June 2009


Baseball tours and detours, 2009

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Twins_Cards_June_26_2009.jpgAs the Great Midwestern Road Trip nears an end for the Twins, I thought it’d be fun to open a thread for fans to share their impressions from the road, from the parking lots, or from the ballparks themselves.

Earlier this month, we put together a package previewing Twins trips to Wrigley Field, Miller Park, Busch Stadium and Kauffman Stadium. The idea was to give fans a user’s guide for each stop.

We received a lot of feedback and encouraged people to e-mail us with pictures. (Photo insert is Dave Wenthold, of Bloomington, who made each stop with his wife, including this one at Busch Stadium.)

La Velle and I get to split these trips for the Star Tribune. And what’s a ballwriter to do when he’s not covering a game? Go to other ballparks, of course. I expanded my own Midwestern Road Trip with a stop at the College World Series in Omaha, and took in a Madison Mallards (Northwoods League) game on Saturday. Some quick thoughts:

Rosenblatt Stadium
On Father’s Day Weekend, my dad and I made the easy drive to Omaha — six hours from my house, 4 1/2 from his place in Mankato — for the Friday night showdown between Arizona State and Texas. I’ve been a huge fan of the CWS since my Little League days and have been back many times. It really bums me out that next year will be the final year in Rosenblatt Stadium, with the 2011 event scheduled for a new facility in downtown Omaha.

Sitting in the grandstand on the third-base side this time, we were treated to a very memorable game. A tight pitcher’s duel, it was tied 2-2 heading into ninth, when ASU scored the go-ahead run. But Texas hit two home runs in the bottom of the ninth to win it, advancing to the championship series.

If you love baseball and can get past the ping of the aluminum bats, you owe it to yourself to make a Rosenblatt pilgrimage next year. I get tired of the sensory overload in most big league ballparks these days (screaming announcers, blaring music, meaningless mascots, bush-league promotions), but the Omaha folks get it. They know this is a big stage, and they let the game sell itself. Between innings at a big league game, someone is usually screaming at you to BUY THIS! Or WATCH THAT! Between innings in Omaha, they play organ music — sweet organ music — as the players go through their warm-ups. On nights like that, I find joy in the subtleties. Following the players’ mannerisms, for example, as the ball is thrown around the horn. (Does the shortstop give a nonchalant flip to the second baseman? Or is he all-business, with a snappy throw and a “We’ll-show-you” point of his glove?)

Warner Park (a.k.a. “The Duck Pond”)
OK, I’m not always a purist. Baseball makes for a good social event, too. We threw my cousin, Brian, a bachelor party on Saturday in Madison, Wis., and took in a Mallards game from one of the Duck Blinds. We had two picnic tables directly behind the right-field wall, almost touching the foul pole. It’s all-you-can-eat — brats, burgers, pulled-pork. And all-you-can-drink — beer, beer, beer, beer and (rumor had it) soda.

I must confess I had little interest in the baseball subtleties on this night. Instead of watching warm-ups, I watched the Mallards mascot prepare to zip-line from right field with the game ball. I missed an inning to buy a goofy yellow, 10-gallon hat that we forced onto the groom’s head for pictures. As for the actual game, I wasn’t even sure who won until checking the box score later on the computer. (Madison 19, Brainerd 8.)

But the Northwoods League is no joke. Alumni include Pat Neshek (Wisconsin 2000), Curtis Granderson (Mankato 2001), Juan Pierre (Manitowoc 1996), George Sherrill (Kenosha 1997-98), Ryan Spilborghs (Madison 2001) and Andre Ethier (Rochester 2002). The league is growing to rival the Cape Cod League, as another stop for collegiate players to swing wood bats in the summer, tuning up for pro careers. Madison announced an average attendance of more than 6,000 per game last season, with St. Cloud at 1,794, Duluth 1,378, Rochester 1,358, Mankato 1,205 and Alexandria 1,119.

Indeed, you don’t have to wait for Target Field to see baseball thrive outside the Metrodome. Whether it’s another big league park, the Midwest League, the Northern League, the Northwoods League or local amateur ball (I could go on and on about the delightful little park in Osceola, Wis., where my wife and I used to watch our nephew play) the Great Midwestern Road Trip continues.

Got a favorite story from the road? Share it below.

Postgame update: Punto’s MRI shows no structural damage

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

MILWAUKEE — Twins second baseman Nick Punto will rejoin the team in St. Louis on Friday after returning to Minnesota on Thursday for an MRI exam, which showed no structural damage in his left rib cage area.

General Manager Bill Smith said Punto is day-to-day. Punto, who has raised his batting average from .187 to .224 this month, suffered the injury on a head-first slide into first base on Saturday against Houston and has missed three of the past four games.

NOTE: La Velle is our point man in St. Louis, so head to his blog for lineups and other updates.

Thursday lineups: Twins/Brewers

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

MILWAUKEE — The Twins are heading into a potential emotional swing game today, after Wednesday night’s stunning 4-3 loss to the Brewers.

A loss would mean dropping back-to-back interleague series, falling two games below .500, and this slump hasn’t come at a good time, with Detroit reeling off six consecutive victories.

It’ll be Scott Baker (4-6, 5.22) vs. Brewers rookie Mike Burns (0-0, 0.00). Burns was called up from Class AAA Nashville, replacing the injured Dave Bush and will be making his first major league start, though he has a 5.46 ERA in 46 career relief appearances.

Another note to ponder: The Twins are 8-17 in day games this season. They’ll have Denard Span back from the disabled list. Assuming he’ll be back in the leadoff spot. I’ll post the lineups ASAP.

Update: Manager Ron Gardenhire said he checked with Joe Mauer and Joe Crede this morning and both gave him the thumbs up to keep them in the lineup for today’s series finale.

Mauer likely will get a break on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis.

Nick Punto has an afternoon appointment, to get his ribs checked, and Gardenhire said Punto or a replacement will be joining the team in St. Louis on Friday. With Alexi Casilla injured at Class AAA Rochester with a sore groin, one possible replacement is Steve Tolleson, though he has committed three errors in recent days.

Matt Tolbert was banged up turning a double play on Wednesday night. Gardenhire said he would have started Michael Cuddyer at second if Tolbert wouldn’t have been able to play, adding that Cuddyer could get a start at second base this weekend in St. Louis.

Update: Kevin Slowey stiffened up a bit after a throwing session Wednesday but made it through another session today just fine, so he’ll make Saturday’s start, as scheduled.

Update: Class AA New Britain outfielder Rene Tosoni, a Toronto native, was selected to play for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game on July 12 in St. Louis.

TWINS (36-37)

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Brendan Harris, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Jason Kubel, LF
6. Michael Cuddyer, RF
7. Joe Crede, 3B
8. Matt Tolbert, 2B
9. Scott Baker, P

BREWERS (38-33)

1. Craig Counsell, 2B
2. Casey McGehee, 3B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Prince Fielder, 1B
5. Corey Hart, RF
6. Mike Cameron, CF
7. J.J. Hardy, SS
8. Jason Kendall, C
9. Mike Burns, P

Miller Park. First pitch: 1:05 p.m.

Postgame: Span activated, Pridie optioned, Twins stunned

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

MILWAUKEE — The Twins activated Denard Span from the 15-day disabled list after tonight’s 4-3 loss to Milwaukee and optioned outfielder Jason Pridie back to Class AAA Rochester. Span had been out with an inner-ear infection.

NOTES FROM A QUIET CLUBHOUSE

Nick Blackburn became the first Twins pitcher to throw back-to-back complete games since Brad Radke did it on June 19, 1998 and June 25, 1998. Before his complete game against Pittsburgh last week, Blackburn had zero complete games for his big league career.

He entered the ninth inning with 84 pitches. By the time Jason Kendall stepped in, Blackburn’s pitch count was at 93. The game-time temperature was 92 degrees. Blackburn had to bat four times, going 0-for-4 at the plate, including an eighth-inning strikeout.

Asked about pitching in the heat on a night he also had to bat, Blackburn said, “It’s weird, I thought I’d thrown a lot more pitches than that. Because usually when you’re out there, especially in the Dome, they don’t sneak up on you like that. I looked up and I think I was at 75 pitches in the seventh inning, which really surprised me. I thought it was 80 or 90-plus. I felt a little more tired, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for me. It kind of helps me stay back at times, get on top of the ball better.”

No matter how you slice it, Blackburn was cruising. He got two quick outs before J.J. Hardy hit his bloop single to center.

Then came Jason Kendall, who has a .279 slugging percentage. That’s lower than several pitchers, including Jeff Suppan, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer and Micah Owings. The Twins had Matt Guerrier warming, but Manager Ron Gardenhire said he gave no thought to pulling Blackburn.

“You can’t really seriously think we’re supposed to take him out,” Gardenhire said. “Don’t even go there. You can’t take Blacky out there; that’s a joke. Don’t even ask that question. Blacky’s in complete control of the baseball game.”

Blackburn said Kendall hit his one “really bad pitch of the night.” The ball sailed high off the left-center field wall. Asked if he thought it was going out, Kendall scoffed saying, “I don’t hit home runs.”

He’s right, he hasn’t hit one all season. I detailed the wild and crazy play in my game story. Brendan Harris and Blackburn were both charged with errors, as both runners scored.

Harris said, “You can chalk that up — a double in the gap and that kind of play — as probably the last thing I expected.”

Asked how the team was taking the loss, Jason Kubel said, “I think we’ll be alright. I think it’s one of those things where nobody can really believe it happened.”

Wednesday lineups: Punto headed back to Minnesota

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

MILWAUKEE — Denard Span returned from Class AAA Rochester and will take batting practice with the Twins today, hoping to be activated from the disabled list Thursday.

Span has a swollen left thumb after getting hit with a pitch Tuesday in his final plate appearance for Rochester, but Manager Ron Gardenhire said, “I think he’ll be fine.”

Nick Punto still has sore ribs, so he’s out of the lineup again tonight after leaving Tuesday’s game in the seventh inning. He’s day-to-day.

Jason Kubel is past his flu symptoms and headaches, or at least enough to be back in the lineup. It’s going to be tough for him, and all of these guys to handle the severe heat expected here and in St. Louis over the weekend.

Kubel is in left field, so he won’t get the usual breaks he gets as the designated hitter.

Update: Be sure to check out La Velle’s midweek look around the Twins farm system.

Update: Punto will return to Minnesota on Thursday for a precautionary MRI exam of his rib cage. Gardenhire described the injury as cramping before the game, but the team is clearly searching for answers. Punto injured his ribs with a head-first slide into first base on Saturday against Houston.

TWINS (36-36)

1. Carlos Gomez, CF
2. Brendan Harris, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Jason Kubel, LF
6. Michael Cuddyer, RF
7. Joe Crede, 3B
8. Matt Tolbert, 2B (Corrected)
9. Nick Blackburn, P

BREWERS (37-33)

1. Craig Counsell, 2B
2. Mat Gamel, 3B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Prince Fielder, 1B
5. Corey Hart, RF
6. Mike Cameron, CF
7. J.J. Hardy, SS
8. Jason Kendall, C
9. Braden Looper, P

Miller Park. First pitch: 7:05 p.m.