Important Game #3: Looking up from the Valley

Here’s a little refresher on the series, before I begin:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

September 6: After a Crippling Loss to the Indians, the Twins find themselves 7 games down with 28 games to play.

Courtesy of MLB.com.

Two of the last four years, the Twins did not make the playoffs. In 2007, well, the team just wasn’t ever that good. Joe Mauer spent half the season dealing with varying injuries, and from day one the pitching situation, well, sucked. When your team starts the season with Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, you don’t really have a right to expect much. In 2008, I came to the conclusion that Jim Thome is evil when he homered for the only run in game 163 (for which I have not forgiven him). However, that was also the Twins’ fault for very nearly getting swept by the ROYALS the last weekend of the season to have to play game 163. In the other two of the last four years, the Twins have had to come back from spectacular deficits, only to win the division on the last possible day (Thanks, Royals, for 2006). The rub of both of those two seasons, is that at some point both teams found themselves in the valley, looking up, Twins fans cursing the Tigers and wondering if the Wild, Timberwolves, or Vikings would be any good (maybe, no, and it’s a crapshoot, respectively). However, both times, the Twins managed to come back. However, unlike 2006, we had little reason to expect it this time around.

Partial Division standings as of Sept. 6, 2009. Ugly, right? The Twins: down 7 with 28 to play. Captured from MLB.com.

The Twins had just finished losing two of three to the lowly Indians, who had just finished trading everyone with value, and had just wrapped up a 14-14 August. In a sense, that’s all I personally expected from the Twins at that point: a mediocre, maybe 50-50 record the rest of the way. In fact, that’s exactly what the Twins were: a mediocre, 50-50 team (see inset image). Given the White Sox’s recent hot streak, I more expected them to catch the Twins than for the Twins to catch Detroit. Of course, the White Sox ended up spluttering to a 79-83 record after contesting for first place for most of the summer.

I chose this game for a very specific reason, despite the fact that it came just a couple days after another similar loss: it embodied one of two problems that the Twins had all season long. The first problem, the one not present in this game was that when the offense was firing on all cylinders, the pitching wasn’t running at all (see, for example, the entire home Los Angeles Angels series in late July/early August). The ERA of the starting staff last season (yes, I know ERA is flawed, and no, I don’t care) was, I believe, 26th in the majors. The bullpen was very good most of the season, although there was a Crainwreck for most of the first half of the season and the Twins insisted on keeping a mediocre-at-best long reliever on staff all season.

Brendan Harris doing an apt impression of the whole offense's decision avoid the ball with their bats. Courtesy MLB.com.

The other kind of game, and the one that was so confounding, given the excessive number of runs the Twins scored last year, are the games where the pitchers did their jobs, but the offense took a day off. These games, generally weren’t against good pitchers (those I could understand), but against such luminaries as David Huff, he of the 5.61 ERA last season. Nothing against Huff, of course, I’m sure he was doing his best to keep the Twins under wraps. Of course, it helps when the lineup that produced 5.01 runs per game last year on average managed to score 1 run on THREE hits. There were also four walks, but that’s hardly the point. The Twins offense coughed this one up.

Courtesy MLB.com

And it was a shame they did so. Nick Blackburn pitched a Nick Blackburn kind of game. He gave up a handful of hits (7) and a handful of runs (3), while generally keeping the Indians’ bats in check for his 6 2/3 innings of work. However, a pitcher like Nick will not win many games without a strong offensive presence to back him up, and Blackbeard’s buccaneers simply couldn’t get anything going at all. The one run came on a single by Denard Span, who drove in Nick Punto, who had doubled in the previous plate appearance. However, the game itself was a disappointment, as the season itself felt, at least after Important Game #3. However, there were still many better days to come, including the upcoming Important Game #2.

Important Game #4: Joe Mauer Returns with a Bang

Here’s a little refresher on the series, before I begin:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

May 1: Joe Mauer returns from a back injury to power the Twins to victory.

He's ba-ack. Courtesy MLB.com.

When the Twins broke camp in 2009, they did so without their best player. Joe Mauer, who had been hurting for most of the off-season, had only just found an anti-inflammatory that solved the pain he felt most of the time. The Twins instead broke with Mike Redmond and Jose Morales, and for some unfathomable reason started Redmond over Morales most of the month, as Redmond wore down. However, it did lead to the (probably temporary) rise of Jose Morales. If we didn’t have Wilson Ramos in the high minors, we’d be talking a lot more about how good Jose Morales is. He’s no world-beater, but he hits for average when he gets to start. I wonder what he could net in a trade? Maybe a B prospect? Hmmm…

Okay, digression over.

So, everyone knows the story of this game. Joe, having recovered from inflammation in his sacroiliac joint, came up and blasted a massive home run. If you were at all like me, you were watching the game and stood up and cheered like he had just launched a home run in Game Seven of the world series. After my neighbors below pounded on the ceiling, my wife looked at me like I was crazy, and my dog ran barking out of the room, I realized that I may have overreacted. In hindsight, though, I think that was exactly the correct way to respond. Joe’s return to the lineup not only won that specific game, as he did go 2-3 with a walk, while scoring three runs, but it also galvanized the Twins, and began the slow, yet steady, march to the post-season.

It was also the beginning of one of the most amazing seasons any of us will have the opportunity to see play out before us. Joe was truly amazing last season – he ended with the highest batting average by a catcher in the American League, ever. He also is the first Triple-Slash Crown winner (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage). He was elected to his first MVP, almost unanimously, which he would have been if not for one idiotic writer who should lose his right to vote on all future awards.

It's the Joe-point we'll be sadly missing this year. Courtesy MLB.com.

I mean, there was a lot of good to this game in addition to Joe’s return. First, the Twins destroyed Sidney Ponson, who I still hold a grudge against from the disastrous ’07 season. Kevin Slowey was nothing special, but the relief corps stepped up in a big way. Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan both pitched perfect innings, and Matt Guerrier threw two perfect innings. This, to me, is the biggest argument that he should not be the designated closer this year, but that’s neither here nor there.

The real takeaway from Important Game #4 was Joe Mauer’s return. You can talk about or analyze everything else about the game and probably get something more meaningful than a 5-7 victory for the Twins, but the only really important thing was Joe’s return. It was perhaps the most important day of the season for that reason, although the game itself wasn’t all that important.

Important Game #5: Liriano Royally Implodes

Here’s a little refresher on the series, before I begin:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

Courtesy MLB.com

September 27: In Liriano’s first start in a month, he couldn’t make it out of the second inning as Zach Greinke and the Royals pwned the Twins.

Before I get too far into this game, let me say two things: One, I don’t have as much to say about this game as I do about the others, and second, this was a really, really weird game.

Courtesy MLB.com

I frankly don’t know what the Twins expected with this game. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I think the only reason Francisco Liriano had the start was because Jeff Manship had three poor starts in a row – a total of 11 ER in 15 innings for a cool 6.6 ERA (Yeah, I know ERA sucks, but it’s really easy go calculate). Of course, it didn’t really matter that the Twins were avoiding giving Manship the start, because he ended up pitching more innings than Liriano anyway.

So, about the weirdness.

Liriano was called on to start after having been mostly ineffective as a reliever since coming back from an “injury” (can we all agree that he was so bad he was taken out for his mental health?) that removed him from the rotation a month earlier. He lasted a shorter time as a starter than he did in 2 of his three relief appearances. However, in that 1.2 innings, he managed to lose the game. The first inning was fine – one hit, but then two groundouts and a K followed. The second inning, however, was a disaster. The inning went like this: double, walk, sac bunt, homer, walk pop-up, stolen base,passed ball, walk, Manship replaces Liriano. Liriano managed to demonstrate in 2/3 of an inning why exactly he was so bad for most/all of last year – lack of command. In his outing, he threw 45 pitches, but only 24 for strikes. Several of the strikes he did get were the result of wild flailing.

Oh, and that home run? It was by this guy:

Really? Possibly the worst all-around player in baseball hit the homer? Yuniesky Betancourt, you amuse me. Courtesy MLB.com

On the offensive side, the Twins had to deal with the eventual Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke. Now, up until this game, the Twins had managed to avoid him all season. This game, however, showed that had they faced Greinke every time the Twins and Royals played, the Twins might not have been headed for Game 163 after all.

The Dude is not pleased with a strikeout. KUBEL SMASH! Courtesy MLB.com

That said, there was more weirdness to come.  Greinke struck out eight, but gave up seven hits and two walks.  The lineup did not lack for opportunities. However, the failure to convert on those opportunities that quite often manifested throughout the season rose up and bit the Twins during this game, with only a few games left in the season and headed to the big Detroit series. Joakim Soria came in and gave up 4 hits in a 2 inning save. The game, which I do remember fairly well for some reason, is just a reminder of the crazy frustration I felt with this team from time to time last year. That said, there were still good things to come…

Important Game #6: Slowey Out for the Year

(Note: I’ll be posting several articles that I had partially written since Friday but didn’t have time to finish. Please check back often for the rest! As, always, I’ll be tweeting @calltothepen. Follow me there or subscribe to my posts using the button on the sidebar!)

Here’s a quick refresher about the series:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

Courtesy MLB.com

July 3rd: Twins lose in extras 11-9, then suffer a far worse loss the next day.

This is the only one of the games in on the list that are important, not only for what happened in the game itself, but from news that blossomed based on a seed planted during the game. This was, as the title implies the final game of 2009 that was pitched by our erstwhile and potential ace, Kevin Slowey. But more about that in a little while. First, a discussion of the Important game itself.

The 2009 Twins were perhaps the most hot-and-cold team I can remember following. They would seemingly go for weeks at a time without a quality start from their pitchers (quality = good, not the meaningless counting stat), then turn it on and win a bunch in a row. Overall, the offense was somehow acceptable, despite the fact that their obscenely high batting average w/ runners in scoring position in 2008 came back down to earth, and they did it with barely a warm body in the second position in the batting order. The batting average, OBP, and SLG% was the worst of all the second hitters in the majors. However, as good as the offense was on the season, the pitching staff was shaky from the start, in large part stemming from some extremely poor personnel management.

For whatever odd reason, the Twins broke camp with Luis Ayala. Ayala is a topic for another day and possibly his own post, but suffice to say I can’t fathom why the Twins signed a sinkerballer whose fastballs have never really sunk to be middle-relief/low-leverage setup guy when he thought he was signing a contract for high-lev setup or closing if Joe Nathan went down. So, Ayala wasted a roster spot for three months. The Twins also brought Phil Humber north, perhaps hoping beyond hope that he would be able to contribute better at the MLB level than he had in Rochester. He didn’t, and was released April 17 to make space for Juan Morillo, who spent all of a week or so in the majors before being sent to the minors and eventually going to Japan. R.A. Dickey also came to Minny, and proved to be valuable, if uber-hittable. He also was released eventually. The trend continued all year: rather than trading or doing anything to get a serviceable relief pitcher (up until the Jon Rauch trade and the Ron Mahay signing), the Twins acted incredibly stupid. The Twins lost Craig Breslow, perhaps the greatest unheralded hero of the 2008 squad, to waivers because they were impatient with his good-but-not-as-steller-as-last-year numbers, only to bring up Sean Henn. Face it. Stupid moves abounded. More on this in another post later this week.

But the biggest problem was the starters, three of the five of which regressed significantly. Kevin Slowey was on pace to win 20 games before he was lost for the season (see below), but his peripherals were not-so-sparkling. Scott “Timmy” Baker started the season hurt, then lost six straight. Francisco Liriano lost the ability to handle the strike zone. Glen Perkins started brilliant, then came down with a phantom-like, mysterious shoulder injury that no one but him could locate. Only Nick Blackburn was rock-steady, with a nearly identical season to 2008. This forced the Twins to rely on a hodge-podge of Dickey, Armando Gabino, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, and Jeff Manship to start fourth-and-fifth games. Duensing even had the honor of being murdered by the Yankees in the first game of the playoffs. Anyway, the whole idea I’m trying to put out here is how bad a shape the starting staff was last year.

Inge hit by a pitch to the jersey. Deja Vu much? Image Courtesy MLB.com

The game on July 3rd started out disastrously. Kevin Slowey gave up six runs in the first three innings, before he was removed due to soreness in his wrist. Brian Duensing came in and made a valiant effort to hold the line, going 3.2 innings, giving up just one run. The Twins offense did their best to back up the Twins starter, and managed to tie the game at 7 based on a run each in the third and fourth innings before exploding for five in the sixth. The Twins brought in Bobby Keppel to keep it tied when Duensing indicated that his arm was about to fall off, and, somewhat surprisingly, he continued his scoreless streak with 1 1/3 inning. He was followed by perfect outings from Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and Jose Mijares, all of whom pitched scoreless innings (or two). The Tigers and Twins matched runs in the 14th. At this point, the game felt just slightly epic. I wondered if the game would ever be over.

Brendan Harris hits a triple, his only hit. Image Courtesy MLB.com

Offensively, the heroes included Denard Span, who was 5 for 8 with a triple, a run scored, and an RBI, Joe Mauer, who was 2 for 6 with a walk and an RBI, Delmon Young, who was 3 for 6 with his third home run of the season, Michael Cuddyer, who was 3 for 8 w/ 2 RBI, and Justin Morneau went 3 for 7 with a walk and an RBI. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Carlos Gomez, Matt Tolbert, Brian Buscher, and Nick Punto went a combined 0 for 9, with 2 walks (both by Punto).

Pitching a game that lasts 16 innings can be tough, but it becomes excruciating when the starter leaves after 3 innings. Dickey was the last available pitcher of the night, and I think he was literally in the game until his arm fell off or Michael Cuddyer was able to convince Gardy that his sinker was good enough to get outs. Unfortunately, the Twins offense wasn’t able to win the game in any of the preceding 6 extra innings, and the Tigers mauled Dickey for three runs in the top of the 16th. The Twins’ comeback fell short, and they fell back to 2.5 games behind the Tigers in the Central.

As hard as the loss was to bear, the next day the Twins got even worse news: that Kevin Slowey would be heading to the disabled list. Though Slowey had had some rough times, when he was on, he had been arguably the best pitcher on the Twins the past two seasons. He was originally put on the DL for a “strained wrist”; the hope was that he’d be back in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the wrist never felt better, and it was eventually discovered that he had a broken wrist, and probably had since being struck by a line drive off the bat of Juan Uribe in his final start of 2008. He had surgery and ended with two pins in his wrist, which even at the beginning of this season were still causing him grief. For it’s ability to impact the Twins even this year, July 3rd joins the countdown as Important Game #6.

Important Game #7: Scott Baker is Epic

Here’s a quick refresher:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

Scott Baker Delivers

Courtesy MLB.com

August 14: Twins Offense Erupts in Baker’s Gem, 11-0

There is an old adage that one game a season does not make. Pull out the Yoda-rific inverse sentence construction, and you have a truism to end all baseball truisms. I went to several Nationals games last year (because apparently I like to be punished). Two of them were against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now, one of my best friends is from Arizona. We’ll call him RL. RL LOVES the Diamondbacks. During the season, he does lives and breathes the D-Backs. So when he found out that they would be in DC for a three-game weekend series, he wanted to go. I just like watching baseball, so of course I was in. We went to all three of the games.

As a matter of pure baseball, the games were abominations. If there is a just and loving God, He apparently fell asleep when he was shaping the course of these three games. Or else He is really, really mean to me. Two of the games had 24 hits or more. Two of them involved more than ten runs. All of them had extremely horrible pitching. All of them had horrible fielding, although it seemed like the umpires had simply given up on calling errors. All of them had horrible baserunning. And, let’s not forget the fact that these were games between arguably the worst two teams in the majors last year.

But at the same time, there was something sublimely beautiful about them. Watching Adam Dunn lumber after an overthrown ball while the nearly-empty stands sit in silence. Seeing Chris Young run in on a fly ball, only to have it fall ten yards behind him. Feeling the disbelief when Christian Guzman take off to steal second base on the most obvious pitch-out I’ve ever seen. Feeling even more disbelief when he did the same thing a few innings later only to beat out the throw because Montero, at least in my imagination, simply couldn’t believe he’d try to take second on another obvious pitch-out. The sheer ineptitude of the two teams, by the third game, had sunk in so deeply that, by the end of it, Washington didn’t seem like such a bad team. Based on those three games, it seemed like they would have a worthwhile season.

Of course, the Nationals lost 103 games last year, the D-backs lost 92. The games I saw certainly did not make the Nationals’ season.

Also Courtesy MLB.com

The point of that long digression is, of course, that to someone watching Important Game #8, the season would have seemed sewn up. The bats clicked, the defense clicked, and by God, Scott Baker was DOMINANT. In his complete game shut-out, he only needed 94 pitches to destroy the somewhat-pathetic Indians, with five strike-outs and only two hits. He did not walk a single person. This was good enough for a Bill James Game Score of 88, the highest on the Twins last year, and the highest for the team since Kevin Slowey threw an 89-Game Score game in 2008. Baker looked like an ace. I know few people will call him that on a regular basis, but he certainly looked the part during this game.

And even better, the offense woke up to take it home! Since the All-Star Break, the team was 10-15, falling even further back of the Tigers. A great deal of this was due, as always to zero production from the 2-hole prior to the O-Cab trade and the continuing insistence of Gardenhire to put two of Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Alexi Casilla in nearly every game. Poor Brendan Harris. But Joe Crede started this game, and Casilla started at 2B.

Also Courtesy MLB.com

The offense in this game reacted to Baker’s excellence by putting on a show of their own. Jason Kubel proved that the Dude indeed abides, putting up 5 RBI on three hits (one that left the yard). Casilla had 2 hits and an RBI. Joe Mauer had three singles, walked twice, scored two runs and drove in two more. Mountie dominated, with two hits, two runs, and two RBI. The game was a blast to watch.

But lets be honest. The Twins pitching was in a huge rut. Glen Perkins was sort-of-kind-of-we-can’t-decide-hurt and Francisco Liriano was doing his best to work his way out of the rotation. Slowey was gone. Nick Blackburn was in the midst of his worst stretch of the season. The bull-pen was far from lock-down, even after ridding themselves of Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Luis Ayala, and whats-his-face that could throw 103.

See? EPIC!

But for one shining night, the Twins looked like they had what it took. Sure, it involved completely removing the bullpen from the picture and scoring 11 runs, but I think at that moment, everyone watching the game thought to themselves, “hey, we might actually have a shot at this!” And Scott Baker was indeed epic.

Important Game #8: Tigers Eat Pavano’s Lunch (9/30)

Here’s a quick intro to the series:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

September 30: Minnesota finds itself in a 3-game hole with 4 to play.

Everyone remembers those last two weeks or so of the regular season. That underground feeling of excitement that no one really wanted to give voice to. The stat-based bloggers reminding us that there was about a 2.5% chance of making the playoffs. Looking at the scoreboard and trying to calculate how many games out of the next x many games we’d have to win and the Tigers would have to lose for the Twins to even have a chance to play a Game 163. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach every time an opponent scored a run. That fleeting optimism at every moment that the Twins were scoring or leading or PLAYING GOOD BASEBALL.

This was the game that made me, personally, give up on the season.

Pavano came into the game pitching very well. He hadn’t lost in four starts, and he hadn’t gone fewer than six innings a month and a half (almost). And that doesn’t even include the time when he beat both Detroit for both the Indians and the Twins by almost the same score with nearly the same line. That’s twilight zone quality. Quite simply, Pavano was looking like the savior we all had hoped he would be when he came over from the Indians in a trade. And not just a savior, a Tiger-tamer (anyone know of a better metaphor for someone who destroys tigers? me neither).

The thing about this game was that it was a game that, on paper, the Twins should have run away with. The Tigers were pitching a guy who had a sum total of 6 major league starts and hadn’t really shown any stuff to back up his name (Eddie Bonine). It was the day after a double-header, and the Tigers had an OLD team. I’m talking walkers-and-Ensure old here.

Mauer high fives after being driven in by Delmon Young.

Then the game started off exactly like we thought it would. Joe Mauer and O-Cabs were driven in by Kubel and Delmon Young. Then… things went downhill. Pavano allowed four runs on four hits and a walk, thereby digging an early hole that the Twins would be unable to climb out of. After giving up another three runs in the fifth inning, Pavano was pulled with only two outs. Possibly the most painful thing was that Pavano’s complete and utter ownership of the tigers, a source of strength and backbone for the Twins in their long slog to the finish, was proven to be not nearly as complete as appearances had indicated.

And the worst thing is, Bonine wasn’t on that night. The guy only went 5 innings (unfortunately, 1/3 inn. longer than Pavano) and only struck out 3, walking 2. He also was hit by a line drive in the top of the second and never really seemed to shake it off. The Tigers didn’t magically get younger or hit the ball better. The biggest problem was this: the Twins were hacking at everything even somewhat near the strike zone, and were the masters of the weak ground-out and the weak fly ball. After the first inning, the Twins had four hits, and only 2 after Bonine left the game. It was a truly pathetic offensive display.

One of the most-read Twins bloggers (can’t remember which, sorry!) wrote after this game that the Twins had about a 3% chance of making the playoffs. Truth was, the odds felt a lot longer than that. After the game, the Twins had to win three more games that the Tigers JUST TO EARN THE RIGHT to play another game. In reality, they had to win every game and pray that Detroit’s meltdown would continue. Luckily for the Twins, it did.

Important Game #9: Nathan Loses Duensing’s Gem

Here’s a quick intro to the series:

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

Nathan walks off the mound after giving up back-to-back homers to Beckham and Konerko.

September 2: Duensing was brilliant, but Nathan had to be rescued.

Brian Duensing is a mystery to me. He was an unmitigated disaster out of the bullpen, but taken and put into a (arguably) higher-stress role, that of the 4th starter on a contending team, and he performed, by and large, far better than anyone could have expected (for a while there, he was better than Nick Blackburn). This game should have been his crowning moment.

After turning seven strong innings, giving up only one run against Texas, Duensing returned to the Dome to take on the White Sox. Once again, he was surprisingly dominant. He pitched seven innings, giving up five hits, walking one, and striking out seven.

Duensing delivers to the plate

Nothing I have seen about Duensing’s stuff appears to be so dominant that it justifies how well he matched up against opposing hitters those last few months of the season, when he struck out 53 in 84 innings after August 17, while only walking 31 (yeah, just a bit of small sample size). Quite frankly, Duensing stepped up and might be the most responsible of any Twins player of last year outside of Joe Mauer himself for the improbably playoff run. After Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins went down in July, Duensing stepped up, turning in a 3.64 ERA on the season, and ending with a 5-2 W-L mark and the distinction of being one of the few pitchers to pitch well through most of August. As was shown by the promotions and demotions of Kevin Mulvey, Armando Gabino, and Anthony Swarzak, not all promotions are able to contribute as well as Duensing did. However, this is probably his most important contribution of the year, because he demonstrated consistency and an ability to get hitters out that had been absent from the #4 spot in the rotation for pretty much the whole season.

However good the game was for Duensing, it was a harbinger of bad things to come for Joe Nathan. Nathan came in in the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead, and promptly got two outs. He then gave up back-to-back home runs to Gordon Beckham and Paul Konerko. He then responded to a visit to the mound, which was presumably to calm him down, by walking back-to-back hitters. Nathan got yanked, and Matt Guerrier didn’t do him any favors, letting in two more runs on a single and a wild pitch. From that point on, Nathan was very on-and-off. He only blew two saves, but he started needing more and more pitches to get out of his save situations. This culminated in two disastrous outings against the Yankees: one in which he blew a save and both in which he couldn’t last a full inning. Was this a sign of problems to come? It’s impossible to tell. But, as near as I can tell, this is where Nathan’s weakness started showing up.

Did Duensing save the season? Too many variables to say for sure, but without Duensing’s impressive late-season performance, it would have been a lot more difficult. One can hardly fault him for losing to the Yankees in New York 16 hours after winning game 163, especially in light of what happened during the regular season. He proved a lot: he proved that our predictions were underestimations, he proved that the unsung third choice can in fact save a season, and he proved that he can be, under the right circumstances, a good professional pitcher.

Box Score - Important Game #9

Box Score - Important Game #9

Important Game #10: All Good Things Must End

Last year I started and then aborted a feature called “Important Games.” What basically happened was that I didn’t put much effort into planning the series out ahead of time, which resulted in me using the most important games in the 6-10 spots (minus the 2008 Game 163, of course, which was the obvious #1) and then there was really no point in continuing. Therefore, this year I spent the last week or so re-watching what I view as being the most important 15 or so games, which I was then able to narrow down to the top 10.

Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.

October 11: Yankees beat Twins 4-1 in the Metrodome’s last gasp.

As if to prove the truth of the saying that “all good things must come to an end,” the Twins’ incredible 2009 run from 7 games back on September 6 ended 36 days later in front of a home crowd. Though the game itself was not too bad, re-watching this game really brought back the highs and the lows of the 2009 season.

It also highlighted the problems that plagued the 2009 Twins: they just didn’t do the small stuff, even though their reputation for doing the same continued unabated. The failure to do the thing the Twins might have done best all season, limiting walks, killed them. In the Ninth inning, Ron Mahay, Jon Rauch, and Jose Mijares each walked the batter they were brought in to face, and then Joe Nathan gave up two hits, which scored two runs. Unfortunately, the Twins couldn’t overcome the walks and yet another implosion by the best closer in baseball, and the season was over.

Unfortunately, that was not the only failure. It was just a badly played baseball game in several ways. The Twins were overeager with their plate approach, and several baserunning mistakes cost a run, most notably Nick Punto incomprehensibly thinking he could score from second on an infield single. I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that is possibly the most indelible Punto moment in Twins history. Much more so than all the slides into first base and great plays in the infield, Punto’s decision to run through a stop sign then inexplicably stop and retreat to third base defines his career: unapologetically overenthusiastic.

There is really no reason to include this game in the countdown over the other games in the ALDS, other than that it was the last. The other two do not appear in the countdown, because I don’t feel like beating a dead horse. However, it is important to note that much of the reason the Twins lost the series was due to a failure to do the small stuff, as well as facing a team that was clearly superior in just about every way (including the way it got calls from the umpiring staff). Carlos Gomez got tagged out in the second game at second base before Delmon Young could amble to home plate, negating his potentially game-winning run. In the first game, Ron Gardenhire made the mistake of pulling Brian Duensing in the middle of a good outing in favor of an exhausted relief corps, which promptly coughed up the win.

Still, this game was a celebration, in a way. It marked the end of an era and the end of one incredible journey, even if it didn’t end in the way we all would have liked. Sure, the Tigers collapsed (if you can call going 10-12 over the last 22 games a collapse), but that would not have mattered without one hell of an incredible run. This game was a gift, and even now, the bittersweet ending it represents does not change that simple fact.

Image taken from MLB.com.

Important Games #8 – September 23 (Twins win, 9-3)

I had a hard time ranking the games at the end of the season that really determined the Twins’ fate? Sure, it would make sense for the top seven games to all be in the Twins-Sox series and the Twins-Royals series, plus the tiebreaker. However, I decided that not only would it be boring, it would be self-defeating. There were many more important days in the 2008 season, and for different reasons. There were also a lot of really dramatic games that really weren’t that important in the long run. I mean, remember that KC game where Delmon Young did his best to lose the game on an attempted foot-first sliding catch that ended in an inside-the-parker? And then the Twins came back to win it? That was really dramatic game, and one of the worst to watch (at least, after the seventh inning, but it really wasn’t important, other than reinforcing that Delmon Young couldn’t field.

And what about games that resulted in players getting cut? I could pull out the last game where Livan pitched or Monroe hit before they were cut August first, but those games weren’t very important overall (I made a big deal about Rincon’s last game, but that game was important in and of itself). I could talk about either of the games where Lamb or Everett were cut. Again, not important. Brian Bass also sucked, but he was cut after another game that may or not make an appearance on the countdown.

This is not one of those games. By this time, the Twins roster was established, for better or for worse. This is the first of that momentous series against the ChiSox.

Box Scores and summary after the break. Continue reading

Important Games #9: May 24 (Twins Lose, 19-3)

Not only was May 24 the worst loss of the year for the Twins, it also spelled the end of Boof Bonser’s career as a starter in a Twins uniform. I know it seems I am focusing a lot on the nasty losses the Twins were dealt, but honestly, these were the games that forced the changes that the Twins needed in order to make a run at the playoffs. The weird thing about this game, as compared to the last of this series, is that the Twins didn’t feel out of it right away. The Twins outhit the Tigers 5-2 through 2 innings, and Alexi Casilla had a very nice home run (351 feet, the announcers said). So, without further ado, I bring you the play-by-play:

  • Boof Bonser was solid for two innings, then wretched for 1+ innings. He ended the game having given up 9 runs (8 ER) on 7 hits and 2 walks.
  • Alexi Casilla had a home run; it was actually a pretty impressive affair.
  • Carlos Gomez struck out three times; he was never anywhere near the pitch on any of his Hulk swings.
  • Tigers’ starter Nate Robertson actually looked pretty bad; he wasn’t focused, but the Twins were doing a great job of getting themselves in the hole with first-pitch swings.
  • Brian Bass, who I had almost forgotten about (isn’t he with the Orioles now?), gave up seven runs on 7 hits in 1.1 innings. Hey, at least he didn’t walk anyone.
  • Juan Rincon gave up three runs on two hits after allowing both of Bass’ inherited runners to score.
  • You know the game is over when Mauer and Morneau are substituted for.

Box Score:

Minnesota AB R H RBI BB SO LOB AVG
Gomez, CF 5 0 0 0 0 3 4 .279
Casilla, 2B 4 1 1 2 0 0 2 .269
Mauer, C 3 0 1 0 0 0 0 .338
Redmond, C 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 .226
Morneau, 1B 3 0 2 0 0 0 0 .311
Clark, 1B 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .250
Cuddyer, RF 4 0 0 0 0 0 4 .222
Monroe, DH 4 0 0 0 0 1 2 .226
Young, LF 2 1 0 0 2 1 1 .274
Macri, 3B 3 1 2 1 1 1 1 .667
Harris, SS 4 0 1 0 0 1 3 .253
Totals 34 3 8 3 3 8 18
BATTING
HR: Casilla (2, 3rd inning off Robertson, 1 on, 2 out).
TB: Casilla 4; Mauer; Redmond; Morneau 2; Macri 2; Harris.
RBI: Casilla 2 (9), Macri (1).
2-out RBI: Casilla 2.
Runners left in scoring position, 2 out: Cuddyer; Casilla.
GIDP: Harris.
Team LOB: 7.

BASERUNNING
SB: Macri (1, 2nd base off Robertson/Rodriguez).

FIELDING
E: Bonser (2, throw), Mauer (2, throw).

Detroit AB R H RBI BB SO LOB AVG
Granderson, CF 6 2 2 1 0 0 4 .245
Polanco, 2B 5 4 4 1 1 0 0 .294
Sheffield, DH 6 2 2 3 0 2 5 .208
Ordonez, RF 3 4 3 6 1 0 0 .330
Raburn, RF 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .257
Cabrera, 1B 4 1 1 1 0 0 3 .282
Thames, 1B 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 .254
Guillen, 3B 3 0 1 1 0 0 0 .287
Inge, 3B 2 1 0 0 0 1 0 .229
Joyce, LF 5 1 1 2 0 1 1 .256
Rodriguez, C 4 1 2 0 1 0 0 .274
Santiago, SS 2 3 1 2 2 0 1 .353
Totals 42 19 17 17 5 5 14
BATTING
2B: Ordonez (14, Bonser), Rodriguez (13, Bonser), Polanco (12, Bass).
HR: Ordonez 2 (9, 1st inning off Bonser, 1 on, 2 out; 4th inning off Bass, 1 on, 0 out).
TB: Granderson 2; Polanco 5; Sheffield 2; Ordonez 10; Cabrera; Guillen; Joyce; Rodriguez 3; Santiago.
RBI: Ordonez 6 (35), Cabrera (27), Guillen (22), Granderson (16), Polanco (15), Sheffield 3 (12), Joyce 2 (10), Santiago 2 (11).
2-out RBI: Ordonez 4; Cabrera; Guillen; Joyce 2; Santiago 2.
Runners left in scoring position, 2 out: Joyce; Granderson; Sheffield.
S: Santiago.
Team LOB: 5.

FIELDING
DP: (Polanco-Santiago-Cabrera).

Minnesota IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Bonser (L, 2-6) 3.0 7 9 8 2 2 1 6.16
Bass 1.1 7 7 7 0 0 1 5.74
Rincon 2.2 2 3 3 2 3 0 4.50
Reyes 1.0 1 0 0 1 0 0 3.29
Detroit IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Robertson (W, 2-5) 6.1 7 3 3 2 4 1 5.88
Lopez 2.2 1 0 0 1 4 0 2.35
Bonser pitched to 3 batters in the 4th.

WP: Rincon, Robertson.
Pitches-strikes: Bonser 48-31, Bass 47-27, Rincon 42-27, Reyes 16-8, Robertson 99-62, Lopez 52-34.
Ground outs-fly outs: Bonser 2-6, Bass 3-1, Rincon 1-5, Reyes 2-1, Robertson 8-7, Lopez 1-3.
Batters faced: Bonser 19, Bass 11, Rincon 13, Reyes 5, Robertson 27, Lopez 10.
Inherited runners-scored: Bass 1-1, Rincon 2-2, Lopez 2-0.

I don’t know what to say about this game. It was really the low of the season for me. I was pretty depressed, base-ball-wise, after the Chisox series in which the Twins had their rears handed to them every night for four days, but this was terrible. Bonser was terrible, Bass was worse, and Rincon continued the train of suck. Cuddyer was, at this point, suffering some of the ill effects of his strained finger; he would go on the DL a month later, after re-re-re-aggravating the injury sliding into a base and then swinging a bat too early. The bright spot of this game was Matt Macri, who got two hits, a stolen base, and scored a run in his first major-league experience. He also took a walk and struck out. It was a very good debut.

So what ranks this game in the most important? This game was at a time in which the Twins were competitive. The Tigers were the bottom of the division; it would take KC losing 8 of 10 to jog them from that position. The Twins were 2.5 back of the Chisox, and threw away this game miserably. It would turn out that the division would only tighten, but at the time I had the overwhelming feeling that this could cost the Twins the division. In effect, it did, since one more win would have made that nonsense with Game 163 unneccessary. Oh well.

The next game in the series is already written, and should be posted tomorrow; it is a Twins win, I promise.

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