Reason to Believe

The major leagues are going to hell in a handbasket, but for the time being we've still got the Twins, and the game

You can bitch that baseball is ruled by money grubbers and morons; you aren't going to get an argument out of me on that point. I might also be willing to agree that the game as an institution is rotten to the core, and that a whole lot of deadwood is going to have to fall and burn for the forest to grow again, etc. Go ahead and pick your metaphor. Maybe we can argue a bit about some of the reasons this is so and what might be done to remedy it. I'm sure there's plenty, actually, that we can argue about, but I have to confess that I'm pretty tired of arguing. I'd rather watch a baseball game.

And if you're one of those who've grown so tired of all the sordid monkey business that's making such a depressing mess of the sports pages and obscuring the box scores lately that you've decided to tune out and turn away, well, Jesus, I'm sorry, because you're missing one hell of a game. Still. There's nothing like it, and it's worth fighting over, and fighting for. It's worth watching, because until it's dead and buried there's always a chance--every day--that you'll see something you've never seen before, including a 7-7 tie in an All-Star game that was a pretty damn interesting contest nonetheless--an otherwise decent game that resulted in yet another humiliating spectacle for the rumpled and spastic commissioner, and I can live with that; watching poor Bud Selig seized by a palsied, full-body flinch on national television almost made the whole pathetic thing more satisfying on some level. Can't you at least hope that the cumulative shaming power of such colossally incompetent and increasingly inevitable episodes will somehow ultimately help save the game somewhere down the road?

I'll go ahead and answer that question: Yes, you can at least hope, you should hope, and there is at present no team in the major leagues more deserving of a fan's fiercest hopes than the Minnesota Twins, an aggressive, even chippy team with a $40 million payroll (27th out of 30 teams in the majors) that is at this moment--Tuesday morning--14 games above .500 and 10 games out front in the American League Central Division. I know, they have a wretched claymation bank-vault gnome for an owner, but can't we please try to forget about him and have some fun for a few months? I know we're Minnesotans and we've had all we can stand and we can't stand no more, but can't we somehow allow ourselves to get excited about this baseball team? There'll be time enough to wreak righteous and terrible havoc on the hopelessly addled and bloated beefsteak boys and union goons when and if they try to shut us down, but until then let's try to enjoy ourselves.

Because the Twins really are a good and highly entertaining team--they're for real--and God knows they're having fun. This was a joyless team for so many years, and for so many very good reasons, but this year's edition is an entirely different story. Manager Ron Gardenhire is clearly a guy who loves to come to the ballpark, loves to mix it up with his players. Most days he even seems to genuinely relish the give-and-take with the media. He's also a fiery character, a quality that has obviously rubbed off on his players. The manager's occasionally curious decisions have prompted a healthy share of second-guessing from fans and the press, but Gardenhire has made it plenty clear that he trusts his instincts, believes in his players, and is willing to defend them when necessary.

Already this season the rookie manager has been tossed from four games. The team seems to get warnings from umpires once a week for pitching high and tight (a continuing source of consternation for Gardenhire). The Twins have also created bad blood with a growing number of opponents this season, thanks to their sometimes overly aggressive, exuberant style of play and occasional willingness to strut and talk trash. It's all pretty encouraging, actually, and though there are those who will claim that chemistry is overrated, the usual mood in the Minnesota clubhouse makes it clear that this is a tight-knit club that likes to get to the ballpark early to go to work and have some fun, and I can't think of another team this side of the Yankees whose style of play on the field so closely mirrors their clubhouse atmosphere.

The Twins have done a lot of incredible things already this year, but in Monday's match-up with the Anaheim Angels at the Dome they pulled off the truly stupendous, somehow managing to play one of their worst and best games of the season all in one night. Starter Johan Santana had an absolutely disastrous outing; in four and two-thirds innings he gave up four hits, walked seven, threw two wild pitches, and committed two errors, putting the Twins in a 7-1 hole. The team played sloppy in the field through five innings, and looked hopeless. The Angels let the Twins back in the game through shoddy play of their own, including three wild pitches and a fielding error; Twins hitters twice reached first base on third-strike wild pitches, and the two teams combined for six unearned runs.

When Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia brought on lefthander Scott Schoeneweis in the seventh to protect an 8-5 lead, there was little reason to expect the Twins to rally. Minnesota has been pathetic against lefties all season and entered the game batting just .247 against southpaws. As they have so often this year, however, the Twins pulled off the improbable, and in trademark fashion. In the seventh they scored two runs on two-out hits, capped by Torii Hunter's 22nd home run; in the eighth they broke the game open with another two-out rally, sparked by a Luis Rivas single, a pinch-hit single from Bobby Kielty, and a three-run homer by Cristian Guzman. Eddie Guardado came on to set the Angels down in order in the ninth for his league-leading 29th save, and yet another White Sox loss gave the Twins a ten-game lead--their largest ever at this point in the season, and the largest current lead in the major leagues.

Ten games, for crying out loud. Surely only Bud Selig and Donald Fehr could find a way to blow a ten-game lead.

 

NOTES:

Kielty's Monday-night pinch hit was his seventh of the season. As a pinch hitter he is 7 for 16, for a .438 batting average. In fact, the entire team has fared well in the pinch-hitting role, batting .322 overall (20 for 62). A.J. Pierzynski is hitting .571 (4 for 7) as a pinch hitter, while Jacque Jones is at.333 (2 for 6).

Jones's numbers in the leadoff spot and versus lefthanders continue to plummet, but he's still performing in the clutch, hitting .366 with runners in scoring position, .361 with runners in scoring position and two out, and .318 from the seventh inning on. The Twins are hitting .298 with the bases loaded. Corey Koskie and David Ortiz, who have both struggled most of the season, are finally heating up. Koskie is hitting .378 and slugging .649 in July, while Ortiz has hit .318 with a .727 slugging percentage. Hunter is on another of his hot streaks, with four home runs and nine RBI in July. Eric Milton seems to be back on track, having won both of his July starts, pitching 16 innings and striking out 13 while walking only three.

The early workload seems to be catching up to the bullpen. J.C. Romero, Mike Jackson, and Eddie Guardado have all seen their ERAs rise drastically in the past month. Romero, who was virtually unhittable in April and May, has seen his ERA climb in both June and July.

Doug Mientkiewicz is a splendid defensive player, but as a hitter he's now closer to the 1999 player who hit .229 with two home runs than to last year's version (.306 with 15 homers). He's batting just .247, with a .355 slugging percentage. Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman both have higher batting averages and slugging percentages. How many runs exactly do you think Mientkiewicz saves with his glove?

It's refreshing, although unfortunate for the players involved, but none of the Twins three All Stars had an All-Star game bonus in their contracts.

More hope coming: Joe Mays gave up two hits and a run in his seven-inning rehab start at New Britain Monday night. Brad Radke also appears to be ready to begin his rehab assignment.

 

Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.

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