Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
Watching the Twins broadcasters after Thursday night's frustrating-for-all loss to Detroit was a little bit like listening to me talk about the basketball teams I used to coach -- the elementary school team in the Golden Valley/Crystal Park and Rec League and the sixth-grade B team I coached in Hopkins. After a loss, we'd chatter about the effort and look for the bright spots -- winning the fourth quarter against the tough kids from Eden Prairie or how we'd run some good offense and "did everything but make the shot."
That's how it should be when you're coaching preteens.
The Twitterverse was a bit cranky after the Twins blew that lead in Detroit.
One of my friends tweeted: "After 9 straight losses, this is where we'll find out what kind of Twins fans we are. Does that represent the kind of person we are too."
To which someone responded: "I don't think that expressing frustration and expecting those who run the Twins to do better constitutes being a bad fan."
When Bert Blyleven tweeted this afterward:
Now that was a tough loss 4 the Twins. Good thing about baseball: tomorrow is another day to play the beautiful game of baseball. Go Twins— Bert Blyleven (@BertBlyleven28) May 24, 2013
Someone responded: "Oh c'mon, Bert, the team sucks! When Molitor takes over, I hope you are the pitching coach."
And so it went. In the best of times, some true fans hold animosity against those who jump on the bandwagon, which is silly. In bad times, they sometimes talk smack at each other, which deflects from the real problem of how incredibly poorly the Twins have been playing since the start of their last homestand.
That 2-7 stretch followed by a clean sheet of defeat on the first half of the current 10-game road trip has landed the Twins solidly at the bottom of the AL Central, with the only worse record in the league belonging to pathetic Houston. In the name of looking at the present and future, I called a personal halt at the start of the season to writing about how the mistakes of the last few years had created a team for which there was little hope.
"Kansas City North" was the term I used a few times, and Twins fans are getting a first-hand look at what that means. We used to watch the Royals talk about how better stuff was ahead and then they'd get off a respectable start -- followed by a tumble to the bottom. That's exactly what's been happening to the 2013 Twins, who worked so hard to be respectable for the first five weeks that little appears to be left for the next five months.
(Quick aside: I know I'm not the only one a bit skeptical about all of the optimism being directed toward the Twins of the future who are currently playing their way through the lower minors. Hopeful, yes. Convinced, no.)
The awful starting pitching has begotten tired relief pitching. The poor pitching has created an overall sense of hopelessness, leading some fans to bicker about who should be called up from Rochester among the collection of players currently in last place in the International League.
The biggest frustration there is the perceived "Anthony Slama treatment" of pitcher Kyle Gibson by Twins management, which has called up Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters as current stopgaps. We've heard buckets about how Gibson has thrown shutouts in two of his last four starts, one against a team with a record almost as bad as Houston's (and the other also against a sub-.500 team), and little about the other two.
In the other two, Gibson gave up nine runs and 18 hits in 7 2/3 innings against two of the league's better teams.
For the Twins to seek more consistency from Gibson is understandable.
For fans to expect (and have expected) more competence from the Twins is, too.
The Twins-Red Sox series was as ugly a weekend of baseball as has been played so far this season by the home team. There were different failures in all three losses -- hitting, fielding and pitching -- and the results were pretty consistent with the ones anticipated by people who were expecting the worst from the Twins in 2013.
And the weekend ended with the Twins in their pretty much anticipated place at the bottom of the American League Central. About the only ways it could have been worse would have been if the inept Boston infielder Pedro Siriaco had been playing for the Twins or if Ham and Squints had suited up for the home team.
At least, if the latter had happened, Ham could have looked in Josh Willingham's direction and lightened the mood a bit (if everyone took it the right way) by yelling, "You're killing me, Hammer!" after one of his weekend foibles.
Willingham was the main face of the Twins' struggles over the weekend and through the homestand in which they won only two of nine games. In his last 11 games, including three at Fenway Park, Willinghams has four hits and 14 strikeouts in 40 at-bats, including the grand finale on Sunday when he struck out as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning after getting ahead in the count 3-and-0. (Gardy had tried to give Willingham the day off after an outburst of some sort during Saturday's loss but needed him after the three-hour rain delay.)
The encore -- a reverse curtain call, I guess -- was when Willingham channeled his inner Butch Huskey and poked Dustin Pedroia's fly ball over the wall with his glove in the ninth for a two-run homer that extended ther Boston lead from two runs to four.
Here it is, if you were doing other things by the time Sunday's game + rain delay + movie reached Hour Six.
I don't intend to focus the Twins problems on Willingham's struggles. He's slumping, and I assume it will pass. The entire offense shut down after the fifth inning on Friday and Oswaldo Arcia robbed Aaron Hicks of a chance to throw out the game-winning run in the 10th that night when he didn't get out of the way on a fly ball to left-center that was Hicks' to own. (If you didn't think Hicks had at least a chance to make the play, you haven't seen him throw enough.)
It was a rookie mistake on Arcia's part and one of the things we have to accept if we buy into the idea of major league training for Hicks and Arcia. I expect them to improve steadily, but it is foolish to think that improvement will come without bumps along the way -- the fly ball that Hicks mishandled on Sunday, for example.
This is what the Twins have signed on for with the bet that it will make them better major leaguers down the road. The bigger issue may be whether Gardy should relegate Willingham primarily to DH duties so Arcia can work through his defensive lapses in the same manner as Hicks.
More unexpected were the failures of the veteran players -- Willingham, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer -- in clutch situations that could have altered the weekend outcomes. Even in the ugly seven-run loss on Saturday, which featured a terrible start by Scott Diamond, there were chances on offense that could have changed the game.
The oddest thing is that, with Mauer and Morneau, there's hardly a statistic that would predict their recent clutch failures. (The only thing that jumps out in reviewing their numbers is a valley for Mauer in "late and close" at-bats.) You figure it out, and when you have a chance, read Jim Souhan's column on Mauer's altered approach at the plate, which explains why his strikeouts have increased markedly this season while some of his other numbers are among baseball's best..
That the Twins have settled into last place should come as little shock. Forty games into the season, the biggest surprise may have been for how long they flirted with a .500 record. In retrospect, you can see how hard they had to work in order to be a game or so on either side of breaking even. There's a poll on the web site right now asking folks where they think the Twins will finish and, in the first hour of voting, 91 percent picked fourth or fifth.
The next seven games are against first-place Atlanta and division-favorite Detroit. So things could easily get worse. Whether you strap yourself in for the ride or walk away to follow something else, that's the reality we have right now.
I felt a little bit sheepish turning away from the Twins a couple of times this week to watch the Wild flail through its playoff run, which ended up looking like of one those Twins-Yankees playoff series from the last decade. But through the miracle of the iPad and MLB At-Bat and a Twitter feed that pretty much tells me everyone -- more than I need to know sometimes -- I was able to keep up and ...
keep up and ... (searching for the right words)
keep up and (trying for some understatement here) be pretty impressed with the way things went this week. After scuffling through Detroit and Cleveland, where they played some games that looked like the games we were scared about, the Twins battered Boston in three out of four -- and came awfully close to sweeping the first-place Red Sox.
Thirty-one games into the season, the Twins are above .500. Granted they could be below .500 by the end of Saturday's game, but I'm guessing you would have given me odds if I'd been willing to bet on the Twins having a winning record after 31 games and their first road trip of substance.
Stuff is happening that we couldn't have expected, most noticeably to arrival of Oswaldo Arcia, who was supposed to be here for a quick look and has pretty much announced that he has little intention of returning to Rochester. Through 18 games, Arcia has pretty much been to hitting what Aaron Hicks hasn't been -- and his offensive leaps have allowed to Twins not to be overly concerned with the baby steps of progress and regressions shown by Hicks. I'm still convinced the Twins are doing the right thing by letting Hicks make his mistakes in Minnesota rather than Rochester.
Arcia's work in Boston obscured the Fenway troubles of Josh Willingham (hitless in his last three games in Boston) and that Trevor Plouffe has reversed a career trend and is hitting this season for a higher average (by 50 points) with men on base than with the bases empty.
Some of the confidence in Arcia should come from the way he has batted -- hitting to all fields and, according to those who know more than I do, making adjustments that you wouldn't expect from such a young player. "Pace" is a tricky thing, but I am OK with him striking out 140 times in 500 at-bats (his current rate) in return for a combination of power and smarts at the plate.
But the point here isn't to go too deep with numbers or figure out why things have been happening. It's much simpler: The Twins are 16-15 and not close to the disaster that lots of people were anticipating. Remember, after 31 games last year, the Twins were 8-23, and the year before they were 12-19 -- and would be 12-27 before winning another game.
To compensate for watching the Wild, I'm going Target Field tonight (and Saturday and Sunday, too). Yes, I'm more in than I thought I'd be.
Well, Monday night was 4 hours and 44 minutes investment in Twins baseball that didn't pay off with a victory. It was an exciting (if flawed) game that unraveled at the very end, owing to the off-balance throw Jared Burton didn't need to make in the 11th inning and the follow-up two-out hits by Boston's No. 8 and 9 batters that ended the 6-5 loss.
It was also a game the Twins shouldn't have lost and a game that continued a couple of painful trends.
For the seventh straight game, the Twins bullpen was required to work three innings or more. Not since a week ago Sunday, when Kevin Correia shut down Texas, has a Twins starter made it to the seventh -- and that takes a toll, either because of the stress it puts on key relievers or because of the relievers that need to be used to keep key relievers as fresh as possible.
Simply stated, the Twins need more innings from their starters more often.
Vance Worley continued pitching poorly, talking afterward about he had command until he "started to elevate," in his words, in his final two innings. The biggest problem is that his final two innings were the fifth and sixth, during which the Red Sox got five hits in seven at-bats -- setting the stage for the bullpen needing to work 5 2/3 innings. Worley has lasted six innings in only two of his seven starts and has a 6.95 ERA to show for it.
According to La Velle's postgame blog, Worley appeared surprised that Gardy took him out after starting the sixth by giving up two singles with David Ortiz coming to bat. He shouldn't have been.
The Twins frittered away three significant chances to score more runs. The most notable was in the first inning, when they scored two and had the bases loaded with one out before Oswaldo Arcia struck out chasing bad pitches and Aaron Hicks followed with another strikeout. So much for having the Boston ace, Clay Buchholz, on the edge of an early knockout.
In the fifth, the Twins scored only one run after Joe Mauer started the inning with a double and went to third on Josh Willingham's single. A sacrifice fly by Morneau -- whose slugging percentage right now (.361) is four points higher than Joltin' Jamey Carroll's -- was followed by a Chris Parmelee's ground out and a fly out by Trevor Plouffe, who got a second chance after an error by Mike Napoli on a comically butchered foul pop-up.
The capper was the seventh. Brian Dozier and Mauer reached base before rookie reliever Alex Wilson struck out Willingham and, after being mocked for his control deficiencies by the Twins' TV crew, Andrew Miller struck out Morneau and Parmelee.
In the meantime, the Twins' 3-0 lead gradually turned into a 5-4 deficit before Dozier's ninth-inning home run.
Quick stat: The Twins are 12th in the American League in runners left in scoring position per game -- while the three teams behind them (Boston, Detroit and Oakland) are among the top five in runs scored. (The Twins are 12th in runs scored.)
Finally, the Twins were also done-in Monday night because of the philosophical decision to have more offense on their bench, which resulted in Ryan Doumit replacing Willingham in left field after Gardy's decision to use a pinch-runner. A "plus" left fielder could have tracked down Drew's game-winning double, which clanged low off the Green Monster, but it would have been almost as much of a highlight play as the excellent diving catch Parmelee made in right field earlier in the inning.
In the bigger picture, having an extra bat on the bench will outweigh the occasional awkward defensive alignments that Gardy's late-game moves with create. We can debate that. But I'll contend the Twins are showing bigger problems than having to put Doumit in the outfield once in a while, including Doumit's .198 batting average.
The Twins season is quite interesting so far. Not quite fascinating enough to make me watch at the expense of a Stanley Cup playoff game, but I suspect that conflict will pass in a week or so.
If 2013 becomes the season of solutions for the Twins while they can avoid a tumble into the lower depths of the American League, then we can call it a victory and move ahead.
The good news about the problem-solving that's in progress is that it hasn't come at the expense of winning games. The promotion of Oswaldo Arcia, for example, has made the Twins a better team than if he was raising hopes by smashing the ball in Rochester. I'll take the .220 batting average with the assumption that it will get better over time and that he will let me see that much less on Josh Willingham in left field. (I pay to see the Hammer hit.)
Plus, the Arcia promotion and the struggles of Trevor Plouffe at third base have solved the problem of Gardy having some offensive pop in the dugout. Depending on the lineup of the day, Ryan Doumit or Plouffe or one of the regulars getting a day off is going to be available when the Twins need a bat off the bench. Think back to the pinch-hitting options of recent years, and that's an upgrade.
The limited exposure of Pedro Florimon, Eduardo Escobar and Jamey Carroll makes all of them more effective. Combined, they are so far batting .306 in 108 at-bats with nine walks. By comparison, the collection of spare-part infielders last season hit .199 in 346 at-bats, including the 0-for-12 in the frightful week that marked the end of the Nishioka era.
I bring up Nishioka -- one last time, I hope -- not to be abusive as much as to point out that the personnel choices made for this season are that much more solid than those of previous years, in which Nishioka, Luke Hughes, Matt Tolbert and others were playing the role of major leaguers. I am hard pressed to imagine Gardy creating one of those "Sunday lineups" of recent seasons that made Twins fans wonder why they are paying major league ticket prices.
Nishioka is hitting .298 in Japan, by the way.
The middle of the Twins infield, with Brian Dozier at second and the Florimon/Escobar tandem at shortstop, is better defensively than anything (except for the Orlando Hudson/J.J. Hardy-when-healthy tandem in 2010) since the Luis Castillo/Jason Bartlett combination from the mid-2000s.
In a few weeks, the Twins will reach the one-quarter mark of the season, which will be a time for Gardy and the front office to better evaluate those who are helping and those who are damaging the cause. Right now, Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey are the two names generating the most negative buzz.
While a half-dozen starts doesn't make for a 100 percent fair test, that the Twins have Kyle Gibson getting back on track at Rochester, Cole De Vries trying to heal from arm problems and WBC-stud Samuel Deduno waiting to get healthy means there are alternative who would be hard pressed to do worse if the veterans don't improve. Also keep in mind that Worley was essentially the added player for the Ben Revere deal, which wouldn't have been made without the prospect Trevor May's inclusion.
Speaking of Revere, he finished his first month in Philadelphia with a .245 on-base percentage and has been dropped from the top to the bottom of the Phillies batting order. Manager Charlie Manuel told a Philadelphia reporter the other day: "He's had a hard time getting going. We just have to keep staying with him and see if we can’t get him playing better."
I am still unwilling to totally uncouple Ramon Ortiz and Kevin Correia when I watch Correia and his early-season prowess. It's impossble to argue with little more than a runner per inning and a 2.23 ERA through five starts. The best analysis of Correia's success so far comes from the blogger Aaron Gleeman. Rather than excerpt a portion of it here, it's best that you read the whole thing when you have a chance. A few more solid starts, though, and I promise to put much greater distance between the names Correia and Ortiz.
As a fan, I am willing to watch Hicks and Arcia grow into major leaguers because the alternatives at this point would be a concession to mediocrity. I am OK watching Parmelee grow into a regular right fielder and I am happy to see Carroll in a situation where he is likely to get half the at-bats that he did in 2012, which makes him that much more valuable. Gardy's patchwork calls for the left side of the infioeld will be among his on-going challenges and what happens with the starting rotation is another.
The Twins have played .500 baseball so far without getting much from Justin Morneau and with Joe Mauer having two cold spells surrounding one hot streak. In the American League, they are ninth in on-base percentage, last in slugging percentage and -- despite the troubles in the starting rotation -- sixth in team ERA while being last in strikeouts. Some of the first-month's success may have a smoke-and-mirrors quality to it, but a good chunk of it comes from being a better team than many of us imagined on the chilly April day when the first pitch was thrown.
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