So Endeth the Season

I guess it was never meant to be. The Twins scraped into the ALDS play-offs and were swept by the mighty Yankees. I’m sure the folks at FOX and TBS must be wetting themselves with glee now that the two smallest franchises (Twins and Rockies) are out of the running, but evidently someone didn’t get the memo about the Boston Red Sox, whose three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels was probably even more of a disappointment considering their mammoth payroll and failure to show up until the final game, which they then proceeded to blow in the ninth inning.

It’s so strange that three of the best closers in baseball, Joe Nathan, Huston Street, and Jonathan Papelbon all failed in critical save situations, and just goes to show how much pressure and emphasis the game places on these guys. Yet it was Mariano Rivera, nearing 40, who showed everyone how it should be done, as the Yankees rolled over the Twins.

In all three games, the Twins led at one point, but couldn’t hold those leads. To some extent the Twins almost beat themselves with some horrible base-running antics that made them look like amateurs out there. But the Yankees were relentless, and that’s how they should be, yet still looked frail at some points. There’s probably an enormous amount of pressure on them to succeed, but I’m thinking it might be tougher for them against an Angels team who appear to be a little more ‘loose’ and enjoying themselves.

The Minnesota Twins had a great run. Another AL Central title, their fifth in eight years is certainly an achievement, but they’re still unable to convert these to championship victories which is obviously disappointing. The last few weeks of the regular season made for exciting viewing as a fan, and that game #163 was the icing on the cake. Despite injuries to some of their major starters and best hitters, despite playing in a weak division where they barely kept themselves above .500, this team showed a lot of guts and determination to grab the title, but also demonstrated a lot of problems and issues along the way.

With the move to Target Field in April, what will the 2010 season bring?

Balls

It’d be very easy to blame a blown umpire’s call for the Twins’ loss on Friday night which saw them go 2-0 down in the American League Divisional Series play-off against the Yankees, but that would just seem like too much of a convenient scapegoat.

The fact is, a terrible base-running mistake by Carlos Gomez, closer Joe Nathan blowing a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Twins leaving 17 (yes, 17) runners on base, and failing to get a single run at the top of the 11th with the bases loaded and no outs (including first pitch outs by both Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez) were the real reasons for their failure, and it was all the more disappointing after Nick Blackburn had pitched so well for the first part of the game.

Detroit: We feel your pain.

That is all.

Your 2009 Minnesota Twins: AL Central Winners

Alexi Casilla singles to right field, Carlos Gomez scores.

I’m not sure what else I can add to the already salient commentaries out there on yesterday’s epic tie-breaker victory for the Twins over Detroit in 12 innings. Just check my “Minnesota Gurus” section in the margin to read them.

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photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

All in all it was a tremendous, exciting, nerve-wracking, roller coaster of a game that in some ways pretty much mirrored both the Twins’ and Tigers’ up-and-down seasons. Rick Porcello pitched beautifully and silenced the 54,088 very lucky people who got to watch in the Metrodome, and with a 3-1 lead and Miguel Cabrera putting all his off-field troubles behind him, I must admit I was a little worried that the Twins had finally found their match.

But, like so often this year, Minnesota somehow found a way to fight back, and everyone seemed to contribute somehow, whether in the right way or the wrong way. The game was exciting because it had a little bit of everything: some bad umpire calls (but some great ones too), some sensational fielding but some errors of judgment, base-running mistakes by both teams, patient at-bats (yes, you Nick Punto — that was quite a job you did out there) and some absurd first-pitch impatient ground-outs (sorry Delmon Young, you’re back in the doghouse despite your recent heroics). The teams looked nervous out there, like they were fighting for their lives, and it pretty much made for the most exciting game I’ve ever seen at the Metrodome (and maybe beyond), and probably up there with the 1987 and 1991 World Series games in terms of historic victories. It was a game for the ages, and everyone who saw it will no doubt always remember it.

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photo: AP/Yahoo!

I know Tigers fans will blame some of the loss on missed calls and the crazy Metrodome but seriously, some calls also went against the Twins too (and many more earlier this year). The so-called ‘plunking’ of Aubrey Huff was a very close call which looked like it merely brushed his leg, Brandon Inge should really start to wear a tighter-fitting shirt instead of that Tellytubbie-sized thing he puts on before every game, and Ryan Raburn diving for a ball which he could have just played on the bounce instead of trying for the Sportscenter web gem probably turned Michael Cuddyer’s single into a triple: but of course that was because of the Metrodome lights…

So many excuses, but really, Detroit played an incredible game, were a little unlucky, and didn’t win this division because they failed to hold a lead both in this actual tiebreaker, but more costly, over the entire month of September. This time last month, the Twins were seven games back. Entering the final games of the year, they were three back with four to play. Minnesota went an outstanding 17-4 over the last 21 games and finally found the team spirit and battling nature that had somewhat eluded them previously. Detroit fans should be well aware that even though it didn’t happen for them this year, some time in the future they will have an opportunity to turn the tables at the Twins’ expense: it’s just how this game works sometimes.

So, the Yankees huh? The Twins are totally over matched, to be honest, I don’t think they stand a chance. Then again, Minnesota’s odds of winning even the AL Central a week or so ago were something absurd like 5%. Anything could happen, and I’m just delighted to have been following this scrappy, crazy, small-market team for the past few years and seeing what they can achieve. It’s David & Goliath for sure in the play-offs, but if the Twins can keep things competitive (and that’s really all you can ask), it could be an interesting few games ahead.

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One final note before I go though. What the hell was with FOX and their AL play-off promos the past few weeks? As many of you probably saw, these promos featured the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Angels, and, you guessed it, the Tigers. I know the major networks just hate it when the small franchise clubs make it to the post-season, but you’d think by now they’d be smart enough to never second guess the game of baseball. If I was a Tigers fan, I’d be a little pissed about these, it’s almost like it jinxed them. I talked to a buddy of mine who told me that FOX were guilty of the same crime with the ’07 and ’08 Mets, so I’m thinking they might need to stop with their stupid promos preempting events in a sport that is notorious for its “anything can happen” mentality.

#163

Who’d have thunk it eh? For the second season in a row, the Twins face a final single-game play-off to decide who will reach the postseason this year. In 2008, the Twins narrowly missed out on that privilege to the White Sox who beat them 1-0 in game #163. This year, Minnesota gets to play at home against the Tigers, so they’ll be hoping this time that things go their way.

I’m not sure what the odds are, after 162 games, of two teams being tied. Just goes to show how tight this game can be. I’ve been quick to dismiss the Twins this year, but rightly I believe. For the great majority of the year they’ve barely kept themselves around the .500 mark and they’ve failed to take competitive advantage of what has been one of the poorest divisions in years. Remember, this was the team that was sitting 5.5 games back on September 14, when it was announced that Justin Morneau would be out for the rest of the year, as fans groaned that Michael Cuddyer would be his replacement at first base. Even the usually astute Aaron Gleeman was prepared to write an entry entitled “The End” just last week (which, he has rather nicely, followed up with one called “The Beginning?” today).

No doubt, everyone has been taken by surprise, yet all that counts for nothing when it comes down to just this single game. Remarkably, the Twins were three games back with just four games to play. No team has ever overcome such a deficit in MLB history, so it’ll be even sweeter if they can beat Detroit and get into the play-offs to face the Yankees.

We’ll all be looking forward to Tuesday’s game. It’s going to be a tense affair for sure, but how ever things pan out, it’s been a fascinating end to what was once a fairly frustrating season for the Minnesota Twins and their fans. I, for one, feel less aggrieved than last year where the Twins had the chance to wrap things up earlier but failed to do so. This year, instead, they’ve been fighting their tails off from behind, and with expectations not being as high as they once were, even if they don’t make it, it’s all been a lot of fun.

Yikes

Did you see what I did there?

“The simple fact is, that if the Twins don’t win more than three of the
four games upcoming at Comerica Park between Monday and Thursday, they
can pretty much kiss their play-off hopes goodbye.”

Of course, I was utterly wrong as usual. Instead, with just a single game to go tomorrow the Twins and the Tigers are tied in the AL Central. If one team wins and the other loses, it’s game over for the team that goes down. If both win or both lose, we’ll be, ahem, “enjoying” yet another game #163 at the Metrodome on Tuesday.

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photo: AP/Yahoo!

I’m stunned the season has ended like this. I admit I was guilty of writing off the Twins a couple of weeks ago, and you’d be hard pressed to find any fans out there who were still optimistic. Sure, we all knew mathematically that Minnesota could still reach the play-offs, but also, a few days ago, after splitting that four game series with Detroit, the Twins’ chances of reaching the post-season had dwindled to about 7% or something absurdly low.

Instead, somehow, the Twins staved off a valiant Kansas City fightback on Friday night (squandering a ten run lead as usual). Then, on Saturday, Minnesota managed the impossible by scoring four runs off Zack Greinke, and seemed to be coasting, but the bullpen once again screwed up Nick Blackburn’s incredible pitching effort as the Royals tied it up at 4-4 before “Mr September” Michael Cuddyer (.342 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 19 games at first base since taking over there from injured Justin Morneau) hit his 31st home run of the year and Joe Nathan closed out the Royals again.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have been floundering against the White Sox who are “playing loose” with no pressure on them, and have already taken two out of three at Comerica Park. An epic choke for sure, but tomorrow could be a different matter for Detroit with Justin Verlander on the mound for them.

The Twins will bring back Carl Pavano on three-days rest to pitch against Luke Hochevar. It’s going to be a crazy final game at the Metrodome, how ever things pan out for the Twins, and it’s been a thoroughly exciting way to end the season.

Of course it’ll be saddening if the Twins don’t make it, but unlike last year, where they squandered their lead and could have clinched things sooner, this time they’ve been battling all the way from behind, and it’s been a fantastic effort regardless of the outcome tomorrow.

That Phrase…

Man, if I see the term “Showdown in Motown” used on one more bloody sports blog or web site today, I swear I’ll flip.

I’ve decided to come up with a few more alternatives for Twins (and other baseball bloggers) starved of original ideas:

Adroit in Detroit
Shenanigan in Michigan
Motor City Sub-committee

OK, none of these actually make any sense. “Sh*wd*wn in M*t*wn” it’ll have to be.

The simple fact is, that if the Twins don’t win more than three of the four games upcoming at Comerica Park between Monday and Thursday, they can pretty much kiss their play-off hopes goodbye. It’s a tough proposition for a Minnesota team that decided to be pretty much average for 85% of the season and only start playing properly in September, but it is what it is, and anything could happen.

I, for one, will be exceedingly anxious for the next few days, even though this is just a sport, and is supposed to be fun. Ain’t baseball great?

“We’re in This?”

As a Bay Area resident, I’ve been plagued for the past few weeks with commercials on Comcast claiming, quite rightly, that the San Francisco Giants are still “in this thing”. To some extent they are. Despite a painful loss to the Rockies the other evening, their hopes of making the play-offs are still alive, and perhaps better than the Twins’ chances seeing as how good their starting pitching can be.

But the Twins? Baseball, being the unusual game it is, has thrown us yet another curve-ball, and it’s amazing how quickly things can change in a few days. Minnesota is now four games behind Detroit, after the Tigers failed to take advantage yet again of their lead and lost three of four to the Royals, who once again seem to be taking delight in playing spoiler. Note to Twins fans: despite the fact that everyone is harping on about the upcoming crucial series against Detroit this weekend and then four more games later, Minnesota also has to play the Royals six more times, including the final three games of the season at the Metrodome. Just sayin’.

But yes. This weekend’s series against Detroit is, truly, the most crucial three games of the year so far. A sweep would see the Twins just a single game back. Even two out of three wouldn’t be a disaster. But losing two (and especially three) could be fatal. It’s worth noting too, that even if Minnesota was to sweep the Tigers, there would still be a lot more work to be done, and they’d still be relying on results going their way. It’s not a mathematical impossibility for the Twins to win the AL Central, but it’s going to require a massive meltdown by Detroit to make it happen.

And we all know, this kind of thing can happen. Witness the Mets of 2007. See how Tampa Bay lost 11 straight this month and completely ruled themselves out of contention. Notice how Boston’s seven-game winning streak while Texas faltered at Oakland may be just enough to clinch that AL wild-card berth.

Baseball can be exciting and exhilarating, but it can also be cruel. I quite like the predicament the Twins find themselves in: They have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, whereas the Tigers are really the ones under pressure. I’m not betting on the Twins clinching the division this year, and the prospect of facing the Yankees in the play-offs would be downright scary, but you never know, anything could happen.

Wait. Only a Month to Go? Yikes…

Yep, I know, I should be updating this more often, but forgive my lack of entries lately while I still continue to get my life sorted out and find full-time work again so I can get back into some kind of settled routine. In the meantime, here’s a few thoughts from the past few weeks.

  • Glen Perkins may, apparently, file a grievance against the Twins for the way they handled his recent injury. I hope it gets settled. I always liked Glen, but it’s clear he couldn’t cut it as a starter and has been really inconsistent, despite showing occasional signs of brilliance.
  • Justin Morneau is in a slump again. I like this guy, I think he’s a huge talent, and there’s no denying his value to the Twins is immense. But despite this, he seems to end up going into a slump every single damn season, and always at the most inappropriate time. As many fans noticed, both Justin and Joe Nathan were also whining in the press a couple of months back about how the Twins organization don’t bring in enough new talent via trades, and yet both of these players have been instrumental in recent Twins losses because of  their lackluster performances. Of course, both are still hugely valuable players and are usually dominant factors in any Twins’ success, but perhaps they might need to think before they speak or just go about their business quietly and efficiently like Jason Kubel.
  • Matt Tolbert and Brain Buscher were both brought back up from Triple-A at the expense of some exciting younger prospects. This kind of bugs me. Both Tolbert and Buscher have proven to be decidedly below average in the majors over the past couple of years, but still the Twins won’t take a chance on some of the newer prospects who they deem “not ready”, despite tearing it up in the minors this year. I find this kind of sad as it seems to be something the Twins have done well in the past. True, not every youngster is going to cut it in the big leagues, but one Denard Span is certainly proof of what can happen if you give an unknown young’un a shot. What’s worse, is reading purported stories like this one, which imply that Matt Tolbert’s ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘hard work’ are enough to make him a success, despite his proven lack of talent and ability. What is he, a bloody cheerleader? The crap that spews forth from Ron Gardenhire sometimes is enough to make you crazy.
  • Jon Rauch, now a Twins’ relief pitcher after being traded from the D’Backs, has scary googily eyes, but whenever he’s on the mound, I can’t help staring at his neck tattoo which looks to be about the size of Alaska.
rauchtattoo.jpgphoto: David Wallace/The Arizona Republic

Shouldn’t This Be Fun?

Firstly, I apologize for not updating this sooner. What with being jobless and out of my usual routine, I’ve not felt particularly inspired to write posts here when I have more important things to concern myself with right now.

But to be perfectly honest, the Twins have hardly been inspiring lately either. Earlier in the season, such performances would usually have entailed me ranting on this very blog, but sometimes it’s like flogging a dead horse. I think all us ‘fans’ know what’s wrong with the Twins right now, but it doesn’t seem many of these issues are being addressed by the management folks.

The most disappointing factor of the season so far is the obvious weakness of the AL Central. To be honest, I sometimes think none of these terms deserve to go to the play-offs, but of course, someone has to. Strangely enough, even as many games as the Twins are back, there’s still a chance they could make it, but it’s a very, very slim chance admittedly. With the talent in the Minnesota line-up, this team should have ripped the AL Central apart, so their lack of good performances this year have made it all the more troubling. 2009 was really the Twins best opportunity in a long time, and they’ve pretty much screwed it up, and it’s all been because of one thing: terrible pitching.

Still, I almost hope they do kind of give up on their divisional hopes. One thing that’s alarmed me about watching the Twins lately is that they just don’t seem to be having any fun. They don’t appear to be enjoying themselves. Sure, it sucks to lose a lot, and teams like the Nationals and Pirates are well used to it, but the Twins look miserable out there, and it just goes to show: expectations are a bitch. If good things wouldn’t have been expected of Minnesota this year, maybe everyone could have enjoyed themselves a bit more, but right now, it looks brutal out there. It’s not always the losing that matters, it’s how completely and utterly the Twins have been outplayed, especially in August. It hasn’t been much fun for the fans either.

But, if the Twins are pretty much done for this year, there’s still a few good things to look forward to. If the pressure is off them a little, perhaps they can shake things up good and proper in September and be the pesky little troublemakers they usually are. There could be the opportunity to finally see some classy players from the Twins’ minor league affiliates brought up to the majors like Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Danny Valencia, Armando Gabino, and Steve Tolleson. Perhaps some of the comedy bullpen clowns like Bobby Keppel and Jesse Crain will finally be sent down. Starters like Nick Blackburn and Anthony Swarzak are having horrible games out there, so they’d benefit from some time to work on that, while the Twins bring up the young arms and let them demonstrate what they’ve got… and there will be nothing to lose.

And of course, there’s one very important thing to look forward to, and that’s Joe Mauer and his hunt for the .400 average. The way things are right now, it’s not impossible by any means that Mauer could reach that golden number. The odds are still against him, but it’s going to be fun watching him try. Joe Mauer is still, completely and utterly (at this particular time of writing), 100% AL MVP for 2009. Plenty of other players have had great seasons so far (like Mark Teixeira) but nobody has been quite as brilliant as Joe Mauer (and evidently, Joe Posnanski agrees) when it comes to being the most valuable asset on a team. Joe Mauer has shined both offensively and defensively, and if he doesn’t get the award this year, it’ll be a travesty. But that’s a good word to describe the Twins’ season so far, so anything could happen.

Crushed!

After their successful midweek sweep of the Chicago White Sox, the Twins were quickly brought back down to earth with a resounding thud, being swept by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three games.

The Halos scored an incredible 35 runs, thoroughly decimating a sorry looking Twins who have now dropped to one game under .500, and yet they still remain merely three games back, which I think says more about the weakness of the AL Central than it does about the abilities of this year’s Minnesota team.

Even though Nick Blackburn pitched effectively on Friday evening, and the Twins opened up a 5-2 lead, the Angels came back to tie it up in the eighth inning due to the familiarly ineffectual Minnesota bullpen. A six-run eleventh inning then completed the comeback, humbling the Twins who really should have done a better job holding their lead, as the Twins finally lost 11-5.

On Saturday, Anthony Swarzak gave up six runs, and not to be outdone, the bullpen chipped-in for five more. The Twins were in it early on, matching the Angels with two-run second and third innings, but the Halos were far more relentless and once again crushed Minnesota 11-6.

If those two games weren’t ugly enough for Twins fans, Sunday didn’t bring much joy either. Glen Perkins was his usual ineffective self, and the Angels ran out 13-4 winners.

It’s worth noting that on Friday, LA catcher Mike Napoli went 4-for-6. On Saturday, he went 3-for-5. And on Sunday, he didn’t even play, yet the Angels still put 13 runs on the board. Despite Minnesota’s thorough inadequacy this entire weekend, there’s no doubt in my mind that this Angels team really looks the part. Against overwhelming odds, Mike Scioscia has done an incredible job with his team this season. Even with injuries to star players like Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, this team has played like champions these past few months, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t go all the way, providing their starting pitching can settle down.

Minnesota on the other hand… Well, as I mentioned above, somehow they’re still in it, and now move on to face three at Cleveland and then three at Detroit. While it’s true that they’ve fared far better this year against AL Central opposition, these upcoming games will be crucial. Cleveland may be a little depleted personnel-wise, but now the pressure is off them, they put up an excellent showing against the aforementioned Tigers this weekend, so they’ll be no pushovers as usual.

Dick & Bert consistently harped on about a Carlos Gomez throwing error in the game on Friday night, and other defensive miscues here and there this weekend, but the simple fact remains that the Twins were outdone not only by an Angels team who are far stronger and quicker than them offensively, but more importantly, Minnesota’s starting pitching and bullpen sucked huge donkey balls and won’t be able to take this team all the way if they continue to put up performances like that. Make all the excuses you like, if the pitching doesn’t get it done, this team will be thoroughly held back from ever succeeding.
 

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