Let the Games Begin

The Twins finally bring home the 2002 edition

The hot shots and beautiful people were out in force last Friday night at the Metrodome, as the Twins opened the home side of what (it must be mentioned) could be their last season. ESPN was in the house. Ann-Margret and the cast of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas were on hand to sing the National Anthem. There was also a bald eagle, a blimp, and the obligatory high-school marching band. At one point Candy Clark and Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) drove out onto the field in a vintage automobile and waved to the folks in the stands. David Farr, Official Magician of the Minnesota Twins, was present somewhere as well, and a giant submarine sandwich was jogging around on the field with T.C., the Twins' mascot bear. Though I happen to think that there is a special circle in Hell reserved for sports mascots, it was opening night and there was a sold-out crowd in attendance, so I was willing to cut the bear a little slack. Believe me, I'm not one of these baseball purists who have conniptions just because the powers that be want to sell egg rolls at baseball games. Most of this stuff is just fine with me.

The baseball press box was packed with all the usual suspects--hard-working beat reporters, a dozen interns from KFAN, Mark Rosen's hair colorist, the Star Tribune's Mr. Fixit, and Steve Cannon's old doubles partner--so the City Pages delegation was sent packing to the relative obscurity of the auxiliary press box, located directly above the plastic curtain in right field. The view wasn't particularly impressive--imagine trying to watch a baseball game from the turret of a tank suspended from the ceiling--but the sound quality was positively disturbing: everything sounded like it had been broken down in a centrifuge and then rebroadcast at maximum volume from the gravel at the bottom of a restaurant lobster aquarium. Bob Casey sounded like Satan himself (well, all right, Bob Casey always sounds like Satan himself, but this was somehow even more mangled and harrowing, hard as that might be to believe). This was compounded by the fact that a lumber company was having a big party directly beneath us. "Is this Captain Beefheart?" I would shout to the grizzled old local stringer for Grit, but he clearly couldn't hear me above the roar. I didn't have any more luck communicating with the crew from a vocational school television station in Two Harbors or the "Other Sports" columnist for In-Fisherman, but I'd bet my grandmother's Boog Powell Rawlings Trapper that they played that Lee Greenwood song about America at some point, and it sounded like maybe the marching band from Brainerd played "Smoke on the Water," but that might just have been a bit of keen deductive reasoning on my part, because, really, it all could have been "My Bloody Valentine" for all I could tell.

No matter, though; for all the quirks (and irritations) of the Metrodome in general, and my own seat in particular, there was no place in the world I would rather have been Friday night, and I'm more than pleased to tip my cap to the entire Twins organization--well, maybe not the entire organization--and admit that the home opener managed to offer something for everyone, including and especially baseball fans.

Never mind that the Twins' opponents were the 0-8 Detroit Tigers. After an off-season of calamitous speculation and disgraceful, conscripted limbo, the Twins' 4-2 victory, and their subsequent three-game sweep of the floundering Tigers, was both an immense relief and a perfect introduction to new manager Ron Gardenhire and the style of baseball his team will need to play to be competitive in the American League Central Division.

Coming out of spring training, the Twins' strengths appeared to be their starting pitching and defense, yet through the ten-game road trip that opened the season the starters labored, and the defense stumbled a bit as well. That the Twins managed to return home 5-5 was due in large part to some surprising power outbursts (including five home runs in the season opener at Kansas City) and the (over)work of the hugely underrated bullpen.

Throw out a couple of errors that didn't end up costing the team anything, and Friday's game went pretty much according to the blueprint Gardenhire brought north from Florida. Brad Radke made his seventh straight home-opening start and scattered eight hits and two runs over six and two-thirds innings to even his career record at 95-95. The offense batted around for four runs in the second inning off former Twins lefthander Mark Redman, which turned out to be the only runs Radke and the Twins would need (or get). When Eddie Guardado came in to strike out the side in the ninth inning for his fifth save in as many chances, the Dome was a loud as any time in recent memory. After the game Guardado admitted he could feel the mound vibrating under his feet.

The Twins played entertaining and aggressive baseball all weekend. Saturday night the team utilized clutch two-out hits to score five of their seven runs; a two-out flurry in the eighth keyed by A.J. Pierzynski's two-run single off Tiger reliever Matt Perisho put the game away. Pierzynski's at-bat typified one of the primary initial differences between Gardenhire's managing style and that of his predecessor, Tom Kelly. With two outs, the bases loaded, and a lefthanded reliever on the mound, Kelly in all likelihood would have sent up a pinch hitter for the lefty Pierzynski, particularly with Dustan Mohr, a righthanded bat and the Twins' hottest hitter in the early going, on the bench. Gardenhire stuck with Pierzynski, and the catcher rewarded his manager's confidence with the hit that broke open the game.

"I try to stay out of the game as much as possible as a manager," Gardenhire said afterward. "I like to give the guys a shot at it to see what they can do. It shows my confidence in them, and I have confidence in every one of these guys. I love it when our players look back at me to see if I'm going to make a change and I just blow 'em a kiss and say, 'Go get 'em.'"

Sunday afternoon the rookie manager showed he can also push the buttons and pull the levers when he needs to. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Twins trailing 7-5, Pierzynski led off with a single and Gardenhire sent up Bobby Kielty to pinch hit for Denny Hocking. Kielty, a switch-hitter, was batting just .125 in only eight at-bats, all against lefthanders. Detroit manager Luis Pujols went to hard-throwing righty Matt Anderson, his closer, and Kielty responded with a long home run to tie the game. After Anderson subsequently loaded the bases, Gardenhire took a page out of the Kelly playbook and pinch-hit David Ortiz for Matt LeCroy, who'd gone three-for-four with a triple and two doubles off knuckleballer Steve Sparks. Ortiz promptly delivered a bases-clearing triple that turned a tie game into a blowout and made Gardenhire look like a genius.

Earlier, LeCroy's first Major League triple--and a slide that could charitably be called inelegant--was one of the highlights of the home stand. "It was a lot of fun watching Big Matty going around the bases like that," Gardenhire commented. "Let's just say that that slide was very entertaining for our dugout."

It was clear from the mood in the clubhouse all weekend that this team, and this manager, are looking forward to having a lot of fun all summer--and for Twins fans that might be the best news of all.

 

NOTES:

A LOT OF people were scratching their heads over Gardenhire's early announcement that he planned to use Jacque Jones (he of the career .327 on-base percentage) as his leadoff hitter and intended to leave him in there against lefthanders, against whom he hit just .182 in limited duty last year. Thus far Jones has rewarded Gardenhire's confidence: Through Sunday he was hitting .358 with an OBP of .435. After drawing just 39 walks a year ago, Jones has already drawn eight bases on balls, compared to just five strikeouts. Leading off against Tigers lefthander Mark Redman in Friday's opener, Jones lashed a single to left center for his first hit against a lefty in 2002; he also drew a walk in the four-run second inning.

THE TWINS HAVE batted just .221 against lefties through the first 13 games. Corey Koskie, who batting just .250, is finding a way to get on base: He has ten walks and a .411 OBP. LeCroy and Ortiz now have more triples than Cristian Guzman, who led the league in each of the last two seasons.

LAST NOTES FROM opening night: The Twins are 24-18 in home openers, including 5-2 vs. Detroit. Former governor Wendell Anderson has thrown out the ceremonial first pitch an astonishing six times. Another former governor, Rudy Perpich, is second on the list, with three trips to the mound. Gophers basketball coach Clem Haskins had the honor twice. Carl Pohlad's mother, Mary Kieffer, made the first toss in 1994. In Saturday night's pregame celebrity home run derby, the guy in the bear suit defeated KSTP's Joe Schmit and hockey Olympian Krissy Wendell of Brooklyn Park.

CONTRACTION WATCH: Bud Selig's Brewers were 3-9 through the weekend, and now have more strikeouts (99) than hits (96). The team broke a seven-game losing streak with a 4-3 victory at San Francisco on Sunday.

 

Brad Zellar will go Yard every Monday afternoon--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.

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