Anything But By the Book
The big question surrounding the Minnesota Twins as they inch toward the midpoint of the season is a tantalizing one: What happens when this team really gets rolling? Seriously, what can we expect when everybody finally gets on track?
If somebody had told you coming out of spring training that the team would weather so many injuries, plus disappointing seasons from seven of their opening-day starters--Brad Radke, Cristian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, David Ortiz, Corey Koskie, Brian Buchanan, and Luis Rivas, not to mention All Star starters Eric Milton and Joe Mays--could even the most unreasonably optimistic fan have predicted that the Twins would enter the final week of June ten games over .500 and holding a seven-game lead in the American League Central Division?
Show me a fan who professes anything but surprise at the Twins' start and I'll show you a liar with the skills to bluff himself into a debauched residency in the governor's mansion. Because this is a team that has been nothing if not surprising--confounding, messy, aggressive one minute, maddeningly passive the next; gritty, hardnosed, chippy, boneheaded, occasionally brilliant, and always, always--almost always--surprising. All of which means, of course, that they've also been a shitload of fun to watch.
Monday's come-from-behind 5-4 victory over their closest division rivals, the underachieving Chicago White Sox, followed manager Ron Gardenhire's blurred Etch A Sketch blueprint for the season to date. Matt Kinney started the game with a 12-pitch battle against Chicago's leadoff hitter, Kenny Lofton, before getting him to pop out to Jacque Jones in foul territory. After Kinney got through the inning unscathed, his teammates went down 1-2-3 to righthander Jon Garland on five pitches. Kinney proceeded to gut out his usual workmanlike performance: six innings pitched, 103 pitches, six hits, four runs, one earned run, two home runs, three walks, zero strikeouts, and no decision.
As has been the case so often this season, Kinney (2-6, coming into the game, with a 4.67 ERA) got very little in the way of support from his teammates, either at the plate or in the field. Two errors in the third, followed by a Magglio Ordoñez home run, led to three unearned runs and an early hole.
The Twins picked up a run in the bottom of the third, but also wasted three leadoff hits and stranded seven runners through the fifth. Hunter alone stranded five runners, striking out with Koskie on third and nobody out in the second, grounding out with the bases loaded in the third, and hitting into a double play with runners on first and third and one out in the fifth.
As has also been the case so often this season, the Twins bullpen and offense picked up Kinney and pulled off another improbable clutch victory. No surprise, really, that the big blows would be struck by Hunter and Jones, who have sparked the team's offense for much of the season. Hunter's two-run homer--his 18th of the year--off a Garland slider would tie the game at four in the eighth; Jones would drive in the go-ahead run on a two-out eighth-inning double. Jones's game winner was typical of the Twins' aggressive approach all season, as he was gunned down at third for the final out of the inning. Remember that business they always tell the kids about never making the final out at third? Never mind. The Twins have been violating baseball's cardinal rules with an almost frightening regularity all season, and look where it has gotten them.
LaTroy Hawkins pitched two scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.70, and Eddie Guardado, of course, pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his league-leading 22nd save.
The resurrection of Hawkins has almost been lost amid the unreal success of his penmates Guardado, J.C. Romero, and Tony Fiore. Hawkins now has 39 strikeouts and only seven walks in 47 and two-thirds innings pitched. Fans overexcited by Guardado's early success might still want to keep in mind Hawkins's roller-coaster 2001, when he had 23 saves and a 3.48 ERA at the All Star break, only to lead the Twins into their second-half freefall, notching only five more saves the rest of the way and compiling a 10.70 post-All Star ERA. Still, the mitigating factor thus far this season has been Hawkins's incredible control, and his increasing confidence in his off-speed repertoire. Last season, in 51 and one-third innings, he had only 36 strikeouts and an unsightly 39 walks.
With three scoreless innings against Philadelphia on Sunday, Fiore lowered his relief ERA to 0.99, giving Romero (at 0.82) company in the sub-one ERA club. Fiore has now given up only 17 hits in 36 and one-third relief innings.
Mientkiewicz is the only first baseman in the major leagues who has a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage (.395 OBP/.373 SLG). His 51 walks trails only Cleveland's Jim Thome and Toronto's Carlos Delgado in the American League, which is all the more amazing given the fact that he's hitting .254 with three home runs. Excuse me, but why are teams pitching around this guy?
With Gardenhire's ejection in Monday night's game--his third already this season--he's on a pace to get tossed more times in his rookie season than former manager Tom Kelly did in 15 seasons (Kelly was ejected five times in his career).
You wanna know how Jacque Jones has managed to rack up 52 RBI batting leadoff? Take a look at the production of the guys the Twins have been batting down in the order, most notably A.J. Pierzynski, who despite his .321 average has been regularly batting eighth. "I've been in a position where the guys at the bottom of the order have been getting on base and setting the table for me all year," says Jones. "It seems like those guys are on base every time I come up."
Going into Monday's game, Hunter was hitting only .225 with runners in scoring position, despite which he has a team-leading 55 RBI. Imagine what his numbers would look like with even average production in those key RBI situations. Meanwhile, Hunter's batting average has fallen from .371 in April to .297; he hit .250 in May, and is hitting .263 so far in June. Half of his home-run total came in his hot April. "Torii's had some really bad at bats lately, but he keeps at it, and tonight he ends up hitting a big two-run homer to bring us back," Gardenhire said after Monday's game. "You gotta love the guy."
Says Hunter: "I'm a streak hitter. No matter what I do, I try to leave the game with a positive attitude. When you play nine innings and you play every day, you always know you're going to get another chance real quick. Hopefully I'm going to go into another one of those streaks where I'm just swinging hard and hitting everything all over the place."
The good news about Cristian Guzman is that he finally seems to be shaking the funk that dogged him the first six weeks of the season; he has raised his average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage each of the first three months of the season.
The Twins lead the league in runners left on base. Consider that Kansas City has stranded the fewest runners, however, and you'll see that that's something of a misleading stat. With 168 doubles and a .276 team batting average, the Twins have had a lot of runners on base, and despite scoring only 36 runs in their recent nine-game road trip, they're still fourth in the league in runs scored.
Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.
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