Good Luck, Boys
Last week at the Dome, after it had become apparent that Oakland would indeed be the Twins first-round playoff opponent, manager Ron Gardenhire mentioned that Paul Molitor was on the road, preparing an advanced scouting report on the Athletics. Gardenhire noted that he already had a pretty good inkling regarding the contents of Molitor's dispatch. "I'm pretty sure Paul's just going to say, 'Good luck,'" Gardenhire said.
It's a shame, really, that the Twins and A's have to meet in the first round. There aren't two playoff teams more deserving of a baseball fan's zeal. Oakland actually has a slightly lower payroll than the Twins, but both teams are at the bottom of baseball's salary pig pile, ranking 27th and 28th out of 30 teams (only the woeful Expos and Devil Rays have lower payrolls). Both teams play in outdated stadiums designed for football, and draw comparatively poorly; despite a 100-win season the Athletics averaged only 26,787 for 81 dates at the Coliseum, while the Twins drew 23,758 a game in the Dome. Only one team with a winning record the Expos--drew fewer fans than the Twins and the A's.
You also won't find two clubhouses full of more exuberant and charismatic characters. Both teams were assembled by two of the most creative and respected general managers in the game, Oakland's Billy Beane (a former Twin) and Minnesota's Terry Ryan. The Twins, of course, survived the threat of contraction and went from a floundering franchise emblematic of everything that was wrong with baseball to a model of small-market ingenuity. Oakland overcame the defection of marquee players Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, not to mention a September dogfight with the Anaheim Angels, and rode its tremendous starting rotation and an MVP season from shortstop Miguel Tejada--to the American League West title, actually improving on their 2001 record in the process.
You'd be hard pressed to find anybody fool enough to actually pick the Twins to upset the A's. Home-field advantage in a five-game series is huge, and Oakland manager Art Howe's decision to go with a three-man rotation of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito in the first round means that the Twins will have to find a way to beat a couple of those guys two of them dreaded lefthanders-- twice. That said, a close look at the numbers indicates that the Twins actually stack up reasonably well against Oakland. Minnesota had a higher batting average (.272 to Oakland's .261) and slugging percentage (.437 to .432), and while Oakland did have a better earned run average (3.68 to 4.12), the difference isn't all that significant considering the Twins health travails with their starters. Howe clearly doesn't have a lot of faith in his middle relief corps, and tends to leave his starters out there to work their way out of jams. Twins relievers pitched 120 more innings than their Oakland counterparts, and the obvious key is to keep games close and find a way to get the Oakland starters out of the game.
Both teams play sound fundamental baseball and excellent defense, and neither Gardenhire nor Howe has had much interest or success in the running game. The Twins stole 79 bases this year (a big falloff from last season) while the Athletics swiped only 46. As I've said before, I'm not that worried about the Twins pitching; they might actually be deeper from top to bottom than Oakland Kyle Lohse, a guy who won 13 games for the team and was one of the best September performers, isn't even in the playoff rotation, and Minnesota has a decided edge in the bullpen, should games be decided in the middle or late innings. Brad Radke, the game one starter, appears to be sharp, and is fresher than he's ever been this late in the season, having pitched only 118 innings after pitching more than 200 in each of the last six seasons.
Gardenhire obviously can't let games get out of hand, but he has the numbers in his bullpen if one of his starters falters, and in that regard the short series works to the Twins advantage as well.
There are some glaring concerns, too, and I certainly don't agree with Gardenhire's apparent decision to start rookie Michael Cuddyer in right field over either Bobby Kielty or Dustan Mohr. Cuddyer's looked like a player the last couple weeks, but this is a kid who spent much of the year in Edmonton. Mohr hit the wall the last month of the season, batting only .204 in September with a .352 slugging percentage, but he's a hustling, hard-nosed player the Twins like to have on the field. In a short series, when runs figure to be scarce, I'd start Kielty, a switch hitter whose .405 on base percentage led the team, and who came up with two game-winning home runs in the last home stand. Despite only 289 regular season at bats, Kielty's 52 walks were third best on the team, and his willingness to take pitches and work the count make him an invaluable igniter on a team of notorious free swingers. I'd be more comfortable with his left-handed bat in the line-up against the right-handed Hudson on Tuesday, but Gardenhire often works in mysterious ways, and who am I to argue with a guy who won 94 games in his rookie season?
After a season of futility against lefthanders, it's also not terribly encouraging to know that the Twins will have to find a way to beat Oakland's devastating tandem of southpaws, Zito and Mulder. Howe's decision to lead with the right-handed Hudson is curious, to say the least, although I suppose it's worth noting that he's 5-0 lifetime versus the Twins.
The other potentially discouraging curiosity in the numbers is the Twins' record in day games this year. They were 24-24 playing in the afternoon, and it looks like at least the first four games of the series with Oakland will have afternoon start times. Oakland can be a notoriously difficult place for opposing teams to play in the daylight. There's the matter of the sun and shadows, and the ball jumps out of the place in the day. The Twins will clearly have to steal at least one of the first two games in Oakland to have a chance, but if they can manage to bring the series back to the Dome tied at a game apiece, God help the Athletics. Gardenhire's reluctance to deviate from his formula for success, and the unshakable faith he has shown in his players, is admirable on a number of levels, but here's hoping he pulls out all the stops in this series.
THE LAST TWO games against Chicago provided a perfect example of the splendid but schizoid season that Jacque Jones has had. Saturday, in his customary leadoff spot against White Sox leftie Mark Buehrle, Jones went 0-4 with three strikeouts to lower his batting average to .296. The next day, in the season finale, he went 3-3 against right-hander Jon Garland to finish the season at exactly .300. For the year he hit .333 with 24 homeruns and 68 RBIs against righties, and .213 with three homers and 17 RBIs against lefthanders.
THE TWINS FINISHED the regular season with a 9-1 record in extra-inning games at the Dome.
MINNESOTA'S CRACKERJACK MARKETING honchos might consider giving away a Rick Reed Swivelhead doll the next time Cleveland's Jim Thome comes to town. Thome hit seven home runs off Reed this season, and 11 versus the Twins. The Cleveland slugger is the most underrated player in baseball. The guy hit .304 this season, with 54 homeruns, 118 RBIs, 101 runs, and 122 walks. His OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.122 was the highest in the American League, and second only to Barry Bonds (1.381) overall. And Thome does it practically every year, having already scored and driven in100 runs six times. He's still only 32 years old, and works as hard as anyone in the game. During the last Twins home stand, with the Indians playing out the string on a miserable season, Thome was on the field alone before every game, hitting ball after ball off a tee. One of the few satisfactions of the unbalanced schedule is the numerous opportunities it allows Twins fans to watch Thome and his splendid counterpart at shortstop, Omar Vizquel.
FINALLY, HERE'S A wonderful quote I stumbled across in Francis Richter's 1914 History and Records of Base Ball (under the chapter heading, "Big Wars of Base Ball"): "It was not expected that the wonderful success achieved under the National Agreement could be maintained indefinitely without exciting undue ambition within the ranks, the envy of outsiders, and the rapacity of the players the latter always susceptible to temptation by appeal to their cupidity or to the egotism developed by excessive adulation of the press and public. Moreover, the history of the game demonstrates that every decade developed conditions that led to war either through foreign influence or internal causes."
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