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Ten? Ten in a Row?!

So it’s going to be another grueling psychic bruising, is it? The Twins have a little postseason rut that grows deeper each time. They’ve faced the Yankees in four division series this decade, and bowed out meekly with a single win in the first two before offering themselves up to a sweep last time round.

Wait, it gets more gruesome: the Twins have lost ten straight playoff games to the Yankees, and in each one of them they had the early lead. Just as it played out tonight: a 3-0 edge against CC Sabathia disintegrated in the sixth and seventh innings. That lead had both hopeful flags flying for a while—defense and offense. Francisco Liriano masterfully held the Yankees in check, with all his pitches working, a few strikeout gems and 1-2-3 innings, and an especially gritty showing against Mark Texeira (fly out) and Alex Rodriguez (strikeout) with men on base. In turn, the Twins mustered trouble against Sabathia in most every inning. It wasn’t a slew of runs, but they were dispiriting ones: the last was on a passed ball with Orlando Hudson third, who scooted there during Texeira’s ragtag fielding of Joe Mauer’s groundout. It looked like we weren’t going to have another entry in the playoff Book of Doom.

But it’s still quite the bestseller when the Yankees are involved, and we had to scratch in yet another sad chapter. In the sixth, Liriano lost his way on the third trip through the Yankee batting order. The specifics include a nail-biting strikeout of Marcus Thames with two on (we exhale) and some more proof that the Yankees, yes, are that good. Jorge Posada, ahead in the count, deposits a fastball in that little infield slot toward right, the one you can use your bat to poke the ball into if you are an official Wily Veteran. Posada is an accomplished hitter—he knows how to get this particular hit, and with it he pushes the Yankees to within 1 run.

Curtis Granderson has had such trouble with lefties that he probably has founded a support group. I told myself that any lefty could get him out, and there might not be much difference between a manifestly tired Liriano and a fresh but less consistently reliable Jose Mijares.

But that’s why I’m not managing. Oh wait, Ron Gardenhire is, and he seems to have agreed with me. He left Liriano in and Granderson hit a miracle triple to center—a hit unlike any other I’d ever seen him wrench off a left-hander. The Yankees take the lead, 4-3.

It must officially be noted that Granderson is simply not capable of that hit under any conditions other than Postseason Yankee Victory Juggernaut Rules.

In the bottom of the inning, the Twins manage to tie it. But the seventh inning belongs to Mark Teixeira, whose two-run homer off Jesse Crain seemed to ooze Yankee mystique and entitlement. Yes, the Twins could not claw back, and all the happiness of starting this game off just right is lost.

The players, I suspect, don’t actually take it quite as hard as we fans do. Otherwise, how in the world would any of them crawl out of bed tomorrow? No, they must remain resilient, ready to spring right back as if nothing had happened. Because they’ve carried losses around all their lives. This is supposed to be one of the heartening, useful lessons of sport.

Still. How do you keep competing when it appears everything you have to offer is poured down into an abyss that will swallow the best you have? What does it take to keep trying?

Mariano Rivera curls himself down impossibly low, then rises up to whirl another cutter across the plate. Rivera is supposed to be mortal now, toward the end of his career, but the Twins can’t yet find the Deflate Mystique button.

Thursday night, another chance. Promise me this is not going to be a case of new ballpark, same old playoff result.

 

Playoff Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[game 155] Batter v Pitcher

The Twins had to win today, as they’ll have to win every day for the next week. Most particularly, it behooved them to win if the Tigers did. But, happy news, the Tigers did not.

A Twins loss would simply hold them steady at two games behind Detroit. A Twins win—oh, la!—would push them up to one game back.

But a Twins win would also mean a loss or a no decision for Zack Greinke, estimable pitcher of the Kansas City Royals. There’s not much crowding at the top of the list of the best things about the Royals. Greinke is the pride of KC, followed at a discrete distance by young, cherubic, power hitter Billy Butler.

And Greinke is now in a season-end battle of his own, for the Cy Young award. While the Twins strive to win the division, we can be pretty confident Joe Mauer has the AL batting title sewn up. But Greinke is one of six plausible Cy Young winners.

There’s no clear-cut leader because each of the other worthies has cornered one or two of the typical hot stats. Greinke leads in ERA and is second in strikeouts. But he’s far back in wins, and with two starts to go the best he can do is 17. He needs a victory today.

It’s fair to assume that manager Trey Hillman will do what he can to assure that victory, and that the rest of the team is keen to earn it for Greinke. They wouldn’t mind troubling the Twins for plain old divisional cred, but they’re playing for their teammate even more intensely.

Add to this mix the fact that the key blemish in Greinke’s record can pretty much be defined as being employed by the Royals. The team defeats its pitchers in the classic way, by failing to score many runs and operating a leaky bullpen. If any team owes its pitcher, it’s these Royals—they’re wrecked too many of his starts already.

OK, then: everyone wants to win this baseball game, and all for fine and glorious reasons. But only one team will.

Fitting, then, that Yuniesky Betancourt should lead off the scoring for the Royals. In both prior games of the series, Betancourt made a key error that allowed the Twins to take the lead. He makes amends in the second inning by walloping a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano.

Liriano didn’t last much longer, but the baserunners he left on would be stranded by Jeff Manship. The Twins would have to grind through the bullpen for the rest of game, mindful of avoiding over-use so that all the key pitchers would be ready for the four-game series in Detroit that starts tomorrow.

A three-run deficit against Zack Greinke is bleak, but not impossibly bleak. In the third inning, the Twins began mounting their comeback, christening it with a leadoff walk earned by Matt Tolbert. Nick Punto and Denard Span followed with rather limp little singles and the bases were loaded with no one out.

If Greinke was now allowing a walk to the non-intimidating Tolbert and hits to the sturdy if not stellar Punto and Span, what would he do as the strength of the lineup faced him?

First, he’d tie up Orlando Cabrera, obtaining a weak infield grounder that served as a fielder’s choice to cut down Tolbert at the plate. Bases still loaded, but one hitter down.

Joe Mauer comes to the plate. Now, a batting title isn’t truly the measure of what fans value most in baseball today. Mauer hits safely more often than any other player in all of baseball, but many of those hits are singles. Yes, he’s had much more of a home run tear this season, but his prime skill is shooting the ball past the infield and standing safely at first. Solid, but not sexy.

Yet this is precisely the talent we need right now. A clean single scores two, and a burly double clears the bases. Joe Mauer is the perfect hitter for the occasion.

Mauer takes a strike, as he just about always does. It doesn’t matter that Greinke has been throwing about 97 and has already struck out Mauer in the first. Taking a strike is part of Mauer’s way of zeroing in on what needs to be done.

And Greinke is, perhaps, reasonably wary of this prodigious hitter. He deposits the next two pitches well out of the strike zone. Mauer doesn’t reach for them, and now we have a nice situation: Mauer ahead in the count, and unfooled by the mighty Greinke. The bases are creaking, ready to release the runners. Mauer stands in.

The ball runs inside, and then, at the maddening last minute, unwinds itself across the plate. Strike looking. And Mauer was looking in at his own shins to scoot them out of the way, but he’d been fooled. It’s 2-2.

When the bases are loaded and any kind of contact is likely to score a runner, pitchers crave strikeouts. It’s really the only tool for the job. Admittedly, Greinke just got Cabrera to cough up a weak grounder, but the only real goal now is getting strike three past Mauer. And the crowd is yelling for it.

Best statistical hitter in baseball versus Cy Young candidate pitcher. Don’t blink, because Greinke is cranking up out there. And the ball hurtles in and Mauer launches his exquisitely beautiful swing, the most practically elegant rotation of hips and shoulders in the majors, the most supple extension of arms. And he completes the swing, still as picture-perfect as ever, but that ball darted down so low so fast Mauer wasn’t ever going to find it. Strikeout.

With two outs, the problems confronting Jason Kubel are more serious. Only a hit will do now, just as only a K would have served Greinke against Mauer. Kubel not only has to come up with a base hit, he has to do it in a ballpark he is quoted as loathing. He’s backed up that complaint in this series, hitting little or nothing over the last two games.

Now the weight of the world is on Kubel, because how many more times are the Twins going to have the bases loaded against Greinke with a chance to demolish the Royals’ early lead?

Kubel takes a strike, taking a page out of Mauer’s Big Book of Hitting. Then he watches a ball high and outside. Surely, Mr Greinke, you don’t think I’ll nibble at that?

And a second ball for which Kubel refuses to lunge. Once again, the count favors the hitter, if microscopically so. Once again, Twins hopes rise while the KC crowd bellows for their pitcher. There is no way he’s getting both our best lefthanded hitters, no way we’re not scoring, no way he is wiggling out, entirely out, of a bases loaded/no out jam.

So Grienke throws strike two, a bollixing bullet that Kubel can’t tackle. He stares, and he can do all the bating glove adjusting he likes, but there was an unpleasant little overtone there, a feeling that Greinke can power any pitch to any part of the plate he likes.

Kubel taps the bat back on his shoulder and steadies himself. Greinke winds up and lets it fly and Kubel, all arms and legs now, tries to find some piece of it to foul it off and save himself for the next pitch. But he misses, pure and simple. Kubel slams his bat head down and slumps away, furious, miserable, defeated.

Greinke beat back the best the Twins could offer in the most important moment in the game. The Twins did stage a few other threats, and at no point did they look ready to quit. But they would never have quite so crisp  chance, and they would never push more than a single run across.

Watching Greinke foil Mauer and Kubel put me in two places at once. I ached for the Twins to win, of course, and these are the players I love to see coming through in the clutch. But the mastery and power Greinke showed on the mound was riveting too. He was, simply, excellent

Greinke and Justin Verlander have been splitting my personal vote for the Cy Young for the last month or so. Both are deserving, but there is an almost horrifying beauty to Greinke’s power and resolve. He gets my vote.

At least he does today. For there’s a special Cy Young obstacle course set for the Twins. They will have to face Greinke once again next weekend, and Verlander in between.

The Twins lost no ground to the Tigers—both teams lost. Tomorrow the series in Detroit begins, and I can’t spare any more mercy for the pitcher on an opposing team. No more savoring the excellence of the other side; we don’t have the margin for it.

[game 95] Hard to Watch

Today was a day when you’re grateful for the long season, because it’s big enough to bury a complete collapse of offense and defense. The Twins made this three-game series with the Oakland A’s a crazy-making saga of extremes.

On Monday, the Twins managed to misplace a 10-run lead. That’s correct, they pretty much left the keys in the car and the doors unlocked and just, uh, kinda forgot where they parked it. The A’s drove off, and their final tire squeal was a blown home plate call. Michael Cuddyer actually was safe, and the Twins actually did tie the game, but a man in blue waved the A’s out of the parking lot anyway.

Yesterday, the game was a long duel, tied 2 to 2 all the way to extra innings. The Twins squeaked through on a Cuddyer RBI triple to avenge, very quietly, the previous night’s debacle.

This afternoon is getaway day, but the A’s don’t seem to care how late they’ll be arriving in New York for a series with the Yankees. They got some scoring to do.

The Twins actually strike first, with a Justin Morneau solo homer off rookie Trevor Cahill in the first. It would have scored Denard Span too if he hadn’t gotten eager enough on the base paths to get caught stealing. Well, 1-0 Twins. Off we go.

Glen Perkins is pitching. When I last saw him, he was still visibly muzzle-headed from a cold. Today I have only the A’s radio announcers to rely on, but I don’t need much in the way of description. The results are telling enough. Perkins allows five runs in the first.

Matt Holliday has officially come to life in this Twins series. And I don’t think we can just blame it on Twins pitching, because Holliday has chosen an interesting moment to become a valuable hitter. The trading deadline is a little more than a week away, and the A’s are going nowhere. They will be happy to deal him, and his price is finally rising.

Nasty baseball economics aside, I’m happy for Holliday, who is finally looking at ease as an A, however briefly he may remain one. A little too at ease, for he drives in the first Oakland run. The A’s bat around, with backup catcher Landon Powell nabbing another RBI, but it looks like it might be a manageable inning until Rajai Davis triples in three runs. Ugly. Perkins has nothing out there.

And it’s not a brief loss of command but a full meltdown. He allows a single and a walk to start the second, and then gets right to dishing out the home run balls. Scott Hairston smashes in three runs and Perkins is sent to the showers.

I am busy visualizing this as he radio provides the bare framework of details. Kevin Mulvey, our brand new middle reliever who hasn’t yet suggested he will plug our bullpen holes, is up next. Is he ready to shut the A’s down, or can they feast on him too?

The answer is: pass the salt, for Mulvey gives up four more runs. The A’s, I must remind you, are one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball, but this afternoon they’re ripping line drives left and right. It begins to look like the baseball rulemakers may have made a grave error in not putting in a clock to limit such scoring sprees, because the A’s don’t seem capable of running out of gas. Finally, mercifully, Scott Hairston, the twelfth batter of the inning, flies out. It’s 12-1 A’s.

Having just had the object lesson of being on the losing end of a massive comeback two days ago, the Twins may well have nursed some hope. Being so far down so early, you have only two choices: succumb or scrap on.

The Twins do not, in effect, do any scrapping. Cahill’s worst moment came and went in the first on Morneau’s long ball. He allows only six hits through seven innings, and not a whisper of a run.

Meanwhile, RA Dickey finally puts a cap on the gusher the A’s struck. He pitches two scoreless innings, but then that pesky hitting itch strikes Oakland again. The lash out for three more in the fifth—15-1.

Later, with Brian Duensing on the mound, the A’s go for an even number of runs when Brendan Harris makes an error to allow Kurt Suzuki to drive in Ryan Sweeney.

Yes, Kurt Suzuki is in the game. Of all things, backup catcher Powell has to leave with an injury and on getaway day the catcher they’re trying to rest has to come in and join the scoring parade. Perhaps it’s an invigorating interlude for him.

The score is 16 to 1, and the Twins haven’t threatened to do anything more than sullenly field their positions since the first inning. They will amass a treasure trove of six hits through the game. They will do next to nothing with the five walks the A’s bestow on them. They will, it must be said, stink.

In the ninth, manager Bob Geren wants to try out rookie reliever Edgar Gonzalez. It’s very hard for a game like this to have an interesting ninth inning. In fact, one has to assume that players and staff are restless to get on with their getaway. But Gonzalez wants to keep us engaged.

He gets Michael Cuddyer out leading off, then walks Brendan Harris. Then he walks Brian Buscher. And then, just because there are three bases, he walks Nick Punto.

This is not the time to be experimenting with pitches. The tried and true strike is all you need to throw with a 15-run lead. Yet somehow Gonzalez is losing the knack for it.

Now, if this were the fourth inning we’d have time for the comeback that comes back from Monday’s blown lead. But it’s the ninth, with one out. Alexei Casilla has a chance to get an RBI or two, but not much chance to launch us off on a brand new winning streak.

The game ends in a swift double play, and both teams get their luggage and go. For the A’s, who take the series 2-1, there is bound to be pure joy as they head out of town. For the Twins, who have seen every possible baseball sorrow in the last three days, there is surely gloom.

I’m glad I didn’t have to watch, but the radio told me more than enough.

[game 90] Baseball Cards

I can’t rationally explain it. And I’m just a few inches shy of mortal embarrassment about it. But I collect, and weirdly love, baseball cards.

I suppose I’m just making up for all those 1961 Roger Maris cards that, yup, my mom threw out. But ever since 1978, I’ve been buying baseball cards as an adult. Or does this mean I can’t qualify as an adult?

 

It started innocently enough. I would pick up a pack of Topps cards at the cash register at the corner store where I bought milk. In those days, you got a lot of dupes because they had, as they say today, bad collation. You got dupes but, if you tended to feel you had that dollar to spare, you might stay in the hunt to complete your set. I always thought I would finish off 1978 just by dipping into the box every week or so at that little grocery store.

Well, it was never to be, but I was too innocent to know that they printed in different series and the cards I’d missed were already history. But I liked bringing home a new pack, seeing who I’d gotten, and learning a little more about the players I watched in games.

I toured the leagues more by cards than by games then, because there was only NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday and some Red Sox broadcasts where I lived in Vermont. Not every game was on television, but radio carried the Sox and the Yankees. I had much less time for watching or listening to games then, but I had cards to introduce me to the players.

Each summer, I dared myself to shake off this silly habit of buying a pack of cards every week or so, but my loose change just flew out to keep my collection going. And then I discovered that Topps had mercy on crazy completists like me. In the back pages of The Sporting News, I found mail order ads for the Topps complete set at the end of the year.

If I remember correctly, the complete set was about $30 in the 1980s. As you may recall, we all felt rich in the 1980s, so I kept collecting. Topps had no competitors that I knew of, and they hadn’t yet invented the deadly chase card. I could buy a few packs during the season and get my complete set for a fairly trivial annual cost. They took up little room and required no care or maintenance. As hobbies go, this was a sweet deal.

And there were the cards themselves. The printing was so-so and the registration rocky. A lot of the photos were less than flattering. But I was getting a close look at the players, and I could check their stats while I watched a game. In those days, TV graphics were scanty, so the cards filled in what television and the announcers lacked.

There were many bad consequences of a lot of people feeling rich in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, there were four card publishers: Donruss, Fleer, Topps, and, in 1989, Upper Deck. And these card publishers discovered that rich 30-year-olds would buy baseball cards if they got the idea they would increase in value. I’m sure many of those collectors started out missing the same Mantle and Maris cards I was mourning. But that highly liquid, highly speculative decade turned any form of nostalgia into a paying proposition.

Topps and the others created chase cards—an insert series that you got a little taste of every few packs. These cards didn’t appear in the complete sets but had to be earned by purchasing pack after pack. By imposing more rarity on certain cards, the card publishers gave us other ways to measure our collections.

I saw the futility of chase cards immediately. I didn’t chase ’em. I had had enough of that when trying to complete my early sets—it was doomed. And I thought only kids would be lured into trying, but I hadn’t accounted for how rich so many young men considered themselves.

They bought not packs, but whole boxes. They bought not boxes, but whole cartons. I would learn all this in the mid-1990s when I had a chance to work for Topps for a year. My job was consulting on their prepress and printing, and it was a dream assignment for me.

I working on some of the most interesting, high quality printing being done anywhere, for baseball cards had moved way beyond blurry photos on soft cardboard. I’d watched them improve, but now I got a chance to work with the high-end press technology involved—stochastic screening, 300-line screens, ultra-precise register and trim, laser die cuts, foil stamping, and flood UV coating.

I was hired as a print pro, and I didn’t exactly want to admit that the huge Benito Santiago photo they had up in the lobby, the aerial shot from the 1991 series, was in my collection. As were all the other pictures in the lobby and the halls. No, I had to be cool about all this.

But when we were discussing cards, I obviously knew the players as well as I knew prepress workflow. I helped Topps cut costs, and they helped me peek much deeper into the chase card well. There was a lot going on in card development. And now that individual cards could sell on eBay, chase cards rose in value.

I still didn’t chase them, but my time at Topps had entitled me to do a certain amount of what we call fact finding. I saw how vast the universe of cards had become.

Through the 1990s, cards got more and more expensive. I couldn’t afford to indulge all my interests and I stayed hypnotically loyal to Topps. By the late 1990s, the new gimmick was slicing up actual baseball matter to put it on a card. A half-inch square of jersey material or a slice of a bat could be glued between two layers of cardboard, and the game-used chase card was born.

These, I have to confess, I craved. And these, I confess, I got. I bought boxes of cards, collated to include one or two memorabilia cards per box. I got autographs and I got little bits of jersey from players I could never meet. It’s crazy, it’s nuts, but I treasure my little swatch of Pujols’ pants, my little bit Morneau’s jersey.

So, getting to today’s game, Twins versus Rangers. I was looking through this year’s cards as I watched tonight. Topps added a new element to its regular cards this year. It includes a little statistical list about each hitter, like batting average by inning or especially favorable pitching matchups.

On Brendan Harris’ card, I happened to see that he’s hit .400 against Vincente Padilla. The pitcher starting for the Rangers tonight.

Which helps explain his single in the second. Which was preceded by a leadoff single from Jason Kubel, and followed by a triple from Carlos Gomez. Which resulted in one of two runs scored that tied the game. Which took a little of the luster off Josh Hamilton’s two-run homer in the first that gave the Rangers the early, brief lead. Which may have sufficiently disheartened the Rangers that Padilla would, in the third, give up a single to Mauer, a double to Morneau, and a long, tall homer to Kubel. Which would be answered by nothing more than a single run in the fifth—a Hamilton RBI, making his return from the DL quite glorious, but quite overshadowed. Which would give Glen Perkins a win, despite his laboring most innings and hitting the 102-pitch mark to leave the game after only five innings. Which would require four sharp innings from the bullpen in which only two hits were allowed, the last of them a tiny blow against Joe Nathan who would go on to record a save anyway. Which would give the Twins a win.

Topps and Upper Deck are the only surviving card publishers. The whole business collapsed in the last few years, when far too much product was churned out, chasing far too few buyers. I kept buying my modest allotment of cards each year, but the super-speculators who wanted their Barry Bonds cards to be worth fifty bucks apiece discovered that rarity and interest were both eroding.

There are still chase cards, and those wonderful memorabilia cards. But they don’t make chase cards of players like Brendan Harris. I still collect to learn all the players, so I still favor the base series without the flourishes. But I am pretty overjoyed to have gotten a little Greg Maddux jersey fragment this year as the prize in my Topps box. The box that had Brendan Harris in it too, a card without any value whatsoever except what I can find in it by watching the game with it tonight.

[game 72] Wild Pitch

The Twins started a 9-game road trip tonight, in which they face three of the most dominant teams in the Midwest: the Brewers, Cardinals, and Royals. Milwaukee is now a single game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, and they have the bonus regional rivalry incentive to foil the Twins. They also have the memory of being swept in their 3 game series at the Metrodome in May to fuel them.

The Brewers generally aim to win by mashing. Prince Fielder is the obvious slugger, but Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron, and Corey Hart are a pure power outfield, and infielders JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks can clobber too. Weeks is out on the DL, so I see Casey McGehee at second base. I am braced for a Brew Crew wrecking ball.

We have Francisco Liriano on the mound, and I have officially reached the stage of assuming the worst. Liriano still shows flashes of talent and he may yet come to fulfill the promise of his rookie year, but I expect he won’t flower until he has a new season, new team, or new pitching coach.

With Denard Span still on the DL, Ron Gardenhire has shuffled the lineup back to a more conventional order. Instead of moving up Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau into second and third, he has them at three and four. Carlos Gomez leads off, followed by Brendan Harris. Both Gomez and Harris have sleepy batting averages, though they have been improving lately. In other words, I have yet another reason to fear the worst.

So I start the game like one of those desperate fans who can only bear to watch his team by drenching himself in cynicism. This is not, I assure you, my usual mode. I just want to root and enjoy the exploits of my squad. But there’s something about nearly three months of staying stuck at .500 or below that’s wearing me down. A win tonight and we’re back at .500; a loss and we’re two games below.

The Brewers start Jeff Suppan. I don’t have long to stay gloomy or guarded—Gomez leads off with a hit. It’s a little dunk job, spooned into center off the very end of the bat. A lucky Texas Leaguer is all, but Gomez is making contact. He had some similar hit-lets in the Cubs series over the weekend, and perhaps he’s got himself a little hitting plan. Go, Gomez.

Suppan settles down to get two outs, but Mauer makes his out count by advancing Gomez to second. The Brewers then get all careful with Morneau. When he won’t nibble outside the strike zone, Suppan finishes him off with an intentional walk.

Michael Cuddyer is up. And Suppan strikes him out. He does indeed—Cuddyer flails at the pitch. But it’s a wild pitch that catcher Jason Kendall can’t grab and lets roll far to the backstop. By the grace of baseball, Cuddyer has the right to run to first and try to beat the throw, which he does handily.

Two outs, bases loaded, but the inning should be over. Joe Crede cracks a double to center—a far more authoritative hit than Gomez’s little poke—and three runs score. Two hits, three runs, poor Suppan. But happy Twins.

Liriano lets Brewers leak onto the bases every inning, but holds them to 3 runs over 5 innings. After allowing two runs in the first, Liriano has a rocky second inning, highlighted by a hit from pitcher Suppan. Suppan will score from first on a double from McGehee, but the following two hitting thoughtfully prolong the inning to allow their pitcher some rest on the bench.

Suppan also has all his trouble in the first three innings. After the tragic wild pitch the prolonged the first, he faces Gomez again in the second. With two out, Gomez doubles to center. His hitting style is all elbows and knees, but when you wind up this elastic young player, sometimes he spins. Harris follows him with an RBI single.

In the top of the third, the Twins take advantage of another Brewer failing. With one out, Cuddyer singles. We’re in classic double play territory, and Suppan tries to coax one from Crede. It’s picture perfect, right at the shortstop, but Hardy can’t close his glove cleanly around it and the balls flops onto the infield dirt. Cuddy and Crede are safe.

Delmon Young seizes his opportunity and uncorks a double, scoring Cuddy and moving Crede to third. And now we have a little scene that can pretty much only unfold in a National League park. I hope Nick Punto keeps a good souvenir from this game, because our ultra-light-hitting second baseman is intentionally walked.

This masterwork is designed to fill the bases with Liriano coming to the plate. A fine strategy if you can get the pitcher to oblige with the wobbly groundball that ends the inning in a double play. Not so perfect if Liriano follows orders and stays wooden at the plate, accepting a strike three call.

This leaves it all up to Gomez, who is having a bright night. The Brewers have seen him single and double, and really should be fearing him by now. Over the weekend, the Cubs were showing him some respect as Gomez starts solving all his hitting woes by visiting the National League.

Now, I know Gomez well. I know that he needs to be reminded there are two outs. I know that bunting is still his strong suit, and it won’t avail him here. I know that going 3-for-3 is nearly out of the question.

Well, snap—doesn’t he wheel the end of the bat around just in time to slap another hit to center? His sloppy single scores two, and puts the Twins up 7-3.

That’s where they stay. For the next six innings, both teams stay off the scoreboard, though baserunners scratch and peck from time to time. The Twins trot out three relievers. Luis Ayala has been released, so we see steadfast RA Dickey handle the sixth and seventh, and Matt Guerrier resolve the eighth.

Joe Nathan doesn’t add any suspense to close the game. Though the Brewers have the best part of the order up, Prince Fielder sends the second pitch he sees to shallow left, and Corey Hart and Mike Cameron strike out. Twins win.

The victory is legitimate in all baseball respects, but it hinges entirely on two mistakes from the Brewers that have outsize consequences. The wild pitch that Kendall couldn’t corral opens the door to three runs, and a missed double play leads to another three.

Baseball, perhaps more than other sports, lends itself to imaginary reconstructions. If Kendall had made the throw to first in time to make good on Suppan’s strikeout, would the Brewers have won the game? And don’t even begin to rebuild games by correcting missed double plays. Bill Lee still relives the missed DP in the World Series against the Reds, as do all Red Sox fans. Because baseball plays are such defined little increments, we like to add and subtract them to imagine different outcomes.

It’s not always intellectually sound, but it’s how we experience the game. And some what ifs aren’t small speculations—everyone knows what would have happened if Bill Buckner had fielded that ball that dribbled between his ankles. Tonight, we can’t subtract the two Brewer blunders, but we know this win rested on them.

End of the Line

In the course of doing some research for the article I planned to write, I ended up reading enough other blogs to conclude that mine is rubbish. There are people writing detailed, thoughtful statistical analyses. There are boisterous fans ranting. There are timely, clever slants on sports news from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal, let alone the more likely sports sites.

So I can’t continue to do vague, generalized observations without compiling the stats, as other intrepid bloggers do. I can’t look for new ways to enjoy the Twins when I ought to be boldly criticizing their blunders. I can’t write this as if it’s a young fan’s introduction to baseball, by studying a new facet every day, when that approach kinda requires presuming my reader is an appreciative 10-year-old. And I can’t offer these little game accounts as if my writing style is interesting enough.

Nope, my central premise really has been proved wrong.

Tonight the Twins won, enjoyably. They scored first, using a Justin Morneau sac fly to push over Brendan Harris, who made his way on base with a walk. And they broke past a tie when Nick Punto grooved a squeeze bunt to get Delmon Young home.

There were little flashes of power too, but the game was classic Twins: control pitching by Kevin Slowey, some solid bullpen work and a 4-out save by Joe Nathan, and offense that capitalizes on tiny little weaknesses and pecks the runners on home. Some nice defense too—Delmon Young yanked a homer run away from Lance Berkman and Joe Mauer threw out a runner.

I’m going to go on enjoying the Twins, but I don’t believe it’s useful to write about them. On you go, guys, and off I go to other endeavors.