Canned Heat

The notion of control is such a central tenet of so many of baseball's oldest and most reliable clichés: Stay within yourself. Don't try to do too much. Look for your pitch. Keep your head in the game. Watch your mouth. Don't rock the boat. Throw strikes. Baseball's really a deeply conservative game of consistency and repetition and time-honored codes of conduct. There's a pretty good reason why the guys who have a hard time abiding by many of those various commandments--the loose cannons and eccentrics and prima donnas--get a disproportionate amount of media attention: It's because they give the juiciest quotes and are often among the game's best players. It should be noted, though, that as far as eccentrics go, the baseball variety rank way down on the scale, just below real estate agents and right above meatpackers. It doesn't take much beyond a disastrous fashion sense or the ability to play the guitar to get a ballplayer branded an eccentric for life; bring a Carlos Castaneda book into the clubhouse and you're an off-the-charts oddball and an ESPN magazine feature story waiting to happen.

It's no secret that professional sports thrive on efficient conformity; that seems to be rapidly changing in at least some ways in many sports, but baseball remains the most orderly of the major sports (and has the most extensive finishing school), and players learn all the codes of conduct and pertinent clichés early. They also resort to them so often and in so many contexts that they actually start to sound like perfect sense.

The Twins have a starting staff of extreme control pitchers--they pride themselves on throwing strikes and avoiding walks--and there seems to be a direct correlation in this instance to the personality traits of the players involved. I'm thinking particularly about Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Rick Reed. With the more voluble and volatile Joe Mays on the disabled list, you're pretty much left with a mix-and-match assortment of the usual deadpan postgame summations. All three of the Twins front-line starters excel at the poker face and the short answer--the same short answer, it often seems, game after game. Radke in particular is a Zen master of the postgame quote. The man is a marvel, so even-tempered and self-contained that he seems almost freeze-dried. I challenge anyone to go back and read newspaper stories from games throughout Radke's career. I'd wager that the same half-dozen quotes and variants would show up again and again. Win or lose, the righthander will insist that he's not doing anything different, he's just trying to throw strikes and keep his team in the game, just trying to throw the ball over the plate and let his teammates make plays, just trying to be aggressive and use all his pitches. Actually, you'll probably notice that after Radke-pitched games you see a lot of quotes from Ron Gardenhire, Denny Hocking, Doug Mientkiewicz, or some one of the other more effusive Twins. That's just the sportswriter's acknowledgement that most nights you can't get ivory out of a dog's mouth.

The amazing thing is that on some nights--and they could be good nights or bad nights--Milton, as serious and straight-faced as an undertaker's apprentice, can make his fishing buddy Radke seem like a car-stereo salesman with a canned tan and a pinkie ring. If there was ever a guy who bucked the stereotype of the daffy lefthander, Milton appears to be the man. Reed, who while personable and articulate would hardly qualify as an expansive fellow, is a veritable quote machine when compared with his younger cohorts. The early indications are that Kyle Lohse and Matt Kinney, who have been bringing up the four and five spots in the rotation, have paid close attention to the reticent masters around them in the clubhouse. Lohse, in fact, could probably already fill in admirably for any of the veterans in a pinch, so quickly has he gotten up to speed on the starched staples of the postgame interview.

That control in the clubhouse has served all of the Twins starters well in the first six weeks; on the field the starting rotation--viewed as the team's strength coming into the season--has been maddeningly erratic. Control pitchers, of course, live and die by the relationship of their stuff to the strike zone; they often as not lack a single overpowering pitch that can keep hitters honest. The reputation alone can make things difficult: Opposing batters know the Twins starters are going to be around the plate and take an aggressive approach into the batter's box.

On the other hand, when Milton was having trouble with his control Friday night against New York, the Yankees patiently took pitches, worked deep counts, and teed off whenever he had to come in with a strike. The result was a short and miserable outing, in which Milton lasted just four innings, threw 101 pitches, gave up ten hits and five runs, and put his team in the unenviable position of having to scratch back against the vaunted Yankees bullpen and Mariano Rivera.

Reed fared no better against the Yanks on Sunday afternoon. His control was fine--perhaps too fine, in fact: Reed struck out six and didn't walk a batter, but he still lasted only four and two-thirds innings, during which he gave up seven hits and four home runs. When he got too much of the plate, the Yankees seemed to make him pay every time, and the result was a 5-0 hole the Twins couldn't crawl out of. The amazing thing about a pitcher like Reed (and Radke is another example) is that close examination of his good and bad games indicate that there's very little difference in his approach or the quality of his stuff. Some nights ground balls get through for base hits, soft line drives fall in for hits, and fly balls leave the ballpark. Sometimes a guy like Detroit's Randall Simon will go down and golf an excellent first pitch from Radke out of the dirt for a home run. What are you gonna do? The next time out, a guy could throw the same pitch in the same place to the same guy, and the defense behind him will turn it into an out. So sometimes there really is nothing for a bad outing but a shrug and a cliché. As Reed recently pointed out, for control pitchers baseball really is a game of inches.



WARNING SIGN: The Twins are the only American League team with a winning record that has not scored more runs than they've given up. Minnesota's exactly on the bubble coming out of the weekend sweep at the hands of the Yankees, sitting at 181-181. The Yankees have scored 15 more runs than the Twins, while giving up 41 fewer.

ERIC MILTON IS on a pace to strike out 50 fewer batters than last year. Radke's strikeouts are way down, too, and perhaps more alarmingly, he has already walked 13 batters, after walking 26 all last year.

TWINS RELIEVERS HAVE 97 strikeouts in only 119.1 innings pitched, while the starters have just 114 Ks in 206.1 IP.

AFTER HIS BLISTERING April, Twins center fielder Torii Hunter has cooled off and is seeing a steady diet of off-speed stuff and chasing fastballs out of the strike zone. In ten May games he has no home runs or RBIs and his average has fallen by 31 points, from .371 to .340.

WHO NEEDS THE designated hitter? Colorado's five starting pitchers are hitting a combined .295 (21 for 71), which is better than the guys who have been batting ninth for the Twins: Denny Hocking is at .192 (14 for 73), while Jay Canizaro is hitting .236 (17 for 72).

THERE'S A FINE line between showing confidence in a guy and destroying his confidence, which is what seems to be happening to Jacque Jones, who has looked absolutely helpless against lefthanders and is chasing bad pitches against everybody. How about taking a look at Bobby Kielty as a leadoff hitter, at least when he's in the game? The guy has had consistently great on-base percentages and walk totals in the minors, is a switch hitter with decent speed, and already has a .397 OBP and 10 walks (in 52 at bats). Jones has a .341 OBP (sinking fast) and has only 12 walks in 148 at bats.

CONTRACTION WATCH: Let's just admit that Milwaukee's not even worth watching anymore and turn our attention to the contraction grudge match that's going on in the National League East, with Florida and Montreal going head-to-head for first place. Through the weekend Florida was 21-16 and in first place, with Montreal right behind at 20-17.


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

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