Friday, October 08, 2004
Bloggers in the StribI was featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the other day.
The articles are online at the Star Tribune's website if you're interested:
- Batty About Blogging
- The Baseball Blogs
- The Best of the Blogs
- A Taste of Three Bloggers
- Why Baseball is Best (audio clip)
I didn't mention this fact until now because one complaint I get quite often is that I spend too much time stroking my own ego by talking about personal accomplishments, and I didn't want to further infuriate my audience by preempting any important Twins playoff talk to point out that there was a far-too-big picture of me on the front page of the Variety section on Tuesday.
(That would be Yours Truly on the far right, along with Ryan Maus and John Betzler from Twins Chatter on the left and John Bonnes, aka the Twins Geek, front and center.)
As you can see from the picture, it is quite clear why I am interested in being a writer, as opposed to, say, a television personality or an underwear model. In addition to that, I learned that I should never say, as I did in this space last month, that "I'm not very pimply." As the evidence above seems to show, I get a sudden case of what appears to be acne when lights come on and a photographer begins shooting.
This is rather confusing to me, because as someone who is forced to look at myself in the mirror nearly every day, I was under the impression that my complexion was relatively clear. After seeing the picture I even double-checked, and it is! So while I don't have the acne problem that seems to be portrayed in the photo, I apparently do have a problem with having the appearance of acne when I'm in the newspaper, which, as far as I can figure, is at least as bad as actually having the acne in the first place in this situation.
As I've been telling people all week, I'm not particularly fond of how I look in the picture, but the photographer admittedly didn't have a whole lot to work with. Or, as someone so eloquently put it to me Wednesday morning: "The guy's a photographer, not a miracle worker."
Anyway, my gorgeous face and I would like to thank the writer of the story, Regina McCombs, as well as the photographer, Tom Wallace, and the photo editor, Ellen Lorentzson. For the four of us pictured above and Bat-Girl, Seth Stohs and the other Twins bloggers who were talked about in the article, it was nice to get a little recognition for the good work we've been doing, especially from the local mainstream media. Plus, along with my mention in Sports Illustrated last week, it gave my mom and grandma a lot of stuff to brag to their friends about.
Okay, enough with the collective ego stroking, let's get back to baseball. While you wait impatiently for Carlos Silva to take the mound against Kevin Brown tonight, head over to The Hardball Times to check out my column for today ...
The Hardball Times: Reader Mail (Aftermath Edition)
I got more e-mails about Wednesday night's loss than I can remember getting in a very long time, so hopefully I was able to respond to some of the main points you guys were making. Plus, there's a whole bunch of other good stuff at THT.
Today at The Hardball Times:
- Running Diary: October 7, 2004 (by Ben Jacobs)
- 2004: A Look Back With Win Shares (by Matthew Namee)
- The Most Important Game Of The Year (by Larry Mahnken)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Game TwoThe Twins were so close.
Minnesota survived a bad start from Brad Radke, their offense found a way to score some runs, they did the impossible and came back against Mariano Rivera, their bullpen threw scoreless innings, and they got the Yankees to bring Tanyon Sturtze and his 5.47 ERA into a tie game. And yet, as they have so many times, New York hung around until they could deliver the knockout punch, getting to Joe Nathan in his third inning of work.
There will no doubt be a lot of people who find fault with Ron Gardenhire sending Nathan back out to pitch the 12th inning, but I'm not one of them. While the complaints may center on Gardenhire letting Nathan pitch to Alex Rodriguez, that's simply more second-guessing and after-the-fact opinion forming than even I'm comfortable with. As far as I'm concerned, the only real decision for Gardenhire came before the start of the inning.
Coming into the 12th, Nathan had thrown 32 pitches without giving up a hit, while striking out the last two batters he faced in the 11th. While asking him to begin an inning with 32 pitches is certainly not a situation Nathan has been in very often, he was pitching very well, it's not an outlandish number of pitches, and it's a decision I have no problem with. If you want to disagree with that move, that's one thing, but once you send Nathan out to begin the 12th and he pitches to the leadoff man, John Olerud, you're pretty much stuck with him whether he struggles or not.
Nathan walking Miguel Cairo after he struck Olerud out was the first sign that his control was fading, but there's no way Gardenhire could have made a move at that point to bring in J.C. Romero, a lefty, to face the portion of the Yankees' lineup that goes Derek Jeter-Rodriguez-Gary Sheffield, all righties and all guys who feasted on southpaws this year. Gardenhire did have a right-handed pitcher available in rookie Jesse Cain, but I'm not sure that's the spot I want him making his postseason debut in.
So Gardenhire let Nathan go as far as he could, or perhaps more accurately as far he could while still being a better option than either Romero or Crain. Nathan stayed out there past his comfort zone and began struggling with his control, following up his walk of Cairo by walking Jeter on four pitches. At that point it was clear that Nathan was completely out of gas, but none of the other options were very appealing.
With Rodriguez up, the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first, do you bring in Romero when Rodriguez hit .311/.422/.659 against lefties this year and the next batter, Sheffield, hit .314/.423/.550 against southpaws? Do you bring Crain, with 27 innings of big-league experience, into the most pressure-packed situation of the season, with absolutely zero margin for error?
Like I said, the only real decision was made before a pitch was thrown in the inning. You could argue that Gardenhire should have brought Romero in to start the inning by pitching to Olerud, and then brought Crain in to pitch to the Cairo-Jeter-Rodriguez-Sheffield group of righties. The problem I have with that sort of thinking is that using Romero for just one batter is a huge waste when you don't know how long the game could potentially go, not to mention the fact that Nathan had no trouble getting Olerud out anyway. And then is a fresh Crain really better to face those four straight righties than Nathan was, even having thrown 37 pitches?
Gardenhire's non-moves look horrible now, of course, as Rodriguez, who struggled in clutch situations for most of the year, came through against Nathan with a game-tying ground-rule double just past the outstretched glove of Shannon Stewart in left-center. The ball bouncing over the fence gave the Twins a temporary stay of execution, as Jeter was held up at third when he almost certainly could have coasted home with the winning run had the ball stayed in the park. With men on second and third and one out, Gardenhire had Nathan intentionally walk Sheffield to load the bases and then brought Romero in to face Hideki Matsui, getting both a lefty-lefty matchup and a ground ball pitcher facing a ground ball hitter.
It was about as favorable a matchup as the Twins could possibly have asked for in that situation, but Matsui was able to hit a line drive to shallow right field, where Jacque Jones was playing what could be described as "really deep second base" in order to have a chance at throwing Jeter out at the plate. Jones made the catch and then, strangely, targeted his throw at the cutoff man, rather than home plate. Matthew LeCroy cut the throw off about halfway to home and relayed it to Pat Borders, but by the time the ball reached the third glove of the play, Jeter had scored and the Yankees had tied the series at one game apiece.
The loss is a massive blow to the Twins, as they not only had the game in hand, they had the series in hand as well. Had they been up two games to none, heading back to Minnesota, they would have had to simply avoid a three-game losing streak. Instead, the series is tied and there's a very good chance New York will take a 2-1 lead with Carlos Silva getting the call in Game 3 (yet another reason why leaving Nathan in wasn't a bad move, since it's unlikely he'd have gotten a meaningful appearance in Game 3 anyway).
If it does get to 2-1 New York, the Twins will likely go with Johan Santana on short rest in Game 4 and Radke on short rest in Game 5. All of which means they will not only have to win two games in a row, they'll have to win a series-deciding game at Yankee Stadium, with a guy who gave up five runs last night, and he'll be on short rest. So while last night was "only one game," the impact on the series goes far beyond that. It changed everything.
Some other notes on Game 2, which may also be called the most stressful and ultimately excruciating four hours of my year ...
- Only Mostly Dead (by Ben Jacobs)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Game OneIt is often said in sports that the mark of true greatness is an athlete who can succeed in critical situations even when clearly not at his best, which is exactly what Johan Santana did against the Yankees last night. Santana, who allowed the fewest baserunners per nine innings in the American League this year, was pitching in trouble almost the entire time. In fact, he didn't complete a single inning without allowing at least one runner to reach safely.
Yet Santana made the big pitches when he needed them, got some extremely lucky breaks, and had some incredibly good defense played behind him. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't the type of dominance Twins fans have come to expect from him during the second half, but the end result was just the same: seven shutout innings.
When Santana was done -- lifted after getting out a jam in the bottom of the seventh having thrown just 95 pitches -- he handed the game over to his bullpen. Juan Rincon pitched a scoreless eighth and Joe Nathan came in to pitch the ninth, pumping 97 MPH fastballs at New York hitters until the game was over. The game no doubt went exactly as Ron Gardenhire had hoped, with Santana for seven innings and Rincon and Nathan for one each. Nice, clean and orderly, and just like that the Twins lead the series 1-0.
Whether nerves were doing damage on his control or he was simply a little off his game, Santana struggled with his command for much of the evening. He seemed to rely on his fastball more often than he typically does, perhaps realizing that his off-speed stuff wasn't quite there. The result was fewer silly swings, fewer missed bats, and a lot more hits. The nine hits Santana allowed were the second-most he's given up in 35 starts this season. But he was able to get out of jams each and every time, getting double plays, outstanding catches and pinpoint throws so many times that I thought the Twins were the team with Mystique and Aura on their side.
Aside from Santana, the heroes from Game 1 were Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter. Stewart went 2-for-4, drove in the Twins' first run, and made a leaping catch to save Santana in the second inning. Hunter collected a single in four at-bats, but it was what he did in the field that was special. With Jorge Posada on third base, John Olerud at the plate and one out in the second inning, Hunter came charging in on a shallow fly ball, made the catch, and fired a one-hop strike to Henry Blanco to nail the tagging Posada at home plate.
Then in the eighth inning, Alex Rodriguez blasted Rincon's first pitch of the game to deep center field. Hunter tracked the ball in a full on sprint, timed his jump perfectly, robbed Rodriguez of at least a double and perhaps a homer, and then went crashing into the wall.
Instead of the Yankees having momentum, Rincon being in trouble and the score perhaps being cut to 2-1, the Twins were just one out closer to victory. It was nothing Twins fans haven't seen from Hunter before, but he was certainly at his fearless best, doing whatever was necessary to turn fly balls into outs, even when it meant going up against a wall in an ongoing battle he will proudly never win.
As you can see from the following graph of the Twins' "Win Expectancy" throughout Game 1, it was on those few crucial plays that the game was won.
What that shows is essentially how often a team in Minnesota's exact situation -- using who was on base, how many outs there were, and what inning it was -- have ended up winning the game. When the Yankees had runners at the corners in the bottom of the second inning, the Twins were suddenly in very rough shape, underdogs in the game, but Stewart's catch and Hunter's catch-and-throw saved them.
One of the biggest plays of the game as far as the impact on Win Expectancy was actually a non-play, as Ruben Sierra's foul ball that was initially called a home run before being overturned resulted in a huge swing of 0.2 (or a 20% likelihood of New York winning). Breaking the play-by-play Win Expectancy information down even futher, we can actually look at how much each player contributed to his team's win or loss.
WEWhat will probably be ignored in the midst of Santana's shutout innings and the great performances by Stewart and Hunter is the fact that New York's starter, Mike Mussina, pitched a pretty great game himself. Actually, Mussina seemed to be more on his game than Santana, going seven innings while allowing two runs on seven hits and striking seven.
Another big play occurred with the game tied in the bottom of the first inning, as the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out. With Bernie Williams at the plate, FOX announcer Tim McCarver uttered what has to be the leader in the clubhouse for Dumbest Statement of the Postseason, saying, "Joe Torre can start the runners here because there's a contact pitcher on the mound."
Some of you may be aware of the fact that the pitcher on the mound was Santana and he led the American League with 265 strikeouts this season, striking out 30.1% of the batters he faced and getting nearly 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Sure enough, when Torre sent the runners on a 3-2 pitch, Santana got Williams to strike out on a changeup and Blanco threw Rodriguez out at third by 10 feet. The inning was over and the first of what turned out to be many threats was averted.
Tonight, the Twins will attempt to do what they couldn't last year, which is capitalize on a Game 1 victory at Yankee Stadium and take control of the series by winning Game 2. Like last year, it'll be Brad Radke trying to put the Twins up 2-0. If he pitches as well as he did then, giving up just one run through six innings before falling apart in the seventh, you've got to like the Twins' chances. Instead of going up against Andy Pettitte, his opponent this time will be Jon Lieber.
Today at The Hardball Times:
- Playoff Preview: Braves - Astros (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Misunderstood Angels (by Ben Jacobs)
- Double (Play) Trouble (by Larry Mahnken)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
Playoff Preview: Yankees - Twins
TEAM W L WIN% RS RA ExW-LThe New York Yankees own the Minnesota Twins, there's just no way around that fact. When the Twins took two out of three from the Yankees in a series at the Metrodome earlier this year, it gave the Twins and their fans a little hope that New York's dominance over them was over. Then the Yankees went and swept the Twins in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium last week and put an end to that talk.
After nearly a decade of being one of the worst teams in the American League following their 1991 World Series title, the Twins returned to having a quality team in 2001, going 85-77 to finish in second place in the AL Central, and have since won three straight division titles. Over that four-year stretch in which they won 85, 94, 90 and 92 games for a combined winning percentage of .558, the Twins have gone 7-22 against the Yankees, including 3-20 over the last three years.
Whether you want to go by their overall records, the head-to-head results, or each team's recent postseason success, the Twins are clearly an inferior team to the Yankees. New York wins more often while playing in a vastly superior division, they beat up on the Twins nearly every time they play, and they not only have a long history of winning in October, they actually knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs last season.
Still, in previewing this series there are a lot of things I could look at to give the sense that the Twins can win. Minnesota is likely the better defensive team, particularly in the outfield, and they allowed the fewest runs in the league this season. And while they ranked just 10th in the AL in runs scored and produced less offense than every other playoff team except for the Dodgers, the Twins did pick it up in second half once they got Justin Morneau into the lineup and Shannon Stewart healthy, ranking fifth in the league in post-break OPS.
Want more? The Yankees' pitching has been pretty bad since the All-Star break, as their 4.95 second-half ERA ranks 11th in the AL. Kevin Brown and Orlando Hernandez have some injury questions, Javier Vazquez has been so awful in the second half (6.92 ERA in 14 starts) that he may not even be in the playoff rotation, and Jon Lieber and his .301 opponent's batting average are getting the start in Game 2. Plus, while Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon have been extremely strong throughout the year, Paul Quantrill appears to have hit the wall, with a 7.09 ERA in 39.1 innings since the break.
More? One of the Yankees' best players, Jason Giambi, is 4-for-33 with 13 strikeouts since returning to the team in September and will reportedly be left off the playoff roster for the first round. Meanwhile, the Twins have gotten a boost from young second-half additions like Jason Kubel (.300/.358/.433 in 23 games), Jesse Crain (3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings) and the aforementioned Morneau, who hit .271/.340/.536 with 19 homers, 17 doubles and 58 RBIs in just 74 games.
I could talk about a lot of this different stuff and say that maybe, if things go right and those things all come into play, the Twins could take advantage and win the series. In reality, however, all of it matters little in this series. For the Twins to win, they absolutely must have Johan Santana and Brad Radke pitch as well as they have all season and be as sharp as they have shown they can be. Without that happening, nothing else matters. Without that happening, the Twins have no chance to win the series.
That's a lot more simplistic than a guy who enjoys writing about baseball using numbers would like to present in a playoff preview, but I honestly believe it's the case. If Santana is the pitcher who didn't lose in the second half and had a sub-2.00 ERA since the start of June, and Radke performs like one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the league, the Twins will win this series. They will scratch out some runs, they will play good defense, and their bullpen will hold leads when Santana and Radke hand them over.
If they don't -- if Santana is merely good and Radke is more like the good-but-not-great pitcher he's been for most of his career -- the Yankees will score enough runs to make life miserable for a Twins team that has had trouble offensively all year and Rivera will further shut things down in the late innings. The potential equation for a Minnesota win in this series is so simple that this preview probably could have contained just one sentence: If Santana and Radke come up big, Minnesota wins.
The question, of course, is will they? If you want to look at it objectively, to use this year's performance and important stats to come up with an answer, you'll find that, yes, they will come up big. Santana was 18-3 with a 1.50 ERA since the start of June, 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA in the second half, and 5-0 with an 0.26 ERA in September. If you look at those numbers and think about how incredibly dominant Santana has been nearly all season, there is no way he can lose.
Radke was second in the AL to Santana in Quality Starts (24), third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.5-to-1) and opponent's on-base percentage (.290), fourth in ERA (3.48) and DIPS ERA (3.66), and eighth in opponent's slugging percentage (.393). And he's been particularly good of late, going 6-3 with a 3.49 ERA since the All-Star break and 2-1 with a 1.97 ERA in September. Those aren't numbers that make you say "there is no way he can lose," but certainly you've got to like his chances.
But -- and there had to be a but -- the fact that Santana hasn't lost in months and Radke has been great all year does not, in itself, actually help them any come playoff time. The Yankees win in October, that's just what they do. Should Santana suddenly turn into a mere mortal or Radke into the guy who came into this year with a career ERA of 4.32, then the Twins will find themselves counting on Carlos Silva or, even worse, on their offense to actually out-hit the Yankees. And that simply will not happen.
Regardless of what you think of New York and regardless of how flawed a team you view them to be, they will win this series if Santana and Radke are anything less than their best. They'll fight their way to scoring runs off Minnesota's bullpen, they'll come up with key hits and big home runs, and Rivera will slam the door when given the chance. The key, quite clearly, is not giving him the chance, and that all rests of the left arm of Santana and the right arm of Radke.
Their performances this year say they can do it. Their numbers this year say they can do it. Logic in the minds of many people all around baseball say they can do it. The only thing left for them is to actually do it, against Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. Against Mystique, Aura, and the Yankee Stadium crowd, against the dominance the Yankees have held over the Twins since they became a respectable team again, and against a ballclub that has been crushing the dreams of October underdogs for years.
So again, will they do it? Honestly, I don't know. My gut says that they will, but years and years of being a pessimistic Minnesota sports fan says they won't. Just the idea that there is some question or that it is a "coin flip" choice, when one team has 92 wins coming from the worst division in baseball and the other has 101 wins coming from one of the best, tells you just how great Santana and Radke have been and how far the Twins can go if they come up big.
I flipped the coin and decided that this might just be the time to show a little optimism, to dream a little bit, to say "why not?" and have a little faith. If you can't rely on Santana, the best pitcher in baseball, someone you've been touting and writing about on a daily basis for years, and a guy who hasn't had a bad game in nearly five months, who can you count on?
Maybe for once New York won't get those big hits to fall and won't bust open a game against a maddeningly shaky reliever as the clock strikes midnight in New York. Maybe Morneau shows off some of his power, Stewart shows off why Terry Ryan is a great GM and I'm not, and Torii Hunter talks the talk and walks the walk. Maybe Henry Blanco is a hero instead of whoever plans on playing the role of Luis Sojo in the Bronx this year, maybe Santana and Radke each go eight strong and hand things over to Joe Nathan, and maybe Nathan slams the door just like Rivera would have, if only he wasn't stuck in the bullpen.
Twins in five.
Today at The Hardball Times:
- Playoff Preview: Angels - Red Sox (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Playoff Preview: Cardinals - Dodgers (by Aaron Gleeman)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Monday, October 04, 2004
Heading to New YorkThat was close. The Twins did their very best to prove my semi-guarantee that they'd be playing the Yankees in the first round wrong, taking the first two games from the Indians over the weekend, before losing the third game by just one run.
Had they swept the series, it would have been just one of many predictions I've gotten completely wrong this year, but it may have been the one that took the least amount of time to make me look stupid. As it is, the Twins are heading to New York, I got saved from looking silly, and, perhaps most importantly, I don't have to restart the playoff preview articles that I worked on during the weekend.
A few other thoughts before the playoffs arrive and completely take over my brain ...
- Release the Hounds! (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Got Them Giants' Fan Blues (by Steve Treder)
- Rivals in Exile: Playoff Time (by Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****