Knee-Walking to the Finish Line

Auditions for the new CBS reality-show version of The Beverly Hillbillies kicked off with a bang in Chicago's Comiskey Park last week. By now you've almost certainly seen the footage of William Ligue, Jr. and his 15-year-old son (see? baseball really does bring together fathers and sons) bounding from the stands to attack Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in the ninth inning of a meaningless White Sox-Royals tilt. Ligue and son were clearly out of line, but a measure of sympathy is in order. It's been a long, frustrating season on Chicago's south side, and arguably no one has cost the White Sox more close games than Gamboa, the 54-year-old mastermind in the first base coaching box for the Royals. Make no mistake, I'm not defending the Ligues, but show me the White Sox booster who hasn't at least privately entertained the fantasy of thrashing Gamboa and I'll show you a fair weather fan.

If that unsavory saga in Chicago recalled for you the twanging of Deliverance banjos, the High Times headlines out of the New York Mets organization last week -where sources claimed that at least seven Mets have smoked marijuana this season-called for a slightly more modern soundtrack--some vintage Rick Derringer to go with those bong loads, perhaps. "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo"?

Raise your hand if you're surprised by the news that major league baseball players are smoking marijuana. Frankly, I'd be more surprised if they weren't, particularly the poor schmucks who have to labor for Bobby Valentine in New York. Memo to Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who has admitted that he is "embarrassed" by the reports: You've got more pressing things to be ashamed of, like the Mets' 74-81 record (good for last place in the NL East). Rest assured, better teams than the Mets have routinely snorked garfong and won plenty of baseball games. Better teams still do.

This kind of unseemly melodrama is all that losing teams like the Sox and Mets have left. Here in Minnesota, thankfully, we can still concern ourselves with baseball and the reality of our first postseason appearance since 1991.

As they did in 1987, the Twins clinched the Central Division title on the road and seem intent on knee-walking to the finish line. You may recall that the '87 Twins lost seven of their last nine games, including their last five after clinching in Texas. This year's club, perhaps still hung over from last week's celebration in Cleveland, played some of its ugliest baseball in Chicago over the weekend. The White Sox swept the three game series from the Twins, outscoring them 32-8 in the process. Twins starters Rick Reed, Brad Radke, and Joe Mays lasted a total of 11 innings in the three games--not exactly a ringing rebuttal of claims that the Twins lack a bulldog starter, a Frank Viola or a Jack Morris, to match up with their likely playoff foes. Then there's the toll on the bullpen, which could use a breather down the stretch.

I'm not so worried about the Twins pitching. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have done a terrific job all season of mixing and matching. It's the Oakland A's pitching that's got me grinding away my molars while I sleep. I'm sick of hearing about Oakland's "Big Three," Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder (a Dazed and Confused crew if ever there was one), but we're going to be hearing a whole lot more about them in the next couple weeks. The trio is a combined 55-21 this season, including 3-1 and a 2.14 ERA against the Twins. Zito and Mulder are lefties besides, and as much as Gardenhire would love the issue to go away, the Twins have been woeful against southpaws all year. Going into the last week of the season the team has a .250 batting average and .317 on base percentage versus lefthanders, and 20-29 mark against lefty starters. Contrast that with the Twins 69-37 record against right handed starters, and their .284 BA from the other side, and you don't have to be Tony LaRussa to figure out how teams are going to approach a postseason series with Minnesota.

I honestly believe that Jacque Jones is the MVP of this year's Twins team, and I also know he plays excellent defense, but I think Gardenhire would be nuts if he didn't yank him and his .219 batting average against lefties from the line-up the instant an opposing team trots a southpaw out to the mound. The same thing goes for David Ortiz and Dustan Mohr, who have surpassed even Jones's futility against lefthanders. Ortiz is actually a mystery case, and perhaps deserves an exemption; going into this season he had hit lefties at a .294 clip, yet his numbers last year were only .221, and he's been even worse this season (.196).

The Twins general, maddening, season-long inconsistency is the one factor that would seem to be working most severely against them going into the postseason. Looking back, I can't recall one really prolonged stretch of excellence from this team. Granted, they've played great in spurts, particularly following the All-Star break, but after six months we're still waiting for the Twins to click on all cylinders, to use one of those increasingly unavoidable and nonetheless egregious sports clichÈs. Somebody's always been hurt or slumping, so it's still kind of hard to get a read on the kind of postseason run this team could be capable of.

From any number of hard statistical vantages, however, optimism may be hard to come by. We've gone over those numbers versus lefthanders. Also, the Twins this year were a combined 8-16 against New York (0-6), Oakland (3-6), and Anaheim (5-4), the three teams that potentially stand between them and the organization's fourth trip to the World Series. They've mopped up at home (49-26), but been merely average on the road (40-40), where they will have to win at least one game to get out of the first round. The Twins' current 89-66 mark includes a 28-9 record against Central Division patsies Detroit and Kansas. And they're still more nicked up than you'd like a team to be going into the postseason.

I still wouldn't bet against them. Oakland's battle to hold off Anaheim down the stretch has to take some kind of toll, and New York has shown more chinks this year than in past seasons; they lead the league in strikeouts and have questionable pitching and defense heading into the postseason. Minnesota's 1987 championship team is once again a useful comparison for fans looking for a reason to be optimistic. That season Detroit won 98 games and held off Toronto to win the American League East, while the Cardinals claimed the National League title with a 95-67 record. Both teams were heavily favored against the Twins, who were 85-77 and had the third-worst road record in the Major Leagues, yet Minnesota capitalized on its home field advantage, strong frontline starters and defense, and clutch hitting to dispatch both teams and capture the state's first major sports championship.


I DON'T KNOW how you can't give the Manager of the Year award to Ron Gardenhire. The Twins have already improved on last season's record, and won the division, despite the fact that the team's top four starting pitchers -considered the strength of the team coming into the season - are on a pace to pitch more than 300 fewer innings than last year; the exact number will likely translate to almost 35 complete games. Reed, Radke, Mays, and Eric Milton all pitched more than 200 innings last season, and this year only Reed is going to come anywhere near that number. With the exception of Reed, every one of those guys has had a season that could charitably be called disappointing. Can you imagine what Oakland manager Art Howe -or former Twins skipper Tom Kelly, for that matter-would do if he had to find somebody to cover his projected starters' asses to the tune of 35 games?

Toss in the fact that an alarming number of the Twins starting position players have also seen their production drop off substantially from last year, and the job Gardenhire has done is even more impressive. Third baseman Corey Koskie's numbers are down all the way across the board; last year he hit 26 home runs, stole 27 bases, and scored and drove in more than 100 runs. He won't come anywhere close to any of those numbers this year, and his home run and stolen base totals have been cut in half. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz has likewise fallen off from 2001, as has shortstop Cristian Guzman. Centerfielder Torii Hunter, his All-Star selection notwithstanding, hasn't had quite the breakout year it looked like he was going to have. Since the All Star break his offensive production has practically disappeared; he's hit just .254 with eight homeruns and 30 RBIs since the break.

And, yes, I know that Gardenhire hasn't yet mastered Kelly's knack for the running game -this year's team hasn't been as successful at the hit-and-run, and after the 2001 club stole 146 bases this year's group of essentially the same players has swiped just 61 (and been caught 50 times)-still, you have to give the Twins rookie manager his due. Through a trying season filled with injuries and disappointments, his team has hung together and found a way to win a division title.