Category Archives: the at-bat

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

game 3 Adaptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

game 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 123] Floating

Baseballs float. Only occasionally, but they do. In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game against the Royals, Michael Cuddyer lofted a ball to shallow right. It was not far beyond first base, and it hung in the air with a rapturous pause. Three fielders converged on it, but some force of  fortune let the ball drop in the narrow patch of grass none of them could reach.

This hit would be classified as a blooper, as if we needed apologize for a double earned by the maddening geometry of a baseball field. And, in truth, it confers little glory on Cuddyer’s hitting prowess. But it essentially won the game, so let us now praise imperfect hits.

Cuddyer hit it right after a double play had erased a runner. But Orlando Cabrera escaped that carnage to find asylum on third base, and scored on Cuddyer’s bloop to give the Twins an 8-6 lead.

They would need it, for the Royals gave reliever Matt Guerrier all he could handle in the bottom of the ninth. (Joe Nathan wasn’t in his usual closer’s spot after pitching two full innings last night, blowing the save and then watching the Twins come back to hand him the win.) Guerrier notched a strikeout, but gave up two singles and then watched a run score on a fielder’s choice.

And the fielder appeared to make a poor choice at that. Alexi Casilla, at second base, threw to second for the sure force out while the runner was crossing the plate. But it looked like he could have started a double play to end the game. So it’s Twins 8, Royals 7 with one out to go.

Guerrier is not the majestic presence Nathan is, so the game was much in doubt here. But Royals right-fielder Josh Anderson rapped an easy grounder to second the end the game and allow the Twins to climb within three games of .500.

Baseballs floated and fell in funny ways all through the game. Early on, the Twins staked themselves to a 3-0 lead, on a solo homer from Cuddyer and a 2-RBI double from Jason Kubel one inning later. The Royals answered with a two runs of their own in the fifth.

Then the game got interesting.

Twins fans have set their alarm clocks for the sixth inning during this last week. Twice Minnesota rallied from massive deficits to tally comeback wins against the Rangers, garnering the majority of the runs in the sixth. And when they just happened to fail to obliterate another Rangers lead in the game last Thursday, it looked more like an oversight than conventional baseball odds.

So tonight, with a skinny lead in Kansas City, the Twins started the sixth by adding more proof that some minor baseball deity will smile upon their exploits in that one particular inning. Joe Mauer allowed two strikes to pile up on him, as he often does. This time he tried and failed to check a hopeless swing for strike three. But the pitch he flinched at bounced at the plate and skittered away from catcher Miguel Olivo.

Mauer, perfectly schooled in all the best baseball practices, took off immediately for first to outrun the throw on a dropped strike three. He won the race, and led off the inning on the deluxe strikeout/wild pitch combo.

Royals starter Kyle Davies banished Kubel on a fly out, but walked Cuddyer  and could only obtain a fielder’s choice from Delmon Young. There were men on first and third without a hit in the inning.

Then the Twins decided to do more than surf on the weird waves of their sixth inning mojo. Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, and Casilla hit three neat singles in a row, sending Davies to the showers and three runs across the plate. The Twins had a perky 6-2 lead.

The Royals went on the attack to score two in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh, but never gained the lead.

We always follow the score, but this was a game in which you wanted to watch the baseball itself. Denard Span misplayed a Royals hit to right that rattled to the wall in an eerie recreation of a Twins hit the bollixed the KC right-fielder the night before. I’d check that wall for hidden magnets, force fields, or maybe Severus Snape’s season ticket.

In the third inning, Alexi Casilla did a perfect Superman leap, the kind your mother doesn’t even want you trying on your bed. He followed the ball so well he was able to fly after it, laying out flat to catch it and throw to first for a double play that ended a scoring threat.

Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the pitches Brian Duensing threw for this first major league win were as fascinating as those floating, bouncing, or flying balls. Duensing faced some pressure most innings, but his final stats are pretty: a win, three strikeouts, one walk, and six hits. Yes, he allowed two earned runs, but they came on a double from Olivio, who would be his penultimate batter. Until the fifth, Duensing kept the Royals off the scoreboard.

The Twins built themselves an especially enjoyable win tonight, but they continue to languish on the far fringes of contention. Perhaps they will be buoyed up to run off a real string of wins, but until they can repeat this success at will, we are left with the pleasure of little gems like Casilla’s lunge in the air or Mauer’s pure presence of mind or Cuddyer’s ghost-floating double. I’m happy to have these joys, and am starting to feel they’ll be all I collect this season. So savor them I shall.

[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 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.