to solve the problem. He allows a double to the first batter he faces, and Pudge scores to turn Baker’s strong outing into a no-decision. Then Henn gives up a home run to Michael Bourn and the Astros pull ahead.

And stay ahead. Berkman adds a solo homer in the eighth. The Twins almost answer back in the bottom of the frame. Jason Kubel homers with Mauer on base to bring the Twins within one run. Then there are two quick outs in the ninth before the we get one last chance.

Jose Morales, backup catcher and decent hitter, is brought in to pinch hit for Carlos Gomez. Now, I know what you’re thinking: leave him in—Gomez is Mr Lucky tonight. Perhaps, but I think it was enough for Morales to figuratively rub his head on the way to the batter’s box, because he ends a prolonged at-bat with a sharply hit double.

Our next pinch hitter is Joe Crede, perfectly capable of the walk-off winning home run. Also capable of the stately, solid single that could keep things going. Alas, Crede inspects two balls without nibbling then tries to do it all in one swing. He flies out to deep right.

For a moment, of course, it all seemed possible. The comeback win, the annihilating walkoff homer, the punctuation mark. But baseball includes possibilities while hewing to probabilities.

[game 63] The Sacrifice

The Twins won today, playing a day game at Chicago to start their weekend series against the Cubs. I salute day baseball, but I also can’t usually watch it. The box score tells me Kevin Slowey has gotten himself to 9-2, Joe Nathan has gotten a save, and Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel both homered. Yay, Twins.

But I’ve decided I’ve got to mix up this blog a bit. My initial thesis was that something specific and unique occurs in every game; that it’s possible to write an insightful little essay that helps polish the definition of baseball with the raw material of each game. It’s proving harder than I thought.

Lacking much in the way of reader interaction, I began to swing the blog toward something it appeared my husband enjoyed: chronicles of game outcomes, written with as much pep and wit as I could muster. I stopped ruminating on managerial strategy or pitching statistics, not least because the entries I produced on those subjects needed more research and polish than I could given them in a single night. But in abandoning the theoretical investigation of how baseball is played in favor of a fan’s delight in the specific exploits of Mauer and Morneau, I didn’t have much new to say each night.

I’ve been brooding on this, and looking for solutions. What I’m going to try for the next week is writing about different teams. I will, of all things, cut the Twins loose for a while, though I’ll monitor their box scores closely.

Tonight I watched the Tigers visit the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The game had instant appeal—the Twins are about to face the Pirates next week, and the Tigers constitute our primary foe in the division. And, fun sports parallel fact: the Pittsburgh Penguins simultaneously played the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals in Detroit. Major upset there—the Penguins won, and I would like to call into question the planetary alignments that have visited so many woes upon Detroit while allowing so little respite via their sports teams. You will recall that Michigan State couldn’t overcome North Carolina in March Madness; now the Red Wings. Dang!

But only baseball really concerns us here. I just can’t root against the Tigers, despite the fact that somehow that Twins would need to climb over them to win the division.

Rick Porcello, the rookie righthander for the Tigers, is having a solid season. He cruised to a 9-0 victory against the Twins in early May, and I essentially discounted his skills in favor of seeing that game as very hot Tigers versus stone cold Twins. But I see tonight he has promising pitching skills. Porcello has had some tribulations, but since two especially bad outings in April, he’s been working his ERA back down. It’s currently 3.71, and he’s 7-4.

Tonight Porcello had something of a dream experience with interleague play. He won a close game 3-1, pitched 7 innings (after generally not lasting past 6), and had two RBI singles to do as much as he could to win the game by himself. A sweet night for the 20-year-old.

But my main point of focus was on two instances in which runs weren’t scored. In the third, with the Tigers up 1-0, the Pirates led off with two consecutive singles. Pitcher Ian Snell then sacrificed to advance the runners. It’s the typical choice for any pitcher in the NL playbook, and it got the Pirates to the top of the order with one out and men on second and third.

It didn’t work, though. Andrew McCutchen grounded into the worst kind of fielder’s choice in which a runner is out at home. The next batter grounded out to end the inning.

There’s a reason there are four bases and three outs. You can’t keep trading outs for advancing runners.

In the top of the seventh, it’s the Tigers’ turn to try a sacrifice. In this case, Placido Polanco led off the inning with a single. Batting second, Don Kelly was asked to sacrifice Polanco to second. Now, I happen to know nothing about Don Kelly. Perhaps he’s an especially weak hitter and should be used as an NL pitcher is at the plate—asked to sacrifice in order to avoid grounding into the double play. But he hits second in the batting order and I think a bit more should be expected.

The game at this point is 2-1 Tigers, and I know intellectually and emotionally that the sacrifice is the wrong play. Pete Palmer and other baseball mavens have been slicing and dicing this one up for the last 20 years, and the central truth that emerges statistically is that trading outs for bases does not increase a teams chance of scoring. Generally, it isn’t even neutral—it makes it less likely a run will score.

As this inning plays out, we tally up another failure of the sacrifice strategy: mighty Miguel Cabrera, for whom Kelly might have been making way, grounds out and Polanco hikes over to third. I won’t credit Cabrera with a sacrifice because the hit was toward the shortstop and could have cost them Polanco. With the man on third and two outs, Magglio Ordonez must hit successfully or the Tigers lose the opportunity. Yep, it’s a routine grounder.

The moral of the story is that outs are more valuable than bases. Giving one or two hitters a chance to bomb sac flies or place well-engineered bunts is only deferring the moment when a player has to get a true, honest hit. Yes, I’ve seen runners add in a steal or a wild pitch to make that four-base journey without using up all the outs as sacrifices, but as the Win Expectancy calculations from Baseball Prospectus show, rare are the times when playing for one run via a sacrifice succeeds.

The tabulations have all been done, but managers still signal the sacrifice. There are some nuances that the statisticians haven’t accommodated, chief among them the fact that certain hitters are more likely to be successful at accomplishing the sac play than any other. The National League gives us an example with every pitcher, but the Twins have a ready-made sacrifice machine in Carlos Gomez.

So sometimes the play is not a technique for advancing the runner so much as it is a way to avoid letting a hitter bollix up an inning that has a scoring opportunity. It’s also worth noting that anything which moves a runner from first to second greatly diminishes the likelihood of a double play, giving the next hitter a bit better opportunity as well.

There’s justification for the sacrifice, but every time I see one tried, I ask if losing the out is truly the better situational decision. The best justification I can give is that scoring in baseball is so difficult that anything must be tried, but tonight no runs were attributable to sacrifices, and several men were left on base when the sac was tried.

So, the perfect design for frustration: four bases, three outs.