Knee-Walking to the Finish Line

The Twins have sucked since clinching the division, but that doesn't matter. Does it?

Auditions for the new CBS reality-show version of The Beverly Hillbillies kicked off with a bang in Chicago's Comiskey Park last week. By now you've almost certainly seen the footage of William Ligue, Jr. and his 15-year-old son (see? baseball really does bring together fathers and sons) bounding from the stands to attack Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in the ninth inning of a meaningless White Sox-Royals tilt. Ligue and son were clearly out of line, but a measure of sympathy is in order. It's been a long, frustrating season on Chicago's south side, and arguably no one has cost the White Sox more close games than Gamboa, the 54-year-old mastermind in the first base coaching box for the Royals. Make no mistake, I'm not defending the Ligues, but show me the White Sox booster who hasn't at least privately entertained the fantasy of thrashing Gamboa and I'll show you a fair weather fan.

If that unsavory saga in Chicago recalled for you the twanging of Deliverance banjos, the High Times headlines out of the New York Mets organization last week -where sources claimed that at least seven Mets have smoked marijuana this season-called for a slightly more modern soundtrack--some vintage Rick Derringer to go with those bong loads, perhaps. "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo"?

Raise your hand if you're surprised by the news that major league baseball players are smoking marijuana. Frankly, I'd be more surprised if they weren't, particularly the poor schmucks who have to labor for Bobby Valentine in New York. Memo to Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who has admitted that he is "embarrassed" by the reports: You've got more pressing things to be ashamed of, like the Mets' 74-81 record (good for last place in the NL East). Rest assured, better teams than the Mets have routinely snorked garfong and won plenty of baseball games. Better teams still do.

This kind of unseemly melodrama is all that losing teams like the Sox and Mets have left. Here in Minnesota, thankfully, we can still concern ourselves with baseball and the reality of our first postseason appearance since 1991.

As they did in 1987, the Twins clinched the Central Division title on the road and seem intent on knee-walking to the finish line. You may recall that the '87 Twins lost seven of their last nine games, including their last five after clinching in Texas. This year's club, perhaps still hung over from last week's celebration in Cleveland, played some of its ugliest baseball in Chicago over the weekend. The White Sox swept the three game series from the Twins, outscoring them 32-8 in the process. Twins starters Rick Reed, Brad Radke, and Joe Mays lasted a total of 11 innings in the three games--not exactly a ringing rebuttal of claims that the Twins lack a bulldog starter, a Frank Viola or a Jack Morris, to match up with their likely playoff foes. Then there's the toll on the bullpen, which could use a breather down the stretch.

I'm not so worried about the Twins pitching. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have done a terrific job all season of mixing and matching. It's the Oakland A's pitching that's got me grinding away my molars while I sleep. I'm sick of hearing about Oakland's "Big Three," Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder (a Dazed and Confused crew if ever there was one), but we're going to be hearing a whole lot more about them in the next couple weeks. The trio is a combined 55-21 this season, including 3-1 and a 2.14 ERA against the Twins. Zito and Mulder are lefties besides, and as much as Gardenhire would love the issue to go away, the Twins have been woeful against southpaws all year. Going into the last week of the season the team has a .250 batting average and .317 on base percentage versus lefthanders, and 20-29 mark against lefty starters. Contrast that with the Twins 69-37 record against right handed starters, and their .284 BA from the other side, and you don't have to be Tony LaRussa to figure out how teams are going to approach a postseason series with Minnesota.

I honestly believe that Jacque Jones is the MVP of this year's Twins team, and I also know he plays excellent defense, but I think Gardenhire would be nuts if he didn't yank him and his .219 batting average against lefties from the line-up the instant an opposing team trots a southpaw out to the mound. The same thing goes for David Ortiz and Dustan Mohr, who have surpassed even Jones's futility against lefthanders. Ortiz is actually a mystery case, and perhaps deserves an exemption; going into this season he had hit lefties at a .294 clip, yet his numbers last year were only .221, and he's been even worse this season (.196).

The Twins general, maddening, season-long inconsistency is the one factor that would seem to be working most severely against them going into the postseason. Looking back, I can't recall one really prolonged stretch of excellence from this team. Granted, they've played great in spurts, particularly following the All-Star break, but after six months we're still waiting for the Twins to click on all cylinders, to use one of those increasingly unavoidable and nonetheless egregious sports clichÈs. Somebody's always been hurt or slumping, so it's still kind of hard to get a read on the kind of postseason run this team could be capable of.

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