August 02, 2008

Those Pesky Piranhas

Guess who's nipping at another AL Central title? With an impressive homestand vs. the ChiSox, the Twins closed the gap to a minuscule 1/2 game deficit. Winning games in their customary small-ball fashion, Minnesota's tried and true recipe mixes a quart of clutch hitting, a dash of defense, a pinch of quality starting pitching and a bevy of bullpen beef. Even the most optimistic Twins fans didn't fully believe that 2008 could end with a playoff run after losing their staff ace (Johan Santana) and their clubhouse leader (Torii Hunter), not to mention trading away their best young pitcher (Matt Garza). The lineup is patchwork at best relying heavily on journeymen Mike Lamb & Adam Everett, hitting conundrums Jason Kubel & Delmon Young, spare parts Craig Monroe, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris & Mike Redmond, and rookies Carlos Gomez, Alexei Casilla, Denard Span and Brian Buscher. The infusion of this new life from the exciting youngsters portends greatness in the coming years.

Read all of those names again. How exactly has this assemblage of talent remained in a heated race with the White Sox and Tigers? Two players mean more to this lineup than any other two players on any team: the M&M twins, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. A win doesn't go by that one, if not both of them play a pivotal role in putting runs on the board. Both sit squarely in the top 10 of AL hitters. Morneau has donned the magician's cape for most of the season, proving his MVP season in 2006 was no fluke. Besides knocking in an AL second-best 87 RBIs, he's pulled rabbit after rabbit out of his hat, hitting .347 with men on and two outs, and an even more impressive .376 with runners in scoring position. His counterpart, on top of managing one of the most inexperienced staffs in the game to surprising results, has proven to be one of the game's most reliable hitters. Though his power numbers don't match that of this year's HR Derby champ, he still gets style points for delivering when needed, raking pitchers at a .386 clip with 2 out, RISP. The hometown hero means the world to the team and the city, or rather, Twin Cities.

Obviously there's more to it than just these two All-Stars. The Twins break the norm on offensive expectations. Despite tying for the Majors' 2nd to last team HR total (76), they rank 7th in the Majors in runs scored. They lead the Majors in bunt singles, doubling the next closest team. They strike out the 4th least of any team in the Majors while boasting the 3rd best batting average (.278). And perhaps the most stunning team stat, the Twins hit a sparkling .317 with runners in scoring position, 30 points higher than the next team. Call it what you will - luck, skill, Puckett providence, but they're certainly playing with a level of confidence that competitive Twins squads in the past lacked.

Lest I forget, I haven't even mentioned the most dynamic piece of the playoff puzzle, the piece just found lying in the box, the piece that fits right in the middle that connects everything else - a true ace. With Santana's absence, the team placed unfair expectations on Francisco Liriano, fresh off Tommy John surgery, to pick up the mantle and dazzle like he did pre-injury. It came as no surprise, unfortunately, that he couldn't get on track right away and lost confidence. Relegated to Triple AAA to find his groove, lo and behold, it happened. Though a little peeved at management's foot dragging calling him back to the big show, he channeled his frustration into dominant pitching, going 10-0 (2.67 ERA) in his last 11 starts. Sunday, he takes the mound again, a new pitcher with a new task, leading this late assault on the Central standings.

The Twins will grow by leaps and bounds over the next two months. A third month, October baseball, is in their grasp. It's going to be riveting watching it unfold.


Jimmy said...

And Liriano sparkles!! 6 scoreless innings, 3 hits, 3 BB, 5 Ks. Not his best as his pitch count was up there, but a helluva welcome back. Exactly what the Twins needed from him. And the bottom of the order delivers with Mauer and Delmon getting the day off. With the Royals beating down the Sox, figuratively and literally, the Twins can finally call themselves king of the Central hill. They have a huge opportunity to create some breathing room at the top with a road feast week of Seattle and KC, while the Sox welcome Detroit and Boston. Chicago pundits are going to start wringing their hands as the sky starts to fall on this season. I love it.

Chris said...

The Twins will win the division. It will be a nice accomplishment, but that is as far as it will go because the Angels are gonna squash everyone in the playoffs.

Mike said...

Nice to see Liriano come back as well. I saw him pitch here in Rochester earlier this year and it did not look like he had any chance of making it back to the big leagues anytime soon.

Liriano is a class act too- he always treated everyone well down in AAA.

Jimmy said...

Great to hear some comments from Rochester. Not surprising to hear the class act stuff since we're talking about the most down-to-earth organization in professional sports. They don't put up with insuborindation or petulance(see Garza wearing a Rays uni).

Liriano's about face is a testament to the coaches clearing his head and being patient. He could have easily spiraled into oblivion and left us with the memory of his rookie campaign. But the coaches got him back on track and focused on his mechanics to find his magic. He'll only get stronger with each start.

Keep the reports coming from Rochester!! Who's going to have the most impact with September callups? Any hitters raking the ball that can be plugged into DH?

Mike said...

I think that Darnell McDonald could have made an impact if he hadn't gotten hurt. As a former Univ. of Texas football recruit, McDonald has always possessed the requisite speed (even though he lost in a race to the worst horse in thoroughbred history) and defensive ability to succeed in the bigs, but he just hasn't been able to produce at the plate. This year, however, McDonald was hitting for average and power at Frontier Field, which is a pitcher's park with spacious power alleys.

On the pitching side, Phillip Humber is starting to show why he was a first round pick in 2005 (for my beloved Mets). He's won 3 in a row and seems to be rounding into nice form.

Finally, don't count out former Notre Dame baseball player Matt Macri either. As you know, he's already had a cup of coffee with the Twins this year and could be another valuable role player for the team in September.

Doug said...

The Twins never cease to amaze me. I don't know how they do it. Look at the lineup they trotted out on Saturday.

Denard Span
Nick Punto
Joe Mauer
Justin Morneau
Jason Kubel
Delmon Young
Brian Buscher
Brendan Harris
Carlos Gomez

How is that lineup 7th in the big leagues in runs?? It's remarkable. Jimmy, those are some interesting stats there. The Twins are like the ultimate anti-Moneyball team. They win by doing the little things that don't show up in the stats. When you dig between the numbers and find obscure stats like bunt singles and strikeouts, you start to see why the Twins are always so successful. They have found a unique formula for winning that isn't flashy, but it gets results. I only wish the Reds would someday catch on to this model.

The clutch hitting thing is also an interesting topic. I have read that the Twins actually practice clutch hitting by having their hitters call out a situation and then taking batting practice from there. It's an interesting concept, and it's no surprise that they Twins are among the leaders in hitting with runners in scoring position.

The Moneyball disciples all insist that there is no such thing as clutch hitting and that it's all a statistical coincidence, but I couldn't disagree with them more. Some teams/players just find ways to come through in the clutch, and other teams/players don't. Clutch hitting is real, and it usually means the difference between good teams and bad teams.

Jimmy said...

Not sleeping on Macri. He would've stayed up had he not gotten injured. He'll be back and will platoon at 3B. Gotta love the Irish making some noise in the Majors with Heilman, Lidge and Smardzija as the poster children for ND baseball.

I'm really curious about looking at the Santana deal in 3 years, when Santana is out with an arm injury (he's due, let's be honest) and the Twins have a Gold Glove CF who's a 50 steal threat, and a couple solid arms in the rotation. It's possible Bill Smith did the right thing after all the negative reaction he's received. That's still a big maybe. But it wouldn't be the first time the Twins dealt at the right time one of their stars.