Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two in a row: 2010 AL Central Division Champions

As I'm sure you know by now, the Minnesota Twins clinched the AL Central Division title. The celebration came late Tuesday night after their 6-4 win over Cleveland, and then another White Sox loss out in Oakland.

It was pretty cool to see former-Twin Craig Breslow pitch the ninth inning, and get Paul Konerko to ground out to second for the out that sealed the deal for the Twins. Thank you Oakland!

Before the game, the players and manager Ron Gardenhire were talking business as usual. Gardy said he would be at home by the time the Sox game ended. Yeah, right. That theory didn't pan out after the Twins comeback-win was final, and the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Sox being down early.

Late-night party
Watching the celebration on FSNorth was pretty cool to see, as it has always been. It was nice that they were able to clinch at home (even if it wasn't on the field) and christen the new clubhouse in Target Field's inaugural season.

It was also nice to see a cluster of fans stick around for the celebration. Slowly, players came out onto the field to high-five fans, and spray them with beverages. Jon Rauch threw a bucket of cold water(?) over the dugout and onto the fans. I wish I could have been there with those true fans.

The night was also special for Gardy because the win marked No. 800 for him in his managing career. He's helped the team to division titles in 2002, '03, '04, '06, '09 and now '10, with just a few ejections along the way. If he doesn't get awarded the Manager of the Year title this year, it'll be a crime.

The work isn't done
Cold-beverage spraying was still going strong around midnight - 12 hours before the afternoon, series finale with the Cleveland Indians. Many thought Wednesday would be a "hangover" game for the Twins, especially with their second-string lineup in their first effort to rest some of the everyday players. But they won 5-1 to improve their record to 92-60.

After Tampa Bay beat the Yankees that evening, the Twins were officially tied with New York for the best record in the American League. That's the new goal the Twins will be working toward in the remaining games, along with getting healthy and mentally prepared for the postseason, in order to secure home-field advantage throughout the AL Championship Series.

With Texas seemingly out of the best-record race, the Twins will be playing either Tampa Bay or New York, based on who finishes as the AL East Champ and the Wild Card. Either way, it'll be a test for the Twins, as they have had trouble with the East teams this season, especially the Yankees.

Since the Twins have become the first team in baseball to clinch a division and playoff berth, it should work to their advantage. Unlike last year with a race to the finish in Game 163, they can have a chance to prepare for the postseason and hopefully make a deeper run into the playoffs.

A few notes
Nick Blackburn made history Wednesday by getting his 10th win of the season. It marked the first time in Twins history when they had six, 10-game winners on their pitching staff.

The 92-60 overall record includes a 52-25 record at Target Field, and a 40-35 mark on the road. In the World Series season of 1987, the Twins went 85-77, and 95-67 in 1991.

Francisco Liriano has been named the Game 1 starter in the AL Division Series. Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn will round out the rotation. Liriano is 14-8 and 6-1 in his past 10 games, but his nerves in big situations make me a little nervous.

The Homer Hankies have returned, this time with the colorful symbol of Minnie and Paul shaking hands that has become the staple logo at Target Field.

It's nice to enjoy another division title, but I think we all know that the goal is bigger than that. Anything less than getting through to the ALCS will be a bit of a disappointment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Magic Number gets even lower

I was lucky to have the chance to attend another game at Target Field. My good friend Michael was nice enough to invite me (thanks Michael!) to the rubber game on Sunday versus the Oakland A's. It turned out to be a beautiful day, and our seats in the outfield meant we had a great view and the sun in our faces - my red nose is proof of that.

After sweeping the White Sox during the week, on the road, the Twins further extended their AL Central lead, reduced the Magic Number and looked to be in a good position to clinch the Division very soon. Too bad they had a bit of a let-down at home with a 2-1 series loss to the A's.

They went on huge scoring sprees in Chicago, but only managed seven runs in the entire Oakland series. With a total of 26 runs against the Sox, the Twins scored more than seven runs in each game.

Nice day, flat play
Sunday's game was about enjoying some good seats, good weather and good company, since the Twins felt a little flat on the field. Their offense didn't come through, with just a smattering of hits. Their only runs came in the sixth inning with solo blasts to left field coming off the bats of Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome.

Francisco Liriano got his team behind the eight ball early by giving up three runs in the first inning. That's all it took.

You're outta here!
Manager Ron Gardenhire also got tossed yet again, and I think it was for good cause. A ball was hit to left-center field, which I assumed would be caught since it was just out of my sight line. Apparently, the ball was dropped at some point, so that left Twins base runners at first and second.

Then things got complicated. It was a little confusing at the time (being at the stadium and not having the benefit of a television replay and analyzing the situation), but I guess the umpires first ruled a no-catch and then reversed the call to a catch, saying the ball was dropped on the transfer.

The problem was, both runners were out. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me (and to Gardy, obviously), because since it was first not a catch, that meant the runner on first needed to go to second. Instead, when they reversed it, the base runner was doubled off first.

It's really too bad because that play brought some energy into the crowd, and it could have been a start to a good inning. So instead of two runners on and nobody out, there was nobody on and two outs. Kind of a rally killer.

Missed opportunity
The final score ended up 6-2. What was really a shame about the day was that the Twins could have taken a huge advantage with a win. The Rays and Yankees both lost (after Baltimore came back in the bottom of the ninth and then won in extras against NY), and the Twins are chasing them for the best record in baseball.

Later that night, the Tigers finished off a sweep of the White Sox, lowering the Magic Number again down to 4. But let me tell you, the end of that game was not pretty. The Tigers blew a 7-3 lead in the ninth inning with a horrendous job by the bullpen, then won it 9-7 in 11 innings. The Sox left 18 (maybe more?) runners on base throughout the night.

Regulars are injured, giving newbies a chance
The Twins are also a little banged up at the moment. Sunday's lineup included recent call-up Ben Revere replacing Denard Span in center, and Jason Repko was in for Jason Kubel in right. Both Kubel and Span have a couple nagging injuries, but they should be back soon. Nick Punto also returned to the lineup, in for Orlando Hudson at second base.

Joe Mauer will also be out for a few games now with a knee injury that he apparently suffered during the game. I was wondering why Jose Morales was pinch-hitting for him yesterday. Hopefully Mauer will be back soon; I think he's listed as day-to-day.

Of course, Justin Morneau is still out (as he has been since just before the All-Star break), so Cuddyer is still the fill-in at first base. Most don't think Morneau will play again this season, especially since he wouldn't be able to rehab in the minors, with those seasons having concluded already.

Filling the 3B hole
One guy I'm really impressed with lately has been third baseman Danny Valencia. This is a guy that has been in the Twins minor leagues for a few seasons now. It seems like the Twins were always hesitant to bring him up, saying he still needed more work. Well, with home runs on Friday and Saturday, I'd say he should be up here to stay.

I'm hoping he'll be able to fill the third-baseman void that's plagued the Twins ever since the Corey Koskie-era ended. Valencia is hitting very well right now, so I hope he'll be able to transfer his success over to next season.

On tap for the Twins
The Twins take on Cleveland for a three-game series at home this week before heading off to Detroit for the weekend. The White Sox are facing off in Oakland this week. With the Magic Number at 4, it's possible the Twins would be able to clinch at home, with a some help from the A's.

Let's hope they can get it done so their players can rest up for the postseason, while maybe trying to get their hands on home-field advantage as well. This is all a luxury the Twins didn't have a chance at last year, but this time, things are different. It's time to get some wins and plan for October.

No shortage of sports these days

It's an exciting time for sports right now. The Twins are on the cusp of another AL Central Division title, the Wild are on the cusp of their first preseason game, the Vikings have two losses under their belt, the preps season is well underway, along with fall college sports. So many sports options.

The only thing that's ending is the IndyCar season. With this past weekend's race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, that leaves the finale in two weeks at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just like last year, the overall IZOD IndyCar Series champion won't be decided until after the final checkered flag of the year.

Here's what I'm keeping tabs on right now:

Huskies, Huskies, bark, bark, bark!
- The Andover Huskies football team is 3-0 to start the season after wins over Centennial, Park Center and Northwest Suburban conference-newcomer Armstrong. The real test for the fighting dogs will be when they match up with top 10-ranked Blaine in an away game Oct. 15.

Let's go Tommies!
- In my other alumni category, St. Thomas football is also 3-0 (1-0 MIAC). The Tommies are coming off a huge win over St. Olaf Saturday. They won 49-14 in Northfield, beating the Oles who were also 2-0 going into the conference opener.

It was a little payback for two years ago when the Tommies lost at St. Olaf in six overtime sessions. That loss, and a gut-wrenching one to St. John's, were the only blemishes on the regular season for then first-year head coach Glenn Caruso. That program is flying high.

Let's play hockey
- Hockey gets going again this week as the Wild open the preseason. They play seven games in this country, before jetting off to Finland to open the regular season Oct. 7. I'm not really sure how the second year under coach Todd Richards will shake out.

Right now, I'm just hoping they can improve from last season, have a better start and possibly make a run at getting into the playoffs. I'm not expecting a postseason, but I wouldn't say it's out of the question.

They did pick up a couple veteran players in the off season, including Minnesota-native Matt Cullen. Of course, they also lost the NHL's best enforcer Derek Boogaard, but at least they won't be losing any offense there. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who was out all last season with a concussion, should be back soon, and this time with a special helmet to cushion blows to the head.

The big injury news is lackluster center, James Sheppard. He had knee surgery after an ATV accident when he was training out in Colorado recently. He's listed as being out three to four months, but who knows. It's no secret that I don't see this as much of a loss to the team. I'm sure they can find a way to make up his six points that he contributed last year.

A weak Brew
- Mr. Brewster's Gophers are 1-2, after what many local media personnel are calling the worst loss they've ever seen in a 41-38 punch-in-the-stomach loss to South Dakota a couple weeks ago, and then a more predictable loss to USC.

I haven't been sold on Brewster from the start, really. And it appears that this year many other fed-up fans are getting on the "Fire Brewster" bandwagon. This guy is just nuts. I can't even stand to listen to him in his news conferences or interviews. His extremely positivity is much over the top.

Bad start for Brett
- Oh, and the Vikings are 0-2 with a loss in New Orleans in a rematch of the NFC Championship game, and a turnover-filled home-opener versus the Miami Dolphins. I just think it's funny that when Brett Favre returned (not really a surprise), everyone seemed to think it was a guaranteed ticket back to the Championship, or even the Super Bowl. Those hopes are getting off course in a hurry.

We're gonna win Twins!
- Probably some of the biggest excitement these days has focused around the Twins and their quest for a Division title. They swept the White Sox in Chi-Town last week to essentially stick a fork in their rivals.

Currently, the Magic Number is 4, so the Twins should be able to clinch sometime this week. Unfortunately, it might happen on the road. But how cool would it be to celebrate the clinching at Target Field in its inaugural season? If they can take care of business, then they will be able to rest some players and have them fresh for the playoffs, unlike last year when they played Game 163.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Baseball in football-like weather

"It's a beautiful night for baseball." The now-seemingly-famous words spoken by Fox Sports North announcer Dick Bremer prior to the start of most Twins games played at Target Field. Most of the time this season, that has been the case. But not recently.

Since Ma Nature decided to slap Minnesotans in the face with a sudden jump from summer to instant autumn, going to Target Field within the past week or so has been like going to a football game. Cool temps and wind have ended the great summer evenings of baseball.

I went to the game this past Tuesday with my friend Cassie. We were fortunate enough to see the Twins thump the Kansas City Royals 10-3. Thanks Brian Bannister for your 2-2/3 innings of work, allowing the boys to score six runs in the third.

It was one of those cool evenings, so I came prepared in layers. Long underwear on the bottom, warm socks inside my hikers, a long-sleeved shirt under a hooded sweatshirt covered up by my Twins jersey. I came with mittens and blankets, but fortunately those were unnecessary; we were warm enough with our layers.

Big, offensive night
The Twins took an early lead and never looked back. But the six-run third inning was where the game really got away from KC.

Delmon Young was a big hitter for the night, as he tried to come back to his July ways after his hiccup in August. He was 3-for-4 with four RBI (all coming with two outs). Even lowly J.J. Hardy is breaking out a little bit. He hit his first home run at Target Field this week, and Tuesday he was 1-for-3 with three RBI.

Utility infielder Matt Tolbert also knocked out an RBI-triple (he's making a habit of it recently). We also got to see call-up Ben Revere pinch-hit for the high-socks-wearing Denard Span. Revere struck out, but he also made a nice catch in center field.

Thome's the man
One of the best offensive moments of the evening was when Jim Thome hit his 586th career home run to, where else, the right field platform near the flag pole (which he already hit head-on with a bomb over the weekend). It was a solo shot that was pretty much a no-doubter.

With the blast, he tied Frank Robinson for the No. 8 spot on the career home-run list. This got the crowd to its feet, and Thome was nice enough to come out of the dugout briefly for a well-deserved curtain call.

I gotta say, it's so nice to have him on our team after all the years he spent in Cleveland and Chicago, hitting homers against us. The 40 year old can't run very fast, but that doesn't count in a home-run trot.

Lucky 13 for Liriano
On the pitching side, Francisco Liriano improved to 13-7 with seven strong innings. He gave up seven hits, two earned runs and struck out four on the way to the victory. Glen Perkins pitched the eighth, and I was happy to see Pat Neshek return to the major-league mound for the ninth, although he didn't look too commanding as he walked two and gave up a hit resulting in the third run for KC.

Another highlight of the night was when the Chicago White Sox game went final on the out-of-town scoreboard. Cheers erupted from fans as the Tigers beat the Sox 9-1.

It was a great game and thank goodness the cooler weather didn't get in the way of enjoying it. It didn't hurt that the game didn't drag on for three-plus hours either. Plus, my Target Field record improved to 4-1.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's Magic Number time

As we get deeper into the month of September, Major League Baseball gets more exciting. Races for division titles and playoff spots heat up, or teams that are essentially already in or out of the playoffs begin to coast. Best of all, it's Magic Number time.

I have maintained that I think the AL Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. I say that because it's not usually a race to see which team can get 100 wins first, but rather which two teams will be battling for first playing .500 ball.

What have you done for me lately? A lot.
As of late however, the Minnesota Twins have turned things up a notch, and so have the Chicago White Sox since their big run in June that gave them the division lead. The Detroit Tigers looked to be a factor for a bit, but they are 12.5 games back. Kansas City and Cleveland are out of it as well (each about 25 games back), maintaining their division-doormat statuses.

The Twins have been winning lately, and so have the White Sox. How frustrating it must be for the Sox as they went on a seven-game streak but couldn't gain any ground. One-run games are also very present for the hometown boys, which is good only when they are able to end up on the winning end of things.

Joe Mauer and company swept the Texas Rangers during their recent home stand at Target Field - during a first true test of some cold, football-like weather at the outdoor ballpark. If you want to look ahead to the playoffs, the Twins should feel confident going against the Rangers.

Breaking down the Magic Number
Right now, the Magic Number is 17 with the Twins holding a five-game lead over the Sox. Thanks to the Tigers for helping by beating the Whities in their series this week.

If you're unaware, the Magic Number is the combination of Twins wins and Sox losses needed in order for the Twins to clinch the division. The other night the Magic Number was 20, but the Twins beat the Royals and the Tigers beat the Sox, therefore, the Number dropped to 18.

The Twins caught another break Thursday when they gained a half-game without even playing as the Sox lost again. Of course, with a luke-warm Twins loss to the Indians and a Sox comeback win Friday night, the Thursday gain was a wash.

Another positive note is that the Twins are playing over-.500 baseball right now. Their record stands at 83-58. They are also in first place right now, unlike last year where they went on a tear in the last month in order to chase down the Tigers. Of course, this should give the Twins reason to keep pushing for the title and not get chased down themselves.

Race to the finish
Then there's the potential of Game 163. It's certainly not out of the question. I mean, who would have thought there would be two 163s, two years in a row, and that it would be in the same division with the Twins playing in each of them?

A good division or not, the AL Central is competitive on its own level. The problem becomes the postseason, just like last year. It looks as though the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will be playing in October, and the Twins have struggled against the AL East in general, especially the Yanks.

But for now, let's just take it one game at a time, until the Magic Number reaches zero and Minnesota can hopefully celebrate another Division title.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Marking the end of summer with a Grand Slam

Everyone knows that Memorial Day weekend is known as the unofficial start of summer, and Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of summer. It seems as though we've reached the latter bookend, which has its good and bad points.

I love summer and the wonderful hot weather it brings, so I'm always sad to see it end. But with big events marking the occasion such as the Minnesota State Fair and tennis' Grand Slam event - the U.S. Open - those are two great reasons to wish for the end of August to come quickly.

September also brings the final month of regular-season baseball, meaning tight divisional races, collapses and title-clinching games. For football lovers out there, the college season has just gotten underway, and the NFL will be starting the regular season soon too.

Injuries and upsets
I wasn't sure how the U.S. Open would go this year. Many of the circuit's top players seemed to have been bitten by the injury bug and many pulled out of the Open. Justine Henin, defending men's champion Juan Martin Del Potro and last year's tirade queen, Serena Williams were three big names not playing on the courts in Flushing Meadows.

There have been some upsets and a few early five-set matches. Last year's young, American sensation, Melanie Oudin, was knocked out in the second round. It was too bad because all the analysts were saying her draw was quite favorable. Plus, I really was on her "believe" bandwagon last year after she pulled out multiple upsets of highly-seeded players.

Another shocker (or maybe not) was ninth-seeded Andy Roddick also being sent packing after losing a four-setter in the second round. I didn't see that match, but apparently he was quite upset about a foot fault and the line judge's mix-up between left and right.

I saw a Tweet later that night where the Tweeter basically said he or she doesn't see Roddick winning another Grand Slam event again. I wouldn't doubt it. It is unfortunate that he is in the middle of the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal era, but Roddick has also been known to choke at times.

Players are still alive
Kim Clijsters, the defending women's champion, is still alive, but she also isn't 100 percent health-wise. She hasn't been challenged too much thus far. I hope she can hold on to make a run back to the final, and this time she can win it outright, instead of by default.

Probably one of the best matches so far was in the men's second round between Sergiy Stakhovsky of Germany and an 18-year-old American named Ryan Harrison. It was a long five-set match that ended in a final-set tiebreaker. Harrison came out on the losing end, but not before winning the crowd over, playing some disciplined tennis and earning three match points before losing 8-6 in the tiebreak.

I'll be keeping Ryan Harrison on my tennis radar for awhile. I hope he and Oudin can continue to improve and bring some success to American tennis. It would be great if these two could prove themselves as worthy competitors, and not just flukes at a Grand Slam on their own soil.