Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pitching, puck and a dash of tennis

It had to happen sooner or later. The Twins finally lost a series this season, after winning their first six to start the year. They lost the final two games of a three-game set in Detroit this week, in a rematch that had been awaiting the Tigers since their end-of-season collapse and loss in Game 163.

All about pitching
Francisco Liriano seems to have regained his dominant 2006 form. He's throwing deep into ball games. He's leading the majors with a 0.93 ERA, and his record is 3-0. On a pitching staff without an established ace, Liriano is making his case to take over as the No. 1 guy.

Just a month into the season, it's too early to make that proclamation, but he's well on his way to shedding the bad memories of the last couple seasons.

On the other hand, opening-day starter Scott Baker seems to have sunk into another one of his low spots on his pitching roller coaster. Simply put, consistency and Baker don't mix. The Twins put up some early runs for Baker Wednesday night, and he responded by turning a 6-1 lead into a 6-5 game.

The bullpen fell apart (my Twitter feed was flooded with "Crain Wreck" mentions), Gardy got tossed for the first time this season and the final score ended up 11-6. So, it wasn't all Baker's fault, but only going four-plus innings isn't getting it done. Let's hope he can find his peak again.

Former Wild players shine
In a huge upset in game seven of the first round of the NHL playoffs, golden boy Alexander Ovechkin and his No. 1 Washington Capitals were eliminated by the No. 8-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Versus isn't going to like that one for ratings.

Habs goaltender Jaroslav Halak was spectacular once again, but in the 2-1 victory, it was two former Wild players who provided the offensive spark: Dominic Moore and Marc-Andre Bergeron. It's nice to see former Wild players have some success.

Speaking of which, my birthday buddy Benoit Pouliot will also be heading to the second round with Montreal. He was traded for Guillaume Latendresse earlier in the season. It was a move that worked wonders for both sides, something you don't see too often.

It's a good day to watch some tennis
On Tuesday I visited my old stomping grounds, or the tennis courts at Andover High School. It was a beautiful day - sunshine and no wind, a perfect combination for a good tennis day. I was in the mood to watch a little live tennis action, so I thought I'd stop by.

I watched the third-singles match featuring my awesome neighbor Erik Jones. He's a ninth grader, but he's been playing on the varsity squad since seventh grade. He is turning into quite the player; I sure wouldn't want to face him in a competitive setting (although we have hit around together, for fun).

Erik was well-matched against an eighth grader from Maple Grove. The pair had a number of lengthy points and games. Some of the shots they hit back and forth to try and put the other away were amazing. Some well-positioned put-aways and point conclusions drew visible and audible emotion for both players, which was great to see.

The end result was a 6-4, 6-3 win for the Maple Grove eighth grader. But what matters is it was a well-played match. Erik was down early in the first set, but rallied to win four games. It was a good show, and I'm glad I was there to watch. Keep up the good work Erik!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Target Field: The inaugural visit

Last night I made my first visit to Target Field to watch the Twins in their second night game at their new digs. Yes, it was awesome. The whole experience was amazing and had this brand-new, first-experience kind of feel to it.

I went to the game with my friend Cassie (kudos to her for getting us tickets). We're both big Twins fans, so we knew we wanted to go to a game together. Now, let me start from the beginning and try to pack in all the details I can from the night.

Getting there
Since Target Field is on the opposite side of downtown Minneapolis from the Metrodome, figuring out how to get there and where to park was a big challenge for two suburban girls. Coming in off of I-94 used to be the "back way," so we reversed our driving strategy and took I-35 instead.

We drove around trying to pick out a ramp to park in, and we eventually ended up in the 5th Street ramp right next to the stadium. Literally. That wasn't our intention since we wanted to avoid traffic issues. But if you don't mind paying the $15, then milling around for awhile after the game, parking here isn't bad.

Unfamiliar surroudings
As we walked along the plaza area near the main Gate 34, we were surrounded by Twins fans. For some reason it gave me the feeling of being at the State Fair, although I can't really pinpoint why. We continued to walk around to our gate and entered the new ballpark.

It didn't take us long to join the rest of the herd and make our way around the huge open-air concourse to try and find our seats. While walking I took note of the new surroundings: The souvie shops, various food stands and looking to my right and being able to see the field.

Our seats were down the third baseline, looking out into the middle of left field. Being in the lower level was amazing and the view from our seats was great. Of course, they came with a price, but I honestly forgot all about that when I sat down.

Gotta have the food, nice weather
After taking in the sights for a few minutes and still having that surreal feeling wash over me, it was time to sample some of the much-hyped cuisine (since we forgot to grab something before we entered Target Field, like we had planned). It was off to the pizza stand, and by the way, Pepsi is the beverage supplier. Both get a thumbs-up from me.

While we waited for the game to start, there was more staring and picture-taking from our seats. It was also nice to enjoy the weather. It was a beautiful 70-degree April day in Minnesota. The weather gods really have been with the Twins this spring. I was comfortable in my short-sleeved jersey until the final out of the night. Gorgeous.

Oh yeah, there was a game too
Amid all the excitement over the brand-new park, there was a baseball game that night. The Twins against the Cleveland Indians. Kevin Slowey pitched an absolute gem of a game, going eight innings with nine strikeouts.

Many out there (myself included) would make the arguement that Slowey should have gone out in the ninth, but he had 98 pitches. By the book, by the book. His only mistake of the night was a pitch that Twins-killer Travis Hafner drove into the right-field bleachers.

If you missed the third inning last night, you missed out. It wasn't a great offensive night for the Twins. Jason Kubel struck out three times, Joe Mauer was 0-for-4 and they left the bases loaded yet again this season. But that didn't matter because the Twins took advantage of Cleveland's mistakes.

The Tribe's shortstop let a double-play ball slip through his legs, which was the costly error of the inning. In a 1-1 game, the Twins scored four runs in the third. One came on a bases-loaded walk, two on a wild pitch and one on a sacrifice fly. It was certainly an unconventional way of scoring runs.

In one of the later innings, a towering foul ball came back toward our section. It bounced off of some spectators just a few rows up, then landed in the hands of a gentleman just behind us in the next section over. That was something to get used to; I didn't get a lot of foul balls my way up in the cheap seats at the Metrodome. Go figure.

It went out of style 30 years ago
My eye-roll moment of the game came in the Twins half of a late inning. Some lower sections along the first baseline made a few attempts at starting The Wave. Unfortunately, they were successful. I did not participate; Cassie and I just sat there shaking our heads. To make matters worse, I also spotted a beach ball near where the wave started.

There were no home runs, although Justin Morneau came close. I believe that means the Twins have yet to hit a homer in a night game at Target Field. We wanted to see the illuminated Minnie and Paul shake hands after a bomb, but we settled for the handshake after the Twins sealed the 5-1 win over the Tribe.

We obviously wanted to hang around after the game to let traffic thin out, so we left the park in search of Hubert's. Lucky us, we stumbled onto the newly-moved, Twins-themed establishment not far outside the plaza. It was a great way to end the night.

Well, to sum up...
Target Field is awesome. Watching outdoor baseball is a treat we Minnesotans can get used to, I'm sure. Of course, it's much easier to enjoy the experience when the weather cooperates; we really lucked out.

I've been a huge backer of a retractable roof, especially in Minnesota. But on perfect nights, I admit there's nothing better than watching the Twins put on a show in a beautiful, outdoor ballpark. Simply glorious.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Another opening, another "outdoor" show

It's official. Outdoor baseball has returned to Minnesota. Although, unless you're about 35 or older you don't have a recollection of Major League Baseball outside the K-MART-stadium Metrodome.

The last time the Minnesota Twins played outside was in 1981 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, now known as the Mall of America. From 1982 through 2009, the Twins made their baseball home in a football stadium.

But those Dome memories are all in the past now. The Twins held their first ever home-opener at Target Field Monday, April 12, 2010. It was a day of firsts, beginning a season of firsts.

FSNorth and Twitter have it covered
FSNorth was all over the coverage on game day, starting early in the morning and going through the evening. They recorded everything from the first beer sold at the Field, the unveiling of the Kirby Puckett statue and just an overall overload of information to everything Twins and Target Field-related.

As a sidenote, if you're a sports fan without a Twitter account - get one. Interacting on your Twitter feed during a sporting event is awesome, especially when everyone's talking, er, Tweeting about it. You learn so many cool tidbits about the game you might not otherwise know, or at least you'll see it first on Twitter.

All you have to do is start following a bunch of beat writers, sports news outlets and fans of your favorite team(s). There are a lot out there for the Twins, but I'll just mention the two head writers for the Star Tribune: Joe Christensen and LaVelle E. Neal. Follow them for all the latest with the Twins.

Hard to concentrate
I have to admit, sitting and watching all the pre-game coverage really gave me the itch to be there in person, more than I thought it would. And I'll tell you something else, my productivity level throughout the entire day was horrible. I volunteered with kindergartners in the morning and then intended on writing up the IndyCar race for my Marco Andretti Examiner page.

After meaning to write my story before the game began at 3:10 that afternoon, I didn't publish it until after midnight. I imagine the productivity at many offices and schools had a similar fate, especially for those at the ball park. Many were obviously playing hookey from work or school.

The weather turned out great for the game: 65 degrees with some sun. With the current weather pattern we've had, the Twins were very lucky.

Both rosters were announced before the game. No cap-tips or smiles from the Red Sox; they looked thrilled to be there on the historical occasion.

A not-so-classy moment came when the Twins third base coach Scott Ullger was announced. He received a small chorus of boos for his huge misjudgement in the White Sox game the day before. I thought that was pretty poor from the fans; it was just one game, you don't have to ruin his Target Field Opening Day moment.

Carl Pavano threw the first pitch (a close pitch called a ball), and from there the firsts began with baseballs being taken out of play so often for keepsakes that I hoped they wouldn't run out.

The Twins got things going early and put some runs on the board. It was some great, typical baseball to watch.

I missed it!
Then leading off the bottom of the seventh inning, Jason Kubel connected on a no-doubter pitch for the first home run ever hit at Target Field. Unfortunately for me, I was only able to hear the call as I was on my way to work. I didn't get to see the replay until later that evening, and was quite bummed I missed watching the historic moment.

I also missed the end of the game, but closer Jon Rauch came in and got his fifth save in as many tries to clinch the first win for the Twins in their new home. If you missed any of the action, FSNorth replayed the game that evening and twice on Tuesday. But like I said about missing Kubel's homer, "It's not the same." (As watching it live, of course.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Baseball needs to pick up the pace

I've read some interesting articles the last couple of days regarding two of Major League Baseball's elite teams, veteran umpire Joe West and the pace of baseball games.

West publically singled out the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox for the long length of their games. The American League Eastern Division rivals opened the season and couldn't finish a game in less than three hours and 20 minutes. The other games in the series were pushing four hours.

He called the two teams "pathetic" and "embarrassing." His comments drew a lot of feedback from across the league. Boston manager Terry Francona was careful about what he said, but his second baseman Dustin Pedroia fired back.

Targeted players outraged
"If he doesn't want to do Red Sox and Yankee games, he should tell the umpires' union. Then when we're in the World Series, he'll be out of that assignment, too," Pedroia said in an article.

The Yankees also had something to say about the matter. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera said, "What does he want us [the players] to do, swing at balls?" And Pedroia said he was going to step out and take a deep breath when playing the Yanks.

But I think they're all missing the point of West's comments. I'm also glad someone finally decided to call out these two elite, yet much-despised clubs.

That's not the point
Here's the deal. If every other team in MLB can play their games in a more timely fashion (although still not ideal), why can't you? The Yanks and the Sox are the two teams that stand out as having the longest games.

Of course you shouldn't start swinging at balls or not step out of the box entirely. But there are other things the players can do that will add up. I think it's interesting and frustrating that West's comments unleashed such outrage from the players. He's justified in his remarks and the players should think long and hard about them.

It looks like West will not be fined, but he was basically told by MLB that he needs to keep his comments to himself. I just hope some good comes out of this situation.

Pick it up
In recent seasons, more attention has been paid to MLB games and ways to possibly speed them up. Games should be shooting for the three-hour mark, in my opinion. Obviously since baseball is not a timed sport, the element of time is a huge variable. But I don't see why the Yanks and Boston need to play these long games night after night.

There are many reasons for why games last as long as they do. A batter steps out after a pitch where he doesn't move in the box, but he still feels the need to readjust his batting gloves. A catcher goes out to talk to his pitcher multiple times in an inning. A pitcher throws over to first base, or steps off the rubber to give him a look, multiple times during one at-bat.

Those are just off the top of my head and probably don't begin to scratch the surface of the variables out there. Are all these actions during a game really necessary?

A few minor changes add up
If you blast a foul ball into the seats on a 94-mph fastball, by all means readjust your gloves. If you need to touch base with your pitcher, please use just one or two quick trips to the mound. If you want the runner at first (that you already let get on in the first place) to know you're paying attention to him, play catch with your firstbaseman once or twice, and after that only if you really have the guy in a bind.

I guess what I'm getting at is these simple elements of the game are getting more exaggerated and drawn out. I'll bet if you watch a game from 20 years ago, the pace would be a lot different.

Of course, television broadcasts do play a role in the length of games, with the set amount of time needed between innings so they can run the commercials that pay the bills. But some of the pacing is in the player's and manager's control.

For example, changing pitchers three or four times in an inning because you're trying to go with the right-handed/left-handed pitcher-to-batter matchups is a little excessive. I'm not a big fan of this strategy in general, and it certainly prolongs the game.

Apples and oranges, but still...
Take this for what it's worth, but I enjoy the fact that I can sit down on my couch and watch a Minnesota Wild game in two-and-a-half hours. A few years ago, the NHL made some changes, including "hurry-up faceoffs" that help improve the game lengths from around the three-hour mark to 2:30.

Again, baseball and hockey are two different sports, but if the NHL could find a way to speed things along, why can't MLB?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Are you ready for some baseball?

Baseball season has begun! That means from now until early November, baseball fans will be able to get their daily fix. And for Minnesota Twins fans, this year offers more than one reason to get excited.

The Twins are embarking on their 50th season this year, and coincidentally marking this milestone is the return of outdoor baseball to Minnesota with the opening of Target Field. On top of that, this year's roster is stacked with potential.

It's pretty hard to find a lot to dislike about Twins baseball at the moment, with Joe Nathan's season-ending injury probably the obvious exception. One of the bright spots comes from the offseason moves made by the front office.

According to the USA Today, the Twins are ranked No. 10 in the payroll department. Apparently, while many teams were seemingly affected by the recession (14 teams cut their payrolls), the Twins went the opposite direction and upped their payroll by 49 percent to a franchise-record $97.6 million.

Opening day
With the expected unpredictable Minnesota weather in early April, the Twins opened their season with a four-gamer in Anaheim, followed by a weekend series against the division-rival Chicago White Sox.

Losing opening day and then winning three straight was a pretty productive showing for the Twins, who have struggled at Angel Stadium. They hadn't won a series there since 2002. So leaving with three-out-of-four isn't a bad showing.

Maybe one of the more positively-pleasing statistics from the series was the Twins hitting nine home runs. First baseman Justin Morneau, newcomer J.J. Hardy and the slim-and-trim Delmon Young each had a pair of bombs.

In the finale, Brendan Harris got the start and certainly made the most of it by putting the Twins in front for good with a blast. Yes, that was Brendan Harris.

Of course, the batting champ didn't want to risk being left out, and former Twins killer Jim Thome also got in on the action. I have to say, it's so much better now that he's in a Twins uniform.

Mound masters
Pitching-wise, Scott Baker looked shaky in his opening-day start, and Jose Mijares really let the game slip away by giving up back-to-back homers (although he did redeem himself with a strong outing on Thursday). Jon Rauch earned his first save as a Twin, and it was a good one. A one-two-three inning. Quick and simple; that was nice to see.

Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano won their games, and Kevin Slowey looked decent, considering he hadn't pitched in a game since July 3 of last season before being bitten by the injury bug. The only real downside of this first trip was four games starting at 9 p.m. Central time. As a result, the team didn't get in to Chicago until very early Friday morning.

Home sweet outdoor home
Although the Twins and their fans got a taste of Target Field with two exhibition games last weekend, the official opening day at the new ballpark will be this coming Monday. I've already seen and heard a lot about the park, thanks to friends' photos, media coverage and a great special section in Sunday's Star Tribune detailing just about everything you need to know about the new digs.

As you might imagine, tickets are going as fast as free food at a college campus. I won't be one of the lucky ones there on opening day or for the opening series. Would I like to be? Of course, along with thousands and thousands of other people, I'm sure. But I'm not fretting over it.

To me, it's still so surreal that I won't be going to the Metrodome to see the Twins play when I eventually go. I'm taking it in stride; I'll get there when I get there. When I do I'm sure it will be an amazing experience. And until then, it's a good thing I have no problem watching sporting events on TV.

Above: Me and my friends Pam and Laura waiting to head in to the Dome for a Twins game last summer.