See how easy things can be when the lineup actually scores Johan Santana some runs? Handed five runs to work with in the second inning--more offense than the Twins totaled in 10 of his 14 previous starts--Santana needed just 92 pitches to cruise through the Mets' lineup while turning in the fourth complete-game shutout of his brilliant career in a 9-0 victory. Santana's last shutout came in August of 2005, when he tossed a three-hitter in a 1-0 win over the A's.
He recorded nine strikeouts that night and also had nine strikeouts when he hurled a four-hit shutout against the Diamondbacks two month earlier. Santana's first career shutout came against the Royals in July of 2004, when he racked up 13 strikeouts in a three-hitter. Last night's shutout was a totally different animal, because Santana's first and only strikeout didn't come until he completely fooled Paul Lo Duca on a perfect two-strike changeup in the ninth inning.
His final pitching line was both pretty and strange:
IP H R ER BB SO HR PIT 9.0 4 0 0 0 1 0 92
Santana has never failed to record a strikeout in 157 career starts and his only previous one-strikeout performance came against the Indians on April 6, 2004. Interestingly, that was Santana's very first start since being handed a full-time spot in the rotation that spring. Between his pair of one-strikeout starts, Santana took the mound 114 times and pitched 782 innings, going 61-25 (.709) with a 2.80 ERA while striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings.
Over that 114-start stretch, Santana failed to record at least five strikeouts just 15 times and racked up double-digit strikeouts 32 times. So how did he manage a lone strikeout against the Mets? As Santana and Joe Mauer both said after the game, the Mets clearly approached at-bats wanting to swing very early in counts. Santana also seemed to approach them the same way, perhaps in response to the recent talk about pitch counts and Ron Gardenhire pulling him from games before he wants to leave.
Either that or Santana decided that conserving pitches and working efficiently also gave him the best chance to win a pre-game bet with Bert Blyleven that allowed Santana to shave the should-be Hall of Famer's head if he tossed a shutout. Santana seemed awfully excited about winning the bet when asked about it afterward, but whatever the reason or motivation his taming of the Mets involved a lot fewer swing-and-misses and a lot more long fly balls finding gloves than we've gotten used to seeing.
Lost in what Santana did on the mound is what he did at the plate. With runners on the corners and none out in the second inning, Santana took a big hack at a high fastball, fouling it straight back, and then coaxed a five-pitch walk against Jorge Sosa to load the bases in what turned out to be a five-run inning. With two runners on base and two outs in the third inning, Santana hit a high chopper up the middle and missed out on an infield hit by about a half-step when Jose Reyes made a nice play.
After Jason Bartlett flied out to begin the fifth inning, Santana yanked a two-strike breaking ball from Sosa down the right-field line for a stand-up double. He came around to score the Twins' eighth run on Michael Cuddyer's infield single, before grounding out in each of his final two trips to the plate. You know things are going well when the starting pitcher gets five plate appearances, and Santana nearly went 2-for-4 with a walk and a double.
After settling for a 1-for-4 night, Santana is now a .250/.276/.286 career hitter and has struck out just four times in 29 plate appearances. Compare those numbers to the .272/.310/.316 career hitting line belonging to Jason Tyner, who FSN play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer breathlessly called "a great acquisition by the Twins" in the middle innings last night despite the fact that Tyner's yet to throw a single complete-game shutout.
If Rondell White never gets "healthy" and the Twins fail to acquire a veteran bat before the trading deadline, perhaps they can use Santana at DH down the stretch. Thanks in large part to Gardenhire ridiculously already giving Tyner 11 starts there--in which he's hit .244/.320/.286--the Twins have gotten a combined .249/.328/.346 hitting line from the DH spot. Who needs White or Ty Wigginton or Adam Dunn when you already have the Venezuelan Babe Ruth.
A few other notes from one of the most enjoyable games in a long time ...
Two of Jeff Cirillo's three hits weren't exactly well-struck, but my guess is that his performance last night will be more than enough to convince Gardenhire to begin giving him much of the third-base playing time that previously belonged to Nick Punto. Cirillo as an everyday third baseman is far from ideal, but at this point it's a viable alternative to Punto, especially when a fly-ball pitcher like Santana is on the mound.
Cirillo is hitting .253/.324/.352 overall after a slow start was followed by a stint on the disabled list, and looks capable of approaching the combined .291/.355/.402 hitting line he posted from 2004-2006. Punto is hitting .225/.317/.293 this season after batting .265/.330/.352 from 2004-2006, so the potential offensive upgrade would likely be worth what could be a significant dropoff defensively. However, the danger of taking Punto away from third base is that Gardenhire could use him to bench Bartlett.
In fact, he's already hinting at that, telling Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "Punto's going to play ... he can go to short, he can go everywhere." Meanwhile, after going 2-for-5 Bartlett is now hitting .270 with a .352 on-base percentage since beginning the season in a 1-for-20 slump. He's also 9-for-9 stealing bases and has shown good range defensively. And if you think any of that could possibly keep Gardenhire from handing Punto his starting job, you haven't been paying attention.
Mauer came into the game just 7-for-37 (.189) since returning from the disabled list, but went 2-for-4 with a walk and a hard-hit double while making one of his outs on a long fly ball to center field. He also appears to be running pretty well, which is probably a bigger short-term concern than his swing given the quadriceps injury that sidelined him for over a month.
Matched up against a mediocre, hard-throwing right-handed starting pitcher, it was nice to see the Twins actually chase him from the game early rather than make him look like a Cy Young candidate. Sosa struggles to throw strikes and is typically relatively hittable when he does, and the Twins took a lot of pitches and slashed a lot of line drives all over the field. It was also good to see them continue the damage when a washed-up veteran, Aaron Sele, came in to mop up for Sosa.
After leading off the second inning with a sharp single to left field, Torii Hunter's baserunning was fantastic. When Cirillo hit a looping quasi-fly ball into shallow center field, Hunter calculated that the ball would drop in for a hit and immediately took off for second base. Sure enough, it died in the no man's land behind second base and the good jump allowed Hunter to race for third base, with Carlos Beltran's too-late throw skipping into the dugout.
The Twins, and specifically Hunter, make more outs on the bases by being overly aggressive than I'd like to see, but that was a case of smart aggression. Speed and good baseball instincts lessened the risk of being thrown out considerably and the payoff was big, with Hunter scoring the first run of the game to give Santana an early lead when he otherwise could have been stuck at second base with the bottom half of the lineup coming up.
Not only were the soon-to-be-bald Blyleven and 48-year-old Julio Franco teammates on the Indians from 1983-1985, Blyleven played with 37-year-old Damian Easley on the 1992 Angels.
Santana is now 15-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 176.2 career interleague innings.
With back-to-back rough outings, Juan Rincon's ERA has ballooned from 2.38 to 4.50 in about 48 hours. Ricky Ledee's eighth-inning homer was the fourth long ball Rincon has served up in just 24 innings after allowing a total of four homers in 151.1 innings between 2005 and 2006. While the homers are out of character, even more concerning is the fact that Rincon's secondary numbers have declined across the board since his 11-win, 106-strikeout season in 2004:
Rincon's strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponent's batting average have all steadily gotten worse on an annual basis, to the point that he's no longer pitching like a quality setup man. Rincon is just 28 years old, but high-workload relievers like him tend not to age particularly well and the above patterns are very discouraging. With Pat Neshek long since passing him as Joe Nathan's primary setup man, Rincon is the obvious choice should the Twins decide to deal a reliever for offensive help.
Speaking of dealing for offensive help, in soliciting reader-submitted questions last week, I was asked to "pick one position that the Twins should try to upgrade before the trading deadline." My answer was sort of a long one (shocking, I know), but the main point was that "third base is the place to target an upgrade, as it would provide a huge boost this season while also patching a hole that the Twins have going forward." I put a lot of thought into my answer, but started questioning it yesterday.
Jim Souhan's column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune carried the headline: "Twins' biggest need is a third baseman who can hit." In a piece that was surprisingly (and pleasantly) short on lame one-liners and forced pop-culture references, Shecky wrote that "the right third baseman would improve the Twins immediately and perhaps dramatically." Normally I'd say something like "great minds think alike," but that seems like a stretch on all fronts.
With a pair of runners on base and the Mets leading 2-0 with two outs in the fifth inning, the Twins' outfield played Carlos Delgado to pull the ball with an extreme shift shading him toward right field. Instead, he looped a fly ball down the left-field line, with Jason Kubel making a sprawling catch after an all-out sprint to get Carlos Silva out of a jam. If the ball had gotten past Kubel's dive, Delgado likely would have been able to do his Prince Fielderimpression around the bases.
Kubel runs like someone who's suffered a significant knee injury and his bat has been disappointing thus far, but he's been solid defensively. He gets to more balls than his speed suggests he should, flashes a strong arm, and has come up with a handful of diving grabs in key spots. I'm hesitant to say that the diving catches suggest outstanding defense, because that can be incredibly misleading, but it seems relatively clear that Kubel has at the very least avoided being a weakness in left field.
In addition to looking capable, Kubel ranks 12th among all MLB left fielders in Zone Rating at .887 (Carl Crawford leads baseball at .960, while Manny Ramirez ranks dead last at .706). Beyond that, through 324.1 innings Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and Ultimate Zone Rating all show Kubel as safely above average compared to other left fielders. None of that will matter much unless he eventually starts hitting, of course, but he's slugging .457 since snapping a 0-for-13 slump on May 10.
After being held to one run by John Maine, Pedro Feliciano, and Aaron Heilman, the Twins have now scored three runs or fewer in 33 of 68 games (49 percent). Included in that total is being shut out five times and scoring one run seven times, which means that the Twins' offense has basically given them no chance to win about 18 percent of the time. For the year, the Twins are averaging 4.58 runs per game, which ranks 10th among 14 AL teams.
Johan Santana is the most noticeable victim of the poor run support, going 6-6 despite a 3.19 ERA because the lineup has scored three runs or fewer in 10 of his 14 starts. However, Silva has perhaps gotten it even worse. While the Twins have been held to three runs or fewer in "only" eight of Silva's 14 starts, they've scored zero or one run in six of his outings. That's how he's 4-8 despite a 4.20 ERA that is far better than I ever expected.
During the FSN pre-game show (which I don't typically watch), Ron Coomer and Anthony LaPanta had a discussion about the Twins' potential All-Star representatives. Within the span of 20 seconds, Coomer called Luis Castillo "the Twins' MVP" and "probably the best leadoff hitter in the league." One of my many pet peeves is when media members ruin an otherwise good point by injecting ridiculous hyperbole, and Coomer's take on Castillo is a perfect example of that in action.
Castillo is a good player having a good year, and he's among the best second basemen in the league. Toss in a .313 batting average and an MLB-record errorless streak, and there's plenty of evidence to use in making an All-Star case without resorting to extreme statements that have no basis in reality. First of all, a player with a .699 OPS who has missed 13 of 68 games is going to have a difficult time being the MVP of any team, let alone a team with the reigning MVP on it.
On a team with Justin Morneau, Santana, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Nathan, and Neshek, Coomer expects us to believe that someone with a .313/.356/.343 hitting line is the MVP? The notion that Castillo is "the best leadoff hitter in the league" is equally as implausible. In fact, among the 10 AL hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the leadoff spot, Castillo ranks fifth in on-base percentage, eighth in stolen bases, and ninth in OPS, GPA, and slugging percentage.
Castillo's numbers pale in comparison to Ichiro Suzuki, Grady Sizemore, Curtis Granderson, Brian Roberts, and Alex Rios. Plus, he doesn't even stand out compared to Kenny Lofton, David DeJesus, and Johnny Damon. My point here isn't to bash Castillo, because he's having a good season and has been valuable. Rather, my point is that instead of getting me to think about Castillo's good season or how valuable he's been, all Coomer did was get me to think about how silly his "analysis" was.
In Coomer's defense, he once made the All-Star team in a season that saw him hit .263/.307/.424 as a first baseman, so it's perfectly understandable if his thoughts on who's deserving of a spot on the team are a little bit out of whack.
With Friday's loss to the Brewers, Scott Baker has now made 30 career major-league starts. Here's how his performance compares to the numbers of a handful of prominent Twins pitchers through their first 30 big-league starts:
IP ERA SO9 BB9 HR9 OAVG Brad Radke 191.0 5.04 4.2 2.3 1.5 .271 Jim Kaat 161.2 5.12 5.1 4.8 0.8 .257 Frank Viola 178.2 5.19 5.7 3.1 1.7 .302 SCOTT BAKER 163.0 5.58 6.3 2.0 1.5 .298 Kyle Lohse 160.0 5.74 5.7 3.0 1.4 .295 Eric Milton 158.1 5.85 5.5 3.8 1.4 .286
Start No. 31 is scheduled to come Wednesday against the Mets.