Friday, October 06, 2006
The EndIt doesn't seem right that 96 wins and one of the most improbable turnarounds in baseball history can be wiped away with three losses, but such is life in the postseason.
The Twins made too many mistakes--big and small, mentally and physically, tactically and athletically, offensively and defensively--and didn't come up with nearly enough clutch hits with men on base. It's a shame that an otherwise amazing season had to come to such a pathetic, disappointing end, but the truth is that the Twins deserved to lose given the way they played
It's unfortunate that Brad Radke's career had to end on such a down note, away from the Metrodome and in a season-ending losing effort, but his place in team history was secure well before he took the mound in Oakland. When my "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" countdown resumes this offseason, Radke will deservedly be one of the final names revealed and I look forward to profiling him.
On a personal note, I'd like to thank everyone who stopped by AG.com this season. This was my fifth year chronicling the Twins on a daily basis and, as usual, the past six months have been quite a ride. This blog's readership continues to grow steadily despite my best efforts and I'm hopeful that you'll continue to make this a regular stop throughout the too-long offseason.
The 2006 season may be over, but the Twins talk never ends. There are a little over four months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and I'll be trying my best to kill that time with as many words on the Twins (and the occasional non-Twins topic) as I can possibly type. Thanks to the Twins for a memorable season and thanks to you for reading. See ya
Thursday, October 05, 2006
ALDS Game 2: A's 5, Twins 2Game 2 of the ALDS could have been remembered for any number of great things, from Boof Bonser turning in a Quality Start in his postseason debut to Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau launching back-to-back homers in the sixth inning, thrillingly digging the Twins out of a 2-0 hole. With the game tied heading into the seventh inning, it may also have been remembered for the yet-to-be-determined hero who would have stepped up with a big hit for the Twins to even the series.
Instead, the game will be remembered for a play Torii Hunter couldn't make and shouldn't have even attempted. With Jason Kendall on first base and two outs in the seventh inning, Mark Kotsay ripped a line drive into shallow center field. Rather than lay back and play the ball on a hop--possibly keeping Kendall at second base and at worst putting runners on the corners with two outs--Hunter decided to attempt a spectacular and ultimately impossible sprawling catch.
He came up empty, crashing to the Metrodome turf as the ball skipped past and ran all the way to the wall. Kotsay, who had rounded first base at half-speed expecting an uneventful single, quickly turned on the jets and sprinted around the bases. By the time Cuddyer picked up the ball on the warning track and threw it back in to the cutoff man, Kotsay was rounding third base on his way to an inside-the-park homer that stunned the crowd and put the A's up 4-2.
Hunter blamed himself for the loss while speaking to reporters afterward and talked of how horrible it felt watching the ball avoid his out-stretched glove, calling it "the worst feeling in the world." Hunter also explained his decision to attempt the catch by saying he's always been an aggressive outfielder, which is sentiment his teammates and manager agreed with. As Ron Gardenhire put it: "When he goes after a ball, I don't second-guess him. Ever."
Anyone who's watched Hunter over the years would agree that a big part of what's made him such a great defender is his relentless, attacking style. When asked to describe his defense a couple years ago, I wrote the following:
Torii Hunter plays center field like a middle linebacker plays a sweep to the outside. He attacks the ball without regard for his own safety and hunts it down. Whether the catch involves scaling the baggy-covered walls in the Metrodome or skidding along the turf face first, he makes the play first and thinks about it later.Hunter's previous success "making the play first and thinking about it later" is what makes yesterday's mistake all the more difficult to take. A few years ago, before multiple foot injuries and the natural aging process sapped some of his range, Hunter's gamble would have been more palatable and may have even paid off with an extraordinary catch. However, as I've chronicled here any number of times since his return from the disabled list earlier this season, those days are gone.
Failing to make a spectacular play is not what makes Hunter's decision a poor one, because you can't properly judge something like that on the result. Rather, what made what Hunter did a mistake is that he attempted that type of high-risk play despite his diminished abilities. In other words, there was little chance of Hunter making the play now, but because he had a chance to make the play in the past he went ahead and tried anyway.
Since coming back from a fractured foot, he's made similar miscues as a result of overestimating his ability to do the spectacular. In fact, during the final few months of the regular season, Hunter missed several plays that looked an awful lot like what took place yesterday afternoon. He'd come in on a ball that he surely expected to reach, realize too late that he no longer had the ability to do so, and watch as it skipped past him.
In mid-August, I described Hunter as having "flopped around in a futile effort to make the spectacular plays he's so used to making," which unfortunately is exactly what happened yesterday against the A's. While seemingly obvious, my pointing out Hunter's diminished range has drawn a lot of criticism from Twins fans. However, I suspect that even those who fired off strongly-worded e-mails accusing me of unfairly "ripping" Hunter would admit, deep down, that they weren't shocked by his mistake in Game 2.
I have no interest in saying "I told you so" when it comes to Hunter's defense, although anyone who's watched the Twins of late should have seen yesterday's trouble brewing. Despite that, I found myself feeling incredibly sorry for Hunter once my immediate emotions wore off a few hours later. He's going through one of the most depressing aspects of sports, which is the time between an athlete's physical decline and his realization that he's lost something.
It's the same thing Brett Favre has experienced in recent years and Michael Jordan experienced in his ill-fated comeback with the Wizards. There comes a point when a player can no longer do the things he once took for granted, but the realization that those days are gone is often slow to occur. The quotes from Hunter and Gardenhire are eerily similar to the stuff people said about Favre and Jordan when it first became apparent (to some, at least) that their skills were diminishing significantly.
Gardenhire said he'd never second-guess Hunter when he "goes after a ball," but how many times has someone said the same about Favre "forcing a throw into double-coverage" or about Jordan "taking the last shot"? Another common refrain was that Hunter is "a Gold Glover" and "the only guy who can make that play," both of which ignore the fact that something being true once doesn't mean it will remain true forever.
Judging from the boos Hunter heard and the slew of e-mails and comments I received, many Twins fans are angry at him. That's somewhat understandable, I suppose, because he made a misguided decision that led to a costly mistake, all because of his inability to realize he had no chance of making the catch. With that said, I think the booing was completely uncalled for and the emotion I'm feeling is more along the lines of sadness and disappointment.
I would have loved nothing more than to see Hunter come up with the catch on Kotsay's liner, ending the A's threat, igniting the Metrodome crowd, and perhaps even sparking a Twins rally. However, that just wasn't going to happen, and Hunter thinking it could made him largely responsible for the Twins' Game 2 loss. He made a mistake that was both physical and mental, but I don't necessarily blame him and he certainly wasn't alone in costing the Twins a win.
There's still some hope with Brad Radke taking the mound in Game 3, but the Twins' season may have slipped away along with Kotsay's line drive.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
ALDS Game 1: A's 3, Twins 2Skipped from his final turn in the regular-season rotation over the weekend to line him up to start the first game of the postseason yesterday afternoon, Johan Santana turned in a dominant performance against the A's in Game 1 of the ALDS:
IP H R ER BB SO PITSantana had not lost at the Metrodome since August of 2005, and if told before the game that he'd post the above pitching line against the A's, most fans would have felt safe chalking up a win for the Twins. In fact, the assumption would have been that Santana held Oakland to a pair of runs over eight innings before turning the lead over to Joe Nathan for the final three outs. Sadly, that's not how things played out at all.
Santana blitzed through the A's lineup, attacking hitters with 92-95 mile-per-hour fastballs and making them look silly on swings against his ridiculous changeup. He struck out two batters in each of the first three innings, all of them swinging, and set the A's down in order a total of six times. Unfortunately, he ran into trouble in the second inning, throwing a 3-1 changeup that Frank Thomas lofted into the seats down the left-field line to put the A's up 1-0.
Santana bounced right back to blow a 95-MPH fastball by Eric Chavez on a 2-2 count, but Jay Payton followed by a blooping a two-strike changeup into short center field for a single. Marco Scutaro then ripped a double down the left-field line, and with Rondell White and his non-existent throwing arm out there, Payton had little trouble scampering home with Oakland's second run. Santana got out of the inning by striking Mark Ellis out on a beautiful changeup, but the damage had been done.
Santana retired the side 1-2-3 in each of the next four innings, wriggled out of a Jason Bartlett-fueled bases-loaded jam in the seventh, and put the finishing touches on his masterpiece with a 1-2-3 eighth. While tagged with the loss in the boxscore, Santana's only real crime yesterday was being human. He pitched brilliantly, allowing two runs in eight innings against a good lineup, and gave his team a great chance to win.
Instead, the Twins lost because the lineup did everything they could to turn a good Barry Zito outing into a great one by hacking at anything he threw at them, and a curious bit of bullpen management by Ron Gardenhire gave Oakland what turned out to be the deciding run. Rather than take the driver's seat in the series behind a dominant effort from their ace, the Twins gave up homefield advantage and now must win three out of four beginning with Boof Bonser taking the mound this afternoon.
Some other notes I typed up after watching the game ...
With the Twins down 2-1 to begin the ninth inning, Gardenhire pulled Santana after 107 pitches. I felt it was the right decision, although there's certainly room for disagreement given a relatively manageable pitch count and the way he was throwing. However, Santana has rarely been asked to approach 120 pitches in regular-season starts and narrowly avoided serious trouble in the seventh inning, so with the best bullpen in baseball fully rested it was the right move.
What followed wasn't. With the game being played at the Metrodome, there was no potential for a save situation left. If the Twins took the lead at any point for the remainder of the game, it would immediately end and they would win. That may seem overly obvious, but it's worth mentioning given that Gardenhire decided to leave Nathan in the bullpen. For what, exactly, I'm not sure, but it was Jesse Crain who got the call.
In the notes I jotted down during his warmup tosses, I wrote simply: "Why Crain?! Where's Nathan?" He promptly served up Thomas' second homer to lead off the inning, putting the Twins in a 3-1 hole that came back to bite them when they scored what would have been the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, on the way to losing 3-2. The debate amongst many Twins fans seems to be why Gardenhire chose to bring in Crain instead of Pat Neshek, but that's missing the larger and more obvious point.
Nathan is the team's best reliever, in addition to being one of the best relievers in all of baseball, yet in the most important inning given to the bullpen in a game where no save situation was ever going to be possible, he watched Crain give the A's an insurance run that drastically reduced the Twins' chances of coming back. If you don't turn to your best reliever in the most important relief inning in the first game of the playoffs, what are you saving him for? Game 2? Next season?
White later put the Twins on the board by yanking a high fastball into the seats down the left-field line. It was a no-doubt homer that seemed to come out of nowhere with Zito breezing through the lineup and White deserves a lot of credit. He came up with two of the three extra-base hits against Zito, continuing an impressive run that saw him bat .321/.354/.538 in the second half after hitting .182/.209/.215 prior to the All-Star break.
Moments before his leadoff double in the eighth, Bartlett was welcomed to the plate by Miller informing viewers: "Here's Josh Bartlett." Apparently that must have been the final straw for someone watching who had the ability to make an important phone call, because minutes later Miller issued an apology for mispronouncing the name all afternoon. Morgan, in typical Morgan fashion, immediately said: "You know Jon, I heard you saying that and should have said something."
Really, Joe? You heard the play-by-play announcer you're working a playoff game with mispronounce the name of one team's shortstop at least eight times over the course of two hours and "should have said something"? In reality, I suspect Morgan, like Miller and the asleep-at-the-wheel producer who's supposed to be in charge, either had no idea what Bartlett's name actually is or wasn't paying enough attention to notice the mistake being made over and over.
Miller also botched "Neshek" no fewer than four times, referred to the Homer Hankies the crowd was waving as "rally towels," and repeatedly opined that Torii Hunter was having trouble tracking fly balls in the Metrodome roof because he was acting like he couldn't see them well off the bat. Those things are nit-picky by themselves, but when combined with the ongoing "Josh Bartlett" fiasco it was an tour de force performance.
Had he read the pronunciation guide ESPN provided him or done some prep work, Miller would have known how to say the names of players who figured to play key roles in the series he's being paid to announce. Had he paid attention to the World Series in either 1987 or 1991, he'd have been familiar with Homer Hankies. And had he watched the Twins play a few times, he'd have known that Hunter rarely loses a ball in the roof and is simply trying to deek runners when he acts lost out there.
After Santana set the A's down in order to begin the game, Castillo led off the bottom half of the first by drawing a walk when Zito couldn't find the plate. With Punto up, the middle of the order to follow, and Zito having trouble getting into a groove, the Twins had an opportunity to strike first in what figured to be a low-scoring game. Letting things play out naturally with a runner on base for Punto, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer (and possibly Morneau) would have been my preferred strategy.
However, a somewhat compelling case could also have been made for asking Punto to bunt Castillo into scoring position, bringing the middle of the order up with a man on second and one out. Instead, Castillo took matters into his own hands--or his own feet, to be more accurate--and attempted to steal second base. Gardenhire said afterward that he hadn't ordered the steal, with Castillo talking off on his own as "a green-light guy."
I question giving a green light to someone who was gunned down on a third of his steal attempts while dealing with various leg problems, including missing multiple games because of knee soreness last week. With that said, ultimately the blame goes to Castillo, both for choosing a bad spot to run and for executing poorly. He got a horrible jump, ran like he was sloshing through mud, and was called out on a close play.
Castillo led off the bottom of the fourth with another walk and this time Punto bunted him into scoring position. Of course, while the same bunt would have been reasonable with the score tied in the first inning, it made little sense down multiple runs in the fourth. The bunt-or-not dilemma popped up once more in the eighth, when Bartlett led off with a double. Castillo stepped to the plate with a chance to get the tying run to third base with one out and Gardenhire reportedly ordered him to lay a bunt down.
Castillo bunted through Zito's first offering and Jason Kendall threw behind the runner, nearly picking Bartlett off second base. Perhaps discouraged by the near-blunder, Castillo made his second game-changing decision of the afternoon by swinging away, leading to a weak ground out to third base that failed to advance Bartlett. He was eventually stranded there and became one of several opportunities to either tie the game or take the lead that the Twins mishandled.
Eighteen of the 34 batters [the Twins] sent to the plate saw no more than two pitches. Zito averaged 16.6 pitches an inning this season; he didn't throw more than 14 in any inning Tuesday. ... The Twins saw fewer than 10 pitches in three of their nine turns at bat. After Jason Bartlett's leadoff double in the eighth, the Twins went through their last seven batters, six outs, on 13 pitches, the last seven from Huston Street.The Twins deserved to lose Game 1, although Santana certainly didn't.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
ALDS Preview: Twins-A's
TEAM W L WIN% RS RA ExW-L 2HALFOn the surface, Minnesota and Oakland are perhaps as different as two teams can possibly be, and that perception stems directly from the men who lead them. A's general manager Billy Beane is forever in the spotlight as the source of constant media debate or the focus of a bestselling book, while Twins general manager Terry Ryan is tight-lipped and rarely in the press. As you might expect, the perceived differences also extend to each organization.
In large part because of Moneyball, the A's are viewed as an organization that's built around statistical performance and prefers the low-risk certainty of college draft picks. Meanwhile, the Twins are seen as a heavily scout-based organization that prefers the raw athletic tools that come with projectable high schoolers. Naturally, the perceived differences in front-office leadership and organizational philosophy also extend to the big-league teams.
Thanks to Michael Lewis' fascinating portrayal of Beane's early days on the job, the A's will always be known as a team built around plate discipline and power at the expense of defense. At the other end of the spectrum, the Twins have long had a reputation for defense and pitching carrying a team that went nearly two decades without a single 30-homer hitter. Add it all up and these two teams--from the men who lead them, the organizations they run, and the teams they build--appear to be complete opposites.
However, while it's true that Beane and Ryan go about their jobs in vastly different ways, the end result looks awfully similar once you get past perceptions and style. The average fan may still think of the A's as a bunch of slow, defensively-challenged sluggers like they were years ago, but in reality that has ceased being true. In fact, of late the A's have been every bit as focused on pitching and defense as the Twins.
Whether it's the original cast of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson or the current group of Zito, Danny Haren, and Rich Harden, starting pitching has long been Oakland's biggest strength. And while memories of the comically rangeless Ben Grieve-Terrence Long-Matt Stairs outfield still shape the way people view the A's to this day, they've quietly morphed into one of the strongest defensive teams in all of baseball.
As Beane told the New York Times this week:
We changed dramatically over the last few years. People accused us of being a slow-pitch softball team: Get men on base and have someone hit a three-run homer. But we've become more defensive-oriented. There was a time when we could go after players who all they did was get on base. They didn't bring any other skills to the table. They couldn't field, couldn't run.In other words, once you scratch the surface and go beyond long-expired perceptions that people like Joe Morgan cling to, this matchup is a bit like looking in the mirror. Like the Twins under Ryan, the A's under Beane are a small-payroll team built on the foundation of developing homegrown talent through a strong minor-league system. While once very different in terms of the big-league teams' shape, the changing marketplace has made the current version of the A's as close to the Twins as you'll get.
The Twins and A's have both snuck in under the radar as the Yankees claimed their usual top billing for October, posting baseball's two best records since the All-Star break at 49-27 and 48-26. While the Twins are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and have put together six straight winning campaigns, the A's are in their fifth postseason of the past seven years and can boast eight straight winning seasons.
The question now is which version of the Twins is better: Ryan's original or Beane's adaptation?
At first glance, the Twins and A's appear to have very similar offenses. The Twins ranked eighth in the league with 801 runs, while the A's ranked ninth with 771. The Twins had a .347 on-base percentage and .425 slugging percentage, compared to Oakland getting on base at a .340 clip and slugging .412. Remarkably close, but just as the shape of the Twins and A's is similar despite different approaches, the offensive attacks were similarly productive despite not actually being all that alike.
The Twins' offense is based on making more contact and hitting more singles than any other team in baseball, which is how they led the league with a .287 batting average without scoring a boatload of runs. The A's strike out a fair amount and don't hit nearly as many singles, ranking 13th in the league with a lowly .260 batting average, but also managed to get on first base a ton by drawing more walks than any team but the Red Sox.
The A's have slightly more power than the Twins, but neither team has much pop beyond a few home-run threats (Frank Thomas, Eric Chavez, and Nick Swisher for Oakland, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer for Minnesota). For the most part, these are both "long-form" offenses that get on base at good clips and then need multiple hits to put together big rallies. As with Beane and Ryan, the overall product is awfully similar despite a contrast in styles.
What makes the two offenses especially interesting in this matchup is that they play right into the other team's strengths defensively. The A's like to work counts and draw walks, but the Twins' pitching staff handed out the fewest free passes in baseball by a wide margin. The Twins like to put the ball in play and apply pressure to the defense, but Oakland will convert about 70 percent of balls in play into outs because of defenders like Chavez, Mark Kotsay, Mark Ellis, Jay Payton, and Milton Bradley.
It'll be tough for the slap-hitting portion of the Twins' lineup to dink and dunk the A's to death like they've done to so many teams this year, but the flip side is that Twins pitchers will force the A's to put balls in play when trying to coax walks proves pointless. The A's don't have nearly as much team speed as the Twins, so good defense or not they're ill-equipped for a ball-in-play fest against what's been a fantastic defense since Juan Castro and Tony Batista departed Minnesota.
The truth is that the true "key" to this series is Johan Santana, because the Twins win if he dominates. However, if he's less than flawless, suddenly secondary issues like how the ball-in-play battle plays out will become big factors. Given Oakland's rotation and Justin Duchscherer-Huston Street relief duo, plus the Twins' combination of Santana and baseball's best bullpen, this doesn't figure to be a series full of big scores and game-changing home runs.
Instead, it should be a battle of which lineup can sneak enough singles and doubles past the defense to string together an extended rally. If Oakland swallows up grounders and soft liners, it's going to be a long series for the "piranhas." At the same time, the A's could struggle if forced into a hitting style they aren't accustomed to against an equally stingy defense. For all the talk of Morneau and Thomas, Mauer and Chavez, Santana and Zito, Street and Joe Nathan, this may very well come down to the gloves.
It's too bad Beane got rid of those slow-footed sluggers, because the Twins could ball-in-play the old A's to death. It's a shame the Twins can't play the team that exists in the stubborn minds of those who continue to criticize the A's for being "Moneyball" without realizing the changes Beane has orchestrated, because that team was a lot easier to beat than the Twins clone that'll take the field today. Thankfully, Johan doesn't discriminate.
I expect runs to be at a premium throughout the series, with games changing more on balls that don't leave the infield than those that fly over the fence. If Santana keeps his year-plus Metrodome unbeaten streak alive and Ron Gardenhire smartly unloads the bullpen early and often, this is the Twins' series to lose. If Santana is human and Oakland's defense plays well, it could be a week of flailing away at Zito and company, and the Twins may add to the 15 times they were shutout in the regular season.
Twins in five.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Bring on the I can't imagine a more fitting way to end what was one of the craziest, most exciting regular seasons in Twins history than the madness that took place yesterday afternoon. It started with the Twins needing both a win and a Tigers loss to claim their fourth AL Central title in five seasons and avoid a first-round trip to New York, and ended with the A's booking a flight to Minnesota for a series that begins tomorrow afternoon at the Metrodome.