Winning Ways

It was a very good week

The Twins' weekend sweep of the Cleveland Indians, and the 8-1 home stand that elevated the team to the top of the American League Central Division, demonstrated that while there are a lot of different ways to win or lose a baseball game, the surest recipe for success is still strong starting pitching, good fielding, reliable relief, and a balanced and timely offensive attack.

That's stating the obvious, of course. One of the most durable, and arguable, of baseball clichés is the notion that pitching is 90 percent of the game. That's mostly b.s., and only really defensible if you can somehow agree that hitting is the other 90 percent. So the question remains: How do you win games, and how do you lose them? The first answer is simple enough, on the surface. You win games by scoring more runs than your pitching staff allows. The answer to the second question is, obviously, more complex. There a lot of different ways a team can lose a ballgame: Starting pitching can falter and take a team out of the game early; relief pitching can cough up leads and deflate momentum; defensive lapses can give away outs and extend innings; and prolonged offensive slumps can negate strong pitching performances.

Until the four straight quality starts that closed out the home stand, the Twins' starting pitching--considered the strength of the team coming into the season--had been shaky at best, yet the team's middle-relief corps managed to keep the team in games while the offense battled back time and again with aggressive hitting and big innings.

The success of the bullpen has been crucial in the early going. Already in this young season, the Twins have received four wins from their bullpen. Lefty set-up man J.C. Romero has been unhittable and has yet to give up a run in 12 appearances, while striking out 17 batters in 13 innings. Closer Eddie Guardado has eight saves in eight opportunities, and has 15 Ks in ten innings pitched. With the exception of a 16-3 loss to the Royals (the lone blemish on the home stand), when the pen gave up nine earned runs in three and one-third innings, Twins relievers have been virtually flawless. The team is now 11-0 when leading after seven innings, and 12-0 when taking a lead into the ninth.

"Nobody likes to hear it, because it's dull. But the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same...pitching," legendary Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said in 1978. Interesting, given that Weaver is primarily remembered as a passionate proponent of the three-run homer. But the numbers corroborate his observation. The Twins are 8-0 when receiving a quality start from their pitchers (six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs). For that matter, they're 8-0 in games in which a starter has gone at least six innings. The lone skid in to date--the four-game sweep at Cleveland--featured four decidedly mediocre performances from the starters. That series demonstrated that the most effective bullpen in the world can do nothing for a team unless it's given a lead to protect.

The key game so far in the season was Thursday afternoon's 4-1 victory over Kansas City. On the heels of the previous evening's 16-3 shellacking, lefty Eric Milton notched his second straight quality start, giving up just four hits and one run in seven and two-thirds innings, and Romero and Guardado combined for hitless relief. The victory showed that the Twins could bounce back in a hurry from a potentially devastating ballgame, and set the tone for the sweep of Cleveland.

Manager Ron Gardenhire had shrugged off the pasting on Wednesday. "It was a bad night all around," he said after the game. "We got our butts kicked, but we'll be back here in the morning ready to play." It was, though, clear from Gardenhire's postgame comments that he was concerned with the struggles of his starting pitching. "You can only keep sending the relievers out there so often before you start killing people," he said. "We just had to leave guys out there to get pounded tonight. But we'll get the starters turned around. I really believe that. We know these guys are going to pitch a lot better."

As he has so often in his rookie season, Gardenhire proved remarkably prescient. Beginning with Milton's Thursday performance, the Twins reeled off three quality starts--and three victories--against Cleveland, with sterling performances from the tail end of the rotation: Kyle Lohse, recent Triple-A call-up Matt Kinney, and veteran Rick Reed.

Reed's victory in the Cleveland finale was indicative of the Twins' season to date. The righthander (and the Twins offense) picked up second baseman Denny Hocking, who struck out looking with a runner on third and one out in the second and later made a costly error that led to two Cleveland runs and gave the Indians an early lead. The Twins came right back in the bottom of the inning, and went ahead on back-to-back RBI doubles from Hocking and Jacque Jones.

"It's been that way since I got here," Reed said afterward. "It's amazing the way these guys pick each other up. That's just the way this team works. Nobody gets down on anyone, and we just keep battling."

 

NOTES:

DIAMOND ARCANA FROM Minnesota writer and baseball historian Stew Thornley: There has been only one triple play in baseball history in which the player who hit into it and the player who made the last putout both died of gunshot wounds. Can you name the two players? (Answer below)

SO MUCH FOR the platoon theory: Through the weekend series with Cleveland, J.C. Romero, Eddie Guardado, and Eric Milton have been hell on righthanded batters. Righthanders are batting just .133 against Guardado, .143 versus Romero, and .224 against Milton. Lefthanders have fared even worse against Romero, going 0 for 14.

WHILE THE TWINS have continued to struggle against lefthanded pitching, batting just .237 with one home run, they've been feasting on righthanders, hitting .307 with 22 home runs and a whopping .526 slugging percentage. Center fielder Torii Hunter is batting .460 against righthanded pitching and slugging .860, while leadoff hitter Jacque Jones is hitting .400 and slugging .655. The team is hitting .316 with runners on, .305 with runners in scoring position, .314 with an 0-2 count, and .450 with the bases loaded.

AFTER HIS TWO-homer game against the Indians Friday night, Twins catcher Tom Prince now has 20 career home runs and three two-homer games.

CONTRACTION WATCH: The Brewers have improved slightly under new manager Jerry Royster, and are now 7-12. In four consecutive games on their most recent home stand in their new retractable-roofed stadium, they drew fewer than 20,000. The Montreal Expos, meanwhile, are 11-8 and leading the National League East.

ANSWER: Twins outfielder Lyman Bostock hit into a triple play against the California Angels in 1977, with first baseman Tony Solaita making the final out. Bostock and Solaita both later died of gunshot wounds.

 

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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