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.

Reed's performance was certainly encouraging. Throw out one decent six-inning win over the Tigers --which should almost count in the Spring Training standings-- and he hasn't been good since getting rocked in the playoffs last year. It's very easy to forget that Reed was clearly the Twins best pitcher last season, when he led the starters in wins, innings pitched, and earned run average. The guy is now 37 years old, and is making $7 million a year, and you absolutely never have any idea what you're going to get when he takes the mound.

Neither, really, does he, it turns out. Reed is easily the most self-effacing guy on the Twins' staff, and even after last night's gem --in which he matched his career high for low-hit games-- he was as seemingly puzzled by his success as he is when he gets pounded. Reed's a guy who's mastered the shrug, and he always seems to be entirely unruffled, which is of course the prerogative of any man making seven million dollars a year.

"It was nice to be able to pitch a halfway decent game for a change," he said. "Hopefully I'll be able to go home and sleep a little better." Reed said this in his characteristic deadpan drawl, and it wasn't entirely convincing; I've never had the impression that Reed is a guy who tosses and turns at night over a bad start.

Win or lose, though, Reed will always insist that he wasn't doing anything different --he just goes out there and throws "the same old garbage up there," as he's said-- and last night he stayed with that script. He did, however, elaborate a little bit when pressed to explain how he accounts for the often-radical difference in his performance from one start to the next.

"You really never know what's going to happen when you go out there," he said. "I don't, anyway. Especially with this rug [the Dome's artificial turf]. I don't have any margin for error, and I have to throw strikes. If I go out there and walk five or six guys they're all gonna score, because when I make mistakes I make 'em big. If I miss by a couple inches that generally turns into a very big mistake. It's nice to have runs to work with, and you sort of take for granted that these guys are going to make the plays behind you, but I just pitch for outs, one batter at a time. I'm never thinking about a shutout or pitch counts or anything like that. I'm just trying to deal with each guy as he comes up there. After all these years I still couldn't tell you how this game works."

Reed said that while there isn't any kind of template for how he approaches any particular start, in a perfect world he'd pitch the second or third game of every series, which would afford him the opportunity to watch how his teammates approach opposing hitters, and how those hitters respond.

"That's pretty much how I get my scouting reports," he said. "But even with a good game plan and all the information in the world everything has to go just right for me to have a game like tonight. I guess the planet's must have been lined up perfect."

NOTES:

The Twins have now thrown four shutouts in the last month, and have five for the season. They didn't get their second shutout last year until July 28th, and finished with nine, including seven in the last two months. The team ERA is now under four (3.99) for the first time all season, and they've gone 12-3 over their last 15, shaving Kansas City's lead down to one-and-a-half games in the process.

Christian Guzman looks to be all the way back from whatever was ailing him last year. He already has as many triples --six-- as he had all last year, and, the occasional sloppy error aside, is playing great defense again.

Whatever the umpires are doing to speed up the games, it's working. After enduring years of three-plus hour games, the Twins have now played 11 straight in under three hours. Last night's game, even with the bench clearing, was two hours and 25 minutes.

The Twins choice of Joe Mauer over Mark Prior with the first pick in the 2001 draft will always be second-guessed, and for good reason. Prior, of course, is already in the Major Leagues, and pitching like a Cy Young candidate for the Cubs, while Mauer is still in Class A, playing for the Twins' Florida State league affiliate in Fort Myers. Pretty much everybody agrees that Mauer has a chance to be a great player somebody --he has tremendous plate discipline for a 20 year old-- but everybody agrees that Prior is already a great player, and one hell of bargain at that. Prior's signability was the issue with the Twins, but the Cubs managed to wrap him up for five years for $10.5 million, which included a $2.3 million signing bonus. That means the Cubs are paying Prior, who is now 5-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 55 IP, $1,450,000 a year, which sure looks like a steal when you consider the salaries the Twins are paying Brad Radke ($8,750,000), Rick Reed ($7 million), and Eric Milton ($6 million).

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