Who knows if momentum matters. Who knows if it’s real. And who knows if it will last long enough to be waiting for the Twins when they return from the All-Star break. But the Twins end with a win against the White Sox and get to peek just above that big wall labeled .500.
Scott Baker started for the Twins, and he seemed to have shrugged off his last loss. He was pitching with a brisker pace and more command, and the White Sox paid for it.
While Baker held up his end, the Twins pounded on Mark Buehrle. The distinctive point was who did the pounding. Denard Span and Brendan Harris both had excellent games, with three RBI apiece, but the standout was Carlos Gomez.
Gomez was last seen tugging his batting average upwards to .220. Perhaps he’s on a steady climb, or perhaps the Sox bring out the best in him. In any case, he hit a three-run homer in the second inning to give the Twins a 5-0 lead. And he wasn’t done—he also had a double and a two-run single. Add the snappy shoestring catch and a couple good throws from center, and you can salute the player of the game. His average is now up to .235.
The Twins gave Buehrle trouble, and he had uncharacteristic struggles. He’s one of those fast-working pitchers who likes to get a little conveyor belt of outs going. But the Twins never let him settle in.
The first batter he faced set the tone. Denard Span worked the count a while and then tried to bunt himself on base. The bunt was rolling in that no-man’s-land along the first base line. Buehrle charged it in case it would be plainly fair, then realized it would roll foul. Buehrle had to make an acrobatic step or two to avoid touching the ball, but the big man pulled it off.
It looked like Span had been well and truly outfoxed. But on the next pitch, Span shifted from first gear to overdrive and parked a homer in right. There would be no luck for Buehrle the rest of the outing, and he left after one out in the fourth, with the Twins up 8-1.
In the sixth, Baker showed some of that troubling inability to finish hitters and innings off. With two outs, he walked Alexei Ramirez, then gave up a single to Jermaine Dye.
That brings Jim Thome to the plate. Thome is a true professional hitter,looking for his pitch, knowing what he’s paid to do with it. Baker can’t trick him, Baker can’t dodge him, and finally, Baker can’t beat him. Thome hits a three-run homer to re-energize the Sox. They’re still behind by four runs, but that big Twins lead has quickly wilted away.
The Sox score another run in the seventh, off Jose Mijares in relief, and I pause to wonder if the tide is turning for good. But in the bottom of the seventh, the entire Twins lineup comes to the plate, and five more runs are up on the board.
That’s the way to re-deflate the White Sox—get 13 runs on the board. But Chicago stays scrappy, and musters a single run in both the eighth and ninth. These are meaningless to the outcome, but self-respect counts when going into the All-Star vacation. The final score is 13-7, and the Twins take the series 2-1.
The All-Star break may actually hold some peril for the Twins. Beloved Joe Mauer is entitled to the same ebb and flow as any baseball player, but I don’t think I’m the only fan wracked with worry at the pattern discernable in Mauer’s last several games.
He’s been grounding out to second, or flying out well short of the left field wall that was his home to his homers in May and June. The delightful burst of power he brought when starting his season in May is trickling away. We can live without it, but what does it mean to get that power swing going and then to lose it?
Of further concern, Mauer is not rapping out the singles and doubles that are his stock in trade. This afternoon, he did the unthinkable—struck out four times.
Mauer is a collected young man, capable of disregarding the slings and arrows of baseball fortune. He can have slumps and rise again. But I confess to concern as he has several lousy days at the plate and then marches off to participate in the freak show that is the current incarnation of the Home Run Derby.
This hitting display used to be a fairly low-key competition between the American and National Leagues. Now, as Fox likes to say, This time it counts. As in, this time it puts individual hitters under an idiotic blend of pressure and self-aggrandizement.
Remember Bobby Abreu? He won the contest, handily, and then spent the rest of the season in the greatest power drought of his career.
Everyone is watching, and they’re watching for only one thing—more homers! Further! Deeper! Faster! No matter how sweet the tosses, no hitter can keep launching blast after blast. And any hitter will feel pressure to swing at everything, even balls that couldn’t be turned into home runs by Barry Bonds at his most juiced.
So I stand concerned about Mauer getting himself into this stinking contest. Notably, Justin Morneau, last year’s winner, declined to make a second showing. I hope Mauer stays mellow, falls out in the first round, and enjoys his All-Star start. And then comes back having forgotten the last week of regular season play. Conserve yourself, Joe, for a fresh start for the second half.