Category Archives: the inning

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 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.

[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 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.

[game 56] Tenth Inning

The Twins began a long road trip tonight that will take them to Seattle, Oakland, and Chicago.

A 10-day road trip would be a minor ordeal for most teams, but for the Twins it has the makings of a season-shaping watershed. The Twins, you see, are really a rather good team at home, and are absolutely dreadful on the road. So far. Statistically, the sample is too small to mean anything, but they’re the only numbers we have: 22-14 at home, 5-14 out of town. This appalling skew is principally the product of a 7-game losing streak while visiting the Yankees and White Sox.

If the Twins are going to contend in the still wide-open AL Central, they need to get comfortable in places other than the Metrodome. Is it the hometown crowd or that dank plastic roof? We’d better hope that the physical field is not their secret for winning, as there are only 48 more games to be played there.

This road trip’s opening matchup pitted Francisco Liriano against the Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez. King Felix is the scariest part of the Mariners’ rotation, and he was on his game Friday. He allowed one run and 6 scrawny hits, several of which were dunky little infield jobs. He struck out 7 and walked 3.

The one run the Twins scored against Hernandez was a small ball scratch-fest: Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla hit back-to-back infield singles, using their running speed to beat out close throws. Denard Span sacrificed them both to scoring position. Joe Mauer walked to fill the bases, and Hernandez had no choice but to try to do something with Justin Morneau.

Alas, there’s little a pitcher can do against Morneau with less than two outs. But give Hernandez credit: he held Morneau to a sacrifice fly. Gomez zoomed home and the Twins had a run.

This little piece of scoring, in the top of the third, was a nice direct response to a home run from the Mariners DH Mike Sweeney, leading off in the bottom of the second. That pitch to Sweeney was pretty much Liriano’s only mistake. His pitching line over 6 innings has 1 run, 3 hits, 5 Ks, and 4 walks.

The pitching duel confined both teams to quiet innings. During the long 1-1 tie, the Twins got most of their hits from the bottom of the batting order, and the Mariners based their biggest threats on coaxing walks out of Liriano.

The bullpens were both sharp too. Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares, and Matt Guerrier didn’t allow a peep out of the Ms, including Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki brought a 27-game hitting streak to the game, and seemed poised to ignite a little scoring every time he came up, but the game became a test of his stoic Japanese character. He was 0 for 3 in regular innings.

Seattle’s young new manager, Don Wakamatsu, tried to move the home field levers to his advantage and put in current closer David Aardsma in the ninth. Indeed, he foiled the Twins, striking out the first two hitters and then allowing a walk to Denard Span. Joe Mauer, hope and pride of the Twins, was up with a man on base.

Span is a good base stealer, with an 80% success rate this season. He generally knows what he’s doing up there, but tonight he took off and was caught stealing on a good throw from Rob Johnson. The inning ends, and Mauer never gets his chance.

Ron Gardenhire doesn’t get his Joe Nathan armament out, but leaves Matty Guerrier in to pitch a fast ninth. If Wakamatsu was hoping to see his team turn the tide, he wasn’t counting on first pitch swings from Jose Lopez (instant fly out) and Rob Johnson (high foul out to Mauer), sandwiched around a 5-pitch at-bat for Wladimir Balentien, who ended up grounding out to short.

We come to the tenth. I thought I should look this up, and my hunch was nearly true: a tabulation by Baseball Prospectus shows that .399 runs are scored in the tenth inning, making it quite low compared to the regular nine. (For reference, of the regular 9 innings, the second is the lowest scoring inning, with .431 runs scored; typically an inning averages just under half a run, so these extras with a third of one show the brutal pace of tie baseball.) My hunch was that the tenth would host the fewest runs of any of the first four extra innings, but in fact they’re all similar: .398 in the 11th, .385 in the 12th, .396 in the 13th.

Now, we are seeing two mathematical forces here: the dwindling of runs due to the rarity of play in extra frames, and the emphasis on single runs necessary to resolve ties. My theory was that the tenth was a coasting inning, one in which neither team worked especially hard to score after somehow building the tie that forestalled a loss. But if these numbers are statistically clear enough to reveal a truth, teams get right at in the tenth.

And so did the Twins. Mauer, who didn’t get to complete his at-bat after Span was caught stealing, leads off with a double. He’d been quiet all night, and this first hit of his was welcome. Morneau is up, and the Mariners play it wisely and walk him. No sense letting a home run get in the way.

Jason Kubel, our next lefty power threat, is up but he doesn’t command quite the same respect Morneau does. Kubel tries to make up for the slight by sending a massive drive to deep center. Franklin Gutierrez makes a great leaping catch—the ball pounds into the heel of his glove and he barely closes it tight to capture the ball. Mauer advances to third, but that’s all we get out of it.

So much for the three-run homer that would have given the Mariners a big challenge in their half of the tenth. Now Matt Tolbert is up, complete with his .179 batting average. He watches a ball, and then a strike. And the lightbulb goes off over Wakamatsu’s head: call for a pitchout, they’re going to try the suicide squeeze.

Wakamatsu is dead on, and Mauer is dead meat. The pitchout works: Tolbert can’t make contact and Johnson runs him down. Our best scoring threat is erased, and there are two outs. But you can look it up—it’s hard to score in the tenth!

Morneau has gotten himself to second during the defeated squeeze play. Tolbert takes another ball, then swings at strike two. And then the Twins take advantage of a little weak spot. Tolbert hits a drive to left that Balentien misplays. On the error, Morneau whistles home and the Twins lead 2-1.

One outfielder saves a three-run homer, the other allows an RBI. Such is baseball.

The Mariners have their chance to answer back, but they will have to face Joe Nathan. Ronny Cedeno bats first, and Nathan needs seven pitches to do it, but he strikes him out. There are two whooshing sounds—Cedeno’s bat flailing in the air, and Nathan’s exhale at getting the leadoff man out.

Wakamatsu has some perfect theater in mind next. He brings up Ken Griffey Jr. to pinch hit. Griffey, you may recall, hit his first homer of the season off the Twins, and would certainly enjoy shifting the team’s fortunes right now. Nathan places two surgical strikes on the outside edge of the plate, then tries to get Griffey to swing at pitches still further outside. He won’t nibble, and runs the count to 3-2. Then Nathan gives him a classic challenging fastball a little inside, and Griffey is too grateful: he gets under it and pops it up to Mauer. Two outs.

The theater continues. Ichiro now has an extra inning chance to keep his hitting streak going. It’s the longest in the AL this season. I watch Ichiro’s trademark mannerisms, and you know, they have changed a bit as he’s aged. He leans back a little tighter it seems, a little stiffer before that trademark sleeve tug. He seems tense and coiled, and makes a few extra gestures, little flicks of his hand to the chest and left shoulder before adjusting the right sleeve. I have to admit, I always hated that sleeve tug. It seemed so precious and perfect. But now as I watch the care with which it’s preserved even as other crochets surround it, I miss the elegant, loose grace Ichiro used to have with the gesture. In fact, I simply begrudged him his hitting ease, and now I feel cruel for doing so.

But this is a slender thread of hope for the Twins. A win will bring us to .500—a little perch we’ve never climbed above and have rarely held during this season—and will put us one-and-a-half games out of first. The Tigers, Royals, and White Sox all lost today. Only the Indians were winners, as it was they who clocked the Sox.

A one-run lead, two outs, Joe Nathan on the mound. There is a delicious blend of hope and fear. It’s so delicate, that lead. I find myself hoping hard. Nathan can’t get Ichiro to swing at ball one, then gives him three straight pitches to foul off. Ichiro’s craft is showing.

He takes another ball, and it’s 2-2. Nathan inhales, puffs out those cheeks, and gets ready. Swing and a miss—Twins win.

[Game 23] Second Inning

If one team actually played the game perfectly (which would mean the other team couldn’t, quite), baseball would be dull. Tonight, in the first of a weekend series against the Royals, the Twins produce a dull second inning and eight other exciting ones as they hoist themselves over .500.

Kevin Slowey starts for the Twins. In his last outing against the Indians, he was masterful and he has assembled a pretty 3-0 record, though the journey there has required some nail biting.

But the big high hope in the Metrodome is the long-awaited return of Joe Mauer. Mauer’s back woes kept him from spring training, let alone the regular season, so he arrives tonight after a relatively brief limbering up in the minors.

When Mauer comes up to bat for the first time in this month-old 2009 season, the happy Twins fans flash welcome back signs all over the Metrodome. My theory is that Mauer is the secret sauce in our lineup. He gets on base, Morneau et alia drive him in. The singles hitters lower in the order get on base, he drives them in. The hitting flow hinges on Mauer.

My theory has to wait tonight, because Mauer decides to demonstrate his value a tad more directly. Sidney Ponson disposes of the first two Twins hitters easily, then faces Mauer. His first swing of the year is a homer to left. It doesn’t, it absolutely doesn’t, get any better than that.

Mauer is a marquee player but not for his power—he hit all of nine homers last season. He is a pure average guy, with a batting eye that spares him from strikeouts and allows him to outfox the average pitcher. Tonight it’s as if he wants to say he’s glad to be home in the most convincing way possible.

We go to the second, the Twins ahead 1-0. According to Baseball Prospectus, the fewest runs are scored in the second inning. It’s your best bet for getting to and from the concession without missing a score. The only reason not to take the extra time to get the nachos along with the beer is that the second is generally over very quickly.

Now, why should this be so? Even if the first inning included a hit or two, we’re in the heart of the batting order or at least safely above the very bottom. Both the record books and observation show that starting pitchers often stumble in the first, searching for a groove. Do they invariably suddenly find it by the second? So much so as to become Terminator-like?

If the reason lies in the batting order, it may expose the hard-to-prove interdependence of a hitting sequence. It’s not unusual for the cleanup man to lead off the second, or his protector, the number five hitter. Both are supposed to be capable of power; both should be RBI hounds. With no one on base ahead of them, it’s like the light goes off. They are hitting machines who power down when the circumstances don’t remind them of why the hits are needed.

If the reason lies in the pitcher’s intensity, it suggests that the first inning is some kind of practice swing. The average game in the middle of the average season shouldn’t inspire too much in the way of jitters, but perhaps pitchers really need a little ritual of first-inning stress. I don’t have access to the type of data that would frame the question, but it would be interesting to know if a low-scoring second follows a messy first, or if the second is just the Zen-trance pause on the way through the game.

If they needed to audition, the second inning is what most pitchers would put on their highlight reel. Here is what Sindey Ponson does with his: throws 10 pitches, gets a strikeout and two groundouts. Wait—Slowey tops him. Six pitches with a strikeout.

Slowey’s second is positively gorgeous. He faces the Royals’ toughest bats and mows them down. Jose Guillen, the cleanup hitter, pops out on the first pitch, swinging so greedily and foolishly that he has to walk back to the dugout in cloud of gloom.

Billy Butler, the burly DH the Royals have elevated to first baseman, takes a ball. It seems to be a little experiment on Slowey’s part; he’s toying with Butler. The next pitch Butler grounds harmlessly over to shortstop Nick Punto, who makes the throw with time to spare. Basic baseball.

Slowey has used three pitches so far when Mike Jacobs, batting sixth as the DH, steps in. A humming fastball grabs the right edge of the plate as the lefty Jacobs absorbs the news: control pitcher. Mauer sets up a little more inside and the ball rides up a little higher and tighter. Strike two and all Jacobs can do is stare at these things. I assume we’ll go to the changeup, but Mauer and Slowey keep it simpler still. It’s another fastball running just a bit more inside. Jacobs was paralyzed the entire at-bat. You would think Slowey might have a hypnotist act in the offseason.

It was about the most perfect second inning a pitcher can pitch, particularly coming right after the pure high of Mauer’s home run. Beautiful but, strictly speaking, boring. Between them, Slowey and Ponson toss 16 pitches and collect their outs so briskly they look lazy up there. For the game to be great, struggle must be part of it.

And this game has some struggle for both teams. The Royals are hardly out of it with a one-run deficit, so they erase it in the third. David DeJesus singles to drive in two runs and maybe Mauer’s feel-good return will be marred.

In the fourth, we get the M and M boys in their classic formation: Mauer doubles to lead off and Morneau drives him in. And the rest of the lineup gets into the act, pounding on Ponson to the tune of four runs to put the Twins up 5-2.

We end up with a typical Slowey outing: shimmering control, no walks, a handful of strikeouts, and too many hits too close together. Slowey generally looks terrific tonight, but he once again has a brief Mr Hittable funk, coughing up four hits in the fifth that turn into three runs to let the Royals tie the game.

He completes only five innings, gives up a total of eight hits and five runs. It’s enough to bring him to 4-0 after we get another does of the Mauer-Morneau reunion. In the fifth, Mauer walks and Morneau cranks his homer to put the Twins up 5-7. The bullpen keeps the Royals 1-2-3-you’re-out quiet for the rest of the game. Joe Nathan gets the save, Mauer the happy headline

Slowey has perfect second and a sloppy fifth. They’re just innings, innings that show the highs and lows within a win.

Seventh Inning

The pitch count school of baseball management has in mind a strict pattern for every game. It doesn’t always come true, but the template is good enough for many games on any given night.

It goes like this: the starter has a decent night, which is defined as needing an average of 15 pitches per inning. Count ‘em down—with an allotment of 100 pitches, 90 or so takes us through the sixth. Rest the starter, send up the yeoman middle reliever for the seventh. Hand off to the setup guy for the eighth, and watch the closer pump his fist after the last out in the ninth. Four pitchers, a win, no one’s overworked, and the bullpen stays exercised.

Managers want very little more from their starters and relievers than to follow this pattern. There are, needless to say, variations. A starter who’s looked strong and given up no more than a run or two might start the seventh. And some never get nearly that far.

No matter who’s doing the pitching, a critical thing tends to happen in the seventh. One way or another, pitching tends to crumble here. If the starter’s been good and departs, the hitters at last have a chance to tackle someone new. If the starter stays in, he’s going to cross that 100-pitch barrier and his great past work is instantly forgotten as the hitters finally find his weakness.

Tonight’s game against the Blue Jays had a seventh inning that did a little too much to prove my point. Francisco Liriano started for the Twins and he finally had a good outing, after two disappointing starts. Tonight he’s an out away from finishing the fifth with a 1-1 tie when he gives up a single that drives in a run. He completes the sixth, now behind 2-1, and throws104 pitches through six innings. Very well, let’s use the template.

Matt Guerrier is the reliever of choice in these situations. He does get two of the necessary three outs, but gives up a 2-run homer on the way, and leaves men on first and third before Ron Gardenhire lifts him for a lefty.

Craig Breslow’s mission is to get hot-hitting Adam Lind out. Left-handed-hitting Lind has been fairly impervious to managers playing the percentages against him, but Breslow’s gotten him out at least once in this series. First pitch is a strike, and we’re all remembering that only one more out is needed. The Twins will have to deal with a score that’s now mounted to 4-1, but there’s time.

Now Breslow has one of those loneliest man in the world moments out on the pitcher’s mound. He throws a ball, and I mean a ball, as in something you wouldn’t mistake for a pitch. Yes, it’s a slider, but no batter is going to chase one that skids that far low and outside. Lind fouls the next one off. Breslow tosses another ugly ball, then diverts himself with a pickoff attempt. Another ball, also from the phylum and species Pitchimus Horribilis. Then he tops that with a wild pitch that he plants five feet in front of home plate. The ball ricochets up to hit the catcher in the mask, and the runner scores from third. Lind has walked, and we still have runners on first and third.

Gardy leaves Breslow in to face righty Scott Rolen, who is the eighth Blue Jay batter of the inning. No one else is warming up in the bullpen, though we do have RA Dickey out there. He can get his knuckleball ready with as little as three warmup tosses. But maybe Breslow can shut down Rolen and get this last out.

Well, no. Breslow treats Rolen to another walk, which has its bright side: he hasn’t given up another run this way. But the bases are loaded, and the Jays send up Kevin Millar. Gardenhire decides to counter with Dickey.

Normally, you don’t allow knuckleball pitchers near bases-loaded, late inning situations. The ball we just saw Breslow doink in front of the plate is nothing to how uncontrollable a knuckleball can be. Still, I’ve seen Dickey pitch four times this season, and while he doesn’t have the magic, rotationless knuckler Tim Wakefield does some nights, he also doesn’t have a spastic ping pong ball. Worth a try.

First pitch and Millar cranks a grand slam. Now the score is 9-1 and a suspenseful game is drained of all hope. The parade of relievers isn’t over yet, though. Rod Barajas, who led off this long, long inning, doubles to center off Dickey. You know, Jays, you don’t really need any more runs, and all we want is the one out. But no: now Jose Bautista walks to close out Dickey’s night.

Another trip to the mound by Gardenhire, who charges Luis Ayala with the task of facing Marco Scutaro. Ayala complies by striking him out. Seven runs score in the inning, on 6 hits.

While the nasty thing was taking place, I resorted to my usual sports emotions—bitterness, gloom, a bit of self-pity, and some lofty disapproval of my team, my own dear team. I want to see Craig Breslow do well, but it’s hard to summon a memory of him in any glory. I flirt for a moment with the hopeful image of a massive comeback—if the Twins could pull it off they would prove they could do anything. But that’s pure fantasy. The Blue Jays have used the seventh inning to crush the life out of the team.

Games often turn on the seventh inning. This one was a gaudy business, in which the Blue Jays over-won the game. I have to pause and tip my cap to winner Roy Halladay, who pitched through the seventh. The Twins couldn’t puncture him in their half of the seventh inning. He threw 101 pitches.