May 21, 2009
Twins versus Sox, May 20
With the first game's matchup between respective respected aces out of the way, Wednesday night's matchup was between each team's iteration of the young, the left-handed, and the hard-throwing, with John Danks and Francisco Liriano both mounting the bump. Maybe the cognitive dissonance is mine alone, but with the Twins seemingly forever touted as forever young and forever developing, it's interesting to remember that Danks, at 24, is younger than anybody the Twins have in their rotation, and his 2008 season rate of SNLVA of .591 was almost as good as Scott Baker's .597 breakout campaign, let alone almost anyone else Minnesota can run out there. Almost doesn't include Liriano, whose own breakout in 2006 needs to be remembered as the significant bit of bat mulching that it was.
The Twins drew first blood in the top of the fourth, though Danks seemed in relatively good control, striking out four in the first three, and allowing a baserunner per frame. But then Justin Morneau battled back from down 0-2 to force a seven-pitch walk. Michael Cuddyer hit a grounder to Alexei Ramirez that seemed certain to end the frame, but as much as I may have promoted his shortstop play yesterday, he rushed the play and wound up trying to start it without the ball, which had uncooperatively elected to remain ground-bound, so no force, E-6, and two men on. Jason Kubel struck quickly, pasting a 1-1 single to right that plated Morneau and put Cuddyer on third. A Joe Crede sac fly plated a second unearned run, putting the Twins up.
Liriano responded with an inning that puts to the test the proposition of what matters most when compiling pitch counts, a raw number of total pitches in a game, or the number of pitches in a single inning. Liriano clearly wasn't "on" this night, but the dilemma was that he also wasn't exactly off either. Three shutout innings are a nice way to start an evening's work, after all, but the troubling development was that Liriano wasn't putting Sox hitters away. A couple of walks, a Scott Podsednik single, striking out Paul Konerko with two men on... you might anticipate that there weren't any real indications Ron Gardenhire might have to go to the pen early rather than late. However, Liriano wasn't generating a lot of swings and misses—other than by Corky Miller—and that's definitely a bad sign for a starter who has seen this happen to him before last night's game (tip o' the cap to the incomparable BaseballReference.com, of course):
Strikeout Percentage: Liriano vs. His Foes Year PA1 PA2 PA3+ 2006 31.6 35.7 20.2 2008 21.3 19.8 19.8 2009 27.4 13.9 16.1
We can speculate as to the reasons why, of course, with the usual sample-size caveats; pitch data suggests that Liriano is still down two or three clicks on his fastball since the surgery that cost him his 2007 season; it also suggests that he's throwing his slider less often and at lower speeds. The real point is that last night, having gotten just one strikeout the first time through the order against a team that's fourth in the league in strikeouts per plate appearance, this wasn't going to be a ballgame that echoed the '06 model. Things went bad in a hurry in the fourth, as Jim Thome singled to lead off. Paul Konerko, having already fouled off several pitches the first time around against Liriano, fouled off several more the second time around before powering a pitch into the left-center alley for a two-run homer to tie things—Sox power against Twins scrapping, again. The Sox were only just getting started, however; Brian Anderson popped up to short after getting ahead 2-0, but an Alexei Ramirez double and a run-scoring Josh Fields single gave Chicago the lead. Miller doubled and Podsednik agreeably popped up to the backstop, so Liriano was 23 pitches into the inning with two outs and men on second and third. At this point Jayson Nix stepped in and had what Ozzie Guillen subsequently identified as the key at-bat of the game, fouling off four pitches while working the count full, and finally earning a walk after nine Liriano deliveries.
At this point, Liriano was seven batters and 32 pitches into the inning, down a run, and facing lefty-killer Jermaine Dye with the bases juiced. Not that Dye's grand slam was ordained, but it should be relatively unsurprising that starting pitchers who have to throw 30 or more pitches an inning allowed 25.9 runs per nine in that frame this season (against 3.8 R/9 in innings with fewer than 30 pitches). Dye's homer provided the exclamation point that leaving any pitcher in too long in any one frame invites additional hazards, and makes me wonder if Sparky Anderson's reputation as Captain Hook wasn't just impatience, but a considered appreciation of this sort of thing. It's interesting to note that so far this season, and in all of the last 10, 30-pitch innings from starters occur most frequently in the third—or when a pitcher's most likely to be facing the lineup a second time. Liriano's night was done after "just" 90 pitches, but given that more than a third of them came in that fourth frame, that's a reminder of how much we don't know about the impact of different patterns within a workload on any particular evening.
As seems to happen more often than not in such situations, the White Sox, 7-2 lead in hand, appeared to curl up at the plate in order to get to the business of getting the game over with. The Twins made things interesting in the sixth when Joe Mauer extended his hitting streak to a 13th game with a leadoff single, followed by a one-out jack deep and left of center from Michael Cuddyer that gave us a ballgame. Danks struck out the hapless Jason Kubel—employed in part because the Twins are short-handed in the outfield with Delmon Young's absence after his mother's passing, and short-handed as a matter of intent because they've got three catchers on the roster, none of whom do anything but catch. This also reflects that Danks was doing a very good job of getting ahead of people on the evening, but he was then managing to lose some of them, as with Justin Morneau in the fourth, and then here with Joe Crede, who went from down 0-2 to work his way aboard with a walk and putting the tying run on deck. Ozzie Guillen already had Octavio Dotel warmed up, and while it may have seemed excessive to bring in the vet to get Carlos Gomez, one pitch later, the threat was over.
After a clean seventh from Matt Thornton, Ozzie handed Scott Linebrink the game in the eighth inning—with the heart of the order due up. A normal frame with, say, a baserunner, would put the Gomezes and Tolberts on the spot in the ninth. Whatever the score at that point, that's the difference between sandpaper and Charmin as far as relief cleanup opportunities, but Linebrink wasn't going to get the save unless Ozzie rewarded him for a clean eighth by letting him smite the scrubs in the ninth. It would have been nice; after all, why not be a bit egalitarian in the distribution of glory-stat opportunities while retaining your "closer" for the situations that truly require a first-order fireman? Such thoughts were for naught, of course—Bobby Jenks was warming up to notch his footnote, and nobody wants to cheat the fans a chance to watch the Human Barrel in action, let alone risk engendering some fourth estate second-guessing should Linebrink capsize in the face of a rash of gorks and nips from the sub-piranhas.
As is his wont, Jenks makes things appropriately dramatic from the get-go, going full on Kubel and full on pinch-hitter Brian Buscher before surrendering a base hit to the Twins' Wayne Krenchicki wannabe.* Jose Morales pinch-hit for Tolbert, and he also got to a full count before grounding to short. Game over, and another match defined by the Sox bats' breaking out crooked numbers with big blows. After the game, Guillen groused that the Sox offense wasn't entirely in gear, noting that his team had scored all seven runs in the one frame in which Liriano imploded, a worthwhile point, but the Sox did get their opportunity to get Liriano as he wore down within the inning, turning a solid inning into a game-winning one.
Thanks to William Burke for his always invaluable research assistance.
*Well, OK, not really, I mean, beyond the understandable sentiments of wee Krenchickis to be named later, I can't imagine that anybody else has ever made an elaborate point of wanting to be Wayne Krenchicki.