Monday, July 16, 2007

TWIT: Hooray

Weekly Roundup

Four games, four quality starts, four close wins. That recipe yields success under just about any circumstances, and when the offense shows some limited signs of life at the same time, you end up with a sweep of a quality opponent. Even though the Twins outscored the A’s by a total of eight runs over four games, they pulled their home record from a disappointing 22-20 to a more reasonable 26-20, simultaneously reasserting their position as a borderline contender. The formula was relatively unchanged for each of the four wins: the starting pitchers gave up a total of three runs in the first five innings of all of the games, giving the offense a chance to get ahead. In fact, the only real damage done to any of the four starters came against Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva in the seventh innings of their respective starts. The offense managed only one homeruns for the shortened week, but an astounding five triples for the week helped to offset the lack of power. It is unreasonable to believe that the Twins can continue winning games without hitting homeruns, and the pitching rotation has spent a whole season demonstrating why they will not put up 100% quality starts. Nonetheless, this week’s games were extremely helpful in the standings and in the psyche of the organization. It gives Terry Ryan a reason to aggressively pursue a missing piece- hopefully a real DH/LF to go with Kubel not named Rondell- and it keeps the pressure on the teams at the top of the division, who have shown a propensity to crack over the last two seasons.

Before moving on, I wanted to comment on Garrett Jones, who has really impressed me in his limited action so far. I’m not trying to draw big conclusions from his 2-7 start with a double and a walk- I’m more concerned with his approach at the plate. His minor league statistical profile made it look like he might have difficulty adjusting to good major league pitching that could actually make him swing and miss with some consistency. He got by in the minors by swinging often and hitting the ball hard, keeping up a so-so batting average with plenty of power, but not many walks. Many hitters have followed the same path, then seen their contact rate dip so low in the majors that the power alone cannot sustain such a miserable OBP. So far, Jones has shown a willingness to work the count and wait for a good pitch. On Sunday, he churned out a walk in a 7 pitch plate appearance, fouling off a 3-2 pitch on the outside corner before reaching base on the next pitch at the letters. It also seems as though he is relatively comfortable with fastballs and breaking balls, as he has made contact on both. While mistake hitters can have value, I’d take an all-around hitter who could develop any day. I’m not expecting Jones to be a superstar, or even a starter, but if he can catch enough fly balls to keep his spot as the team’s best lefty pinch hitter.

Biggest Success

Mike Cuddyer absolutely ripped his way out of a mediocre last month by going 7-13 in the Oakland series, showing lots of benefit from his extra rest. With three extra base hits and two walks, Cuddyer managed to put together an absolutely phenomenal line of .538/.563/.846. Continued mashing by Cuddyer takes some of the stress off of the bottom of the order, as run production counts at the margins no matter who starts it.

To me, the player who was even more impressive than Cuddyer was Luis Castillo, someone who I have lambasted repeatedly for his inability to hit for any power. Even Bert Blyleven got in on the act this week, pointing out that Castillo had only 11 extra base hits out of 94 total hits on the year after his first triple of the week. But Castillo didn’t stop there, he hit a double and another triple before the series ended, meaning he matched 30% of his XBH count for the season in one weekend. The 11 total bases matched Cuddyer for the team lead, and he also scored and drove in three runs, walked three times, and kept up his stellar ability to avoid strikeouts altogether. Hard as I have been on Luis Castillo in the past, this sort of hitting erases all of that criticism and helps the team win ballgames.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, as a perfect week is a perfect week. There were a couple of minor blips on the radar during the week, but nothing worthy of being a “biggest disappointment.” I was impressed by the fact that Jones, Tyner, Cirillo, and Redmond combined to go 10-22, each adding one extra base hit. Their contributions more than made up for a bad weekend from Jason Kubel, who was hitless in 10 plate appearances.

Reyes also looked a little shaky, not giving up any earned runs, but allowing two inherited runners to score on Saturday after throwing Mark Kotsay a dead hanger on the only pitch he threw that day. He also walked three for the week while only retiring five. Depending on the needs of the rotation, Perkins may be a better situational option than Reyes down the stretch, at least once he makes it all the way back to full health.

Lastly, Rincon continued making the case for Guerrier and Neshek in high leverage situations, coming in to close out Johan Santana’s Friday gem with a five run lead, then promptly giving up three earned runs, hitting a batter, an serving up a homer before Joe Nathan had to come in to put out the fire. I keep saying, bust out he MRI for this guy before he does any more damage to the team or himself.

On the Horizon

As I said last week, the Twins are in the midst of their toughest home stand of the year, and maybe the most important one. After a day off Monday, they host the Tigers and the Angels for three games apiece, both teams leading their divisions and both teams playing quite well at the moment, especially in the starting rotations.

The Tigers will send Robertson, Miller, and Bonderman in the three games, giving the Twins a chance to prove themselves against lefty pitching. Bonderman has given them trouble lately, but then again, at 10-1, he’s giving the whole league trouble. In his last start against the Twins, he went eight shutout innings, striking out seven, so Scott Baker will have his work cut out for him in what Twins fans must hope will become a pitchers’ duel. If it is any consolation, Bonderman is actually 3-6 with a 5.42 ERA for his career against the Twins, but a lot of the damage came when he was too young for the majors and the Tigers were too bad for the majors.

If rotations hold, the Angels will send Lackey, Weaver, and Colon for the weekend. Lackey has been solid all year, keeping his name among the league leaders in wins, but his ERA has been a shade below his peripherals from the outset, so some regression is likely. Whether that will manifest itself in this one game is another matter beyond my powers of prognostication. Weaver has been good since returning from a short DL sting, and Colon keeps winning games, even though he keeps giving up runs. Part of the credit for the starters’ good records comes from the excellent bullpen, where Shields, K-Rod, Speier and others have made a habit of slamming the door. The Twins will have to scratch out runs early and pitch well to win the series. If they do, it could be an extremely entertaining brand of baseball.

The Big Picture

A four game sweep means that the Twins are playing pretty well. Unfortunately for them, most of the other AL contenders who matter to Minnesota are also playing well. Boston has slumped a bit of late, and Oakland is obviously sliding, but Seattle continues to win games, New York is looking better and better, and the AL Central leaders have yet to show any signs of backing down. For the Twins to make the playoffs, they have to catch either Cleveland or Detroit, who alternately hold 5-7 game leads on the Twins, but the also have to pass Seattle (currently 2.5 games up), and hold off New York. The Yankees, in particular, could make quite a run as their pitching staff rounds into form with a fully ready Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, and Phil Hughes. The offense is not what many thought it was, but with Jeter and A-Rod performing as they have, they will score plenty of runs to support that pitching staff. Look out for them over the next couple of months, and keep an eye on their box scores while you wait for Cleveland or Detroit to slip, as the Yankees might be there to swoop in for the Wild Card berth.

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