Tag Archives: Brendan Harris

[ALDS game 2] Possibility

When you have to start bringing up the fact that baseball is only game, you’re probably about to apologize for something. And I suppose the Twins do need excuses, but right now I’m thinking about how one goes about watching a game like tonight’s.

Baseball is especially prone to little surprises, and anyone who’s enjoyed watching major leaguers knows that hope is always a reasonable emotion. We’re watching precisely because there is still no limit to the possibilities inside that well-designed diamond, or within the fences of each idiosyncratic ballpark.

Of the eight teams in the 2009 postseason, the Twins are given the least chance to move any closer to a World Series game. They are filler, really—a team for the Yankees to beat. But do not discount the crapshootical qualities of the postseason. It may take very little to lose a game, but it can also take only a lucky hit or two to win one.

So I tell myself as I watch them try to win their first game of the year against the New York Yankees. To make the project more painful, they held the lead in every game they played against New York this season, surrendering it as late as the eighth or ninth inning a few times. They scored the first run and had a (brief) lead in the first game of this playoff series, for that matter.

Though the teams only faced off seven times this year, the two series mattered. The Yankees count their May sweep of the Twins with turning their season around, and the Twins can mark their low point in July, when the Yankees stopped by the Metrodome to clobber them. Immediately after, the Twins picked themselves up with a 20-run onslaught against the White Sox, a lovely over-reaction to the damage the men in the real pinstripes did.

But it’s not possible that it’s actually impossible to beat the Yankees. Hell, the Twins might have been saving it all up for now. What’s so crazy about splitting the series in New York, and moving on to the Metrodome to capture, just maybe, enough home field advantage to win the ALDS?

To prove such a possibility, you’d have to play the first 8-1/2 innings pretty much just as they were played tonight. Nick Blackburn, probably underestimated by New York, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, or a run until the sixth. It was another A-Rod RBI, sending Derek Jeter in after a double got him on base. Not bad pitching, Mr Blackburn, particularly considering the one run scored merely tied the game.

The Twins scored first, and it’s fair to say no one saw it coming. AJ Burnett had been issuing walks or hits in every inning, but the Twins conducted nothing more than a simple sightseeing tour of the new Yankee Stadium by trotting out to the bags. Burnett shut down the hitter that mattered most each time.

In the sixth, with Delmon Young the latest beneficiary of a free pass, Carlos Gomez tied himself up in eager knots to strike out swinging, but Young made it to second on the contact play, credited with a stolen base.

With two outs, we now get the bad news that Matt Tolbert, never a powerful hitter but at least capable of some clutch-style hits in the Twins dogged campaign of the last three weeks, is out of the lineup. Brendan Harris replaces him, and my first thought is, playing the lefty/righty orientation against Burnett just doesn’t make much sense when your hitters have such gossamer batting averages. I’m unaware that Tolbert has strained his oblique muscle to scuh a degree that he’ll miss the rest of the playoffs . . . what little of them there may be.

In any event, here’s likeable, light-hitting Harris with two outs. Dream on if you consider this a scoring opportunity on a par with, say, Jeter on second and Rodriguez at bat.

But it must be remembered: to have made it to the major leagues at all, and to be standing here in October, your aptitudes are not nothing. Harris plucks himself a triple, swatting the ball to an unpatrolled space in deep center. Young scores, Twins lead, Harris claps dust off his hands as he stands up safe at third.

But our story is not fiction. In the bottom of the same inning, the Yankees administer the antidote, in perfect proportion—Jeter doubles, A-Rod scores him, tie game, harmony of the universe maintained.

But a backwards look must be permitted. In fact, this game is an especially burnished example of a sporting event that includes a “what if” in the telling. In the fourth, Young was on base, this time courtesy of Burnett’s veering fastball that clipped Young near the elbow. Carlos Gomez is up, with two outs, and his repertoire of ways to get on base in such a situation is limited. Fortunately, Burnett thought of one all on his own: hit two consecutive batters!

Here’s Matt Tolbert, and he delivers a single, just as he often did in the long race to bring the Twins to the postseason. Young is motoring hard for home and Gomez, without the most burnished baseball instincts, assumes the play will be at the plate. He skids a bit past second and stumbles on his way to third, then realizes these professional Yankee baseball players know where to throw the ball.

Gomez, stricken with guilt, starts clawing his way back to second, as if he might beat the ball, as if suddenly remembering he has a really important appointment at second.

I’ve played a little softball, enough to experience a tenth of a percent of game situations. I would surely have made the same mistake Gomez did. But baserunners groomed for the majors are supposed to know a simple and pretty infallible trick—turn for third and demand a rundown play, so your teammate can make it home before the last out of the inning is recorded. If the fielders insist on getting you out instead of tackling the lead runner, let them, and make them pay the one-run price. It’s a race, between the man heading home and the last out—and Gomez let them tag him before Young was home. Run lost.

This missing run would loom large throughout the game. Tied in the sixth, any Twins fan just wanted to affix an additional 1 up on that scoreboard. But in the eighth, it looked like we could finally forget about Gomez’s blunder. The Twins scored two, starting their attack with a Gomez walk and a Harris single.

It was Nick Punto who conducted another of his Scrappy Batter clinics, this time securing a single off reliever Phil Hughes. Even when the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera to quiet these rowdy, childish Twins, Denard Span got a base hit to score another run.

Now, was it OK to start feeling hopeful? Six outs remained, and Matt Guerrier quickly got three of them in the bottom of the eighth, facing down Jorge Posada, Jeter, and Johnny Damon. Is it reasonable to enjoy this moment, this place on the edge of victory?

It’s the bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, and Joe Nathan is up to send the Twins off to Metrodome for game 3 in a 1-1 series tie. That’s the objective, and Nathan is the perfect closer to do it. All I want is a low-stress version of the closing process. OK, Joe?

Nathan lets his first batter, Mark Teixeira, beat him. It’s a single, but it’s a gruesome scar. A-Rod’s up, and has been drinking the special elixir that eliminates all pressure from years of wilting in the postseason. No, A-Rod is going to be perfect from here on in, never again letting an RBI opportunity go to waste in October. He homers. The single most brutal attack upon a closer, and Rodriguez does it with a swift, elegant swing that leaves no doubt.

If there’s a crumb to be scraped up here it’s that Nathan finishes the inning with three straight outs to limit the damage to a tie. And as we go into extra innings, the lost run looms yet again.

The game ends in the eleventh, on the first batter of the inning. Mark Teixeira has the most intoxicating joy in all of sports, hitting a walkoff homer in Yankee Stadium. What compares with that?

I watched this game, feeling hope, watching the Twins strive and fail, and watching the Yankees face some legitimate competition. But as Teixeira’s blast sailed into the leftfield seats, hundreds of happy hands extended for it, I felt the pure and direct kick in the gut. Were the Yankees toying with us all this time? Was I a chump to dream?

Because a loss humiliates not the effort made but the ability to imagine something that in the end can’t be achieved. It mocks dreams.

It does, that is, if you let it. Because I am watching sports for one thing only, and it’s the amazement I feel when the greatest efforts are made, and what’s possible still lies ahead, possible. I’m watching for the rapture of possibility, and even the Yankees are not strong enough to take that away from me.

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[game 163] Tiebreaker

The Twins and the Tigers are so tied they need an extra game. And they tie that one as well, all the way to the twelfth inning. Throughout the game, one side or the other looked like it just about had things won, only to see the other team claw back. It was a closely fought and balanced a contest as baseball can deliver.

The Twins emptied their pockets and threw everything in. The game took all the players, from the bench and the starting lineup. Here’s what they did.

Alexi Casilla

After not starting in at least three weeks, he’s brought in as a pinch runner and ends up delivering the game-winning RBI in a sweet and simple single to right.

Nick Punto

With the bases loaded, snared a groundball from wily, troublesome Brandon Inge in the twelfth and threw home to force an out. Moments before, Inge ‘s uniform seemed to be grazed by a pitch that would have walked in a run, but the umpire didn’t make the call.

Justin Morneau

Having helped win at least 70 of the team’s 87 victories that made the tie possible, sat happily on the bench to cheer, and hugged Joe Mauer under a cascade of champagne in the clubhouse.

Scott Baker

Pitched six tense innings, with two strikeouts and two walks. Allowed an RBI single from Magglio Ordonez, followed by a world-deflating two-run homer in the third by Miguel Cabrera for the first runs of the game, but picked himself up and avoided a meltdown. Went back to allowing harmless fly ball outs for three more innings.

Denard Span

Singled in the third to advance Matt Tolbert, who would move on to third on a sac fly and then score the Twins’ first run on Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello’s throwing error.

Jason Kubel

Hit a solo homer in the sixth to bring the Twins to within one run, trailing 3-2.

Michael Cuddyer

Hit triple to open the tenth inning, right after the Tigers had gone ahead on an RBI double from wiry, pesky Brandon Inge. Cuddy’s hit was no rocket to leftfield, but he powered around the bases like a runaway train, launching the whole inning.

Brendan Harris

Drew a walk in the tenth following Cuddy’s triple. Merely avoiding an out counted at this stage of the game.

Matt Tolbert

In addition to scooting home on an error, hit an RBI single in the tenth to answer the Tiger run from the top half of the inning. It was only enough to knot things back into a tie, but it kept the game alive.

Joe Mauer

Hit a lonely double that left him stranded in the first inning and, admittedly, didn’t particularly rattle Porcello. Stood firm at the plate, eventually earning a walk, during Porcello’s errant pickoff throw that allowed Tolbert to zip home. Followed Cabrera’s homer in the seventh with a single, but didn’t ignite a further rally. In essence, drew attention away from the lightweight players; looked serene all game long.

Jon Rauch

Part of Ron Gardenhire’s quick-on-the-trigger relief approach to winning the game, got his two men out in relief of Baker in the seventh.

Jose Mijares

Kinda blew it. Brought in to face Curtis Granderson, who has nearly apocalyptic trouble hitting lefties this season, and permitted a single. Gardy switched over to Mijares after only two outs from Rauch, ready to empty his bullpen to keep the game in reach. At this time, Detroit led 3-2. Mijares had every stat working for him, but Granderson outfoxed him in a long at-bat.

Orlando Cabrera

With a two-run homer in the seventh, put the Twins ahead 4-3, their first lead of the game. His home run swing just about lifted him out of his shoes.

Matt Guerrier

Relieved Mijares and shut down the scoring threat in the seventh. Fresh from that triumph, started the eighth by allowing Ordonez to clobber a home run to tie the game all over again. Got one out, then walked two. The whipsaw from joy to sorrow in this inning was harrowing.

Joe Nathan

Summoned in the eighth, with one out and men on first and second, score tied. Ridiculously scary situation. Faced tattooed, deadly Brandon Inge, and got a pop out. Faced surprisingly productive Gerald Laird and struck him out. Went on to complete the ninth, with the tie intact.

Jesse Crain

Started the tenth, fully aware that he’s several notches below Nathan but that it was now very much his turn. Gave up an RBI double to surrender the lead to the Tigers. At rock bottom, saw Tolbert hit the single that scored Cuddyer and re-tied the game, then started the eleventh.

Ron Mahay

Brought in with the same assignment Mijares had—giving Granderson an intimidating lefty to face. Struck him out swinging.

Bobby Keppel

Obtained what would be the last four outs, earning credit for the win. Survived a stomach-churning top of the twelfth by dishing out a walk, single, and intentional walk, then facing gritty, dangerous Inge. Brushed Inge’s jersey with a pitch that the umpire did not register, then served up the infield single Punto would turn into a fielder’s choice out at the plate. Finished the inning with a strikeout of Laird. Would have mopped brow but for bald head.

Carlos Gomez

Stayed patient enough to single, leading off the twelfth inning; was careful enough not to try a steal against Gerald Laird, instead advancing to second on Cuddyer’s groundout; ran fast enough to score on Casilla’s single; slid crazily enough across home plate to make a highlight reel.

Jose Morales

Struck out twice. And you know what? We forgive him!

Delmon Young

Made outs. But received an intentional walk in the twelfth to bring up Casilla, who would hit the game-winning RBI. So you know what? We’re happy Young was in the game!

Mike Redmond

Circled the field with the rest of the team after the win, wearing one of the instantly provided Central Division Champions T-shirts and hats that Major League Baseball wants everyone to buy. (The Tigers’ versions will be sent to a relatively impoverished nation with low baseball savvy and limited opportunities for Americans to encounter the patently false sartorial claims.)

Brian Duensing

Looked adorable drenched in champagne, and without, for now, a care in the world about starting against the Yankees tomorrow in New York.

[games 131, 132] Cheered

I am cheered by the Twins. Which is, after all, the point. But we do tend to overcomplicate our sports—every failure, and even every success, generates oceans of criticism.

But tonight, I am cheered by the Twins. Though they still hover near .500, they’ve actually made a radical turnaround. They were 4-9 in the first half of August, but 10-5 in the last two weeks. It’s a gruesome way to go 14-14, with a losing spell that seemed never to end and a winning phase that could do no more than counterbalance the losses.

But that winning arc isn’t over. The Twins might be climbing somewhere.

In the last two weeks, they swept Kansas City and won series against Baltimore and Texas. They started a three-game series with Chicago last night and won by using the full complement of baseball aptitudes.

There was good pitching from Nick Blackburn, solid relief pitching, and a tidy save by Joe Nathan. A little power hitting, plus your basic base hits. And solid fielding throughout the game, much in contrast to some blunders by the White Sox.

Tonight, Jeff Manship made his first major league start, and it was a pleasant surprise. Ron Gardenhire has been patching a leaking pitching boat all season, with injuries and ineffectiveness creating constant turmoil in the rotation. Manship went five solid innings and allowed one run and four hits.

But what I’m really cheering about is the pattern of the game. It was scoreless through four, and neither team seemed to have the upper hand.

The White Sox scored first, but the Twins had a ready reply in the bottom of the same inning. Alexi Ramirez homered off Manship in the fifth, and then Michael Cuddyer duplicated the feat against Sox starter John Danks. If you can break my pitcher’s shutout, I can break yours.

The Twins added another run in the sixth, and a third in the seventh, on Cuddyer’s second homer of the evening. A 3-1 lead is a wobbly little thing, but with only six outs to go and Nathan in the bullpen, it didn’t seem too frail to get us home safe.

The test of the team is what it does when discouragements arise. In fact, I think that’s why we watch sports in the first place, simply to see a template for facing adversity. Tonight, we got our object lesson in the eighth inning.

Jose Mijares, normally a very effective bridge to Nathan, has lately had a knack for settling down very slowly when he starts an inning. As in, walking the first man he faces. It’s a jam I’ve watched him get out of many times, but tonight, to protect our second place position in the division against the Sox, Gardy pulled Mijares after the four-pitch walk to Scott Podsednik.

Matt Guerrier was brought in to face Gordon Beckham. Guerrier wasn’t going to get any time to settle down either, for Beckham sent the first pitch he saw rocketing over the leftfield wall.

All air seemed to leave the Metrodome. It may have been an oddity of the position of microphones, but I kept hearing the low hum of the ventilation system, suddenly louder, and sadder, than the fans. The game was tied, and there were no outs.

The rest of the inning had some ugly moments, though they won’t amount to anything in the box score. Guerrier got his three outs, but not before throwing two wild pitches. Joe Mauer failed to scoop up one of them, and AJ Pierzynski beat his throw to first after swinging at strike three. Briefly, the Twins looked shaken, and unraveled.

The Metrodome’s horrid ventilators were heaving the air in and out while the Twins struggled to retire the White Sox. But against the last batter, when Guerrier had gotten two strikes on Carlos Quentin, I heard cheers start up. The fans felt like rallying, and made their hopes known. And indeed, it was strike three to end the inning,

The Twins couldn’t solve the problem in their half of the eighth, but they put together a thoroughly exciting ninth inning. Jason Kubel led off with a single against reliever Matt Thornton. Gardy, looking for every advantage, installed Nick Punto to do the remaining running for Kubel.

Ozzie Guillen wasn’t about to be outmanaged by Gardenhire if he could help it. He headed to the mound to pull Thornton, and brought in Tony A. Pena, a reliever I’d never seen before.

With none out, Cuddyer is up and no one is surprised to see he doesn’t have a third homer in him. He flied out. Now Brendan Harris is up. I may be overgenerous about him, but I know I’ve seen him collect a bigger than average share of small clutch hits.

And tonight is no exception. He singles, and Punto stands at third, aching to reach home and win the game.

A sacrifice fly will do it now, but Carlos Gomez cannot put together the swing for it. He strikes out, and the weight of the tie starts to settle heavily on everyone in the stadium.

Gardy has one last out, and one last plan. He wants a pinch hitter for Alexi Casilla, and calls on Jose Morales. Morales has only recently been called back up. He’s the backup catcher to the backup catcher, but has shown quite a penchant for pinch hitting. It’s time to try him again.

Morales nailed the second pitch, hitting a hard liner to center. Punto’s home and the Twins win.

It’s cheering, in every respect. The team mobs Morales and exults. We’re beating our closest pursuer, and we’re doing it despite the obstacles that arise. The team is drawing on the young, the inexperienced, and the largely overlooked, but getting solid work from them. And somehow, there’s a belief that those 3-1/2 games between us and the Tigers. . . well, that’s not Everest, now is it?

[game 130] Contending

The winner of Sunday’s final game in the series between the Twins and the Rangers will consider it consolation for a tough loss, for both teams have had one of those. The Twins scraped a victory on Friday, 3-2, while the Rangers won 3-0 yesterday. The shutout was brutal, of course, but it wasn’t as if the Rangers were feasting on Twins pitching either—two runs were assembled in a minor outburst in the first inning, with a solo homer in the ninth to complete the bookend.

So the game today must really decide the series. And it’s not so much which of these two teams has the better rotation, bullpen, or batting order. No, the real question is which one is ready to contend for postseason play.

The Rangers are trying to catch the Red Sox for the AL wild card. At 2-1/2 games back as of today, the dream is very real. They must also shake off the pesky Rays, two games behind them but perhaps looking winded—they just gave up Scott Kazmir to the Angels at the trading deadline, which looks like a surrender flag to me.

The Twins have no real hope of the wild card, but the Central division crown is within reach, thanks, largely to Detroit’s failure to fortify themselves in the top spot. The Twins have edged ahead of the White Sox for second place, but that’s still a full 4-1/2 games back.

Both the Twins and the Rangers have been showing off their pitching in this series, including the Twins’ newly-appointed bullpen. Considering the collective hitting prowess of these two teams, not to mention the presence of baseball’s current batting champ, hits and runs have been eerily scarce.

On Sunday, Scott Baker started for the Twins, and had two sharp innings, only to fall into his typical pit in the third inning. The recipe for trouble with Baker is: lots of pitches, including a steady, dreary rain of foul balls, plus two or three hits strung together for a run. It never looks like bad pitching until it’s over.

Baker was only touched for one run this time, on an RBI single from Elvis Andrus following a double from Ivan Rodriguez. If you ever want to remind yourself how thin the line between losing and winning can be, dissect a Scott Baker inning. Rodriguez’s hit came on a pretty good pitch, and though I didn’t see what Andrus hit, I doubt it was a howler of a mistake. Yet the Rangers were on the scoreboard first.

Baker bounced back with a quick 1-2-3 fourth inning, while the Twins collected isolated hits and walks for three innings, but couldn’t push anyone all the way around the merry-go-round.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Twins punch through the tissue paper between success and failure. They start the inning with a Justin Morneau double followed by a beefy Jason Kubel home run to right. Lead reversed on a single pitch, and the Twins were up 2-1.

Kevin Millwood, starting for the Rangers, has the nutty career distinction of never having beaten Minnesota. When Kubel rapped that homer, he may have realized he wasn’t going to complete that quest in the Metrodome itself. He will have to take the project on to Target Field next year.

Before the inning ended, Mike Redmond, typically the Twins Sunday catcher, hit a sharp line drive that rattled up to the base of the wall, giving the slow-footed Redmond more than enough time to collect a triple. He was exulting on third base while the cameras caught a dancing Carlos Gomez and a laughing Ron Gardenhire in a dugout that was celebrating Redmond’s three-bagger.

No, Redmond never scored and the triple isn’t significant, but the little sense of joy I saw there reminded me that playoff teams operate on fun as well as skill. The Twins were enjoying themselves today, close game or not.

Baker followed with a 1-2-3 fifth and an easy sixth to show the Rangers he can confine his woes to single innings, and single runs.

However, he had one more bad inning, and again, it was barely bad but it was bad enough to make a difference. A two-run homer from Nelson Cruz put the Rangers back on top, 3-2.

Time for another test of the potentially contending team. The Rangers passed theirs by snatching back the lead, and the Twins had a golden chance in the seventh, against reliever Jason Grilli. With one out, Denard Span doubled and Alexi Casilla followed with a hard-earned walk. That brings Joe Mauer to the plate.

Screenwriters must flinch when trying to write the story of a baseball game. I mean, how realistic is it to put your star player in the batter’s box with the game on the line? But it’s precisely what we have this afternoon, even if Mauer’s bat doesn’t have a lightning scar on it.

You could write us into this spot, but reality intrudes. Mauer’s arcing hit to center was gathered up by Marlon Byrd, who hustled hard to scoop it. Denard Span left second, all too certain of a hit, and became the final out by running as if there were already two outs. Opportunity lost.

Morneau led off the eighth with a walk against new reliever CJ Wilson. Kubel followed with a single, and Gardenhire sent Gomez in to run for the slow, stocky Kubel.

With no outs and two on and the game likely on the line, the Twins got another test of whether they want to contend. CJ Wilson struck out Michael Cuddyer to rebalance the inning in the Rangers’ favor. But they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Brendan Harris hit a grounder that shot through the infield, allowing Morneau to score the tying run. Cruz’ throw from the outfield went wide of the plate and allowed Gomez to advance to third and Harris to second.

On an infield chopper to Hank Blalock at first, Gomez took off for home. It was gutsy, but he had a good lead and beat the slightly offline throw. Now up 4-3, the Twins still have only one out and men on first and third.

Little Nicky Punto, master of the squeeze bunt, brought in Harris and was safe at first. Harris crossed home before Rodriguez could get a handle on the ball, and then Rodriguez’s throw to first was well behind the speedy Punto.

With two little infield hits—no power, only strategy—the Twins climb up 5-3. They used the talent they had and made it work. Sometimes being a contending team means admitting your shortcomings and making a virtue of them.

Joe Nathan always seems to find new ways to add excitement to the closer’s job. Here to preserve a two-run lead, he walked Hank Blaclock after starting him 0-2.

Nathan hunts around in his repertoire to find a double play ball to pitch to Cruz. He almost found it, too, but Cruz hit a lucky liner to left to put men on first and second. The ball poked through the left side of the infield, and suddenly Nathan looked terribly vulnerable.

Rodriguez took a swinging strike, then knocked the next pitch lazily straight to Nathan. This is the double play, no doubt about it. But Nathan seems to overplay it, rebalancing his feet and throwing flat and slightly wide to second. The ball bounced past the infielder and everyone was safe.

Bases loaded. Baseball never requires much math, and we’ve been answering one question all inning: where’s the tying run? At the plate, on first, on second. Far too close for comfort.

Who knows how Nathan survives these dramas. His shakes his head and exhales mightily, and I end up mimicking him from the couch. What other gesture is possible while watching someone move through a minefield?

Now Nathan settles down to collect his three necessary outs: strike out, fly out, groundout. Twins win.

Nothing I saw this weekend counts the Rangers out on their journey toward the postseason. But the main thing I saw was a sense of resolve, and a sense of fun, on the part of the Twins.

Yes, contending rhymes with pretending, making for some pretty catchy and sometimes superficial classifications. I know as well as anyone that the Twins have an extremely questionable starting rotation. And I know it’s important to start distancing yourself from your team about now, lest they break your heart. But the Twins have more than simple possibility on their side. They have Mike Redmond, playing once a week, hustling out that happy triple. That’s contending.

[game 124] Offense & Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[game 123] Floating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the game got interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[game 102] Sweep

The trading deadline is two days away, and the Twins will not be solving their infield problems by acquiring Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates. That’s certain now, as the Giants have snapped him up. Other than some call-ups from the minors, we are finishing the season with Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Alexi Casilla.

It’s now officially fashionable to write the Twins off, precisely because of those six hitting lightweights. My theory is that any one or two of them would be fine on a major league roster, but all six become a collective liability.

Now, don’t look to a daily account for trend detection, but I’ve seen this motley group contribute to all of the recent wins, including tonight’s 3-2 squeaker that sweeps the White Sox. Maybe we can return to snapping, scarpping piranha glory again.

 

Alexi Casilla had two RBIs, with smooth leadoff hitter Denard Span collecting the other. The runs were all scored by the bottom of the order: Crede, Gomez, and Punto.

Add to this a bullpen that held the Sox scoreless for four innings, and an emergency start from rookie Brian Duensing, who acquitted himself well for five innings, and you have a team using all its bits and parts to stay in contention.

Duensing has been seen lately in middle relief, but tonight he was tapped to start when Francisco Liriano was pronounced in need of rest. After two serene innings, Duensing allowed a homer to Jayson Nix. In the fifth, Carlos Quentin likelwise lead off with a homer, but that was all the damage done. During the three-game series, Chicago has only been able to score on the long ball.

Jose Contreras started for the Sox, and pitched in his typical slow, lumbering manner. The Twins tapped out some hits, but had trouble putting much scoring together. But in the second, Gomez singled and Punto walked. With one out, Casilla hit an RBI double, and Span followed with a groundout that scored Punto.

At last we’re around to the mighty section of the batting order, but all Joe Mauer can do is walk. Justin Morneau doesn’t top it all off, but strikes out. It’s the bottom of the order that do the job.

The Sox hit their two solo homers to tie it, and this game looks like it’s stuck in the same mud of the close Chicago-Minnesota playoff last season. We’re seeing a combination of pretty good—but not great—pitching and pretty poor—but not awful—hitting.

Both teams want the win fiercely. With it, the Twins can sweep the series and break out of a tie for second place in the division with the Sox. Chicago wants to avoid the sweep and not surrender the position they’ve held over the Twins for most of the season.

Tense and slow it goes, particularly when Contreras makes his languid, hypnotic throws. In the sixth, Crede leads off with a walk and Gomez executes a tidy sac bunt to advance him. Punto flies out, but Casilla raps a liner through to center to score Crede. Tie broken, slender advantage achieved.

This is not a comfortable lead, and Joe Nathan does not have a quiet ninth. Gordon Beckham leads off with a single, and the game seems ready to tilt toward the Sox.

Nathan is heading into a tough part of the order, but he grits his teeth and puffs out his cheeks to strike out Jermaine Dye. Ever so delicately, the balance leans a little Twins-ward.

But Paul Konerko won’t play along with any of that swinging at strikes business. He works a walk, and the tying run is now on second. This is what they mean by a save opportunity, because it’s just as much a loss opportunity. Ozzie Guillen brings in Dewayne Wise to run for Beckham.

Chris Getz strikes out swinging, but Mauer can’t corral the wild pitch that fooled Getz so. The runners advance.

The runners loom. It’s up to Mark Kotsay with two outs, and Nathan summons his closer’s chutzpah and throws one pitch. Kotsay bites and flies out. The sweep is complete.