Planetary Alignment

The Twins are putting it all together in May

Wednesday night's Twins-Royals game provided the best evidence yet of why Minnesota is clearly the best team in the decidedly mediocre Central division. Afterwards manager Ron Gardenhire was still willing to nit-pick a little bit --there were, after all, a couple of minor base-running gaffs and a late Cristian Guzman fielding error-- but there was also widespread agreement in the Twins' clubhouse that the 7-0 shutout of the Royals was the club's most solid all-around effort of the season.

It was certainly the most entertaining and satisfying game of the year for Twins fans. The contest had a little bit of all the things that make baseball such a great sport: a masterful complete game, three-hit shutout from Rick Reed, crisp defense (including a couple double plays, and back-to-back gems in the fourth from Dustan Mohr --who robbed Michael Tucker of a homerun-- and Torii Hunter), a little show of speed (Guzman's leadoff triple in the first) and power (Corey Koskie's two-run homer in the fifth), hit batters, and a bench-clearing incident in the eighth. And all of that and then some in just under two-and-a-half hours.

The Twins jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first, when Doug Mientkiewicz --who demonstrated last night that he can hit with a 3-0 count, bat second, and play right field-- singled home Guzman. I talked the other day about how important that first run is, and though it proved to be the only run the Twins would need, last night's game really turned on a few plays in the fourth inning. The first two were those catches, Mohr's take-away in particular, after which Reed clearly relaxed, threw strikes, and was never really in trouble. From the fifth through the ninth Reed faced 17 Kansas City batters, and threw only 57 pitches.

The second pivotal moment came in the bottom of the inning, when Kansas City right-hander Runelvys Hernandez, who came into the game with a 4-2 record and a 2.04 earned run average, hit the Matthew LeCroy, the leadoff hitter, in the helmet with an 0-2 pitch. The ball caromed off the bill of LeCroy's helmet and hit him in the face, breaking his nose. You hear a lot about how hitters are affected by beanings, but in this instance it was apparent that Hernandez was clearly rattled by the incident, and the Twins capitalized. After LeCroy left the game the Kansas City starter completely lost the strike zone and walked the next two batters. Three runs eventually scored, and with Reed cruising the game was effectively over.

That bench-clearing incident, the Twins third so far this season, was a typically ridiculous affair, but highly unusual in comparison with other such fiascos. In this case, Kansas City reliever Albie Lopez, who has been getting rocked all year, took apparent exception to third base coach Al Newman sending Guzman home on a Mientkiewicz double in the eighth with the Twins holding a six-run lead. Never mind that Guzman was thrown out at the plate; Lopez jawed with both Newman and Mientkiewicz, Gardenhire came out to bitch to the plate umpire, and the benches eventually cleared. If, in fact, Lopez thought the Twins were running up the score, his foolishness was almost unprecedented and he has a short memory to boot. He must not have been watching the last couple weeks as his Royals pissed away games time and again in the late innings. As their division lead has evaporated --it's now down to one-and-a-half games-- the Royals bullpen has been getting pounded. Kansas City blew leads in three straight games against the Red Sox back in the last week of April, allowed Toronto to rally from a seven-run deficit (in a game in which the Blue Jays scored eight runs in the last two innings), gave up eight runs in the seventh and eighth innings against the Red Sox, and five runs in the eighth against Baltimore. Granted, Reed was cruising, but he's also Rick Reed, and if you compare his numbers against batters the first time through the order with subsequent at bats you'll see some pretty drastic offensive upswings. He hasn't hung around into the late innings enough this year to make any kind of a valid comparison, but the batting average against him in the first through third innings is just .225, in contrast to .339 in the fourth through the sixth. In short, in this particular instance, and in almost any baseball game, trying to tack on another run in a 6-0 game can hardly be considered running up the score.

On the subject of bench-clearing incidents, how many such interruptions could you actually classify as a brawl? I'd be interested in hearing about the most memorable baseball donnybrooks, because I was trying to think of any last night and was drawing blanks. I certainly don't advocate these guys running out there and punching the shit out of each other, but I'd also really rather not see the benches and bullpens clear just so that the teams can stand around the infield jawing at each other. It's mingling, is what it is, and it's a huge waste of everybody's time.

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