May 20, 2009
Twins versus Sox, May 19
The balance of power in the AL Central being what it is-say, something like the Balkan Wars, where even the victorious really only get to lord it over their similarly situated neighbors-a late-May series might seem hard to describe with buzzy fripperies like "critical" or "must-win." Even so, the Sox and the Twins square off this week with both teams struggling, the White Sox stumbling back home having not enjoyed a clean series win in three weeks, while the Twins came to Chicago after getting a nasty dose of divisional disparity in the form of a four-game sweep by the Bombers in the Bronx. That was after the Twins seemed to finally be getting up a head of steam, what with Joe Mauer back.
While these are the third- and fourth-place teams in the division, with the reasonable expectation that the Royals and Tigers aren't about to ditch their diffident milling around at the head of the class to break away, it's easy to anticipate that a turnaround for either the Sox or Twins can come easily enough with a few modest tweaks to the roster and a few guys getting turned around at the plate or on the mound. Mauer's return helps obscure Minnesota's almost desperate lack of offensive depth; facing the left-handed Mark Buehrle last night meant a turn at DH for the team's best player. It also reflected the absence of a contributing factor to the lineup's depth problem, the primordial Delmon Young. For as much as Young might still ooze talent, so far that's really only meant that his performance has been merely oozy, and with the Twins searching for runs from half of their lineup, you can understand a growing reluctance to pus-yfoot around.
The Twins get credited with doing all of the little things well, of course, and probably have been since the days of Gene Mauch and on through Tom Kelly's tenure (and titles). They're accused of running well and fielding well, because in the absence of their having much in the way of pure power or much depth, they invariably get credited with executing on the seemingly insubstantial "little things" that let writers talk knowingly about execution and playing the game right and representing the forces of old-timey goodness and light. However, in light of the team's falling to a mediocre 13th in the majors so far in Equivalent Baserunning Runs so far, and an equally mediocre 15th in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, it's worth wondering if they really deserve a reputation for good fundamentals. Add in their poor performance in transition innings: after blowing five leads in such frames last season, they've already blown four in less than two months. Pointing the finger at journeymen like Luis Ayala or Craig Breslow, or at post-surgical Jesse Crain, you see the symptoms of a system that has not been supplying useful talent in second-rank roles. With Scott Baker on the mound last night, the limitations of their notional ace came to the fore; while Baker's a solid strike-thrower who lives (and lately, dies) on the proposition that most flying things stay in play, he's a young veteran without exceptional stuff, with parts of five seasons under his belt, and putting him in the homer-happy Cell against a Sox lineup that bops or loses is something of a dare, especially when he can't count on quality glove work to make his inside-the-lines zone-painting that much less risky. As much as last year's ascent from mediocrity to rank among the game's top 20 starters might inspire hope and faith that he's ready to be a solid ace in the making, this year's initial struggles suggest he might only be the mid-rotation type some expected, the obverse side of the bet the Twins have made with the pitchers they've been developing.
In contrast, the Sox have their flag, the Sox had Buehrle on the mound, one of the more entertaining pitchers you'll find on the basis of what he does on the field and how he does it. The thing about a Buehrle start is that if you look away for an instant, you've missed something. If Steve Trachsel was Sergei Bondarchuk-ponderous in his pacing, Buehrle's more like David Cairns, whipping through his assignment, keeping his supporting cast busy, deleting the running game from the other team's tactical menu, and showing off cat-quick reflexes to give his club the proverbial fifth infielder. A bit bass-ackwards at times in his platoon splits, in part that's because he chases the Jason Kubel platoon types right out of lineups, so he has to settle for seeing the best lefty hitters in the lineup against him; it's the sort of thing that Andy Pettitte or Tom Glavine had to deal with as well in their heyday, and while it's entirely survivable in the real world, it tends to break a few Strat-O-Matic managers' hearts. Against the Twins, that kind of proposition has worked out just fine; before last night's action, Buehrle had held Mauer to 4-for-22 with a walk, and Justin Morneau to 10-for-41 with two walks (but two homers). Perhaps predictably, he'd also won a single-opponent career-best 22 games against Minnesota.
As the game played out, certain proxies for team-wide virtues and handicaps played out. Baker, making just the third start of his career in the Cell, got into trouble early, serving up a cookie crushed by Paul Konerko in the second, following it with a single A.J. Pierzynski, nearly losing a long at-bat with Brian Anderson, not coming close to zone on Chris Getz, and then surrendering a scalded liner to right by Alexei Ramirez that plated Pierzynski. Striking out Podsednik and Fields to end the inning was a nice bit of bouncing back, and it was reassuring that Ron Gardenhire didn't go scrambling immediately to his pen in the bottom of the third-or even get anyone up-when Baker issued a pair of one-out walks to Jim Thome and Konerko. It would be a short night for Baker, just five frames with a tacked-on run on another mistake over the plate that Jermaine Dye deposited in the stands. On the night, three of the seven air-bound balls Baker induced went for extra bases, two for homers, so if he's supposed to "predictably regress to the mean" in terms of the sheer volume of his fly balls flying into the seats, it didn't start last night.
Buehrle wasn't exactly at his best last night, but he was good, inducing a pair of double plays, one a remarkable 4-6-3 hit into by Brendan Harris, where Getz, going to his right, shoveled neatly to a fast-moving Ramirez as the Cuban crossed the bag; Ramirez completed the pivot by pirouetting to his left to line up a better throw to Konerko to finish the frame. While concern about Ramirez' ability to settle in at short lingers, that kind of athleticism is the sort of thing to influence decision makers within the organization; positive indicators in the form of decent numbers via Revised Zone Rating, UZR, or Fielding Rate stats will help garner endorsements from those of us in the chattering classes. In the fifth, Buehrle started the inning-ending double play that curdled a Twins rally attempt, although even that was fueled by Josh Fields' flat-footed back-hand wave at a liner by Mike Redmond-ruled a double-of the kind Joe Crede was stabbing out of the air for the Twins.
If there was something fun to contrast, it was that the Sox did their thing-hit home runs-while the Twins tried theirs by taking extra bases where possible, and it didn't go quite so well for them. Having busted up the shutout with a Mauer homer off of Buehrle (his first against the Sox ace, after two strikeouts) in the sixth, they had a shot at pulling closer than 4-2 in the seventh, but the wages of basepath aggression paid out Janus-like dividends. Having led off with a sharp-hit double, Michael Cuddyer followed with a nice job on the bases by letting the play develop and committing to taking third on a Redmond tapper to Fields only once Fields busily rushed his throw to Konerko, pulling the first baseman off the bag for a throwing error, and creating a first-and-third threat with nobody out. Buehrle kept things under control by disepensing with Carlos Gomez at home plate on a three-pitch strikeout, then received a break whe Nick Punto's fly out to right, while plating Cuddyer, was exploited by Dye's hitting cutoff man Konerko on the fly with Redmond leaning too far towards second base, generating an inning-ending 9-3-6 double play and a reminder that Dye still deserves respect, if not inspiring the fear he did in days past.
To have the game at 4-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh means we still had a ballgame; it took in-game tactics to make it less of one. Having turned to Sean Henn in the sixth, Gardenhire was probably looking at an inning with the lefty-swinging Podsednik leading off and with Thome batting fourth, and figuring he might take his chances, although Matt Guerrier was warming up. Then Podzilla made things a bit ugly by singling crisply to center, and then stealing second on the first pitch to Fields. Guillen, perhaps more frustrated than anybody by Fields at this point of the season, called for a bunt; Fields did a horrible job of getting the barrel in the right place, popping straight at Henn for the first out. Gardenhire responded by doing something he doesn't often do, calling for an intentional pass by Henn to get a lefty-on-lefty matchup of Henn on Thome.
This proved a desperately bad idea for a number of reasons. First, Henn's exactly the kind of lefty you don't want in this situation; he's sort of a hard-throwing southpaw, averaging in the low 90s, but it's not an overpowering pitch with a ton of movement, and the lack of a reliable off-speed offering basically means you're asking the journeyman to go up against one of the best hitters in the game when it comes to judging what's in and out of the zone, and all he's got is a fastball he doesn't locate reliably well. As the pen's third lefty, you might wonder why he was in, beyond the Twins being down by two. To give Gardenhire some benefit of the doubt, Craig Breslow had had to pitch against the Yankees in extras late on Saturday and then again on Monday, while Jose Mijares pitched on Sunday, and maybe that's enough work between them to have kept them both shelved last night. Regardless, Thome did exactly the sort of thing you'd expect Jim Thome to do against a guy who only has an OK fastball to work with-he flicked a few things he didn't like foul, worked the count full, and got the pitch he worked for, which he creamed for a two-run double to make it a four-run lead and effectively end the evening. Guerrier finished the inning, Breslow wound up pitching the ninth, and if the Twins were hoping to get some rest for their pen after that long series in New York, and with two more games to go against the Sox, those hopes were dashed.
To return to a theme I've visited a few times over, and will all season, did I see something I hadn't seen before? The pirouette from Ramirez in third was certainly memorable, as was the seventh-inning deuce. If I had to pick, it might be the closest to something unusual was and rare Chris Getz's getting called out on a one-out bunt single attempt in the sixth, only to run into the ball as he moved up the line. Initially, the umps made no call, and Getz was on base, but upon Gardenhire's arguing the point, the men in black got it right, Getz was out, leading to Ozzie Guillen's race out from the home dugout, but not even that was followed by any of the fireworks already generated earlier that evening by the Sox's bats. There may not have been anything so rare as to be unique, beyond the fact that the evening was lovely, no, it was very nearly perfect, with the game charged with the certain excitement that comes from this matchup, and sent off with White Sox fans lustily singing on the concourses and charged up over the win. Tonight's game should be more of the same.