Phil Miller covered three seasons of Twins baseball, but that was at a different ballpark for a different newspaper. Now Miller returns to the baseball beat after joining the Star Tribune as the Gopher football writer in 2010, and he won't miss the dingy dome for a minute. In addition to the Twins and Gophers, Miller covered the Utah Jazz and the NBA for six years at The Salt Lake Tribune.
A weird game to open a weeklong road trip. Here are four leftover examples:
COLLISION ON THE BASES: Ron Gardenhire was ejected over one strange play Tuesday night, but it wasn't the only odd happening. For one thing, Trevor Plouffe stole a base, the first time he's even tried since last August. But the weirdest play came in the fifth inning. After a one-out double by Danny Santana and a single by Sam Fuld, Brian Dozier lined another single at Alex Gordon in left, scoring Santana. But as Fuld rounded second base, he ran into Royals second baseman Omar Infante, and third-base umpire Alfonso Marquez quickly stopped play and awarded Fuld third base and Dozier second. K.C. manager Ned Yost came out to argue, saying that because Fuld stopped once the collision occurred, no more bases should be awarded. But part of the reason that Fuld stopped was that Infante had obstructed his view of Gordon making the play, so he was placed on third. It ultimately didn't matter; the next batter, Josh Willingham, was hit by a pitch to load the bases, but Chris Parmelee grounded into a double play, ending the inning before the Twins could capitalize further.
WEB GEM FOR HAMMER: Speaking of Willingham, he made a couple of unusual contributions, too. In the first inning, with three infielders on the left side, Willingham defied the shift and grounded a single to right -- just his second hit to the opposite field all season. And in the ninth inning, after Glen Perkins gave up two sharp hits to open the inning, Willingham came racing in to make a shoestring catch of Salvador Perez's sinking liner, perhaps the defensive play of the night. Had Perez's hit fallen, the Royals would have had three shots at tying the game.
FOUR PITCHES TOO MANY: Kyle Gibson's retired the side in the seventh by getting Perez to fly out on the first pitch, Gordon to ground out on an 0-and-1 count, and Billy Butler to ground out on the first pitch. That gave him 95 pitches on the night -- and hopes of going another inning. "that was exactly what was going through my head. I was like, all right, perfect -- walking off the field after seven, had a quick seventh, hopefully they'll let me go back out," Gibson said. "But being on the 10 days of rest, they just wanted to make sure I didn't go out for an extra inning and get tighter." So his night was over, a contrast to his opponent's. Royals starter James Shields needed 124 pitches to get through six innings, the most pitches he's ever thrown in his two seasons in Kansas City. He also failed on his fourth attempt at his 10th win.
IT'S ALL ON THE VIDEO: Gibson ended the third inning by picking off Alcides Escobar, an out that happened because of something he noticed while watching video during his layoff. "I felt like I was getting a little predictable in my timing. I was doing the same things, going home," Gibson said. "I don't want to talk too much about what I saw on video, but that's what I thought about on the pickoff: 'OK, you just saw some video, do what you normally do going home, and keep that same timing.' " He did, then suddenly turned to first, and caught Escobar scrambling back to the bag.
It's interesting to watch the little side effects that are becoming apparent in Major League Baseball's replay-challenge system. Some things we didn't expect are becoming the most noticeable aspects of the system, while the seamless, barely-notice-it's-there process that baseball hoped for hasn't happened yet. The Twins know all about that -- they've already had two lengthy replay delays in the season's first week, and both of them affected Kevin Correia's pitching.
The long delay to get a ruling on today's fair ball / foul ball call actually made sense to me, since it was extremely difficult to see on the replay. It was one of those plays where you have to determine whether the ball disappears behind the pole or remains visible, and I'm not surprised it took a few minutes of checking the various replays to make certain.
Those sort of replay delays shouldn't be too common; that's not the slow-down-the-game problem that is developing. No, the real way the game will be delayed, it turns out, is by the number of times managers come out of the dugout after a close play and stall while awaiting word from their clubhouse if the play is worth challenging, if there is evidence to overturn the call. The fact that one side or the other may dispute just about every close call, even if they ultimately don't challenge it, might turn out to be the bigger problem.
Then there's the slowness, the clunkiness of the process itself. Asking for a replay, walking over to the dugouts and putting the headsets on just seems too ceremonial, too formal. Why not equip one of the base umpires with a headset he wears the entire game, and let him simply get an answer ASAP when a play is challenged? This is a problem in the NFL, too; the process of running off the field delays the action on it.
Still, you don't hear anyone complaining about getting the calls right. The problem is with the time of games, and that's not just a replay problem. The firt three innings of today's game took more than 90 minutes, and that wasn't all because of the replay.
UPDATED UPDATE: After about 75 minutes of waiting, much of it in bright sunshine, the storm came and went in about 15 minutes. The tarp is being rolled out, and players have begun to troop into the dugout. The Indians intend to conduct their Opening Day ceremony as planned, and have announced that first pitch should occur around 4:15 CDT. That's about two hours, 10 minutes after its schedule start time.
UPDATE: The Indians just put the weather radar on their scoreboard to illustrate for fans why, though it's not raining at the moment, the game will not start as scheduled at 2 p.m. CDT. There's another line of storms moving into the area, but it looks relatively clear once it passes. So the tarp is on the field, and we're awaiting the rain, in hopes of playing the game without interruption afterward. The team has made no guess yet about when the game will begin.
CLEVELAND -- Greetings from Progressive Field, where the rain that soaked Chicago yesterday has followed the Twins for another day. The grounds crew pulled the tarp off the field about an hour ago, but the rain has returned and the infield is covered once more. The forecast says the rain will return intermittently all day, but we expect to get the game in. It's the Indians' home opener, after all.
Talk in the clubhouse before the game was about Ron Gardenhire and his pursuit of 1,000 victories, which has taken longer than anticipated, to say the least. The Twins' 3-16 finish to 2013 stalled the manager at 998 wins, and the Twins took just one of three in Chicago to open the season. Gardenhire's wife Carol is on the trip to witness the milestone, and the manager joked before the game that she had no intention of coming to Cleveland. But here she is.
And here are the Twins, arriving on the same day the Indians announce they've locked up one of their cornerstone players, second baseman Jason Kipnis, with a six-year, $52.5 million contract. He'll bat third today for Cleveland, in front of new third baseman Carlos Santana, their converted catcher. Interestingly, the Indians are using their previous third baseman, Lonnie Chisenhall, as the designated hitter, batting ninth.
The Twins' DH is Chris Colabello, getting his first start against a right-handed pitcher, Danny Salazar. Colabello's six-RBI performance on Thursday moved him into second place in the American League in RBIs.
Here are the lineups for today's game, a schedule 2:05 p.m. (CDT) first pitch:
As cold as it will be today at Target Field, it could be a lot worse, according to Joe Mauer. The Twins' catcher said the coldest professional game he ever played was also a season opener, at Class A Quad Cities -- that would make it April 2002.
"It was opening night, and we ended up going 17 innings into the night," said Mauer, who remembers catching all 17 innings. "But we won. We were probably the first ones off the field. Shook everybody's hands and went inside."
Justin Morneau wasn't at that game, but he remembers the 2001 opener in Quad Cities also being the coldest game he's ever played. "I bet you it was in the teens, with the wind chill -- blowing snow and freezing cold," Morneau said. "But you know what? We survived."
The Twins hope to do that today against Justin Verlander, the Tigers' ace, a former MVP and Cy Young winner, who oddly enough has never won any of his five previous Opening Day starts. Verlander is 12-7 with a 3.21 ERA against the Twins in his career -- he's 7-1 with a 1.70 ERA over the past three seasons -- and has just signed a $180 million contract.
"If anybody has an advantage in the weather, it's the pitcher, because they control the tempo. They're moving, their heart is pumping, they're out there with the flow and staying loose every single pitch. Whether it affects him, I have no idea," Morneau said of Verlander. "We’ve seen over the last couple years, early, he won’t pitch as hard. Later in the game when he needs it, he’ll dial it up. Whether or not he’s able to do that, I guess we’ll find out."
And Morneau, who grew up in Canada, knows how to prepare for the low temperatures -- it's 26 as I write this, with the wind blowing toward right field.
"Sometimes you put too many layers on, you feel like you can't move," he said. "I'm just going to put hot sauce all over and throw some long sleeves on and some long johns and go out there and run around and enjoy it. We talked about it a little bit. We have all the cold weather gear now. It’s not really an issue, I don’t think.”
Ron Gardenhire and Scott Ullger are in the outfield at the moment, hitting fly balls (or trying to -- accuracy isn't easy) off the wall to give the outfielders some experience with the caroms. Here are the lineups for the first game of the 2013 season, which opens at 3:10 p.m.:
Austin Jackson, CF
Torii Hunter, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Prince Fielder, 1B
Victor Martinez, DH
Andy Dirks, LF
Jhonny Peralta, SS
Alex Avila, C
Omar Infante, 2B
Justin Verlander, P
Aaron Hicks, CF
Joe Mauer, C
Josh Willingham, LF
Justin Morneau, 1B
Ryan Doumit, DH
Trevor Plouffe, 3B
Chris Parmelee, RF
Brian Dozier, 2B
Pedro Florimon, SS
Vance Worley, P
Justin Morneau got his way.
The Twins' slugger sent a text message to Ron Gardenhire on Monday after getting a glimpse of Tuesday's lineup. Morneau was listed as the Twins' designated hitter for today's game, so he texted Gardenhire asking to play first base instead.
Sure enough, Morneau is listed in the official lineup here in Dunedin as the cleanup hitter, and first baseman. Chris Colabello, originally scheduled to play first, is now the DH.
Now, Morneau just needs a game to play in.
The Twins' buses arrived in Dunedin during a pouring rain, and more is in the forecast. The wet weather let up for a moment, and ushers began wiping off the seats and the grounds crew began pulling the tarp off the field in hopes of holding batting practice, and eventually a game. But the rain quickly resumed, and the field is covered once more. It's too early to tell whether the Twins and Blue Jays will play their noon CT exhibition game.
There's plenty of interesting storylines if they do, beginning with the mere presence of Morneau and Joe Mauer. Both made the long bus ride here, a rare occurrence this early in the spring, but an indication of how much importance they place on being ready for the World Baseball Classic, which starts in 10 days.
Meanshile, Trevor Plouffe is in the lineup for the first time this spring, his sore calf apparently healed.
Mike Pelfrey, whose absolute confidence that he'll be ready when the season starts, is scheduled to throw the first couple of innings, another big step on his journey back from Tommy John surgery.
And all three major candidates for the Twins' center field job are in the lineup today. Aaron Hicks is leading off in center, Darin Mastroianni is batting second and playing left, and Joe Benson bats seventh and plays right.
Here's the Twins' lineup: Hicks CF; Mastroianni LF; Mauer C; Morneau 1B; Plouffe 3B; Colabello DH; Benson RF; Dozier 2B; Florimon SS. Pelfrey P, followed by some combination of Pressly, Robertson, Roenicke, Wood, Slama, Perdomo, Tonkin or Thielbar.
Check back here for updates on the game and the weather. You can also follow me on Twitter -- @MillerStrib.
CLEVELAND -- Tsuyoshi Nishioka was as relaxed as I've ever seen him before Monday night's game against the Indians.
There was no sign of the jitters that were painfully evident as soon as he hit the field, going 0-for-5 with two errors.
The game itself reminded me of his 2011 debut on Opening Day in Toronto. The ball found him right away, and he instantly looked frazzled. Tonight's first-inning error was an all-timer.
But for what it's worth, Nishioka seemed completely composed before the game, after arriving from Class AAA Rochester. He did plenty of interviews after leaving Japan for the major leagues last year, but the sessions never produced as much laughter as the one he conducted Monday.
Besides focusing on baseball in Rochester, Nishioka worked on overcoming the language barrier, too.
“I think I learned a lot of English -- and Spanish as well,” Nishioka said in words translated from Japanese by Ryo Shinkawa. “I learned a lot of English, so I’ll start reading newspapers now, and I’ll know what you guys are writing. So don’t be too hard on me.”
Nishioka, 28, smiled as he said this. To prove his point, he answered some of the American media’s questions in English. Asked if he was happy in Rochester, Nishioka quickly said, “Not happy.”
He paused to let the laughter subside, then explained in Japanese: “The staff down there was great. Geno [Manager Gene Glynn] and Bruno [hitting coach Tom Brunansky] -- I think they had to do a lot for me to keep my motivation up and maintain it throughout the season.”
Last year was a struggle for Nishioka on and off the field. He broke his leg and struggled when he returned, posting a .278 on-base percentage and making 12 errors in 68 games. His then-wife had their first baby in August, and the couple divorced over the offseason.
In Rochester, he gradually found more of a comfort level for the American game, not to mention American culture. His batting average by month went: .203 (April), .205 (May), .255 (June), .298 (July) and .071 (in three August games).
He committed six errors in 70 games at second base, and three errors in 14 games at shortstop. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the plan is to give Nishioka regular playing time at second.
“That’s what he was playing down there and playing very well,” Gardenhire said before the game. “All the reports have been that he’s playing fantastic baseball and having quality at-bats and playing solid defense. So I’m excited to see if he can carry that right into here.”
After the game, Gardenhire chalked up Nishioka's first-inning error to nerves and complimented him on his at-bats. The manager sounded undeterred in his plan to keep giving Nishioka playing time, but you have to wonder how long the Twins will let this go.
They are playing their best baseball of the season, and now they've got a guy who looked completely out of sorts patrolling the middle infield. That might change. Perhaps Nishioka will compose himself like he did in Rochester, but I'd have to think this must happen sooner rather than later.
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