No Runs, No Hits, No Interest

Major-league baseball asks an awful lot of its fans, which is one obvious and overlooked reason why the sport has such a difficult time attracting and commanding the attention of so much of the populace. One hundred sixty-two games, for crying out loud, spring training, box scores, Baseball Tonight, fantasy leagues, ESPN SportsZone, the Hot Stove League. Show me a serious, pathological baseball fan and I'll show you a severely malnourished, socially awkward knucklehead who's looking for order in all the wrong places and wasting hundreds of precious hours on a sport where the line between punishment and reward frequently shifts from inning to inning and game to game.

It was hard not to be reminded of that difficult truth as I sat on my couch watching the Twins and White Sox lurch through a sloppy seesaw brawl at the new Comiskey Park a couple Saturdays ago. On the surface a meaningless, midseason contest between two teams bumbling along in the middle of the mongrel pack that is the atrocious American League Central division, the game was nonetheless a perfect, time-lapse example of the sort of exaggerated manic depression that major-league baseball can induce on any given night.

When Terry Steinbach, who has been driving in runs at a Jeff Reboulet pace all season, lashed a Bill Simas fastball that skipped by right fielder Magglio Ordonez to bring home Todd Walker from first with the tying run, the Twins completed a two-out, four-run ninth-inning comeback that tied the score and drove die-hard fans whooping from their couches and easy chairs in at least a dozen homes all across the upper Midwest. A base-running blunder by Frank Thomas in the bottom of the ninth allowed Rick Aguilera to work out of a ridiculous jam and send the game into extra innings. The Twins and Sox then proceeded to swap go-ahead and tying runs in the 10th and 11th innings, until Aguilera eventually surrendered the tying and game-winning runs in the bottom of the 11th, and what had been shaping up as perhaps the Twins' most inspired win of the season turned into just another messy heartbreaker.

One of the pleasures of taking in baseball games in the privacy of your own home is the opportunity it affords even the most repressed fan to carry on like the crassest of ballpark louts, and by the time Aguilera had served up the game winner I was half-dressed, hoarse from bellowing obscenities, and staring miserably at an almost empty jumbo bag of circus peanuts. What was so particularly galling about that loss was that a game the team had no business winning had quickly turned into a game they had to win, and the Twins haven't been in a game like that for what seems like years.

The irrational fan in you could be forgiven for reading too much into the missed opportunity, but for those who have been paying close attention to this year's Twins team, the loss in Chicago had the sour feeling of a potentially pivotal game for a team that had thus far outperformed all expectations, and in completely unexpected ways, yet had little to show for it in the won-lost column. Because all season the Twins have looked an awful lot like a team that is a player or two, a flurry of long balls, and maybe one solid stretch away from being a competent and, dare I say, competing team. For fans literally spoiled by the awful pitching and anemic offense of the last several seasons, this year's club has provided plenty of small and pleasant surprises, and in the Twins' struggle to get their heads above the .500 mark it's easy to overlook the tremendous advances they've made and how close they are to finally regaining a measure of respectability.

The big surprise, of course, has been the pitching. After years of Mile High-worthy earned run averages the Twins have put together their most solid sustained stretch of pitching since the 1992 season, and have managed to hang in there with the American League team leaders through the first three months, leading the league in fewest walks allowed by a huge margin, and shaving almost a run off last year's ERA in the process. With the continual and astonishing development of Brad Radke, de facto pitching coaches like Bob Tewksbury and Mike Morgan, a couple of nice young projects in LaTroy Hawkins and Eric Milton, and the remarkably stable and durable bullpen, the Twins' pitchers have proved that they can keep the team in virtually every game, as evidenced by their 24 one-run games (in which they are 10-14) and nine extra-inning contests (2-7) to date.

The fact is, however, that coming off last year's disasters, that progress, while certainly encouraging, is still only half the battle. That the Twins are the only sub-.500 team in the majors that has scored more runs than it has allowed is almost completely to the pitching staff's credit, because almost any way you care to look at it, the Twins' offense hasn't held up its end of the deal. The various local corporations that participate in home-run promotions at the Dome--providing prizes to fans and cash for charity for every Twins homer--are getting more promotional bang for their buck than anyone in professional sports.  

With the absence of any consistent long-ball threat (the Twins are last in the AL in home runs, with 56), Manager Tom Kelly has apparently decided that he either can't or won't play the brand of small ball necessary to manufacture runs. The Twins are 10th in the American League in stolen bases (the only teams with fewer all have well over 90 home runs), 11th in on-base average, 13th in slugging percentage, and are well ahead of the rest of the pack in grounding into double plays. The club's outfield production has been anemic through much of the first three months, with the entire cast of characters Kelly's thrown out there combining for fewer home runs than a dozen players have managed individually.

Otis Nixon, whom the Twins are paying $2,000,000 this season to lead off games for them and play center field, has been hampered by a busted jaw and is hitting .254 with four extra-base hits and a .295 slugging average. Marty Cordova has shown signs in recent weeks of snapping out of the offensive and defensive funk he's been in for the last season and a half, and though his recent tear at the plate has nudged his average over the .300 mark, he is still a dozen homers and 25 RBIs shy of justifying his considerable attitude and swagger. If the Twins are going to take the next step they'll need Cordova to start bashing home runs, hitting doubles into the gap, and driving in runs again. Lost in his recent floundering is the fact that he is a guy who followed up an impressive rookie-of-the-year campaign in 1995 with a season in which he hit .309 with 46 doubles and 111 RBIs.

It's almost heresy to point out that perhaps the Twins' biggest offensive liabilities and disappointments this season have been their two highest-paid players, last-leg locals Paul Molitor and Terry Steinbach. No one wants to point fingers at two of the team's classiest acts and true professionals, but the struggles of Molitor and Steinbach have become too painful to ignore. Obviously, Molitor has been trying to play through injuries, and his recent visit to the disabled list with a broken rib might be the best thing that could have happened to him at this point. Previous to getting plunked by a Matt Karchner pitch, Molitor was putting together the worst season of his magnificent career. Before heading to the DL, he was the least productive regular designated hitter in the American League, with only one home run and a meager .359 slugging average, and he has already hit into more double plays in 1998 (the most of any DH) than he has in 19 of his previous big-league seasons. On the bright side, and as an indicator of his continued ability to produce in the clutch, he is hitting .391 with runners in scoring position.

Steinbach, on the other hand, is hitting just .157 with runners in scoring position, and his four home runs and 15 RBIs are all the more alarming given his increasing propensity to strike out. Previous to his 1996 career year with Oakland, in which he hit 35 home runs and drove in 100 runs, Steinbach had never struck out more than 74 times in a season. That year he had 115 whiffs to go with the homers, and though his production fell to 12 home runs and 54 RBIs last year with the Twins, he again struck out more than 100 times and is on a similar pace this season. As with Molitor, the intangibles Steinbach brings to the team, behind the plate and in the clubhouse, can't be entirely overlooked, but it's also become impossible to ignore his considerable role in the Twins' offensive struggles.

Despite the inconsistent hitting and the disappointing won-lost record, there are still ways for the Twins to salvage the season, and maybe even make a run at Cleveland later this summer. Promising rookie slugger David Ortiz will be ready to come off the disabled list after the All-Star break. Add his return to the improved pitching, Pat Meares's stellar play at shortstop, Todd Walker's steady emergence as a hitter, and the recent offensive surges of Cordova and Matt Lawton, and the team, even as it continues to take wrong turns with frustrating regularity, is beginning to show signs of finally turning the corner.

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