Tag Archives: Anthony Swarzak

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.

[games 104, 105] The California Los Angeles Angels of Southern California, Including Anaheim, But Also Los Angeles

The Angels are a very, very good baseball team. Last night I noted that you can win a lot of games hitting .250 but doing all the hitting in one inning. The entire Angels lineup is around or above .300, and they also have a team-wide aptitude for rapping out consecutive hits and to march the runners home.

They did it Saturday night to whup the Twins again, 11-6. Joe Saunders started for Los Halos, and while he wasn’t overwhelming, he confined the Twins to 9 hits, and the relief corps allowed 5 more. Many of these hits were concocted with two outs. Which meant that many of said hitters were left on base; no rallies ensued.

In Friday’s game, the Angels saved up their blistering attack until the eleventh inning, to break a tie in vivid fashion. Saturday, they scored in four innings and threatened in nearly all the others. Their big outburst, in the sixth, netted five runs and converted a close game into a game you watch the way you pick at a scab.

On Sunday afternoon, Glen Perkins took on Jered Weaver, and he picked the wrong night to contend with Weaver. The Angels shone on both offense and defense—Weaver had a career-high 11 strikeouts while stifling the Twins, and the Angels racked up 13 runs.

The Angels didn’t just sweep the series, they vacuumed it, shampooed the carpet, and vacuumed it again.

Over the three games, they scored 35 runs and muscled 52 hits. A team would have a winning record by hitting that much in a week, let alone one weekend. Once you wind up this team, they won’t stop spinning.

So far, the Twins have not found a pitching approach that shushes them. Last week, in Anaheim, Anthony Swarzak mastered them for the only win of that series, but Swarzak lasted only three innings Saturday.

I make no apologies for Swarzak when I give credit where it’s due: the Angels look like the team poised to win the AL pennant. In fact, they appear on a collision course for a Freeway Series with the Dodgers. They have an AL-best 63-40 record, wall to wall hitting, and a pitching staff that seems better in reality than on paper. It looks like 2002 all over again, the year of the Rally Monkey and World Series win.

The Angels lead the AL West, which has been the booby prize of all the divisions for so long that it seems like the West is designed as playoff cannon fodder. But this year we might, just might, see the wild card emerge from the West in the form of the Texas Rangers, provided the New York-Boston-Tampa Bay race has two big casualties.

But enough slotting out the playoffs. I can never understand why people find predicting more satisfying than watching the real season unfold. We’re big bandwagon-jumpers, I guess, eager to prove we knew who to root for all along.

I’m not rooting for the Angels right now, but I sure am admiring what they accomplished against the Twins. Every player is hitting, and in many cases hitting a bit above his abilities. On Sunday, Kendry Morales hit not one but two three-run homers. Their weakest hitter, occasional starter Sean Rodriguez, picked the Metrodome to hit his second homer of the year.

The relentless batting attack is underway without major sluggers Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter. Both are likely to return from the DL in the next week or so, giving Mike Scioscia the fascinating problem of deploying so much talent in the narrow confines of a 9-batter lineup.

Sunday’s game was reasonably close until the fifth inning, when the Angels scored five runs, the third straight game in which they’ve had an outburst. Last weekend, Rex Hudler, the Angels’ announcer, called it “frenzying,” and that’s the only word for it.

The Twins edged, all too predictably, just below .500 after the loss. They do have something for the highlight reel, though. Denard Span, playing right field, made a running, leaping catch. He grazed the fence top with his butt, and nearly toppled over as he reached with full extension to grab the foul ball for the out. Torii Hunter, sitting in the Angels dugout, had to admire someone playing those Metrodome walls as well as he had.

For three days, the Angels looked so good I shook my head to wonder if they could maintain this eerie perfection of rat-a-tat hitting. For three days, the Twins looked like they were tossing batting practice and losing the will to hit themselves. A baseball season will balance these extremes, but at the moment it’s Angels 35, Twins 15.

[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 94] Slump

Sports outcomes are random. They are more random than we can possibly tolerate. They are so random that we are forced to tell stories to stitch them back together, to explain the randomness. What would be the point, after all, of watching people play games at a very high level if their skill wasn’t enough to banish the randomness?

Joe Mauer’s season contains too stark a contrast for us to endure the randomness in it. Right now, the random matter of his batting success has split his season in two, between a remarkable beginning and a grisly slump.

But I think his complete season will probably resemble a five-act play, not a black and white contrast.

Act One: he’s missing. He has surgery to relieve back problems stemming from a kidney blockage, and misses all of spring training and the first month of the season. His absence hangs over the Twins, and the team gets off to a mediocre start.

Act Two: he returns in the most triumphant fashion imaginable. Any rational fan reconciled himself to patience—Mauer couldn’t possibly have all his baseball powers fully at his fingers after such an absence. In fact, who knows how well he’ll bounce back from his back woes. But he starts May with a home run, and starts hitting for average and for power. We have never seen him look better.

Act Three: the power quietly leaks away. Mauer still hits some homers and beefy doubles, but he’s back to lacing liners into left. The swing is still shimmering, the average is still otherworldly. But that whole miracle of equaling his last year’s home run total in about one month is over.

And the glory of the average is hidden under a cloud. Missing the first month, Mauer doesn’t collect enough at bats to be in league lists until right before the All-Star break. He is at .400 for a time, but when he finally cracks the official tabulations, he’s in .380 territory.

Act Three ends with Mauer trudging off to the All-Star festivities with a cold he’s had trouble shaking and big expectations for his participation in the Home Run Derby. A week or so before, he’s treated to the Sports Illustrated cover curse—his .400 average has disappeared two days before the magazine hits the stands with a discussion of whether he’s the guy who can match Ted Williams’ feat.

Now we’re in Act Four. And what once was so startlingly easy for Mauer has become impossible. In the last game before the All-Star break, he struck out four times. He was 0 for 6 against Texas on Sunday, for the first time in his career.

His July batting average is .264, sucking his cumulative BA down to .353. After hitting better than anyone in any league at any time this season, he’s now parked behind Ichiro Suzuki. He’s struck out 11 times this month.

In tonight’s game against the A’s, so far he has a strikeout and a hit. A single that advances a runner but leads to no runs. The kind of hit we fans are now looking at with our microscopes, picking it up in our tweezers to see this endangered species, Maueronomous Hittibus.

Yes, that’s how we dissect these things. We’re baseball fans, off on the sidelines, no more capable of hitting a single 90-mph pitch than we are of curing cancer. But we’re experts, and we’re desperate for meaning. Mauer’s problems are our problems, but at the exotic distance of problems we can blame on someone else. Joe! Joe!

We’re indignant, or cynical, or passionate with grief. But we’re not indifferent. It can’t be randomness. Not possible. You can’t do something beautifully for two months and then, suddenly, stop. You need magic, voodoo, superstition to break out of a slump. Because it couldn’t be random.

So now I’ll introduce some game narrative. The game was a 2-2 tie since the fourth inning. Dallas Braden started for the A’s and kept the Twins quiet but for a small outburst in the fourth, pitching seven strong innings. Anthony Swarzak started for the Twins and gave up 4 hits and 2 runs over seven innings.

We’re in the tenth. Mauer’s slump is still hanging over him, but with one out he gets a solid hit. And on Michael Cuddyer’s triple, he scores the tie-breaking run. Then in the bottom of the inning, Joe Nathan mows them down 1-2-3 to preserve the one-run lead for a Twins win.

What is a slump? It’s not merely and purely randomness. There is a massive psychological component to most slumps. Mauer’s cloud is of his own making, but he’s a distinctively well-integrated young man, from all we can tell watching him.

Remember Paul O’Neill, the Yankee right fielder who nearly exploded in fury when he struck out? Mauer is his baseball opposite. It’s reasonable to expect Mauer to work his way calmly out of this particular pit.

And while he does, none of us will be able to acknowledge the randomness of it. We literally can’t see such things. We see stories. We need stories. We have to explain the ability to hit precisely because it is a nearly inexplicable skill. Joe, I’m waiting for Act Five.

[game 64] New York Basbeall

The Twins are doing a fine job of winning without me. They beat the Cubs 2-0. Rookie Anthony Swarzak got his second win by holding the Cubs to 4 hits over 7 innings. Outstanding work, but the current wave of injuries will require the Twins to send Swarzak back to the minors for a while as they call up catcher Jose Morales. Michael Cuddyer is now out a while with his slow-to-heal right finger, and Denard Span remains on the DL with dizziness the injury report doesn’t clarify further. Swarzak will be back. Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel got the RBIs, and the Twin are finally doing well on the road.

I sampled another game today, with the Twins under their usual Fox Saturday blockade and me trying to reexamine this blog’s mission by visiting new teams. And I really haven’t been getting out much—I didn’t know JJ Putz was on the DL until it came up in passing during game two of the Mets-Yankees Subway Series.

I decided to let Fox clobber me with New York baseball, the only games they ever want to broadcast. It infuriates me that to Fox there is baseball, and then there is Yankee baseball. The idea that the Yankees somehow play a different game because they have more local fans and a bigger payroll is ultimately insulting to any baseball fan. But ratings are all Fox cares about, and you get them when you control the broadcast in the NY metro area.

The new Yankee Stadium looked the most filled I’ve seen it so far. The Yankees have re-priced some tickets in an admission that a single baseball game is not, really, a luxury item that should cost a week’s salary to witness in person. But I suspect the prime seat-filling force was the Mets fans, eager to see how many home runs their team could hit in this homer-happy ballpark. The answer today: two.

In New York, you play baseball, and then hope you can thread your way through the newspaper and sportstalk coverage. I have some built-in bias toward the value of the press, but I have to admit that they load up on

impossible, baited questions in what really aren’t interviews but pure efforts to waylay players into making sensational quotes.

In New York, this is intensified because there are more outlets dissecting every play and every statement, and because the criticism is harsher. The theory seems to be, the more millions a player earns, the more unforgivable his errors. I have my own set of irrational player loathings, but I don’t delight in seeing Manny Ramirez belittled, or in hearing Kevin Youkilis sound like a dolt. (Well, maybe I find a little joy in the latter, but I try to take the long, compassionate view.) But sportschat is all about righteous indignation, the negative emotion that gives such a big energy boost.

In this context, we have the sorrows of Luis Castillo. Castillo is quite familiar to Twins fans. GM Terry Ryan scooped him up when he was overlooked after a bad year or two for the Marlins, and he proved to be one of the big finds of the 2006 season, for any team. He played so well that the Twins could keep him only until the middle of the 2007 season. The Mets swooped in with their millions and he was gone.

Castillo is an excellent second baseman. Just today I saw him cover a great distance to snare a line drive from Derek Jeter. He got the ball falling forward, nearly about to take a header, and facing to right field. He switched direction and got the throw off to first and missed getting Jeter by inches. It was a heroic effort, though a run did score. I mention it because it reminds me of the energy Castillo always shows in the field.

Last night, the Subway Series opened with the Mets on their way to humiliating their crosstown rivals. Always a satisfying prospect, if you happen to be the humiliator, not the humiliatee. It’s the ninth inning, and ace closer Francisco Rodriguez has two outs. Derek Jeter is on second and Mark Teixeira is on first, and the Yanks are down 7-8.

Alex Rodriguez hits a simple pop-up and Castillo, who knows how or why, lets the ball bounce out of his glove.

Two runs score and the Mets lose and the full, painful extent of baseball possibilities is once again visited. Yes, players will miss easy pop-ups. It will happen so rarely that it will seem they owe us a bigger than usual apology, but it will happen.

Today, Castillo fields just fine, gets two hits, and the Mets cruise to a beefy 6-2 victory behind Fernando Nieve. One of the truly useful qualities in any sport is that playing well demands that you shake off mistakes. When they talk about handy life lessons from gym class, this is actually what they mean. The ability to bounce back from an error is probably more important than the skill that got you into the sport in the first place. Luis Castillo bounced back.

As we expected he would. But consider the case of Chuck Knoblauch (another former Twin, of all things), who inexplicably began to make wild throws from second base for the Yankees. It became a destructive mindset, and Knoblauch left baseball unable to cure it.

I don’t envy the players for the Mets and Yankees. The pressure would so quickly obliterate the pleasures of baseball that you would lose everything except the chance for glory. How much fun can baseball actually be for A-Rod? For Johan Santana?

But perhaps it will be enough for Luis Castillo that he can shake off Friday night’s mistake and go back to playing the way he’s always capable of playing. Stay loose, Luis.

[game 49] Ejection Frenzy

In today’s final game against the Red Sox, Jason Varitek was the center of attention. His two homers won the game for the Sox—splitting the current series—and he was one of four players to draw the wrath of home plate umpire Todd Tichenor.

I got today’s game via radio, so I must rely especially heavily on announcers John Gordon and Dan Gladden to reconstruct the seventh inning showdown. Someone will soon let us know exactly how rare this is, but for now I’m going to assume it’s rare enough to be a first.

In one inning, Tichenor ejected both catchers and both managers. In the top half, the dispute arose from a close play at the plate. Gordon commented that if you had this play called by four umpires, you’d get two safes and two outs. It was as close as they come.

Dustin Pedroia his a sacrifice fly with Jeff Bailey on third. A beauty of a throw from Jason Kubel comes in to Mike Redmond, who sweeps a tag on Bailey. The AP game report says that replays show that Redmond’s tag beat Bailey’s hand to the plate.

So when Tichenor calls him safe, Redmond pops up to protest. The umpire has zero tolerance for this discussion and tosses him. A serious matter, as Joe Mauer is DHing. With Redmond ejected, Mauer will have to take up catching duties and the DH is forfeited. In theory, our pitcher will hit but in practice a pinch hitter will be used.

Provided we have an interim manager to pick one. Ron Gardenhire comes out to defend his catcher, but young Mr Tichenor has the shortest fuse in umpiredom. Gardy is tossed.

In the bottom half of the inning, Josh Beckett is continuing his fine work for the Red Sox. He gets Joe Crede to ground out and then faces Brendan Harris. A pitch that Beckett and his catcher Jason Varitek fervently believe should be called strike three is considered a mere ball. Beckett made a protesting grimace which, like all things, apparently, rubbed Tichenor wrong. When Varitek stood up to echo Beckett’s disgust, Tichenor made his favorite outtahere sign.

Manager Terry Francona then took his turn standing up for his player and became the fourth player ejected. It was fast and furious, and my play by play announcers could barely keep up. Now both teams had lost knights and rooks and play resumed.

By the way, my AP source says that pitch Beckett so loved really was outside—Tichenor got it right. Harris finished the at-bat, with backup catcher George Kottaras behind the plate, with a double.

If this were a movie, Harris would score and that lost strikeout would be the most significant play of the game. Alas, Harris remains stranded and the Twins failed to rally in the remaining two innings as well.

The Twins begin the scoring with a solo homer from Joe Crede in the second. May I pause to observe that the phrase “solo homer” is connected especially often with Crede. Is he hitting in the wrong part of the order? No one is ever on base for him, or the Mauer/Morneau train has already picked up all the passengers at the station.

The Twins lead 1-0 for rookie Anthony Swarzak in his second major league start. He keeps Boston quiet until the fifth, a total of 11 scoreless innings in his first two games. Varitek led off the fifth with a homer to tie the game.

Both pitchers had quick, strong innings. That tie looked like it wouldn’t budge, but in the seventh Varitek led off again and, just to enjoy his last visit to the Metrodome all the more, hit another homer, his tenth of the season.

Swarzak’s pitching line was six innings pitched, 3 earned runs, 5 hits, 3 strikeouts. The glaring glitch was four walks, though none of them scored. It was a solid effort—the only thing that unraveled in this game was the umpire’s temper.

Boston’s 3 runs were courtesy of the two bookend Varitek homers, plus the close play at the plate that scored Bailey. The Twins managed only 5 hits, and their only run was Joe Crede’s quiet little homer. After the raucous scoring fest against the White Sox and Brewers, the Twins have gone eerily silent.

Joe Mauer, for example, looked like a plain old baseball player, not our superhuman catcher. He didn’t get a hit, and collected one K. Yesterday, I believe he had only a single.

Ebb and flow is endemic to baseball, but I realize I had gotten used to the idea that when Mauer comes to the plate we are playing this special version of baseball, the kind in the movies or in the fantasies of young fans. Mauer and Morneau had started to wipe away all our disappointments, and now it’s tough to see that they are only baseball players from the planet earth. Dang!

[game 44] Rookies

All sports, even baseball, have a clock. The ticking you only barely hear is the lifespan of a player.

Every one of them has an arc, and sometimes it’s quite pronounced with a great crown of excellence. Excellence that, still, only lasts awhile. Others march along, perhaps for a very long time, manifesting their median over and over.

Whoever they are, and however we might measure their skills, the shape of the arc is unknown until the last play of the career is made.

We like to get a drop on anointing the truly remarkable ones though, trying hard to sift through the stats and the early efforts to foresee the hall of fame voting. We want to know right away, long before the work is finished.

And we are usually too generous. In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela became the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young. He deserved it: he pitched eight shutouts that year, lead the league in strikeouts, and had a sweet 2.48 ERA. His career had some other fine moments, most of them in just the next five years, but it’s fair to say his peak was brief, unrepeatable, glorious, and gone.

We don’t need any more instructive examples of how fleeting talent can be. Who wants to be reminded? But sportscasters and my fellow bloggers today devote great attention to picking the players who will rise the highest and the fastest.

The obsession with rookies shows up in many quarters. Topps and Upper Deck devote lavish attention to rookie baseball cards  these days, minting up great batches of them. Here are potential heroes, all glossy and bright, photographed with bats on their shoulders in uniforms they haven’t once gotten dirty. A vast number of these baseball cards will be worthless in a year or two, but because one of them will be another Albert Pujols, we collect them and hope. I have an absurd number myself. Say, when is Ryan Garko going to get to the next level?

There are endless websites and magazine articles dissecting rookies. Steven Strasburg, the hellfire pitching prospect who will top the draft next month, appears more often in Sports Illustrated than Justin Morneau. Have you seen Strasburg’s furious pitching glare? But other than seeing his vicious gameface, all I know about him is that he is the greatest pitcher of all time except he hasn’t pitched yet.

Baseball’s draft pales compare to football’s, where even the combine auditions are on TV, and the draft itself is sold as a competition with winners and losers. It’s common for football rookies to earn more than many of the veterans on the team they are joining. These players who haven’t even survived a pro training camp are being paid entirely on the basis of speculation.

Speculators we are, even the fans. Where to place my affections this season, and my precious time? I don’t want to be late finding the next great rookie.

The rookies flow on in a constant stream. The veterans depart with less fanfare. Suddenly you realize: hey, no Fred McGriff this year. No more Eric Karros. And whatever happened to Marquis Grissom?

But you can only notice the holes they left if you concentrate, because the rookies filling those spots redirect your attention. It’s the triumph of youth over age, potential over old news. I grow old, my sports team stays eternally young.

Tonight, against the Brewers, the Twins sent 23-year-old Anthony Swarzak to the mound. He was called up a few days ago to fill the hole Glen Perkins made while on the DL. Swarzak gets to pitch his first game in the majors on a home field, with Joe Mauer calling the game, and his mom and stepfather sitting behind home plate.

Nice touches, but he’s still gotta be nervous, right? The rookie must show that special balance of bravado and awestruck humility. We don’t want him steamrollering our existing heroes, but on the other hand we need that galactic-size confidence that signals success.

Swarzak appeared pretty cool up there, and he weight of the occasion didn’t affect him.  He ended up with a solid starter’s line: seven innings pitched, 98 pitches, five hits allowed, 3 Ks, 2 walks. And no runs. No runs at all.

The shutout was squandered in the eighth, by Matt Guerrier, but the Twins won the game on both offense and defense. In addition to Swarzak’s fine debut, Joe Mauer started his next hitting streak by going 3-for-3 with two RBI and a homer, Joe Crede popped another solo shot, and the team scored a total of six runs.

Swarzak had his share of self-induced pitching jams. He had runners on base most innings and did not have the strike zone pegged at times, but wiggled out of trouble each time. Some of the Brewers’ hits were lucky liners; the three walks actually were the bigger blot on Swarzak’s first outing.

Swarzak was drafted high by the Twins in 2004, and has generally progressed well. He got himself a 50-game suspension in 2007 for a positive drug test, but CBS Sports reports that it wasn’t a performance enhancer. Does that mean it was recreational? Who knows what they do and don’t test now. In any case, he appears ready to work at what Bert Blyleven loves to call “the major league level.”

When Perkins comes off the DL next week, the Twins will probably make room for Swarzak in the bullpen. Craig Breslow, a lefty, has been lost on the waiver wire, but he was replaced by recent callup Sean Henn as the southpaw companion to Jose Mijares. There is still plenty of room for someone like Swarzak to contribute.

Swarzak’s first game has a whole list of happy things for him to remember for the rest of his life. A win, scoreless innings, a happy crowd welcoming him to the bigs. No one knows how this game fits in with the rest of his career, but there’s no reason to dial down the hope yet.

I’m thinking about rookies tonight because the game began with a goodbye before this hello. Corey Koskie was honored after officially retiring this year. He left baseball far sooner than he wanted to, after a concussion kept him out for a season and his comeback finally sputtered.

Here’s Koskie, reminding me of the Twins of his era, and though it seems like it wasn’t long ago, none of his teammates remain. He played for the Twins from 1998 to 2004, and was part of the seismic shift that got the team back into contention.

I can recall the lineup around him from memory: AJ Pierzinski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Christian Guzman, Matt Lawton, David Oritz (you can look it up), and Shannon Stewart. I’m not sure I got the exact team from any given year, but the players are there in my memory. Nudged aside, one by one, by rookies.