Monday, July 2, 2007

TWIT: A Resounding Yes

Weekly Roundup

First order of business: for one week only, this column is not free. In order to gain access to the rest of the article, I’m requiring that you log onto and vote for Pat Neshek in the All-Star Final Vote. You can vote for him because he is a Minnesota Twin, joining the rightly chosen Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau on the roster, but there are better reasons to choose him. Neshek is also one of the most exciting and entertaining players in the major leagues. Because he plays for a middle market in a flyover state, he does not receive nearly the attention he deserves. His style, results, and attitude all make him one of the most fun players in the league to watch and to root for. Even if there are other pitchers with comparable or better results (Hideki Okajima comes to mind), this game is an exhibition in which the exhibit is a collection of the best and most entertaining baseball players in the league. Giving a wider audience a chance to experience the pleasure of seeing Neshek work is exactly why the All-Star game exists in the first place. Not for World Series home field advantage. Not to stroke the egos of the league’s stars. Not to create debate among fans over a game of little consequence. The All-Star game showcases the best and most entertaining aspects of the game of baseball- Pat Neshek is definitely one of those aspects.

In other news, the Twins happened to have an outstanding week in games that actually count. After starting the week by losing two of their first three at the Dome against Toronto, it looked as if judgment week could start on a pretty sour note. The bats came alive on Thursday, though, staking the Twins to an 8-5, come from behind win in Frank Thomas’s 500th HR game. The teams were quite evenly matched through the series, each scoring and allowing 19 runs over the course of the split set. With Toronto playing well of late, splitting that sort of series is not a bad thing in the least.

The weekend series with the Tigers was far more inspiring, as the team had no trouble with Detroit for the first two games, winning 11-1 Friday, then jumping to an 8-2 lead on Saturday before holding on for an 8-5 win. Try as he might, Scott Baker did not gild the lily on Sunday. Baker’s best start of the season resulted in a complete game, 1-0 loss at the hands of Jeremy Bonderman, and brought his own weekly line to 15 IP, 7 H, 2 BB, 12 K, 1.20 ERA, and a big, fat 0 wins. Don’t blame Scotty, he can’t do it alone if the team doesn’t have the power. The one run they scored between his two starts came after he was lifted in the 2-1 loss against Toronto. The trend is here still a positive one. We already knew that the Twins occasionally have trouble scoring runs. Baker’s improved performance does nothing to change my opinion of the offense, but if he can pitch like a legitimate no. 3 starter the rest of the year, it could be worth 3 or 4 full wins over what I was expecting when he was pitching like a quad-A fill-in.

Biggest Success

Baker’s delayed emergence certainly fits in this category. The offense also had several surprising turns for the better, including a 6-15 (.400) week for Jason Tyner, a homer and a double in 9 plate appearances for Lew Ford, and two more doubles for Jason Kubel. My personal favorite of the week, though, is the strong play of Jason Bartlett, which has become more visible and effectual since his move to the number two spot in the order. One can only abide so much Nick Punto, and as high as Gardy’s threshold seems to be, a week of .087 SLG seemed to further legitimize moving him down in the order. Bartlett responded by going .310/.375/.483 with an outstanding 5 steals in 5 tries. He also led the team with 8 runs scored. Perhaps these numbers do not jump off of the screen, but they absolutely mark a step in the right direction for one of the Twins players who was actually playing below his head, rather than predictably failing (i.e.- Nick Punto).

Biggest Disappointment

Last week, I lamented the struggles and probable injury of Juan Rincon. This week, I would like to broaden the scope by casting a wider net at the about half of the bullpen. The Twins loss on Monday, 8-5 at the hands of the Blue Jays, was a rare case of Matt Guerrier disappointing the team by giving up 3 runs on four hits in an inning and a third. I do not blame Guerrier for that misgiving; I blame the rest of the bullpen for forcing him into so huge number of high-leverage situations. Guerrier, Neshek, and Nathan have been the only reliable relievers of late, and they have paid a price for it. Consider the following:

-In June alone, Guerrier was asked to work on back-to-back days three separate times. In all three cases, he was asked to pitch beyond one inning on the second day. Remember that Guerrier is a young pitcher who was injured last year and who has never been pushed to work back-to-back days with any frequency.

-Former bullpen stalwarts Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes combined for a total of 14.1 IP for the month of June, fewer than Guerrier pitched by himself. Reyes, limited by injury at the start of the month, remains in situational duty, while Rincon struggles to get batters out (7.27 ERA for the month).

-Joe Nathan pitched only 10 innings for the entire month. Gardenhire may be falling into the Trevor Hoffman trap, whereby a manager limits his closer to very little besides save situations, keeping him fresh, but hurting the team by keeping one of the best pitchers out of the game. He appeared in only 4 non-save situations all month, two of them being tie games in the ninth or later. Giving him one or two of Guerrier’s late-game appearances in non-save situations may help keep the bullpen fresh across the board and prevent bad games like Monday’s.

I do not mean to be overly critical of the bullpen management, which is definitely one of Gardenhire’s strengths. Moreso, I feel that the biggest disappointment of the week is the realization that the team has only three dependable relievers in the bullpen right now. And as the Yankees have shown over the last few years, a team that relies on a few relievers all season tends to burn out in the postseason.

On the Horizon

Seven games in New York and Chicago. There are no surprises here. The Yankees have lost 8 of 10 games, which one can take to mean in a couple of ways. Are they a sleeping giant, waiting to go off for 35 runs in a three game series, or are they just hitting rock bottom, where even the Twins can walk all over them. We have three games to find out, and the Twins will have to solve Clemens, Wang, and Mussina to keep up with a geriatric, but powerful offense. Recent struggles aside, none of those three pitchers have been Minnesota favorites over the years, Mussina in particular.

Chicago also seems to be bottoming out. The trade talk surrounding the team does not center on acquiring Ken Griffey, for once, but includes whispers of the word “firesale.” Personally, I do not think Mark Buehrle should be the one to go, with older guys like Jose Contreras likely to fetch a decent return. Jermaine Dye seems like a good candidate to be traded, but with as many high-minors pitching prospects as the team acquired last year, Kenny Williams ought to be thinking about building for 2009, not 1012. Two more interesting notes on the series regarding Twins pitchers: Johan Santana will likely do is side work in one of the double-header games on Friday, something I have been wanting to see for years. Also, although it is currently “TBA,” Matt Garza will finally get another crack at starting in the majors in one of those Friday games, as well. Here’s hoping that he makes good on his complaints about being passed over.

The Big Picture

Last week, I discussed how the Twins were entering the most important two week stretch of the season so far. Through one week, the acquitted themselves quite well, very nearly sweeping the best team they will play through the four series. With another 4-3 week, all on the road against the Yankees and White Sox, the Twins will likely go into the All-Star break about 5-7 manageable games out of the Central lead, and slightly closer to the Wild Card. If Scott Baker has turned over a new leaf and plays the second half of the season with an ERA closer to 3 than to 6, and Terry Ryan makes good on his promise to rent a hitter, I think making up 4 or 5 games on a potential Wild Card team is eminently feasible. For now, I do not want to jinx the solid stretch the team has started, so I will stop. In the meantime, remember to vote early and often for Pat Neshek.

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