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.

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