There is a simple reason the 2008 Twins have exceeded expectations: They throw strikes.
In what other category can you say the Twins are superior to everyone else in baseball? Hitting? Hardly. Power? Not even close. Fielding? Maybe when Nick Punto and Denard Span are in the lineup. Power arms? Nope. Baserunning? Not when Carlos Gomez has both turn signals flashing at once.
The Twins excel at one aspect of the game above all others, excel at it whether they have Johan Santana, Brad Radke or Livan Hernandez at the top of their rotation.
They throw more strikes than any other team. They avoid walks. They limit their pitch counts, enabling them to stay healthy and durable.
They allow the ball to be put into play, risking high home-run totals with the belief that most batted balls that stay in the park will be fielded.
The 2008 season might provide the most dramatic manifestation of this strike-first philosophy.
The Twins are contending with four kids and a high-ERA veteran in the lineup. More to the point, they are contending because the four kids -- Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Scott Baker -- have the command, control and guts to do what so many big-league pitchers fail to do: throw the ball over the plate.
"It's preached, to throw the ball over the plate," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Starting with your fastball. Andy talks about that a lot. It's great to have all these pitches, but if you can't locate your fastball, then you're going to have trouble. You're not going to make it."
Big-league pitching coach Rick Anderson and minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp both obsess over first-pitch strikes and walk totals. Gardenhire said minor league field coordinator Joel Lepel spends time in big league spring training, then transfers Gardenhire's and Anderson's "terminology" to the minors. The "terminology" is, again, simple.
"It's 'throw it over and give your guys a chance to catch it,'" Gardenhire said. "When I was with the Mets, if you didn't blow cheese, if you didn't throw gas, then you weren't going to be a Mets pitcher very long. It wasn't about throwing strikes, it was about blowing people away.
"Sometimes we pay for throwing strikes by giving up too many home runs, but I'll take that over giving guys free passes."
Tuesday marked the 14th game in which the Twins did not issue a walk. Cleveland is second in the league with 10 walkless games. The Twins led the majors in that category last year, with 23 games. The Twins lead the majors this season in fewest walks allowed.
Astute reader Craig Pajula notes that if they had amassed the requisite 1,000 big-league innings, Baker, Slowey, Blackburn and even Francisco Liriano would all rank in the top 20 all-time in best strikeouts-per-walk ratios. That's all-time, up there with Greg Maddux. Santana and Radke are on that list, too.
"One of the biggest principles we have here is to start in the middle of the plate and work to the corners, instead of starting on the corners," Baker said. "If things go wrong, you can go back to keeping the ball down and throwing it down the middle. It's a philosophy that's instilled in you -- you may not have great command that day, but you can keep the ball down and throw strikes."
The third inning Wednesday demonstrated the benefits of the Twins' compatible philosophies -- throwing strikes and employing fielders with range.
Blackburn gave up a single. Gomez chased down a fly in the gap. Punto caught an apparent single to center on the dead run. Span cut off a ball in the gap that looked headed for the wall, saving a run. Then Punto snagged a sure single up the middle and rolled it with his glove to second for a spectacular and improbable out.
To summarize: Blackburn didn't walk anyone. He allowed five balls to be put into play. Two fell for hits, three others could have gone for hits ... and he allowed zero runs, and the Twins won 7-0. Add a walk or two, or put slower fielders behind Blackburn, and that could have been a game-losing, bullpen-depleting inning.
"From the first day you sign with the Twins, they let you know that's what we do here," Blackburn said. "Rick Knapp told me that shortly after I signed. That's all he's about, first-pitch strikes. They make it hard to forget about it around here."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org