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.
DETROIT -- Of all the teams he's faced this season, Ricky Nolasco has been most effective against the Detroit Tigers. The Kansas City Royals are counting on that to continue tonight.
Nolasco owns a 2.03 ERA in two starts against the Tigers this season, including eight shutout innings at Target Field on Sept. 16. If he can do something similar tonight, when he faces Tigers rookie Kyle Lobstein, the AL Central race will come down to the season's final day -- or longer. The Royals trail Detroit by one game, and face the White Sox tonight in Chicago. If there is a tie, a one-game playoff will take place Monday, with the winner advancing to the division series, and the loser forced into the wild-card playoff game.
So there's actual pennant-race pressure in Comerica Park, and the Twins are enjoying their chance to take part, even from last place. "I'm going to approach it as a must-win," said Kyle Gibson, who will start the finale on Sunday. "You can learn a lot from seeing this kind of pressure."
Here are the lineups for tonight's game:
V. Martinez DH
J.D. Martinez LF
A.J. Achter and his first big-league win were the story tonight, but there were others. Here are a few leftovers:
FIRST-PITCH COOKIE: It took the Twins only two pitches to take a lead against Rick Porcello on Friday. Danny Santana whacked the first pitch of the game to the fence in left-center for a double, and he scored when Brian Dozier lined Porcello's next pitch into left field. The double was a bit of a breakthrough for the Twins' leadoff hitter, manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've been talking to him about being a leadoff hitter, taking pitches and everything. But we also talked to him about, if they throw a cookie [on the] first pitch, hit it," Gardenhire said. "And today, he had a big smile on his face, because that's the first time he's done that in a long time -- swung at first pitch and actually whacked it." He has a point: Santana has only put the first pitch in play 33 times all season, but he is 17-for-33 (.515) when he does so.
NO GET-ME-OVERS: Anthony Swarzak sounded like a man who has a new approach -- never give in -- after his four-plus-inning start on Friday. "I gave it everything I had out there. I didn't take one pitch off. there wasn't one get-me-over [pitch] tonight," he said. "I went at them with my best stuff, and they strung some hits together in a row at the end." He didn't allow a hit through the first three innings, but ended up surrendering three runs. "I felt great. The first three innings speak for themselves, and even the fourth and fifth inning, I felt great. To be honest, I just couldn't execute with two strikes."
GARDY DEFENDS BUNT: With the Twins leading 4-0 in the fourth inning, Chris Herrmann led off with a double and Aaron Hicks drew a walk. Gardenhire then ordered Eduardo Escobar to sacrifice, and his bunt moved the runners up to second and third. Danny Santana struck out, but when Brian Dozier's slow roller to third resulted in a bad throw by third baseman Nick Castellanos (though first baseman Miguel Cabrera probably should have caught the bounce), both runners scored. Gardenhire has heard from critics, on his radio show and elsewhere, who don't like sacrifice bunts, so he was ready to defend the bunt after the game. "I know people hate it when we bunt. Everybody says the stats and numbers tell you not to do it," he said with tongue in cheek. "But you know what, when you put pressure on the defense, they've got to make a perfect play. It didn't happen, we scored runs, so ha-ha!"
DETROIT -- Another Twins pitcher makes his final start of the season tonight, only this one isn't a starter. Anthony Swarzak wraps up his third full season in the Twins' bullpen by getting another fill-in start for Tommy Milone as the Twins try to delay Detroit's division-winning celebration by another day.
It's Swarzak's fourth start of the season, and third in a row since Milone came down with a tired arm and a stiff neck in mid-September, allowing the 29-year-old righthander to escape his bullpen role temporarily. "The wonderful thing about him is you can use him in all kinds of different ways," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He can throw 50 pitches and two days later, he's back in the bullpen and ready to do it again."
Swarzak will face Tigers righthander Rick Porcello as Detroit tries to reduce its magic number to clinch the AL Central from 2 to 0 and set up an ALDS series with Baltimore next week. Gardenhire hopes Swarzak picked up a blueprint for how to pitch against these Tigers last night from Trevor May.
"He's got to use that change-up. We saw May last night, once he got into using that change-up, it got them off of everything," Gardenhire said. "[May's] change-up was very good, he got a lot of big outs with it, and Swarzie's going to have to do the same thing."
It wouldn't be surprising to see Milone pitch too, in relief of Swarzak. A cortisone shot has taken care of the neck pain, Milone believes, and the Twins would like to get him an inning or two to send him into the off-season certain of his healthy.
Jordan Schafer remains out of action with a nerve problem in his right elbow, so Chris Herrmann gets another start in left field, and Eduardo Escober moves to third base once again, filling in for Trevor Plouffe. Here are tonight's lineups from Comerica Park:
V. Martinez DH
J.D. Martinez LF
A trio of leftovers as the Twins head into the season's final weekend:
COULD HAVE USED HIM: Jordan Schafer hyperextended his right elbow while swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle 10 days ago, and it might have cost the Twins the game on Thursday. Without Schafer, manager Ron Gardenhire had to use Chris Herrmann in left field, and his place in the lineup hurt the Twins repeatedly. Schafer is 3-for-8 in his career against Tigers starter Max Scherzer, but far more important, he's a more accomplished offensive player than Herrmann, who owns a career batting average of .191. In the second inning, Scherzer walked a pair of hitters, but got Herrmann looking by blowing a 96-mph fastball by him. Two innings later, Oswaldo Arcia was on third base, but Scherzer stranded him there by whiffing Herrmann again. And in the sixth inning, with Scherzer's pitch count climbing above 100, Kurt Suzuki led off with a solid single. But Scherzer blew another fastball by Herrmann for strike three, and the inning amounted to nothing. Maybe a healthy Schafer collects a hit, or puts the ball in play, during one of those at-bats, and the Twins add another run or two.
NAGGING INJURY: Speaking of Schafer, he sounded a little bewildered that his elbow is still bothering him. "I've been trying to battle through it, but it just hasn't gotten better yet," he said. "Let's see how I feel tomorrow." The utility outfielder is only 4-for-23 since suffering the injury, so it might be hampering him.
FINISH WITH A FLOURISH: Trevor May didn't exactly outduel Max Scherzer on Thursday, but it sort of seemed like it, especially since he walked only one batter (and it was intentional) to Scherzer's four. But the rookie ended with a flourish. After giving up a two-out double to Victor Martinez in the sixth, and putting J.D. Martinez on once the count got to 3-1, May engaged in a 10-pitch battle with Nick Castellanos. May clearly wanted to keep the Tigers within one run of the Twins, and finally, with a 3-2 fastball, he got Castellanos to swing through a pitch. "To come and get that big strikeout there to get out of that inning was huge for him," Gardenhire said. "That's a great way to end the season. He's pitched a lot of innings, and that's a great way to go about your business at the end. It was an important out, and now he leaves on a good note here."
DETROIT -- The Twins offered Phil Hughes a chance to retire one more batter this season and earn a $500,000 bonus. But "it just didn't feel right," he decided.
A sudden eighth-inning rainstorm on Wednesday cost Hughes a chance to pitch the ninth inning, and his season ended after pitching 209 2/3 innings -- or one out short of his half-million-dollar bonus for 210 innings. So on Thursday, after consulting with owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter, general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire offered to let their righthanded ace pitch to a batter or two this weekend out of the bullpen, to get one final out. Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement doesn't allow teams to award incentive bonuses for getting "close enough."
"We called him in today -- this organization feels we should do that, that he's earned every bit of it," Gardenhire said. "He thought about it and said, 'I just don't feel it.' He said, 'I feel like my arm's had enough, I don't want to risk an injury.' "
That's because Hughes, who earned $8 million this season, plus $250,000 bonuses for surpassing 180 and 195 innings, has two more years left on his $24 million contract.
"Ownership and [Ryan] extended the offer to let me throw out of the bullpen, and I just didn't feel it was right," said Hughes, who had never pitched more than 191 innings before. "I'm surprised they extended that offer to me; that was very generous. It says a lot about this organization. But I own my 100 percent health to this organization over the next two years, and I'm not going to do anything to risk that. ... For whatever reason, it's just not meant to be."
Ryan said he was impressed by the decision. "He decided after a little thought, he just wasn't going to do it. So I respect that," Ryan said. "It is a decision that would be difficult to make if you're a player."
If you're superstitious, though, maybe there's reason to be wary. Hughes would have had one more start this season, but a rainout on Sept. 12 pushed the rotation back by a day and cost him his chance to pitch in the season finale on Sunday. He would have pitched the ninth inning on Wednesday, but for a small rain cell that interrupted the game just long enough to make the Twins unwilling to let him continue. "That rain was situated right around downtown Minneapolis," marveled Ryan. "It wasn't hardly raining anywhere else."
The prospect of pitching without his normal rest and out of his normal routine, with an arm tired from a long season, just to get one out was just too much risk, Hughes decided. "I feel good," he said, "and that's part of the reason I don't want to push the envelope as well." He also could have jeopardized the major-league record he set this season: the 11.625 strikeout-to-walk ratio, highest in history. One walk would have lost the record.
Hughes said the decision was his alone, "and it wasn't a tough call." His agent Nez Balelo -- who would have collected a 4 percent commission, or $20,000 -- agreed with his choice, and Hughes said he doesn't believe the MLB Players Association will mind him passing up the cash, either. "It's my call, my career and my health," he said. "And it's not worth it to me."
He was surprised by the attention his contract got, and said he felt gratified that fans rallied to his cause, insisting on Twitter that he be paid the bonus. "That was very kind of them to appreciate what I've done this year," Hughes said. "You don't really expect people to want professional athletes to get paid more money."
Meanwhile, though Hughes won't be part of it, the Twins and Tigers play a rather important game tonight. Important to the Tigers, anyway, who can clinch at least a tie for the AL Central crown with a victory and a Royals loss in Chicago. It's reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer against Twins rookie Trevor May. Eduardo Escobar moves to third base to replace Trevor Plouffe. Here are tonight's lineups for the 6:05 p.m. start:
V. Martinez DH
J.D. Martinez LF
With Tuesday's 6-2 win over Arizona, their 67th victory this year, the Twins insured that this will be their most successful season since 2010 -- no big achievement, I think everyone would agree -- but they also severely damaged their chances of moving up in the draft order next June.
Minnesota currently owns the fourth-fewest number of wins in the major leagues. At the top of the standings, wins determine who goes to the playoffs. At the bottom, they determine the draft order.
Houston will receive the second pick in the 2015 draft, as compensation for not signing the No. 1 overall pick, high school lefthander Brady Aiken of San Diego. The Twins, at the moment, would be slotted fifth; by losing Tuesday, Arizona widened its "lead" for the No. 1 pick. The Diamondbacks have 63 wins, with Texas (64) and Colorado (66) also likely to pick ahead of the Twins in the draft. That could change, of course; the Twins will spend the weekend in Detroit for their final four games.
Not that any of the current Twins care anything about that. "The important thing is to win games, I don't care if it's September or April," general manager Terry Ryan said. "We're still trying to win. The draft choice has no bearing on what we're doing."
They proved it by pouncing on Arizona starter Andrew Chafin on Tuesday. But what would it mean to move up in next year's draft? Maybe not as much as a normal year, said Baseball America draft expert Clint Longenecker.
"It's a fairly jumbled class at the top this year. There's not much differentiation yet. There's no Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg this year," Longenecker said. The depth in the class, he said, looked like it will be in high-school position players and college pitchers.
He cautioned that nine months out is way too early to project amateur players with much confidence. But there are a couple of standout prospects that figure to get the most interest next summer. One, Longenecker said, is Brendan Rodgers, a shortstop at Lake Mary (Fla.) High, who "has had a terrific summer. He's not as toolsey as some of the shortstops we've seen go in the top 10 in recent years, but he has a chance to be an above-average hitter and an above-average fielder at short."
The Twins drafted Nick Gordon, another Florida prep shortstop, with the fifth pick in the first round last June. They might prefer a pitcher, and Longenecker has Duke's Michael Matuella as the top choice there. "He's big, 6-6 and 225, and looks the part" of an ace, Longenecker said. "At times, he was able to sit at 96-97 [mph] this year, maybe reach back for 98. He's got a four-pitch mix, and a breaking ball has a chance to be elite."
Those guys, along with Aiken, might be gone by the time the Twins choose. Too early to tell, but a couple of other names to remember are Virginia lefthander Nathan Kirby, and TCU righthander Riley Ferrell.
"At No. 5, they'll get a very good player, no matter what," Longenecker said. "At the same time, several draft studies have shown there is a significant drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2, and from the top two guys to No. 5, even when there's not a lock at No. 1."
One other leftover from Tuesday night, the final night game at Target Field this season:
Kyle Gibson pitched to one more batter than he should have, thanks to a strange play and some misunderstanding. Gibson struck out Didi Gregorious to end the seventh inning, or so it appeared. But umpire Lance Barksdale ruled that the third strike bounced in the dirt, meaning catcher Josmil Pinto needed to tag Gregorious, or throw to first for the out. Pinto, however, headed for the dugout, and Gregorious was safe at first without a throw. The reason? Gibson said it may have been a misunderstanding between Pinto and Barksdale. "You could see by [Barksdale's] mannerisms, he was saying 'No catch,' or 'No, no, no,' " Gibson said. "Pinto told me in the dugout, he was walking off the field, hearing 'Out, out, out.' He thought he had [caught] it." Pinto and manager Ron Gardenhire argued, but the call stood. No matter, though. Gibson retired Tuffy Gosewicsch on a fly to center, and the inning ended.
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