Finally, A Phenom, And His Name's Not Joe Mauer
Justin Morneau is just 22 years old, and he's spent the first couple months of the 2003 season destroying pitchers at double A and triple A, in the process essentially forcing the Twins to give him a look. Tuesday night he made his major league debut, and he had every reason to be a little bit tight. Even if the rookie wasn't feeling any particular pressure coming in, Ron Gardenhire started cranking the bolts in his ears right out of the blocks; it was bad enough that Morneau arrived at the park to find himself penciled in at DH and batting cleanup. Even more daunting, and a sure sign that the Twins expect big things from the Canadian youngster, was the fact that the pooh-bahs in the organization saw fit to saddle the kid with Charley Walters' old uniform number, 27. I suppose it's possible that a young fellow from the Canadian sticks has never heard of Walters --Morneau is awfully young-- but he surely followed the exploits of another Minnesota great, Mark Davidson, who also wore his old number.
Still, if Morneau was aware of the sort of history he was wearing on his jersey he sure did a good job of not letting on. The kid is, from all appearances, cool as a cucumber, and still a couple years away from needing an electric shaver. Leading off the second against Colorado right-hander Jason Jennings, Morneau took a pitch, then hit a high foul ball that hit the speakers above the visitor's dugout. He tried to check his swing on the third pitch, falling behind 1-2, and took a close pitch for ball two. On Jennings' next offering, a two-seam sinker, we got a glimpse of Morneau's quick, short swing as he adjusted and drove a long foul ball down into the right field corner. Jennings then tried to come back with what looked like the same pitch, and this time Morneau waited on the ball and slapped a line drive into center for his first major league hit.
The rookie got another hit in the sixth, and ended up with two of the three hits the Twins managed against Jennings. That really, was the story of the game, as Brad Radke put the team in a 3-0 hole in the first. Radke's first-inning woes --and his miserable performance in the Dome-- continued Tuesday night, and he now has a 8.54 earned run average at home; in seven Dome starts this season Radke has now given up 63 hits and 13 homeruns in 39 innings. Radke gave up three homers to the Rockies --all on the first pitch-- and afterwards admitted to what has seemed obvious to many observers for a couple years now: "Sometimes I think maybe I throw too many strikes," he said. As I've mentioned before, Radke suffers from the same problem as his rotation mate, Rick Reed. Both guys depend on their control, and pride themselves on throwing strikes and keeping hitters off balance. Against an aggressive team like Colorado, however, first pitch strikes quickly turn into mistakes, and mistakes turn into homeruns. Two of the homeruns were on first-pitch breaking balls that got mashed.
Last year, when Eric Milton struggled in a similar fashion early in the season, many of the Twins hypothesized that he was tipping his pitches. The same thing seems to be happening to Radke at the moment; it almost seems like the hitters know what's coming. He threw called first-pitch strikes to the first two hitters last night, and then Preston Wilson teed off on the first offering and hit a long homerun to center. For the night Radke threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 26 hitters he faced. The Rockies swung at thirteen of those pitches, and all five of their runs scored on those three homeruns. As much as baseball people talk about how important that first strike is, it sure seems like it would behoove Radke to start getting a little creatively wild, or at the very least to make damn sure that if his first pitch is a strike it's down and on the corners. Easy enough for me to say, of course, but Radke clearly has good enough control that he should feel comfortable working in a hole a little more often.
Unfortunately, against the Rockies -a team the Twins had never faced-Radke had to be the guinea pig for the rest of the staff. And it was clear the next night that Kyle Lohse had been paying close attention to Radke's mistakes. All pitchers will tell you that they love to get the second or third start in a series, particularly against an unknown team. It gives them a huge advantage to be able to spend a game or two studying opposing hitter's tendencies and watching what does and doesn't work for their rotation mates. After pitching the Twins to a 7-4 victory in the second game Lohse admitted as much.
The right-hander, who is now 6-4 with a 2.91 ERA, pitched very carefully against the Rockies, throwing an uncharacteristic 103 pitches in six innings in which he walked only one batter and gave up just one run.
"I saw last night that they were a very aggressive team, and were prepared to jump all over the first pitch," Lohse said. "So I was really trying to make sure I didn't groove any pitches. I was definitely mixing up my pitches so they couldn't sit on anything, and A.J. and I were concentrating on keeping the ball on the inside and outside corners. I had a lot more deep counts as a result, but I was able to keep them guessing."
As for Morneau, the rookie got the full hotshot treatment in the clubhouse after the game, including a towel full of shaving cream courtesy of LaTroy Hawkins while he was addressing the media. It's a credit to the kid's maturity and confidence that he fielded all questions carefully and thoughtfully even as he was being mercilessly razzed from all corners of the clubhouse. His answers made it clear that Morneau has a pretty good idea what he's doing at the plate; he's a hitter who thinks from pitch-to-pitch in every at bat, and makes adjustments as he goes along. That quality, in and of itself, is in short supply on this current Twins' team. This is a club of increasingly frustrating bad ball hitters, or at least bad ball swingers.
The thing the Twins are still not learning is that it's possible to be both disciplined and aggressive. Almost to a man they consistently fail to swing at strikes, even as they continue to flail away at balls out of the strike zone. Even as he continues to make strides as a disciplined hitter, you can still see how anxious Torii Hunter is to swing. Even when he does manage to work a hitter's count --2-0, for instance, or 3-2-- you're almost guaranteed that he's going to swing at the next pitch, no matter where the hell it is. It's obvious that pitchers are figuring this out, and against most of the Twins' hitters they can waste pitches even in disadvantageous situations. The team's struggles with runners in scoring position are the best indication that the hitters are pressing, and getting themselves out. Consider that Doug Mientkiewicz and Dustan Mohr, the club's hottest hitters in May, are still batting just .200 and .171, respectively, with runners in scoring position. And the team as a whole is hitting .256 with RISP. They're obviously going to have to get a whole lot better in that area, and a whole lot more disciplined, if they're going to take another step as a team. Who knows? Maybe they can actually learn a few things from the new kid.
It'll certainly be interesting to see how many at bats Gardenhire can find for Morneau, and at whose expense. It still seems increasingly inevitable that the Twins are going to have to make a trade or two to shake things up somewhere down the road. They owe it to some of these guys who are languishing on the bench and at Rochester, guys like Michael Cuddyer --remember him? The guy who got the nod in right field during last year's playoffs?-- and Todd Sears and Michael Restovich and Lew Ford, The list goes on and on. It is, as they say, a good problem to have, but it's also becoming a problem they don't need to have, and a problem that could provide a few solutions in the coming months.
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