(Note: This post is by Iowa guy Jim Crikket one of our favorite Section 219 readers/commenters, whose work -- not to be confused with his day job -- can be found at the Knuckleballs blog.)
I've lost track of how many years I've been coming down to Florida to catch some of the Twins' spring training. I know I started out by just slipping away from a business trip to catch a game... maybe two. Over time, however, I decided that work just got in the way of baseball and a man has to have his priorities straight, so the last few years I've just been skipping the work part and spending several days watching baseball.
This year was no different. I did spend the first couple of days north of Fort Myers in the Sarasota/Bradenton area. The Twins celebrated my arrival in Florida on Thursday by sending a team primarily made up of soon-to-be-reassigned ballplayers to Bradenton to beat the crap out of the Pirates. Those players did their best to leave a positive last impression, however. Both Brian Dinkelman and Brian Dozier homered for the Twins. Matt Maloney got a rare start as he was stretched out to three innings of work.
I also particularly enjoyed watching prospects like Angel Morales contribute. I'm not sure where the Twins are going to find room in their outfield for Morales in the future, but his speed and his arm are worth keeping an eye on.
Friday was a "travel day" of sorts for me. I spent a little time hanging out in the Standing Room Only area of the outfield at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, where the Orioles were hosting the Tigers. I only stuck around for about three innings, but it was long enough to watch JJ Hardy hit a couple of times and to see Delmon Young cut short a first inning Tigers rally by grounding in to a double play. Lets just say it wasn't the first time I've seen him do that.
Saturday was a terrific day and I largely have LaVelle E. Neal III to thank for a good part of it. On Friday night, Neal Tweeted that Scott Baker would be pitching for the Twins' AAA team in a 10 am game over at the Red Sox complex on Saturday. I'd planned to go check out the minor league fields at the Twins complex, but instead went to watch Baker pitch.
I got much more than I expected! Jon Lester was starting for the Red Sox' AAA squad against the Twins' counterparts, which was bonus enough. But that's not all! Lester brought along a few friends for offensive support. David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and former Twin Nick Punto all were in the Sox' batting order.
Something I should mention about these "minor league" games... you see a lot of stuff in those games that you'll never see anywhere else. For example, the teams have a very loose relationship with a "set" batting order. So, for example, despite giving up only one run in four innings of work, Baker managed to face Big Papi three times. Essentially, when the Big Leaguers want to hit, they grab a bat and go hit. Another thing I saw that I don't think I'll ever see again was Ortiz squaring to attempt to bunt... twice in one at-bat... with nobody on base.
In any event, it was well worth the side trip. There's been chatter on social media about differences between mainstream media members and bloggers lately. Some of it has been healthy debate and some of it has been a bit disturbing, but much of the discussion came down to the level of "access" that beat reporters like Neal have and the value of that access. This was certainly a prime example of how a reporter with that kind of access and a willingness to share the information he gets (in this case, the news about Baker pitching in the minor league game) can benefit a blogger (like me, for instance). See? We CAN all get along.
In the scheduled game that afternoon, I watched the Twins bludgeon the Pirates again. Anthony Swarzak pitched well and benefited from another offensive outburst, this time with a pretty full slate of regular players contributing. Brian Dozier homered again, as did Ryan Doumit. In addition, Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia and Trevor Plouffe all contributed extra-base hits. The result was a 15-3 Twins win.
Sunday was another full day. I finally did make my way to the Twins' minor league complex and was treated to intra-squad games in the morning. I spent pretty much all of my time alternating between the Ft Myers (high A) vs. Beloit (low A) game and the Rochester (AAA) vs. New Britain (AA) games. It's not like it's tough to watch both games when the only effort it takes is to walk about 20 feet.
I was happy to see fellow Iowan BJ Hermsen pitching for Ft. Myers and he got off to a good start by striking out uber-prospects Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano in the first inning. Sano did eventually claim some level of revenge by doubling off of Hermsen and scoring a run. The other game was interesting in itself, because so many of the players had been over at the Big League camp until quite recently. Casey Fien did some pitching, with Drew Butera catching him. Mike Holliman had hit well in his time with the Twins, but needs work in the field, apparently. I have no idea how these games turned out. I wasn't keeping track of score nor inning, just enjoying the fact that I could watch some terrific young talent from very close range.
In the afternoon, I made the trip eastward a few short miles to get my first look inside JetBlue Park, the Red Sox new spring training home. The dimensions are roughly the same as Fenway Park and they even have their own version of Fenway's famed "green monster." It's a very nice ballpark, but it isn't perfect. First of all, how can any new ballpark NOT have a display for the speed of the pitches? Second, I was surprised that they built the stadium with concourses and concessions in behind the seating area. I thought pretty much every ballpark being built today had inside concourses that allow fans to watch the game while waiting in line for food. In any event, the crab nachos from the Pinchers Crab Shack tent were outstanding!
The game was not particularly outstanding, from a Twins perspective, however. Carl Pavano cruised through five innings before the wheels came off a bit in the sixth. His defense didn't so him any favors, though. Pavano did throw close to 100 pitches and I suppose that's the important thing for your staff "innings eater." Chris Parmelee contributed what little offense the Twins could generate as he hit a long home run to
left right field for the Twins' only run. That's about all I have to report, unless you would like a review of the pizza or pulled pork nachos from Shoeless Joe's Sports Grill (both very good), the bacon wrapped shrimp at Pierside Grill (even better) or the shrimp marinara at Nino's (also excellent).
It's hard to believe my trip is over half complete.
If you would like to know more about what all I'm seeing and doing in Fort Myers, as well as a healthy number of photos, please check out www.knuckleballsblog.com.
-- Jim Crikket