From the Dome

The ending we pretty much expected

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Earlier this season, I wrote about how the good things that happen in baseball make me feel very good — and that while the bad things are annoying, the lowest of lows doesn’t come close to rivaling the highest of highs. The Twins can make you numb for a while with the performance they turned in during Game 2 against the Yankees, but I could make a list of a dozen things that happened this season — each of which would outweigh how that loss made me feel. OK, maybe only a half-dozen, but you get the idea.

Yeah, I’m still pretty incredulous that Nick Punto made his heads-down base-running blunder in the eighth inning — rounding third, heading toward home and getting thrown out trying to return on the single that Derek Jeter tracked down behind second base. And I’m even more incredulous that Punto — while being a stand-up guy for talking about the play — cited the crowd reaction to Denard Span’s grounder: “55,000 people screaming, the crowd got me.” We’ll make sure to whisper next time.

Nobody out, tie game, Scott Ullger (the third-base coach) giving the stop sign. It was as if Punto wanted to cement the folly of those who still talk about the Twins “doing the little things right” — and as if Carlos Gomez hadn’t driven home that point with his Game 2 gaffe at second base. Jerry White, the coach responsible for issues on the bases, needs to spend the winter revising his curriculum.

Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out what happened to Jason Kubel, who had one hit and nine strikeouts in the three games. And the whole Joe Nathan thing in Game 2 and the three walks-by-three relievers breakdown in the ninth that let the Yankees extend their lead from 2-1 to 4-1.

And I’m annoyed that it is the Twins who are contributing so mightily to the rehabilitation of A-Rod’s reputation as something other than an October choke artist. Good and annoyed.

So many parts went kablooey over these last three games that it’s a wonder two of them were as competitive as they turned out to be. Face it, kids. The Yankees are the best team in baseball. They won 103 games and pretty much ran off with the best division in baseball. Would they have won 123 if they played in the AL Central? That doesn’t excuse the Minnesota mistakes as much as make me wonder why the games weren’t tennis-match scores — 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.

The best team doesn’t always win in October, but it’s kind of nice to have a No. 7 batter (Robinson Cano), who batted .320 and hit 25 homers, and a No. 8 (Nick Swisher) who had 29 homers and a .371 on-base percentage. How does that compare to Brendan Harris and Jose Morales, the Twins 7/8 guys in Game 3? After the game, a spent-sounding Gardy gave appropriate props to the Yankees while duly noting the breakdowns by Punto and the bullpen.

Some of the fun memories from Game 3 will come from the 54,000 or so people with whom Ms. Baseball and I shared the Metrodome for its last major-league baseball game. These things had little to do with the game. The stadium-wide laughter and “A-Rod” chant following the playing of that public service announcement with the crumbling statue: “Sports are good for a kid’s body. Steroids aren’t.”

The sign in left field my colleague Chris emailed me about about that I’m sure the TBS camera crew opted not to show: These Baseball (announcers) Suck.”

And while I’m not normally a fan of chucklebrains who run on the field during games, I will cite the one Sunday night as the exception that proves the rule. The guy — wearing a powder-blue Blyleven jersey — jumped over the wall between home plate and first, and led more than a dozen security officers on a ninth-inning chase all the way out to the center field wall. He was finally tackled while trying to scale the wall, after one pursuer fell to the ground and several others showed they weren’t quite in chase-down form.

(Ethical disclaimer: Nothing here should be considered an endorsement of running on the field or any other form of game-delaying behavior by spectators. This was simply an epic run, and I am pretending that the motive was simply to get Mariano Rivera’s arm to stiffen during the delay, as opposed to anything that might have been fueled by stupidity borne of alcohol or the man’s parenting.)

So that’s it. The team that thrilled us during the final weeks of the season, and especially in the final days of the regular season, went three-and-out against a better team.  The team that spent five months making us wonder about the depth of their heart and soul, got us all revved up for the stretch drive and teased us with thoughts of playing later into October. The team that has some flaws that need fixing for 2010 (more on that another time) gave us a 2009 to remember.

We were witness to a historic performance by a solid M-V-P candidate. (Sorry, Derek, you’re second) and a fifth division title in eight years. Yes, I want more than division titles in the future. But right now I’m feeling pretty good about the hometown team. I’m happy with the return on my investment of time and energy.

All the more knowing that the next time I see them play, it’ll be outdoors.

Have fun, Yankees. It’ll be interesting to hear you explain why you lost to the Angels.

Maybe the best game ever

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Where to begin?

Maybe at the end, with the unexpected exacta of Carlos Gomez scoring the winning run on a single by Alexi Casilla. If someone had asked you to name the game’s heroes and you picked those two,  I suspect you would have been hauled away for a drug test. And Bobby Keppel as winning pitcher? The same Bobby Keppel who had rung up embarrassing numbers in his previous tries to be a major league pitcher and again last season when his ERA banged up close to 6 in Class AAA. Little wonder he was at the head of the posse to greet Gomez when he scored the winning run.

But go through the box score of this incredible game and you will find pieces of heroics next to many, many names. There was the big stuff — the OC and Kubel home runs, the Cuddyer triple and the marvelous play that Punto made getting the force at home in the 12th. And there was the small stuff — Mauer nursing shaky pitchers through tough times, new hires Rauch and Mahay retiring key batters in brief stints, Gardy getting a clearly overmatched Jose Morales out of the game midway through the game, the Cuddyer walk that chased Tigers starter Rick Porcello. Everyone who batted for the Twins got a hit except for Morales anmd Brendan Harris, who got hit by a pitch instead.

Gardy and Rick Anderson pretty much co-managed their a$$e$ off over those 4 3/4 hours. They ran eight pitchers out to the mound, and worked their way through some unexpected situations. Most notable was Guerrier’s shrinking strike zone in the eighth, which forced Joe Nathan to come in early to get through that inning and the ninth. The trade-off for Gardy taking no chances early was that he was forced to take chances late — keeping Keppel on the mound and warming up Manship and Liriano at times in the late, late going.

Meanwhile, Jim Leyland was more of a minimalist, which meant that his closer, Fernando Rodney, was in his fourth inning of work when Gomez led off with a single and scored on Casilla’s one-out bouncer to right. Had the Twins lost, the “why pull Nathan?” chorus would have been a loud and lengthy one. You know that, right? Both managers had to choose their poisons and then hope they wouldn’t be lethal. Leyland got stung when he opted to keep Zach Miner in for the seventh, when Cabrera hit his home run that moved the Twins into a 4-3 lead that lasted until Magglio Ordonez homered off Guerrier to start the eighth

But enough about the game. For fans, both the buildup and the play itself did a pretty good job of replicating the World Series years while providing a new batch of memorable wrinkles. The Dome got that loud when Cabrera homered, and again at various times as the Twins and Tigers jabbed and danced while looking to deliver a knockout. There was an older man sitting next to me whose eyes were probably better in the ’80s and ’90s, as he often asked me for details so he could fill out his scorecard while we watched from halfway up the second deck. But he was as loud as anyone around us when it came to the cheering part. There was an infant smiling through much of the din whose parents came to the game separately, so when Junior had had enough, one could go and the other could stay. That boy will grow up well-parented.

Our friend Sooze, the Babes Love Baseball blogger, was thrilled that she saw nine innings after a crazed search for parking that caused her not to arrive until the third inning. She was the one with the Spantastic banner in the upper deck and the baseball tattoo on her shoulder. We shouted, we yelped, we took pictures. We called people so they could hear the noise when the winning run scored. We waited with atypical urban patience in the parking lot afterward and didn’t mind a bit.

Perhaps my best move was the TiVo TBS for 5 1/2 hours starting at 4 p.m. So I have the entire fabulous game to watch if I don’t get enough of a highlight fix from ESPN and KSTP over the next few hours. I hope you get a chance to hear Dan Gladden’s radio call of the winning hit. There are no memorable catchphrases — “And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” for example — but it is clean and it is minimal and the excitement is conveyed by tone of voice.

And now the Yankees. I’ll let Game 1 pass before I deal with that. You deal with it, Gardy!

The Twins are on a business trip.

Their fans are on a joy ride.

Keeping hope alive

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

When Delmon Young swung in the first inning last night, it made the kind of sound Twins fans have been waiting for since the beginning of last season — that sweet-sounding thwack that carries back to the seats behind home plate while the baseball carries long and without question over the wall in left-center. The standing ovation Delmon received after giving the Twins that 5-0 lead was the sort of noise that filled the Metrodome in 1987 and ’91, the kind of pounding that the heart loves and the ear (after a while) needs relief from.

Nothing reached that level again, although the Dome was a merry place as the Twins took their 10-0 lead in the fourth inning and an increasingly nervous one as the bullpen set out to remind us of Luis Ayala, Sean Henn, Philip Humber and the others who came and went during the more troubling days of 2009. The crowd was divided between those who were there for the baseball and those who came to say there were there for the final weekend of baseball at the Dome. The latter group were the ones who were filing out of the Metrodome while the Royals pulled uncomfortably closer.

And the scoreboard watching was a game of who-could-see-it-change first. Ms. Baseball and I listened in the car to Scott Podsednik go deep to lead off the White Sox-Detroit game and, in our section, it was a race to overhear who would be the first to call out as the Mighty Whiteys (our term-of-affection for the weekend) added to their lead.

Will the Twins’ best personnel move of this season be that the White Sox made that trade for Jake Peavy?

The task gets tougher today. Nick Blackburn of three days of rest vs. Zack Greinke, who will be trying to nail down the Cy Young Award. You can work hard to pull out numbers that can give you hope — Greinke is 2-9 pitching on artificial turf and 5-7 pitching in Domes, with similarly medicore statistics across the board in those environments. Blackburn has been at his best (a 3.18 ERA) pitching in day games.

But finding those numbers is pretty much like fishing for carp from the dock, hardly an exercise worth pursuing. Greinke has been masterful on a consistent basis and Blackburn has been maddening in his inconsistency, although the 3 earned runs given up in his last 3 starts gives good reason for hope. Best practice today isto throw out the past and let the weekend do its magic.

This is also a day to put aside what happens if the Twins manage to pull off this thing and become the first team since divisional play started 40 years ago to win a division title after trailing by 3 games with only 4 left to play. Let’s bag the “all-this-to-play-the-Yankees” sentiment.

The Twins just need to take it one mountain at a time.

Hey, Alexi, taking pitches can be fun!

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

The biggest at-bat of Alexi Casilla’s 2009 season ended with a walk — thereby allowing him to combine the recent suggestion from the coaching staff (that he take more pitches) with his reply that he just wants to have fun. What were the odds that Casilla (and his .161 average) would be the one ending Mark Buehrle’s incredible streak of 45 straight retired batters? Probably about the same as the horse that turned in the $122 show payoff at Canterbury on Sunday.

It was a great night to be at the Dome. Watching Buehrle cruise and then crumble. Watching the way it happened — with Casilla, Spaen and Mauer tying the game and the rest of the batting order (without exception) combining to break it open. Watching Scott Baker trying to figure out how to avoid Chicago’s bat, throwing 115 pitches in six innings (a trend that must end) while giving up only four hits and not walking anyone.

The Dome had a pennant-race feel on Tuesday, I think, for the first time this season as the Twins moved within two games of Detroit. The one caution, of course, is that this week’s little surge makes it that much more important that the Twins improve their roster before the trading deadline. A middle-infield upgrade and bullpen help remain at the top of the list — the latter all the more because of concerns that Bobby Keppel may be returning to the form that’s made him a career minor-leaguer (12 base runners in his last 3  2/3 innings). I’m hoping it’s only a bubble, but this isn’t a situation to just hope stuff straightens out.

That’s about all the useful information I can share. The day job has left me pretty Farved out right now.

One other thing. I’m glad that Twins fans acknowledged Buehrle’s streak, with the standing ovations when he walked Casilla (Alas, Alexi, those weren’t for you) and again when he left the game. If that had been a Twins pitcher at the Cell, I’m assuming he would have been ducking a Budweiser or three. (At Wrigley Field, of course, the Trendies wouldn’t have even known what was happening.)

More excitement tonight. Enjoy it.

Carlos Gomez, a man who leads a life of danger

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

It’s nice to have fun at the ballpark again. In this case, the object of our merriment is Carlos Gomez, around whom no one was safe at the Metrodome last night.

*In the first inning, Gomez almost got himself killed — smacking into Denard Span on the first play of the game, spending a couple of minutes of the Metrodome turf and getting royal and good-natured grief from teammates in the dugout at the end of the inning. Remember, it was written here two weeks ago that: “…if they played together on a more frequent basis, (Span and Gomez) might stop running into each other on fly balls to left-center.”

*In the second, Gomez launched his bat into the stands on a swing-and-a-miss. From what we could tell, there was a spilled drink, a souvenir and nobody hurt.

*Gomez sent part of his next bat in the general direction of third baseman Gordon Beckham, who dodged the ball and couldn’t handle the grounder that gave Gomez an infield single. As if wary of anything touched by Gomez, White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez also failed to make a clean pick-up.

*Then Gomez turned his attention to White Sox second baseman Jayson Nix, making a savage-and-clean takeout slide that:
a) Caused Nix to throw the ball away for an error.
b) Allowed Brendan Harris to score from second.
c) Kept Nick Punto from the humiliation of an inning-ending double play.

*In the fourth, before flying out to center, Gomez smacked a foul ball off the third-base camera well.

*During his final at-bat in the sixth, he knocked a foul ball off his foot and did the batter’s gimp-around before grounding into a force play.

To Span’s credit, when he went after Josh Fields’ fly ball to left-center in the seventh, he threw out what Ms. Baseball termed a “Heisman Trophy stiff-arm” as he tracked down the ball, keeping Gomez a safe distance away as the play was made. That was the opening act to Span’s sprint-to-the-wall catch in the ninth that greatly aided Joe Nathan’s one-two-three closeout.

Seriously, the Gomez take-out slide was a statement kind of play that provoked the most excitement from the dugout, with the obvious exception of the Michael Cuddyer home run in the sixth that gave the Twins a 4-3 lead and ended the scoring. It also continued a fun-to-watch inning of White Sox self-mutilation that included an A.J. Pierzynski passed ball, the Nix error, Paul Konerko missing a catch on a throw from his pitcher for an error and a throw into center field when Alexi Casilla stole second base (after reaching on the Konerko error.) The inning turned A.J. peevish and got Ozzie Guillen to kick the bucket (of dugout bubble gum) in frustration.

Speaking of Cuddyer, I’m sure the skeptics could easily find someone to replace a guy who’s on a 28-homer pace and provides some veteran stability on a team that has been flying all over the place. You have to accept that, as a right-handed power hitter, he’s sometimes going to look silly at the plate and probably going to strike out in triple figures (17 homers, 74 strikeouts so far).  Hey, not everyone can be Joe Mauer (17 and 41).

Alas, we also saw the low moment of the season at the Dome last night. Astute judges of humanity that we are in Section 220, I turned to Ms. Baseball when the seventh-inning trivia contestant appeared on the scoreboard and said, “This guy looks like he could miss the first question.”

And, yes, given two chances, the gentleman failed to answer correctly, “How many different hits are in the cycle.”

In Section 220, that man is now known as the Alexi Casilla of Twins Trivia.