Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tough week as rotation falters

A week ago, the Twins were coming off their fifth series victory in a row, at Texas. Though they dropped the finale game against the Rangers, things were looking up for the club as they kept improving on the road.

They also were staying consistently above the .500 mark, entering the series opener against Oakland with a record of 47-45. But unfortunately, after going 2-5 versus the A's and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, they are now a game below even at 49-50.

The Twins were closing in slightly on the Detroit Tigers atop the AL Central, but have since slipped to third place. Right now it's a three-team race between the Twins, Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

A week to forget
Frustration seemed to reach its peak inside the clubhouse after Saturday's nationally-televised game in Anaheim. Losing two out of three to the worst offensive team in the majors, and then three in a row to the Angels, this could arguably be referred to as a huge low point in the Twins' season.

But it wasn't just the losses that were the problem. It was the way in which the team lost. Despite producing a fairly solid pitching rotation throughout the season, starters fell apart. This caused the usually reliable bullpen to be called upon too much. Then there were the poor fielding decisions costing bases, outs and runs.

Since it's pretty well-known that you win games with pitching, or at least you need pitching in order to have a chance, this factor seems to be the main plague of the Twins right now.

Surgery, walls and "injuries"
Kevin Slowey, who had been hurt and trying to rehab his way back to the ballclub, had a huge setback when a bone chip in his hand started hindering his ability to throw. He announced Monday that he will have surgery on his hand, putting him out for the rest of the season.

This is bad news for the rotation. Slowey was the team's ace with a 10-3 record and 4.86 ERA. He was also one of the first pitchers in the majors to reach the 10-win mark this year.

Nick Blackburn has been the other "lights out" pitcher on the staff. He has three complete games this year and was emerging as a great starting pitcher able to take the game into the later innings. But his last two starts have been very sub-par and abnormal for him. He was pounded by the Angels in his last start, as he was tagged for six runs and six hits throughout his 3 and 2/3 innings.

That start marked his shortest of the season. Let's hope he can find his form again, or this could spell big trouble.

Then there's Francisco Liriano. This superstar pitcher looked like he would be known as "Franchise" Liriano during his first season with the club. But his elbow injury and following surgery changed that plan. We're still waiting for the Liri of old to reappear on the scene, with no such luck.

He still has some bite, but his problems seem to be in his head, not in his arm. The key thing to remember with Liriano is this: he hits walls, metaphorically of course. He sails along fine for a few innings, and then, SCREECH! In the blink of an eye he loses his form for the night. Walks, missing his spots, base hits. Once he hits the wall, he needs to get off the mound.

Glen Perkins' story is probably the most head-scratching of them all, and it might make you lose a little respect for him, too. Not once, but twice now this season, he has spoken up after a horrible pitching performance and complained of an injury.

Once is acceptable, just please learn your lesson. But twice? Come on. A) If you're really hurt before the game, maybe it's a good idea to mention that so you can get checked out and not injure yourself further, and b) Like Ron Gardenhire suggested, at least wait a day after your pitching debacle before whining about an injury.

Perkins lasted just one inning in his start in Oakland. He's been decent this year, but this little ploy leaves him in question.

Scott Baker rounds out the regulars. It's always a toss up to try to predict the kind of outing he will have. I think that's just the way he is. He has been up and down (majors to minors, and back again) with this organization multiple times throughout the years. At times he's been dazzling, and others, a flop. He's no ace, but he isn't a write-off either.

Deadline drama
Everyone is still waiting on Twins General Manager Bill Smith to make that big move before the trade deadline. Although I think it's safe to say no one is holding his or her breath.

Even players are voicing their concerns about the team needing a boost, and the usual inability of the front office to provide that jump-start. All-Stars Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and Joe Mauer all spoke out about wanting a move to be made.

Good for them. Let's hope Smith is listening to his players and comes up with something.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The turn at the break

The All-Star break can be a big turning point in the season for many MLB squads. A team that has been dominant in the first half may start heading toward a collapse after the break. While a sub-par, .500 team may turn a pivotal corner and make a run for the title.

The Twins have shown some good magic going down the stretch in the later depths of summer in other seasons. They've made runs to be on top of the AL Central before, most recently and notably in 2008.

What the team's front office hasn't done so well with: making that headline trade to spark its average lineup. As many sports journalists have pointed out recently, the last "big move" from the Twins came back in 2003, when they dealt outfielder Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart.

But this is 2009, and it looks as though no epic trade is in the works for General Manager Billy Smith. Not to worry, because staying true to Minnesota form, Smith was able to snag a minor-league deal with the 39-year-old veteran Mark Grudzielanek over the weekend.

Another veteran
The second-baseman went on the disabled list last August, and now hasn't played for the first half of the current season. Another brilliant move; if this doesn't give the Stewart trade a run for its money, I don't know what will.

This bit of news broke for me via Twitter, and then I read the story about it in the Star Tribune. I could not believe one particular quote from Smith, in regard to his new acquisition (source: Joe Christensen blog):

"He has a tremendous history over the last seven or eight years."

Of course he has a good history, but history means past. He now sees age 40 on the horizon.

Sure, the guy has a Gold Glove to his name, along with a .290 career average during his 14 major league seasons, but why are the Twins showing interest? Manager Ron Gardenhire's response seemed a little more realistic than Smith's. (source: AP)

"He can hit and he can play, but I don't know what he can do to help us. It's up to how he gets through all this."

Infield replacement
I think the plan would be to move Grudzielanek in at second, should Alexi Casilla flounder yet again this season. That's great, but inserting a 39 year old into your everyday lineup is not a permanent solution.

It sounds like Smith just wanted "another option," but Casilla will be the No. 1 guy for now. He is hoping Lexi can bring a "spark" to the lineup.

Casilla was recently called up again from the minors after being sent down (twice this season) to pretty much get his head on straight. He was originally sent down because of low production and a slight attitude problem. He couldn't fathom why he was being demoted... with his below .200 average. Even Gardy was scratching his head over that one.

Who knows what will happen with Casilla or Grudzielanek. Without another trade, acquiring Gruds might be the only highlight for the team. If Casilla continues his downslide, and/or returns to his frustrating ways, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the veteran up here after he gets his feet wet in Rochester.

That could be the big spark Smith is talking about. Or we may never see him up in the majors. There's no use playing the "what if?" game. I think the team will be watching both players closely to see what move, if any, would be the best to try and close in on first place in a mediocore division.

Other notes:

Mauer's human
Joe Mauer is slumping. Everybody gets into hitting slumps, but with Mauer I think things will be magnified because he seems so immortal.

If you're superstitious, his average dropped below .400 (and hasn't gone back) since about the same day as the Sports Illustrated issue came out featuring him as the cover story. And of course, his involvement in the All-Star Home Run Derby can be another scapegoat for his falling average.

He went 0-for-6 in the series finale at Texas, a career first. He also fell to second for the batting title lead. But come on, he's Joe Mauer. It's just a slump, and we all know he'll be back to smashing opposite field hits in no time.

Series opener at Oakland? Don't get me started
I didn't stay up to watch the whole game, but when I read the coverage the next morning, I was not happy. So many things did not go right in the 14-13 loss, a game in which the Twins blew a 10-run lead, tying a team record.

Plenty of offense, and no pitching. Career nights, grand slams and an apparent wrong-call to end the game at the plate.

In reading so many thoughts from players, to coaches, to fans, to writers, there seem to be two sides: a) "Yeah, the call at the end was bad, but they shouldn't have blown that lead and put themselves in that position," or b) "It doesn't matter what happened the rest of the game, they got screwed by a bad call that ultimately cost them the game."

I'm not sure where I stand on this one, especially since I didn't see the final play. I think I may be in the middle. I'm never afraid to pick on the officiating, especially when it is so obviously in the wrong, but how do you blow that big of a lead???

Monday, July 13, 2009

3M Championship Day Three - July 12, 2009

I had planned to get to the course about noon or so as I had for the previous day. That way, I could watch a few of the last groups tee off, as I had done for the second round. The only problem was the tee times were moved up about an hour, so everyone was well on their way by about 12:30.

I didn’t realize this until I read the newspaper that morning. Oh well. Instead of camping out at the first tee, I watched a few groups play through the ninth green. It was another beautiful day for golf, and this time the winds weren’t as strong, which probably helped the birdies come alive.

The pin on nine was located on the far end of the green, behind the water. I saw a couple of good approach shots that landed within a good striking distance of the hole. Of course, there were a few players who played it safe in order to get to the green; not that I blame them.

Since I had a lot of good material for my story already written, including the quotes from Hollis Cavner’s interview the day before, most of the afternoon was pretty low-key on my end. I spent some quality time with my laptop in the media tent, while paying some attention to the Twins game on TV as they pounded the White Sox with 13 runs.

I went out to the final green a couple of times before the end, where the last few groups of leaders would be finishing up. It was a close race and there had been leaderboard shifts all day long. But with a sensational eagle chip-in on 18, Bernhard Langer snagged the victory by a stroke (finishing at 16 under) over Andy Bean.

I didn’t quite see the shot in its entirety, (I’m short and there were a lot of people down there for the end of the tourney) but I did see it go in the cup. That was the most energized I’d heard the crowd all weekend.

Langer has been quite the winner on this year’s tour, (the win marked his fourth this season) and I also found it interesting that Arnold Palmer’s team was victorious in the Greats of Golf Challenge. Chi Chi Rodriguez had been on the winning team each year previous. And even more coincidental was the fact the Langer and Palmer were the two featured faces on the front of the brochures listing the tee times.

I took part in some of the media interviews both off the green and inside the media tent, even though I wasn’t doing the recap-type story. The whole reporting experience was good practice for me.

Before I left for the day I also introduced myself to another notable sports columnist for the Strib – Jim Souhan. He was a very nice guy, and I was glad to meet him, being a big admirer of his work and all.

At the end of the weekend, I felt that I had worked hard and got another valuable experience under my belt in the journalism category. Even though it was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing, I was very glad I had the opportunity to go out to the tournament again.

I just hope that next year I’ll be in a position to attend again – as a member of the media.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

3M Championship Day Two - July 11, 2009

My first stop of the day was at the first tee box where I watched a few groups start their rounds, including the three groups from the Greats of Golf Challenge. I was only a couple feet away from Arnold Palmer in his white “Gilligan” hat. He was standing by his cart with his wife (I’m assuming); he gave her a quick peck on the lips.

The little hill off the first tee was filled with standing spectators, all wanting to get a glimpse of the great Arnie, and the rest of the greats including Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

The old-timers are definitely a huge draw for the tournament. I’m sure a lot of patrons spend the afternoon following the greats around the golf course, even though they are the tournament-within-a-tournament and not the main event.

I went outside the media tent for a bit to see if I could mingle with any of the fans. As I was working up the courage to introduce myself to someone, a man standing at the fencing off the 18th green asked if I was a reporter.

We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced himself as Jimmy Glass; his company Page & Tuttle provided the uniforms (shirts and hats) for the tournament staff. We discussed the tournament, good weather, the turnout, etc. And I gave him my background as a member of the media.

He was very nice and told me to send him my story, and in exchange he would send me a free shirt from his company. He came back a few minutes later with a ticket for me to enter the Executive Skybox, with free food and beverages.

I thanked him as he walked away and went up to the box. I stayed to watch a couple of groups finish their rounds on the 18th before heading back down.

I still wanted to try and talk to a fan, if I could ever stop being lame and just learn to approach someone. So I finally went up to a couple of guys seated at a table near the concession stand, asked how they were, introduced myself from the magazine and then said I wondered if I could ask them a couple questions.

They both turned me down. I walked away with less self esteem and thinking to myself that what had just happened was exactly the reason I was so shy about approaching people.

I decided to give up on finding a fan for the day, so I headed down to the 18th green. As per the last couple of years, the Star Tribune’s very own Patrick Reusse came out to the tournament during the middle day, and he happened to be down by the final green as well.

As he talked with someone, I debated what I should say to him. Luckily, he made the first move, something I like much better than trying to get myself to do it. He walked over and said “So who are you with, media person?” Introductions happened, and I mentioned how I listened to him on the radio that morning.

He asked if I had heard his rant about Michael Cuddyer’s base running mistake from the previous night. I said no, I had missed it. We then chatted a little more, about my company, where I got my degree from. It was very nice to talk with him and not have my heart pounding out of my chest. The vibe he gave me helped because it seemed much more casual.

It was a little mini roller coaster out there as far as my self-confidence was concerned, but at the end of the day, I was glad to have made another networking venture. I was proud of myself for acting as professional as I could muster, as I tried to forget about the lows of the day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

3M Championship Day One - July 10, 2009

I didn’t think I’d have the chance to return to the 3M Championship golf tournament as a member of the media this soon. After the last two summers of working as a sports intern with the Blaine Sun Focus, I figured my time in the media tent was done, unless I ended up with a media job.

Since I’ve been working as an intern at North American Membership Group in Minnetonka after my graduation last December, I have been doing web work for the fishing, hunting and handyman magazines. But our company also has a golf magazine, the PGA Tour Partners Club.

I decided to come out to the tournament at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine kind of at the last minute after I had a lunch conversation with the Handyman Web editor, Gary. He talked to me about doing some freelancing, or maybe writing an article for the golf magazine to be posted on the Web site.

I couldn’t pass up another chance to have an experience as part of the media, so I called in for some press credentials and ended up at the tournament.

Friday was a beautiful day to be outdoors watching some of golf’s greats. And a beautiful day in Minnesota is pretty hard to come by. The crowds were pretty decent, at least from what I noticed when I wandered over to the first tee box, the ninth green and simply walking around the grounds.

The good numbers had to be due to this year’s free admission for the public. Tournament director Hollis Cavner decided to give back to the fans in light of all the support throughout the past 17 years of the event, and with the current economic situation. It was a gesture that fans seemed to take advantage of in earnest.

“I did it ‘cuz I could,” Cavner said. “I’ve been wanting to do it for years, and I just never could.”

I took it pretty easy on the first day of the 54-hole tourney. I mostly just got my feet wet again with the lovely media accomodations and putting on my reporter’s hat. But the highlight of the day would have to be when I came out of my “shy-bubble” a bit and chit-chatted with Star Tribune sports writer, Brian Stensaas.

We were both standing off the edge of the 18th green, and I asked him something about a previously hit ball. I countered later with, “Who do you write for?”

He asked the same of me, and then we did introductions and handshakes. I also asked him if he had a specific beat, then I mumbled something about how I would like to do that: write sports.

I didn’t stick around the whole afternoon to interview any of the first-round leaders. I knew I still had two days left, and it wasn’t like I needed to get a ton of information since I would be writing more of a feature piece instead of a recap.

Day one was a good day to get reaquainted with my media roots.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Roddick vs. Federer - A match for the books

What a match. One man stands alone, while another stands in the shadow of defeat.

Another instant classic Wimbledon men’s final wrapped up the 2009 tournament this past weekend at the All England Club in London. Who would have guessed that the long five-setter between rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that lasted into darkness the previous year, could be topped by a marathon match between American Andy Roddick and Switzerland’s Federer.

The 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14 – yes, 16-14 - match shattered numerous records: Federer had a grand total of a career-high 50 aces, 22 in the final set alone, and the 77-game contest was the longest in Grand Slam history. The 95-minute final set was a back-and-forth affair of service holds.

With Roddick serving at 14-15, Federer did not waste his first chance at a championship point. Roddick mishit a ball, sailing it long, to give Federer the victory.

After Federer’s jubilant jump on the court following the final point of the tournament, Roddick was the one left in shock and disappointment. He played what commentator and former player John McEnroe called the best match of Roddick’s career in the semifinals to beat English favorite Andy Murray, before leaving everything he had on the court during the final against the best player, arguably, of all time.

Roddick couldn’t have played the match any better. One has to think that had he been matched up against anyone else, he would have prevailed to lift that first-place cup for the first time on the lawn of Center Court. He has been the runner-up at the Grand Slam three times now (2004 and 2005), all against Federer.

He stands alone
What else can you expect from the No. 1 player in the world, a title Federer reclaimed with his win in the finals. Not only is he the most dominant player (with Rafa close on his heels), but his win at Wimbledon marked the Swiss player’s 15th Grand Slam title, beating the 14-Slam record held by recent tennis great, Pete Sampras, who flew in from Los Angeles to watch history unfold.

Apparently, the dominant duo have become quite good friends as of late. It’s amazing how much mutual respect they have for each other. And although I’m sure Sampras thought his record in the tennis history books would hold up a little longer than just a few years, even he had to appreciate the great match the two gentlemen played.

Fighting back his emotions, Roddick showed he still had his sense of humor during his post-match remarks to the crowd by apologizing to Sampras for not being able to keep the Slam record intact.

“Sorry Pete,” Roddick said. “I tried to hold him off.”

Nearly unbroken
One of Roddick’s biggest strengths has always been his powerful serve. But instead of just acing his way through the match, Roddick balanced out his game – and it showed. He didn’t give Federer a run for his money by relying only on his serve.

But that serve was part of his game that made the day even more unbelievable. Roddick held his serve throughout the course of the entire match – nearly - for 37 consecutive games.

Of course, Roddick was broken once – during the final game of the match, which saw Federer come out as the champion. What a heartbreaking way to lose; you are nearly perfect during your service games, and you still don’t come away as the victor. That’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow.

Will he be back?
Watching Roddick as he struggled to hold back his tears in his seat after play was over, my heart ached for him. He was so close to becoming the Wimbledon champion, a feat that will still elude him at least until 2010 when he will have the chance to try again.

But I’m not sure if that will happen. Roddick has been plagued, like many others, by playing in an era the same as Nadal and Federer who seem to always find a way to win, no matter the opponent or circumstance.

I think this was Roddick’s chance. He played two of the best matches of his career, but fell just short. I really hope he gets back to the finals and is able to be victorious, but with a healthy Federer and Nadal on the circuit, that will be a tall order.

Whatever happens during the rest of Roddick’s career (he turns 27 in August), I hope he can at least look back to this year’s Wimbledon tournament and be proud. He has a bitter taste in his mouth now, but in time he will come to realize the great accomplishment he achieved against one of the world’s best.

It truly was a match to behold.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Get in the hole!!!"

The other night my brother Kyle and I were hanging out at home just shooting the breeze. Actually, we were half-paying attention to the TV as the Twins dropped a 4-2 series opener in Kansas City. We were chatting, and somehow ended up on the subject of golf and the "Get in the hole!!!" rants from fans.

You know what I'm talking about. You're at home relaxing with the soothing game of golf on the tube, but at the strike of nearly every golf ball the tranquility is broken abruptly by screaming patrons in attendance.

There always has to be someone who tries to get out the frantic phrase faster than anyone else, just as soon as the golf club makes contact with the ball. Once one person gets through it, countless others follow suit and erupt into a loud batch of cheers.

One of the funny things about this common golf fan practice is that it seems to occur everywhere on the course. I suppose the most common place is on the greens where the golfer has the best chance to actually get the ball "in the hole." But these jests are even heard at tee boxes, where unless an impossible hole-in-one will be shot, the ball has no chance from the tee.

This just doesn't make any sense to me. Now I know the shouters are probably jumping on the trend bandwagon, and that they don't really think the ball is going in the hole. But why is it necessary to act this way, especially in the instance when the player hits his first shot on a par 5, 556-yard hole?

It's not. It's getting so ridiculous that it can even be quite comical if the ranting is outrageous enough.

I typed "get in the hole" in my YouTube search box to see what kind of hits I would get. There weren't too many relating to golf from looking at the first few entries. I played one video that was an advertisement and a bit of a spoof on the whole sharade. You can see for yourself.

My brother and I watched this clip a few times and were in hysterics. Then we made ourselves practically hoarse by trying to imitate the fast and furious saying.

It very well could be that you did not think the video was funny, or agree with any of my points about this topic. That's fine. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Or it could be that if you didn't share in the hysterical laughter, maybe that's my brother and me in a "you had to be there" kind of moment.

No matter what you think about the "Get in the hole!!!" bonanza, here is my main point:

Why not give the blistering screams a rest and save them up for the greens when the ball has a chance? It's becoming as annoying as listening to Monica Seles grunt her way through a tennis match, or watching Maria Sharapova tuck strands of stray hair behind her ears after every single point.