Tag Archives: Scott Baker

[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.

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[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 106] Starting Over

In baseball, you start over. Fresh batter, fresh inning, fresh game, fresh series—but they’re only as good as your ability to ignore the past. The Twins started their series against the Indians with a brisk and certain win, step one in forgetting all the hits the Angels rained down last weekend.

Scott Baker pitched seven serene innings, and allowed only three hits, no runs. From time to time, he teetered in that area he can grind himself into: pitch after pitch just good enough to foul off, just bad enough not to lead to an out. But tonight he seemed to shake himself out of the serious dangers in this little pit.

Or maybe it was the Indians’ batters obliging. They saw Baker well enough to work the count along, and to send some impressive fly balls to the warning track. But they only once had two hits in a row against him, and Baker spent the game building a solid fortress for the Twins.

Which the Twins hitters used to good effect. Jason Kubel hit a solo homer in the second, but the team wasn’t going to let Indians starter David Huff off that easy. Huff still seems to be an experimental model of a starting pitcher, and the Twins had more damage to do. Delmon Young hit a clean two-out single and advanced to second on a wild pitch with Carlos Gomez at the plate.

Gomez has been starting in center every day for the past week or more. It appears Ron Gardenhire has gritted his teeth and decided to indoctrinate the young man into the great truths of baseball by playing him every day. A clubhouse report said that he told Gomez if he missed the cutoff man one more time, Gardy would find another player who wouldn’t. Perhaps they’ve aired it all out—well, let the healing begin.

In any case, Gomez is at the plate with two out. If such a distinction is possible, Gomez has seemed to me to be an impulsive hitter, waiting on a pitch and, if not finding it, swinging as if he had. His swing has a rather mighty architecture given his small size. As Rick Manning, the Indians commentator noted tonight, “He’s got such a big swing and with, you know, just the two homers on the season, you’d think it would sink in.”

Alas, the long project of reining in Carlos Gomez continues apace. He makes crazy throws and tries crazy swings, but somewhere in there is a player with speed and enough contact hitting to create a nice career. If only Gomez would learn to start over.

 

Two outs, full count, pitcher ready to get to that dugout after giving up only a single run, and Gomez delights us—stuns us—with a sweet single dumped into center, just dribbling enough to score Young and give the Twins a 2-0 lead.

Baker kept the Indians off the scoreboard while the Twins set to re-enacting some of the Angels’ “frenzying.” In the fifth, the inning began with a walk, a double, a double, and a single. Three more runs in, and just when it looked like reliever Jensen Lewis would settle the Twins down, Gomez thwacked a three-run homer to give the Twins a towering 9-0 lead. Take that, Rick Manning!

Actually, it looked more as if Gomez might be taking heed of the problem Manning diagnosed. His swing did look a bit shorter and simpler tonight, as if he was going to rely on his hands and his bat speed instead of not-so-bulging biceps. The home run was a neat little triumph, but channeling what he did with his earlier single is a better path for the rest of the season.

It appears playing every day is a good prescription for Gomez. Or perhaps the amazing novelty of major league baseball is finally wearing off for this exuberant player. In addition to going 3 for 4 with four RBI, he made a glorious, run-saving catch. With two outs in the fourth, Jhonny Peralta singled and Travis Hafner followed with a double. Baker was finally in a genuine jam. Rookie Chris Gimenez, the catcher striving to make up for the trade of Victor Martinez, hit a monster shot to center. Gomez leapt and plucked it from the air at the wall, preserving Baker’s scoreless game.

The Indians would eventually get a run. In the ninth, against reliever Bobby Keppel, Travis Hafner hit an RBI single, but I’m not sure the Twins technically noticed. Final score: 10-1.

Baseball allows you to read too much into any one little event. Tonight the Twins looked fresh, vigorous, and ready to contend for the Central. But we also got some bad news. Kevin Slowey is out for the season, having surgery on a bone chip in his wrist.

We’ll need to do a lot more starting over to climb over that .500 wall and make some inroads in the division, but you can’t want a better first step than what the team did tonight.

[game 89] Ending on an Up

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.

[game 79] Slow, Tough, Long

For all 20 players, four umpires, two bullpens, coaches, managers, and 19,310 fans, tonight’s game between the Royals and Twins was not so much a game as an arduous siege. The game took 3 hours and 17 minutes, and, of all symmetries, 317 pitches were thrown.

The score, the payoff of all that pitching? 2-1, Twins.

The Twins won this glacial contest by means of two simple plays, mixed in with a long evening of suffering. Justin Morneau hit a solo homer in the fourth in a little isolated moment of excellence. The ball splashed in the pretty Kaufman Stadium fountain, and Morneau trotted home. It looked just like baseball, baseball you’d love to play.

But around it, mostly darkness. That homer tied the game, after KC went ahead swiftly in the first inning by nudging a runner home on a double and a single with two out. The Twins went ahead in the sixth when the Royals botched a double play and an unearned run scored.

Now, this game was not badly player, you understand. There was but the one error between both clubs. It was actually played very well, with each side holding the other in check. It was a game that seemed to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that offense and defense in baseball are perfectly matched.

The essence of the game was the foul ball. Scott Baker threw 111 pitches in just five innings, and a large proportion of them became crowd souvenirs. It seemed that every hitter managed to get into a 3-2 count against Baker. It was eerie, as if time had stopped again and again. Each at bat was frozen into permanence, only to be succeeded by another laborious one.

Baker didn’t make many mistakes, but he never had an easy time of it. He gave up five hits, two in the first inning and three clustered in the fourth. Getting out of that inning was an ordeal. It took 28 pitches, and with the bases full, Baker ended it by facing Tony Pena.

Here’s the sequence: foul, strike looking, ball, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, strikeout on foul tip.

Gruesome, really, for both players. Baseball looked so hard tonight I don’t know why anyone would want to play it. The Twins batters pecked out a total of 8 hits, including Morneau’s shining blast and a stack of isolated singles. The Royals also managed 8 hits.

But neither pitcher was especially overwhelming. Brian Bannister started for KC and went seven innings. His highlight is a collection of six strikeouts, and the Twins did a lot of flailing as they struck out swinging. Bannister’s stuff wasn’t otherworldly, but the Twins couldn’t read him well at all.

Baker ended up with the win, but his high pitch count after five innings made it look like one of his weaker outings. He left with the game tied, but the Twins took advantage of Mike Jacobs’ errant throw that should have started a double play but instead allowed a run to score. Baker was in the dugout, sudden recipient of a lead.

To keep the Royals at bay, the Twins brought in Bobby Keppel for his second relief appearance. He earned a hold by facing nine batters, striking out three, walking one, and giving up a double to Mark Teahen. Where Baker had pitched through foul after foul, Keppel’s counts were brisker, and from these first two appearances, I’m hopeful he can be productive in the bullpen.

Everything was hard tonight. A 1-2-3 inning was hard. A foul popup was hard to catch, with some wind swirling in the ballpark. And an umpire was hard to impress. Denard Span ran down a fly ball and scooped it in a diving catch. He rolled over and help up his snow cone glove, only to have the ump rule the ball trapped. Span came back to life and made the throw to keep the runner from advancing further. Replays aren’t absolutely definitive on this one, but it looks like Span made the catch.

The play of the game might have been Brendan Harris’ diving grab in the sixth. With two out and two on, Jose Guillen punched the ball hard to short, but Harris laid out to snare it and then fed the ball from his probe position to Nick Punto, who tagged out the runner from first to end the inning. The Royals never scored after the first inning, thanks to Baker’s work in the fourth and Harris’ nab in the sixth.

Joe Nathan’s save was not his most nail-biting, but like everything tonight, it was a grind. He struck out the first two batters, but once again you felt the balance was poised equally between pitcher and hitter. David DeJesus, who started the game with a double and ended up scoring KC’s only run, was the final hitter. Nathan gets a called strike, and then DeJesus is prepared to end the long, grueling contest. He grounds out to first.

The pace of the game was slow, with hitters stuck in full counts and fielders waiting, waiting, and waiting. The foul ball is like the filibuster, and it felt like everyone on the field just wanted that 60-40 margin to rise up and do away with it. But batter and pitcher remained in evenly matched duels.

There was little excitement and euphoria in this game, but it was worth watching for another reason. The game was a long (too long, really) demonstration of how hard baseball is (too hard, really). If you were trying to get an alien interested in the sport, this would not be the first game you’d want him to see. Nor maybe even the two hundreth.

But watching Baker suffer through it gave me an appreciation of how hard a pitcher works to execute each and every pitch. Ron Gardenhire reported that Baker said in the dugout, “I was making just a bad enough pitch for them to foul it off or just a good enough pitch not to make them out.” Exactly.

The Twins end June 40-39, four game back of surging Detroit and tied with Chicago. Splitting wins and losses so closely makes you ask, at the end of a long game like tonight’s, if there’s a point to baseball after all. But the point is that something difficult is worth trying even if the best you can do is reveal how difficult it is.

[game 70] The Rundown

Carlos Gomez dodged two bullets tonight. In a fictional baseball universe, his good fortune would have made all the difference, but the Twins lost to the Astros, 6-5.

There is only so much Gomez can do at the plate, but wiggling out of trouble is one of his strong suits. With two strikes on him, he checks his swing on a pitch high and tight from Brian Moehler. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez is so confident that the ball has been tipped before he caught it that he tosses it down to third base. The umpire neither heard nor saw said tip and signals the at-bat to continue.

Much gesturing and indignation from Pudge, and then the obligatory flak-catching visit from manager Cecil Cooper. Coop is thrown out after a lengthy but rather tasteful argument. The Astros’ gestures all hint that the foul tip was audible. We get to watch replays, but the combination of pitch speed and ambiguous three-dimensional planes of bat and ball are entirely inconclusive. Future baseball audiences will doubtless have a sophisticated matrix vision apparatus that allows certainty on such points; for now, no one knows.

But the umpire has the last word, and that word leaves Gomez in the batter’s box. Well, it would be one thing if the call just prolonged the at-bat, but Gomez hangs tough and wheedles a walk out of Moehler. He’s on first with one out.

A threat to steal, Gomez attracts way too much attention from the Astros. They try a pickoff and a pitchout, but Carlos is serenely stationed near first. A few pitches to Nick Punto, and then another pickoff try. This one catches Gomez leaning very much the wrong way.

He has no choice but to try to scamper on to second, and you get the feeling that Gomez, even when trapped in the iron grip of a rundown, doesn’t really believe his feet will let him down. Why not just keep running and hope for the best? It’s been his game plan all his career, really.

And it’s a solid game plan for a cheerful, enthusiastic, occasionally witless ballplayer like Gomez. First baseman Lance Berkman falls in love with brandishing the baseball high in his hand, crowding Gomez harder and harder. Miguel Tejada, covering the second base bag is waiting for the exchange, but Berkman holds onto his Zeus-with-thunderbolt act too long. Gomez crow hops his way closer and closer to second and finally dives for the bag.

He beats the toss and tag. Safe.

So far, from the Astros’ point of view, he’s been out at the plate and out in a rundown, but he’s standing on second base. A rundown is the fiercest baseball ever gets. It’s the walls closing in, the inevitability of doom. The runner is helpless yet must persist in the drama as long as he can. In case, as we just saw, he can keep alive long enough to squeak all the way out of trouble.

I’m with Gomez: Baseball is so much fun.

Our attention returns to Punto at the plate. He has been hitting much better lately, but the sacrifice remains his best play. He grounds out to first, but puts everything he has into a face-first slide to try to beat out the throw. He almost makes it, and he does advance Gomez to third as consolation. His all-in bellyflop slide costs him some rib bruises, and he leaves the game after this inning.

With two outs, Gomez can’t get home on a squeeze, like the pretty one the Twins used last night. Brendan Harris is up, and he’s been having a sweet day. He led off the game with a home run, and then thwacked a nice double. I’m ready for another Twin to hit for the cycle, or at least for Harris to go 3 for 3.

We are, for the record, in the fifth inning and ahead by the skinny score of 2-1. In addition to Harris’ homer, Delmon Young has uncorked a solo blast. The Astros notched their run on an RBI double from Pudge that scored the speedy, tightly wound Hunter Pence all the way from first.

In other words, runs are needed. This is no time to let Gomez’s escape act go to waste. But while baseball allows many possibilities, it does hew back to probabilities. Harris strikes out and the inning is over.

Later, the Twins manage to pick up a run in the sixth on a solo homer from Mauer that moves his hitting streak to 12 games and gives him a career-best 14 home runs.

But in the seventh, Scott Baker’s beautiful game is shattered. He has scattered a few hits but kept the Astros firmly in check until Hunter Pence gets his second hit and it’s immediately followed by another from Rodriguez that scores Pence. As we’ve seen before, when Baker allows the hits to accumulate, he tends to lose his way.

Tonight Ron Gardenhire has a quick hook, pulling Baker immediately. He leaves still one run ahead, but with the tying run on first.

Sean Henn, in relief, fails to solve the problem. He allows a double to the first batter he faces, and Pudge scores to turn Baker’s strong outing into a no-decision. Then Henn gives up a home run to Michael Bourn and the Astros pull ahead.

And stay ahead. Berkman adds a solo homer in the eighth. The Twins almost answer back in the bottom of the frame. Jason Kubel homers with Mauer on base to bring the Twins within one run. Then there are two quick outs in the ninth before the we get one last chance.

Jose Morales, backup catcher and decent hitter, is brought in to pinch hit for Carlos Gomez. Now, I know what you’re thinking: leave him in—Gomez is Mr Lucky tonight. Perhaps, but I think it was enough for Morales to figuratively rub his head on the way to the batter’s box, because he ends a prolonged at-bat with a sharply hit double.

Our next pinch hitter is Joe Crede, perfectly capable of the walk-off winning home run. Also capable of the stately, solid single that could keep things going. Alas, Crede inspects two balls without nibbling then tries to do it all in one swing. He flies out to deep right.

For a moment, of course, it all seemed possible. The comeback win, the annihilating walkoff homer, the punctuation mark. But baseball includes possibilities while hewing to probabilities.

[games 59, 60] Nearly Blowing a Blow Out

I’ve spent two nights watching the Twins play the As on west coast hours. Last night we lost, so I slumped off to bed with that loss in my teeth. What can you say about a 4-3 loss that featured little chances to win in the eighth and ninth that were both squandered? I didn’t want to write about it.

It wasn’t easy in Seattle, and now the losing-on-the-road motif starts to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Twins have won exactly seven games away from the Metrodome. There is a team that’s worse: the Nationals, who have won six. But any time you’re neck and neck with the Nats, you’re in trouble.

Right now I’m listening to the radio to finish the game. I left the TV version with everything gloriously in hand—a 10-0 lead, Scott Baker starting the ninth to attempt his first complete game shutout of the season.

He had pitched a two-hitter for most of the night, but didn’t quite get the complete game. Didn’t quite, because even with a 10-0 lead, the Twins can and will have trouble on the road.

The surest of things starts to unravel a bit. Baker leaves with the bases loaded, after two hits and a walk. Jesse Crain can’t clean things up. He lets three score on a single, a walk, and an error. A 10-0 cakewalk has become way too scary.

Jose Mijares, in to pitch against lefty Jason Giambi, dispatches him then walks two, each time pushing over a run. The A’s fans are eating this up, after a night of watching their team get clobbered. In fact, with a score of 10-5, they are now seriously considering the wubba-wubba power of the their current seven-game winning streak. Why should it end?

When you enter the ninth inning up by ten runs, your ace closer is not limbering up. But with the Twins able to secure only a single out wedged in among walks, errors, and slap singles, it’s time to call Joe Nathan in.

The bases are loaded, and under classic closer management principles, Nathan should be nowhere near the diamond. Closers only appear at the start of innings. This has always struck me as a contradictory assessment of the closer’s mentality. He’s supposed to be your man of steel, able to make his pitches when the game is on the line. Yet he’s going to be rattled if he inherits men on base or doesn’t get to start the inning from the top? If he’s closing, he’s already inheriting some kind of mess because the run tally isn’t exactly secure. I say Nathan and others of his breed can handle it.

And indeed Nathan does. He strikes out the two batters he faces to preserve the victory. It’s not a save situation, as the tying run is at best on deck, but it is a nerve-wracking one as the Twins have watched the waves beating down their sand castle. Nathan preserves it and Baker can keep the win, but he loses his shutout and complete game.

The Twins break the A’s seven-game winning streak and start their own. We have two more games in Oakland, then an interleague interlude in Chicago, facing the Cubs instead of the White Sox. We’re now 28-31, and we need these road wins.

Tonight’s victory was not snatched away at the last moment, so I can be a bit gracious in contemplating it. Baseball contains these kind of wild swings, teams scoring two runs one night and ten the next. Teams coming back from fantastic deficits, or pouring on the runs to make competition futile. True, most games balance pretty delicately, but there are these mutant affairs that have a little statistically thrill.

If the Twins had blown their blow-out I would have had trouble seeing the bright, anomalous side. But perhaps I could have chiseled out the perspective anyway. Certainly the fact that clockless baseball permits comebacks of all kinds should cheer any fan, even when you must lose some of them. Tonight, we don’t let it all slip away.