Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hockey season has arrived

I've written quite a few entries since I started my blog back in June. Among a few other topics, most revolved around the Minnesota Twins. But now the weather is turning colder and that means it's hockey season. It's Wild season.

Before the Minnesota Wild played their first game in 2000, I really didn't know that much about the sport. The North Stars headed for Dallas when I was still pretty young, and my only other hockey experience had been at a handful of Minnesota Moose games.

I quickly became hooked on the game and fascinated with the Wild. Thanks to a season ticket package at my dad's company, I was fortunate enough to attend a few games each season. I loved watching the games on TV and at the Xcel Energy Center. I loved learning more and more about the game.

Slow out of the gate
The Wild have had a fair amount of success and three playoff appearances in their young history. But with turnover on the coaching bench and in the front office at the close of the past season, it seems the honeymoon is in fact over. Need evidence? They tied a franchise record with seven straight losses on the road to begin the season. That streak has yet to be broken.

New head coach Todd Richards was supposed to come in and implement a new system that focused more on offense. I think it's safe to say there have been a few kinks thrown into the mix. It's been a rough start to the season: a five-game road trip starting shortly into the season, the plus/minus numbers sit solely in the minus column for virtually most of the roster and injuries galore.

The injury bug
A slow start would be pretty predictable with a new coach, new general manager and new playing system. What wasn't predictable was the slew of injuries the already horribly-playing Wild faced. Slight groin injuries to a couple of players had an eery feeling to them, if you'll remember Marian Gaborik.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the Wild's leading hitster Cal Clutterbuck suffered what seemed to be a huge setback. He didn't get hurt while delivering a crushing hit like you might think. Instead, his skate got caught in some bad ice and he hurt his ankle. It was later said to be a high ankle sprain that would keep him out for six to eight weeks, minimum.

So imagine my surprise when earlier this week I read via Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo's Twitter account that Clutterbuck was skating during practice. I'm still scratching my head as to how he was able to play just two weeks after being on crutches.

Rolling at home
The Carolina Hurricanes were in town for the Wild's third home game of the season. It was also the first game of the season for me and my family. At a game-time decision, Cal Clutterbuck made the start.

Like so many other games this season, the Wild must have forgotten that the games are 60 minutes in length, not 40 or 20. It took several minutes before the home team registered a shot on goal and they basically came out very flat. The first period would have been a total wash if not for the exciting fight involving Derek Boogaard-backup John Scott.

The rest of the game had its ups and downs. There were some goals, good plays, penalties, power plays, and the mental mistakes were still very present as well.

A 2-2 tie went into overtime. The Wild have yet to finish a game in regulation at the X in the young season. But the good news is they have prevailed with two overtime wins and one shootout win.

The game-winning goal came with 3:05 left in the extra session. It was the finishing touch on a crazy play with a clanged-post and an open net. The Wild player scored while sprawled on his belly. Who? None other than Cal Clutterbuck. It really doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goliath won; close calls need a change

The Twins were swept out of a best-of-five series against the mighty New York Yankees. After what the Twins did to win the AL Central title, I think you have to believe anything's possible. That's why the games aren't played on paper.

Obviously I wanted the Twins to win, but it just wasn't in the cards. Too many things were stacked against them. The biggest factor about their opponent? They're the Yankees. That's it.

Game 2 was one of the most heartbreaking losses in quite awhile for the Twins. It's hard to even rehash all the things that contributed to the Yanks coming away with yet another walk-off win, 4-3 in 12 innings.

What went wrong
Among the contributors: The Twins left 17 men on base, Carlos Gomez cost the Twins an early run with sloppy base running, Jason Kubel made Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan look bad (he had nine strikeouts for the series and went 1-for-14), September-Delmon Young still didn't appear and Joe Nathan threw a cookie to Alex Rodriguez (who has the Twins to thank for ending his postseason slump) for a blown save.

And one of the biggest factors was when the left-field line umpire Phil Cuzzi blatantly made the wrong call on a ball hit by Joe Mauer.

Officiating played a role, whether big or small, in the outcome of a game. Judging from many reactions after the game, everyone seemed to agree that it was a horrible call that cost the Twins a run. (Umpiring crew chief Tim Tschida did admit after the game that upon further video review, the call was made incorrectly.)

But the common consensus is also that the Twins beat themselves with the above-mentioned reasons, and you can't put the loss solely on the umpire. While I can see all the valid points of these arguments, I still have a lot of trouble with the missed call. I don't care what else happened in the course of the game; that call needs to be made. It just needs to.

He's right there
What makes it even harder to swallow is the fact that Major League Baseball employs a six-man umpiring crew for the postseason, adding an extra pair of eyes down each of the foul lines. So Cuzzi's sole purpose in that game was to be close enough to the baseball to make the correct call.

And he was close enough. The replay shows him in a good position to see the ball, which hit the ground about a foot or so in fair territory. Not to mention that the left fielder touched the bouncing ball with his glove, also in fair territory.

After Mark Teixeira ended the game with a homer off of struggling reliever Jose Mijares, I got the same sickening feel I had after the Tommie/Johnnie football game at St. Thomas last season. The Tommies appeared to have a touchdown in the final minutes of play, which would have given them the win, but the call was blown, admittedly so by the MIAC officials the next day.

It's a tough feeling, especially when the officiating gets in the way. I'm glad that at least the officials in both instances admitted the mistake, but so what? The game is over. They couldn't give the "W" to the Tommies, just as they couldn't make the series 1-1 instead of the actual 0-2.

I know, I know, there are so many other factors and what-if's? within the game that you can't solely blame the officiating. I'm not suggesting that that is the only reason for the loss in either case. You could call out just about any small detail in the game to have gone differently in order for the outcomes to change. But when you do something right to try and get a win for your team and it gets taken away from you, that hurts.

Time for a change
Sports will always have controversy with officiating and the use of video replays. It's the nature of the process because the officials are human. They do make mistakes and their calls can sometimes be subjective. But should teams and players have to suffer?

Major League Baseball instituted the instant replay review for the ruling of home runs in 2008. There has been talk from fans and sports critics of expanding the replay system, but nothing is in place. One of the biggest negatives is that baseball is such a slow/long game already, and cluttering it up with reviews would only make the games longer. Fair enough.

My solution? Go with some sort of challenge system like what is done in football and tennis at the professional levels. If a manager disagrees with a call, then they should have the opportunity to challenge it (there would be a challenge limit) and ask the umpires to look at the video review. I don't have all the little details worked out, but if it works in other sports, there's no reason they can't try a similar system in the Major Leagues.

Officials are generally good at what they do, and they do take a lot of criticism for doing their job, but bad calls that do get made should not be costing teams plays, hits or victories.

Achieving the improbable

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 American League Central Division Champions, the Minnesota Twins. Wait… huh? That's right. The Twins had front-row seats to the worst baseball collapse since 1901, courtesy of the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers coughed up a seven-game lead that they held at the start of September, and they also choked so much that they couldn't clinch the division while holding a three game lead with four to play. The Twins capitalized in game 163.

In one of the most exciting games ever to be played under the Teflon sky, the Twins had some more Metrodome Magic up their sleeves as they pulled off a 6-5 win in 12 innings. It should go down as an instant classic, ranking right up there with the World Series games of 1987 and 1991.

Big game
In light of this game being of such a huge magnitude, I decided to take in the game at Joe Senser's in Bloomington with my friend Cassie. Let me tell you, I did not regret that decision. The energy was just electric all night long.

The game got off to a rough start once Detroit jumped out to a 3-0 lead. I'll be honest: I didn't have a good feeling. In the Twins' at-bats, I saw the Delmon Young prior to his September surge, I saw Michael Cuddyer with a swinging strikeout reminiscent of April and I didn't see the fire and passion from the Twin as in recent weeks.

They narrowed the score to 3-2 with a run resulting from an error and a Jason Kubel upper-deck blast. Then Orlando Cabrera continued his hitting streak with a two-run shot in the seventh inning to lead 4-3. That got a big outburst of cheers. It felt good to finally have the lead and the momentum.

Nerves set in
Of course, Matt Guerrier took them away almost as quickly as they came with a homer to Magglio Ordonez to start the eighth inning. Tie game. From this point on, my nerves were going crazy, and they didn’t stop until the end.

It became a managing duel between Ron Gardenhire and Jim Leyland during the late and extra innings with a slew of pitching changes. There were sticky spots for both sides, but they got out of jams when needed.

Great plays were abundant throughout the game. Nick Punto threw home to save a run instead of trying to turn a difficult double play. Then there was Curtis Granderson getting too excited and then doubled off first base. And Michael Cuddyer's triple when the ball got past a diving Ryan Raburn in left field.

An unlikely winning pair
Everyone will remember the bottom of the 12th inning with two of the most unlikely Twins heroes. With speedy Carlos Gomez on second, Alexi Casilla (yes, the same Casilla who was sent to Rochester this season to deal with his hitting and mental mistakes) singled through the right infield hole for the division-clinching RBI.

Chaos ensued. Everyone at Senser's went absolutely nuts, and I'm sure we weren't the only ones. I started jumping up and down, screamed a little and high-fived Cassie.

After we calmed down a little, we sat there in awe. We had looked at each other in disappointment after the Tigers scored in the 10th and said "it's over." Now we were saying, "I can't believe what is happening." It was amazing to see what the Twins just pulled off. Absolutely unreal.

We were approached by a gentleman who had been sitting at a table near us. "Well girls, now you can relax." He said he had been watching us all night with our heads in our hands and looking nervous. "It's good to see some true fans," he said.

One to remember
This game No. 163 is certainly one for the ages. It is what sports are all about. This is why fans spend so much time devoted to their favorite teams; for games like this.

No matter what happens after this clinching game, (and by now we all know what has happened at Yankee Stadium) this is still a major victory for the Twins. To come back as they did (yes, even in baseball's worst division and with one of the worst collapses of all time) made for some outstanding and exciting baseball down the stretch. That's all you can ask for.

Who would have thought the Homer Hankies would once again be flying in the Dome one last time for playoff baseball? Not many, I'm sure. But this is why they play the games on the field and not on paper, because look what can happen. You can achieve the improbable.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Game 163: You can't write this stuff

Wow. Just... wow. I have so many thoughts going through my head right now about this past weekend in sports that I'm not even sure where to start. But of course, the Minnesota Twins are the main topic of the night. I will try to condense things as best as I can.

If you told anyone throughout this summer, or even just a few weeks ago... heck, even a few days ago, that the Twins would be in for another game No. 163 with a chance to capture the AL Central Division, you would have said they were crazy. No one could have predicted this amazing baseball story that has unfolded with this resilient ball club.

What are the odds of a team playing in game 163 two years in a row? For that matter, what are the odds of a game 163 happening at all? It's so hard to imagine that after such a long season with so many variables, close calls and close games that two teams competing for the same playoff spot and division title would be dead even at the end of the regular season.

Remember Minnesota's collapse in Oakland after they had a 10-run lead? Or what about Chicago's last game in the Dome where closer Joe Nathan gave up four runs in the ninth inning? These games are two of the most glaring losses the Twins had all season, and now they seem hugely important. But that's playing the hindsight and 'what if?' game.

September ball
The whole idea of another tiebreaker boggles my mind. The way the Twins have played baseball during the month of September has been phenomenal. Players have stepped up and this team just kept on winning. And while the Twins were hitting baseballs like there were no tomorrow, the first place Detroit Tigers were falling into a badly-timed slump.

On paper, this race should be over. The Tigers led baseball's weakest division for virtually the entire season. After Chicago started fading fast, it appeared the Twins were the only ones close enough to give Detroit a run for its money. But even that seemed like a tall order. The Twins lost Justin Morneau for the rest of the season, and it left little hope of surging some sort of comeback a la 2006.

Oh how we were wrong. The entire season has been a roller coaster for the Twins, and after all the injuries and lack-luster performances, the common attitude has been what Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse would say: "See you in Fort Myers."

Unlikely heroes
After All-Star Morneau went down with an injury, he had other players in the clubhouse who came to the rescue. Michael Cuddyer has been a clutch hitter all month long, most notably as of late was his game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth against the Royals yesterday.

Jason Kubel has also been on a power surge. He is having a career year with 27 home runs and 102 RBI. He capped off his game 162 with not one, but two three-run shots to help the Twins to their 13-4 victory in order to move on to the tiebreaker with the Tigers.

And then there's Delmon Young. This has got to be the biggest surprise of all. Anyone who thought he would come through as the hero this past week is not being truthful. He has had a disappointing year offensively, in my opinion, so for him to start coming through with some power and RBIs when the Twins really need him is simply head scratching.

Maybe he should get hit with a retaliation pitch more often.

The final weekend
This last weekend for the Twins at the Metrodome has been purely gold. You can't write this stuff. We all knew this weekend would be special because it would mark the end of the Dome era for the Twins, but they did us one better by making it count in their chase for the AL Central.

Who ever thought the Twins would be able to top their run to the title in 2006, and so soon too? This is what baseball and sports are all about. This is what sports fans love. This is why avid fanatics follow his or her favorite team all season long, in hopes of making the end of the season meaningful, and possibly following it up with a trip to the postseason.

Whatever the fate of the Twins in game 163, they have made this past month one for the books. It doesn't matter if they end up heading to Yankee stadium for the ALDS, or if they fold to the Tigers, who would limp into the playoffs. The Twins have played hard and proud, and that's all you can ask for as a fan.

Moving on
Yes, it would be sweet to sneak past the Tigers and into the postseason, but let's remember the awaiting opponent: the New York Yankees. No matter which AL Central opponent they will face, the Yanks have a bunch of huge advantages. I mean, they're the Yankees. They're a team the Twins, and many others, have always had trouble beating. So I think winning the division title might be miracle enough.

Let's remember all the great memories of these past couple of weeks. The Twins are putting on quite a show and sending the Metrodome out with a bang. Just breathe and take it all in.

You can't write this stuff.