The easy thing to do Wednesday night would have been to fall back, play it safe and know that a lesser team than the Yankees would be coming to town for the next 4 games. Instead, Gardy seemed intent on seeing what he could learn about his players, whether some of the things they were able to do in the final months of 2006 would carry over to this season. Would another Yankees blowout have been a surprise? Would there some satsifaction in just keeping the score close?
Gardy learned that Ramon Ortiz has guts and heart to match the enthusiasm that he’s brought to the mound in his first 2 starts. To watch a 33-year-old man — who has struggled so completely the last few years — pound his glove, jump around and celebrate success is a joyful reminder of watching 11-year-old Little Leaguers celebrate beating the team from the next town over. And to watch him knock Derek Jeter off the plate and flummox A-Rod and totally confuse the gifted Robinson Cano makes you want to schedule an after-work nap for Monday so that you don’t fall asleep during his next start at Seattle. (That’ll be Ortiz vs. the phenom Felix Hernandez, by the way.) Three singles and 1 walk in 8 innings. It was positively Santanian. And it was kind of sweet to see the Dome crowd cheer when Ortiz made Jeter stumble off the plate with that up-and-in heater. Were you watching, Boof?
What else did Gardy learn? Maybe to keep trusting the gut that got him here — and will sometimes get him into trouble. Sending Luis Castillo on the first pitch after he walked to lead off the bottom of the 8th, for example, is not by-the-book managing, especially for a team that’s been mistake-prone on the bases. The numbers showed it to be a reasonable risk, in that 15 of the previous 19 base-stealing attempts against Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth had been successful (going back to 2005).The steal set up the bombs that followed, the extra-base hits that turned a 1-1 tie into a 5-1 lead, and made it less significant that Nick Punto failed to bunt the runner along.
Gardy learned that it might be a good idea to keep Alexi Casilla around for a while, at least until Jason Bartlett gets his act together. There was a solid hit early on and a would-have-been triple in the 7th except that some guy named Mientkiewicz made one of those stops on a low liner that was headed for the right-field corner. And Casilla was just fine in the field. Not saying that Bartlett should make the bench his home, but it would be good for the competitive juices to have another real shortstop on the roster.
There was faith shown in Jason Kubel, who got a hit and didn’t mess up in the field this time, although I found myself doing a little gasp when balls were hit toward left field. He made 1 of the night’s 2 baserunning blunders, not getting to 3rd on a single by Luis Rodriguez that would have out the Twins in position to forge a tie earlier than they did. He’ll likely make more mistakes, but the risk is that his bat will be worth the learning curve. Torii Hunter did the team-leader thing, it looked like, when he chatted up Kubel as they went out to their defensive positions for the next inning. (Note to Rodriguez: Jeter has more range than you do, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise he got to that pop fly where you got doubled off second.)
And for all the frustration about the lack of offense from the heart of the order, it was the combo punches of Mauer/Cuddyer/Morneau/Hunter that broke open the game in the 8th. After 20 years of Tom Kelly and Gardy running the team, it might be hard for some Twins fans to imagine this, but there are some managers who would have already been tinkering with their lineup based on 4 early-season games of offensive futility. Gardy’s moves have been around the edges — getting bench players at-bats and rewarding those who’ve done well with an encore. Nos. 3 through 6 have already shown Gardy what they got.
And Gardy has given up the 3-catcher thing for now. With Jesse Crain sore and Juan Rincon unavailable, Chris Heintz was replaced on the roster after the game by Glen Perkins. If Kubel is going to get a shot at playing left field most days for a while, that means Gardy can use Josh Rabe as DH against lefties if he wants to keep Mike Redmond on the bench. Tampa Bay is starting lefties in the first 2 games of this weekend’s series; it’ll be interesting to see how Gardy goes after them.