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.
Three more leftovers after after the Twins fell behind Tampa Bay in the wild-card standings Saturday:
WHERE AM I THROWING? The Twins turned five groundballs into double plays for just the seventh time in team history on Saturday, and they could have tied the franchise record for DPs had Brian Dozier not bobbled Jose Molina's hard grounder in the sixth inning. Or so I thought. Turns out, Dozier wasn't planning to try for two outs during that first-and-third situation, not down by three runs. His plan originally was to throw the ball home and try to get Logan Forsythe at the plate. "That was the plan at first, but [Molina] hit it to my left, caught me in an in-between hop," Dozier said. "So I can't tell you if I was going to [throw home] or not. I saw [Forsythe] running in my peripheral, so I knew he was going, but when I had to step back, I didn't know if I was going that way, because it would have been a risky throw from my heels." Didn't matter anyway when he briefly juggled the ball. Dozier, with a disappointed look on his face, threw to first to retire Molina but concede the run.
DEFENSE HOLDING STEADY: The Twins strong defense doesn't end with the double plays, either. Their errorless streak was snapped at nine straight games on Saturday when center fielder Danny Santana overran Sean Rodriguez's single in the seventh inning, but their infield has been making all the plays lately. Nno matter how you feel about errors as a gauge of defense -- they're pretty worthless, true -- it's still remarkable given the fact that the Twins have been playing Kendrys Morales, Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello, not the most nimble fielders, at first base since Joe Mauer was hurt. Colabello even saved Trevor Plouffe from being charged with an error tonight, digging out a tough short-hop throw to end the fifth inning. The Twins may not have above-average range anywhere but in center field and second base, but they're making most of the plays, at least.
IT'S REAL RELIEF: It's getting lost in the disappointing series to open the second half, but the Twins' bullpen is on a roll. Jared Burton and Casey Fien pitched a scoreless inning apiece Saturday, meaning the Twins' pen has allowed only eight runs in its last 47 innings, a 1.53 ERA. Just three walks and 31 strikeouts in that time, too. But bullpens mean little if the starters aren't effective, just as good defense doesn't matter much if the offense collects only three runs in two games.
Fans who arrived early this afternoon saw a heartening sign for the Twins: Joe Mauer was on the field, playing catch and taking a few ground balls. The Twins' first baseman, who strained an oblique muscle in his side on July 1, had not done any baseball activities since then, so this is a significant step. But Mauer still feels the muscle strain when he yawns or sneezes, manager Ron Gardenhire said, so he's still a few days away from being able to swing a bat.
Meanwhile, for the third time in two seasons, Phil Hughes will face David Price tonight, but this time, Hughes has a new team behind him. The Hughes-Price matchup occurred twice last season, with Hughes, then a Yankee, getting no decision in a 4-3 win on April 23, then absorbing the loss in an 8-3 Rays victory on Sept. 25, his last start for New York.
Hughes is a different pitcher this year, the premier control artist in the AL, with just 11 walks allowed in 121 2/3 innings. Price, who is 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA in eight career starts against the Twins, is reportedly winding up his Tampa Bay career; most baseball observers expect him to be dealt before the July 31 trade deadline.
Price and Hughes both have reverse splits this season, meaning they have been hit harder by like-handed hitters -- the opposite of most pitchers. Hughes is the most extreme example, allowing right-hander to hit .335 against him, while lefties hit just .231. Which is why Rays manager Joe Madden has loaded his lineup with righthanders, even sitting outfielder Matt Joyce, who is 7-for-15 lifetime against Hughes, with two home runs. First baseman James Loney is the lone left-hander that Hughes will face.
The Twins' lineup isn't quite as extreme, but Josh Willingham won't face the left-handed Price, though Chris Parmelee will. Chris Colabello is at first base, his first activity since a pinch-hitting appearance last Sunday.
Here are the lineups for today's 6:10 p.m. start:
The All-Star Game is over, so the postgame notes don't involve Derek Jeter, Adam Wainwright or Glen Perkins. But here are three:
SEEING THE WHOLE FIELD: Is it too late to put Brian Dozier on the All-Star team? The Twins' second baseman made a couple of outstanding defensive plays again on Friday, including a double play that started when he jumped up to take a bad-hop grounder off his chest, then flipped it to second base before he came down again. But even better than that was a heads-up play that prevented a run in the third inning. With Evan Longoria on second base, James Loney hit what looked like a ground-ball single to center. But Dozier came roaring over into short center field, knocked the ball down, then jumped to his feet and fired home. With two outs, Longoria was rounding third and heading home, and the throw easily beat him to the plate to end the inning. "He came out of nowhere and makes a nice play," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Plays like that, that's just seeing the whole field and seeing a play develop. That's kind of above what most guys can do out there."
HE'S NOT SUPERMAN: Oswaldo Arcia's night on defense wasn't quite so smooth. Longoria hit a bases-loaded drive to the warning track in right-center field, and the second-year outfielder hustled over to track the ball down. But as he reached the ball, Arcia took an awkward leap at it, and the ball got past him, untouched, for a three-run double. Gardenhire said it was too tough a play to expect Arcia to make. "I mean, we're not talking about Superman here," he said. "Can he catch it? I don't know, but that's not an easy play. A rocket hit to the wall, and you're on a dead sprint. He gave it an effort and tried for it, just didn't catch it."
SWINGS AND FEW MISSES: The numbers say Kyle Gibson got hit hard on Friday, and his ERA puffed up from 3.92 to 4.19 by giving up six runs in six innings. But actually, Gibson pitched pretty well, keeping the ball down and getting ground balls -- 15 outs on the ground, not too bad. He allowed nine hits, but only a handful were hit hard, and he was especially efficient, throwing only 88 pitches. Getting behind Evan Longoria 2-and-0, and Ben Zobrist 3-and-1 were the big mistakes, because he responded both times with fastballs over the middle. Gibson struck out the first batter of the game, then didn't record another whiff. He's got only eight strikeouts in his last five starts. Does that worry him? No, Gibson said, because if he gets quick outs, he can go deeper into games. His point is true, but one thing he might consider: With so many balls put into play, hits and runs are inevitable, even on weak contact, as Tampa Bay proved Friday. Mixing in a few more strikeouts might cut down on the number of scoring chances he faces.
Danny Santana went 0-for-11 in his rehab assignment with Class A Fort Myers, but the results weren't what the Twins were concerned about. The versatile rookie appeared totally recovered from the knee bruise he suffered in Anaheim last month, even stole a base Thursday night, and he convinced the decision-makers that he's ready to return to the major leagues.
He'll start in center field tonight, a position he's still learning, but will get playing time at his natural position of shortstop, too, manager Ron Gardenhire said.
"We'll get him back to the infield. He's an infielder by trade," Gardenhire said. Most importantly, though, "he was our ignitor before he got hurt. He was doing some things that were fun to watch. Hopefully he'll get back to that." To make room for Santana, catcher Chris Herrmann was returned to Class AAA Rochester.
Santana and his .328 batting average, with 16 RBIs, are back in the leadoff spot tonight as the Twins open a 10-game homestand against the Rays, Indians and White Sox. If the Twins are going to make themselves relevant, this figures to be when it's got to happen. "We've got to work our way to .500 first," Gardenhire said, not an easy task since they're currently 44-50.
Here are the lineups for tonight's 7:10 p.m. start:
Major League Baseball and the players union are in agreement that the replay system is largely working as planned, that the length of games needs to be addressed, though not drastically, and that smokeless tobacco use should be discourage -- but perhaps not outlawed.
"We have to address [tobacco] against the backdrop of it being legal," Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association told a luncheon of baseball writers on Tuesday. But "we believe the numbers suggest usage has declined considerably in the major leagues."
Clark also said that the penalizes for signing free agents, a system that eventually delivered Kendrys Morales to the Twins in June because it discouraged teams from signing him to a long-term contract, is a concern of the players union -- but probably not reason enough to alter the system before the collective bargaining system is renegotiated in 2016.
"We're always willing to have a conversation. But to re-open the [current] agreement, that would be difficult," Clark said. "But that will be one of the issues near the top of our agenda" in 2016.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who also conducted a question-and-answer session with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, said he receives weekly updates on time-of-game statistics, and has a few ideas in the works about speeding up games, though he's not ready to reveal them. The players, Clark said, are interested in considering those ideas, but cautioned that "there's always something happening, even when it doesn't look like it."
And both sides are enthusiastic about the success of baseball's new replay system, which Joe Torre, executive vice president of baseball operations, said has overturned calls on 47 percent of challenges. "It's worked beyond my expectations," Selig said.
Added Clark, "the cooperation between baseball, the players and umpires has led to the rough edges being smoothed out."
Torre also said he is talking to managers to clarify the new rule designed to avoid home-plate collisions, and said the rule won't be overturned. It may require educating umpires and players, however, to clear up confusion, he said.
Trevor May's calf injury won't allow him to pitch in Target Field on Sunday after all. But another future Twin will get a chance instead.
Alex Meyer, the Twins' top-rated pitching prospect in the high minors, has been selected to the U.S. roster for the Futures Game on Sunday, organizers of the game announced Monday. Meyer, 5-4 this season with a 3.67 ERA in 17 starts for Class AAA Rochester, takes the place of May, who was named to the team two weeks ago but then suffered an injury that has him on the seven-day disabled list.
The Twins had expressed hope that May, 8-4 with a 2.94 ERA at Rochester, would recover in time to pitch this weekend, but his recovery ran out of time. Meyer, acquired from Washington for Denard Span in 2012, is ranked the No. 32 prospect in minor-league baseball by Baseball America, and the third-highest Twins pitcher.
Meyer will compete against a couple of Twins prospects on the world team: pitcher Jose Berrios, who was promoted to Class AA New Britain this week and is ranked No. 27 by Baseball American, and New Britain first baseman Kennys Vargas.
The Futures Game will be played at 4 p.m. Sunday at Target Field and televised live by MLB Network.
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