Coming Through with a Pinch
A dugout is one of the more interesting quirks in a sport that is full of odd little touches. What other sport sequesters its players in a recessed bunker? I'm not sure what it's exact design function is, but, together with the clubhouse and the bullpen, the dugout is baseball's chemistry lab. It's a place of strange, inscrutable rituals and superstitions; the laboratory that makes managers out of average players. Some of the most fascinating stuff that takes place in the course of a baseball game goes on in the dugout, and one of the virtues of watching games on television these days is that there are frequent glimpses into that curious phenomenon.
Lately, viewers have witnessed the strange spectacle of Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz sitting on the dugout floor during extra-inning rallies, apparently in the same exact spot each time. Mientkiewicz, of course, is careful to clean his lucky spot with a towel, an oddly prudent component of an otherwise wholly irrational superstition. God knows, though, that such fastidiousness is in order; the floor of a baseball dugout is one of the most unsavory surfaces imaginable. By the extra innings it is slick with tobacco juice, Gatorade, sunflower seeds, and all manner of unidentifiable muck--which makes Mienkiewicz's ritual all the more heroic. And apparently it's working. Through the weekend the Twins, following back-to-back tenth-inning victories over Kansas City, are 9-3 in extra innings.
One of the hallmarks of the 2002 team has been a remarkable tenaciousness. The team now has 34 come-from-behind wins, and is 22-14 in one-run games, a tribute to the stellar bullpen and manager Ron Gardenhire's uncanny knack for pushing the right buttons in the late innings. The Twins pinch-hitting batting average of .329 is leading the American League; Anaheim and Texas are a distant second at .250. Toss in a .405 on base percentage and .479 slugging percentage and the pinch-hitting numbers are even more astonishing. These statistics are one more example of the vigilance and chemistry of the Twins; proof that Gardenhire, bench coach Steve Liddle, and hitting coach Scott Ulger have done a remarkable job of keeping their bench players in the game and exploiting match-ups.
Ulger calls pinch hitting "the toughest job in all of sports." A pinch hitter is generally called on to face one of an opposing team's toughest relievers, with little opportunity to study the pitcher in question. Often the task falls to a guy who is not playing everyday, which makes timing all the more difficult.
"You have to have an aggressive approach and a relatively short swing," Ulger says. "I'll go over possible match-ups early in the game with some of the guys; we'll talk about pitchers they might face and what they might see, and you try to get them ready as best you can. But it's tough; you maybe haven't played in a couple days and all a sudden you have to come off the bench and try to hit some of these guys who are the best in the world at what they do. Our guys have done a terrific job, and a lot of that is the extra work and preparation they put in every day. This whole group works very hard in the cage."
Outfielder Bobby Kielty has been the Twins most effective pinch hitter, batting an incredible .471 (8 for 17) in the role, with a .500 OBP and .882 slugging percentage. On the surface, the requirements of the job are at odds with Kielty's natural style as a hitter. He is the most patient Twin at the plate, and on a team of predominately free swingers and hackers he's one guy who likes to take pitches and work the count in his favor, waiting for pitches he can handle (his .436 OBP leads the team).
"I have to take a completely different approach as a pinch hitter," Kielty says. "The biggest thing is you have to get your swings in. You have to get that first hack out of the way. A lot of times when you get in there it's late in a close game and the first pitch is a fastball, you're usually facing a set-up guy or a closer who throws hard, and that first swing gets your timing down. I'm ordinarily pretty patient at the plate, but when I go up there as a pinch hitter I'm just trying to get my hacks in. I know I've gone up there as pinch hitter and been too patient and gotten frozen; when you don't even swing the bat and look at strike three that's just about the worst feeling. I've always been an on base guy, but when I come off the bench I'm just trying to swing the bat and hit the ball hard."
The team's pinch-hitting success is one of the overlooked examples of the solid job Ron Gardenhire has done in his first season at the helm. One of the curiosities of the Twins season to date is a lingering misperception about Gardenhire's abilities as an in-game manager, particularly when contrasted with his predecessor, Tom Kelly. Kelly was widely regarded as a manager who emphasized defense, exploited platoon match-ups, and demanded sound fundamental play. Given Gardenhire's easy-going temperament, and the unstinting faith he has shown in his players--largely eschewing Kelly's by-the-book approach--it's easy to brand him as a laissez faire manager. What's more, it's the worst sort of a backhanded complement to brand a guy a "player's manager," and while Gardenhire certainly fits that description on a number of levels, he's also utilized more of the Kelly approach than he probably gets credit for.
The Twins defense and sound fundamental play have largely been overlooked this season. The team recently broke the club record for consecutive errorless games (with eleven), and they're currently on pace to break the team record for fewest errors in a season. At present they have the best fielding percentage (.986) in the American League, and, increasingly, the team does most of the little things right. It helps, of course, to have Gold Glove-caliber players in Mientkiewicz, Torii Hunter, Cory Koskie, Cristian Guzman, and Luis Rivas, but defense remains one area where Gardenhire doesn't get enough credit. In Koskie's early days with the team, it was Gardenhire, then a coach, who spent countless hours with the young third baseman, hitting him groundballs and ironing out the deficiencies that made Kelly wary of using Koskie in the field. All of the Twins current infielders were beneficiaries of Gardenhire's work and tutelage in those dark days in the late Nineties.
Over the ten games of the last homestand the Twins relievers threw twenty-four-and-a-third scoreless innings. In the first three games of the Kansas City series--all victories, including two in extra innings--the pen didn't give up a run in eleven innings. Only twice in the homestand--in the second game of the Toronto series and in Monday's blow-out loss to Kansas City--was the bullpen touched for runs. The team is now 18-5 since the All-Star break.
The team's production from the bottom of the order has been incredible. The Twins lead the league in runs from the number nine spot (with 57), and are first in batting average at number eight (with a .286 avg.); they're also first in runs and RBI from the seven hole (with 70 runs and 69 RBI), and first in runs from the sixth position (with 70). Throw out Hunter in the five spot (where they lead the league in average and slugging percentage) and the top-half of the order hasn't fared so well, particularly in the two, three, and four spots; Twins two hitters (primarily Cristian Guzman) are 13th in the league in runs scored, 12th in RBI, and 14th in OBP. The team's clean-up hitters are 8th in RBIs, 10th in runs, 9th in RBIs, and 9th in homeruns, while the number three hitters (with Mientkiewicz getting most of the at bats until recently) are 8th in batting average, 10th in RBIs, 12th in homeruns, and 10th in slugging percentage.
Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.
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