Monday, October 25, 2010

Hockey season is here

With all this attention on baseball lately, I realized I haven't focused on the Minnesota Wild since the regular season started. Now is a good time to dive in.

Expectations for the Wild aren't exactly high this year. In just his second year behind the bench, it is believed that head coach Todd Richards may be on a short leash in terms of his job security. Last season was not the greatest, but I was willing to give Richards a grace period to implement his new system.

I'm not sure I agree with firing Richards during this season. There's been enough #fire____ topics in Minnesota sports lately with the very-necessary firing of Gophers football coach Tim Brewster, plus the shots being taken at Ron Gardenhire and now Vikings coach Brad Childress.

Let's see where the Wild stand at the end of the season, then it may be time to re-evaluate the personnel, but not before then. For the record, I'm just hoping the Wild can improve off of last year. And no, I don't think they have a good chance to advance to the playoffs (but hey, you never know).

Starting far from home
A lot of excitement has followed the Wild already in its young season. It started with two losses across the pond in Finland. The first game wasn't very good, and the second was the case of a great goaltender in a shootout loss.

Everyone will remember the first game against division-rival Vancouver this season at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild played extremely well in a 6-2 win, but it was the physical part of the game that told the story.

Getting a little too physical
Canuck Ryan Rypien grabbed a fan that had a seat right next to the visitor's bench area. This was after Rypien reached over an official to punch Brad Staubitz in a skirmish along the Wild bench. It was clear from the beginning Rypien was out of line, with no instigation from the fan.

The NHL suspended the Canuck for six games. I don't have too much fault with this. Although contact with a fan is a big no-no, so maybe 10 games would have made a bigger statement, but at least he didn't skate by with just a couple. The NHL is so inconsistent these days with fines, penalties and suspensions, so this was a pretty decent result.

End of sell-out era
Another item to note, the Wild's consecutive sell-out streak officially died with the second home game this season. Of course, anybody who's been in that building on a somewhat consistent basis should have noticed the huge amount of green seats during games last season. Now it's just official.

On the plus side, if you want tickets to Wild games, they should be more readily available now, unlike in seasons past. I just hope it doesn't get as bad as the Timberwolves games though, where they have trouble giving tickets away.

The Wild are fresh off a home shootout loss to Los Angeles Monday night. After jumping to a 2-0 lead in the first period, they began an all-too-common march to the penalty box. The Kings tied it up and won in a shootout. I'm never very confident when the Wild reach the shootout.

They are now 3-3-2. However, they did win in Edmonton, so they won't have a huge winless streak on the road to start the season like they did last year.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pondering the Twins

I have a few more thoughts on the Twins and their ALDS series loss. Plus, what repercussions this may cause for the future.

Find another excuse
Besides the fact the Ron Gardenhire's post-game comments after Game Three were bordering on Brewster-like, I was also not happy with the same old excuses from the players as to why they lost, again, to the Yankees.

"It's the Yankees... Damn Yankees... We got matched up against the Yankees." Enough. That excuse is no longer valid. During the other lost series of this decade? OK. But not this time. This year was supposed to be different, and the Twins had so much going for them. Yes, New York has a dominant team, but you can't keep hanging your hat on that one element.

And they say the Yankees aren't in their heads? Yeah, right. This just proves to me that they are. The New York starting pitching was not so unhittable in this series as the Twins made it seem. The Yankees aren't up there whiffing at pitches, hitting into double plays or failing to get the ball out of the infield. That's all on the Twins lack of production at the plate.

They have to find a way to beat the Yankees, and getting behind the eight ball mentally because of who your opponent happens to be is just not going to fly.

This was "the year"
Was the 2010 season a failure for the Twins? It's hard to group the whole season on three games, but at the very least it was a huge disappointment. The Twins opened up their new, beautiful ballpark which seemed to be invincible to bad weather this year. They went out and got some free agents during the off season and have spent more money than in years past.

The expectation, proclaimed by the Twins themselves, was to get beyond the first round of the playoffs, and possibly to the World Series. They overcame huge adversity early with the loss of All-Star closer Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery, and then losing Justin Morneau for the second half to a concussion.

They won 94 games on their way to a sixth division title since 2002. They had all the cards in their favor for the heading into the postseason. So what happened?

It wasn't just the fact that they again were bounced out in the first round. It was more the way they lost. Giving the Yankees a run for their (big) money in four or five games would have been an improvement from years past. It would have broken the losing streaks while being marked as less of a failure than a sweep.

Weak division and a crossroads
I've said it before: The Twins play in a weak division. Kansas City has been a great team to beat up on this decade, and now Cleveland is also on the down swing. It's great you can dominate your own division, Twins, but if you can't beat the AL East teams and show up to play postseason baseball, what's the point?

I think this series is a big crossroads for Twins fans. My friend John wrote something interesting as a Facebook comment:

This is a give-take relationship. I am still a hardcore fan, but I need to see some effort in return. That was pathetic.

I never thought of it that way, but it's something to think about. Why get all excited, spend the time and money, all season long when you pretty much know what will happen once October hits? Until the Twins prove they are capable of winning even one game in the postseason, it should be assumed that they are not up to the task.

Fire Gardy? Not yet.
Many were asking for Gardy to get the axe after the sweep. I'm not ready to go there yet. I don't think you can point the finger at him for the Twins not getting it done at the plate. He has led the team to six (weak) division titles. It's just getting that next step that's hard.

Also, look at how well new management has worked for the Wolves and Wild right now. The Wolves are a joke, and the Wild are headed in a downward spiral. If they don't get off to a good start, second-year coach Todd Richards could get canned.

If anything, I think the Twins need something to light a fire under 'em. Something so they'll have that extra kick to make it to the next level.

Long winter
While there is still baseball to be played in 2010, the Twins' role is done. It should be an interesting off season as far as the business side goes. Plus, we'll still be keeping an eye on the health and progress of both Nathan and Morneau.

I'm not sure how next season will shake out. And if they reach another division championship, I'm really not sure how I will feel in the postseason.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Twins get swept, time to reflect

Well, another Twins season came to an abrupt and disappointing end at the hands (or rather, bats and fastballs) of the much-hated New York Yankees. This 2010 postseason exit for the Twins hurts more than the other first-round blanks from the past decade because many thought this was "the year."

Disappointment, frustration, anger, bitterness, sadness. Those are all some emotions I'm sure Twins fans were feeling during the three-game embarrassment that the hometown boys tried to pass off as Twins baseball.

I have given myself a few days to digest the losses and the aftermath, trying to figure out what needed to be said - and there is a lot. Some of it will be blunt. Of course, unless you are a true optimist, you might also agree with some of these not-so-flattering thoughts.

It's a bad trend
Now it's time to reflect. The Twins were swept out of the ALDS yet again. We've all heard the numbers. An 0-11 postseason-losing streak. Three ALDS sweeps in a row. The horrible 18-57 under Ron Gardenhire record against the New York Yankees. Jason Kubel's embarrassingly-abysmal .069 career postseason batting average. The list goes on.

The bottom line for me in this series was the lack of offensive production. Hitting .216 as a team and going 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position won't help you win many ball games.

You can't score a couple of runs a night against the Bronx Bombers and think you'll have a shot at winning. It just won't happen. You can look at the lineup and pick any one of the Twins hitters for not getting it done, although some stick out more than others.

Danny Valencia is the only guy I'm willing to give a free pass to because he's a rookie. I have been impressed with him stepping up this season, in what will hopefully be the everyday third baseman the team has been looking for since the Corey Koskie era.

Two below-average performances
The two guys I was more disappointed with were Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel. Mauer knocked a couple of singles to the outfield, but didn't do much more than that. He was highly scrutinized for needing to step up to carry the team as a postseason leader, either with his bat or by breaking out of his introverted shell.

Then there's Kubel. He went 0-for-8 this series, and is hitting .069 for his career in the postseason (2-for-29). That's pathetic. Not that anyone else was lighting things up, but I mean, come on. At least Michael Cuddyer and Orlando Hudson hit a couple long balls. Denard Span led off with a couple hits, and even Valencia coaxed a walk that resulted in a tying run.

But Kubel? Zero production. It's just ridiculous. I just can't get past .069. That's bad.

What did you say?
Another thing that worried me during the series was the stuff I was reading in the newspaper. Players like Mauer and Kubel were asked about stepping up; somebody needs to be that postseason hero.

Instead of a player owning up and taking responsibility for the comatose offense, they seemed to pass the buck. Players were getting quoted making generalizations, saying there's a lot of talent in their clubhouse, and any one of the guys could be the one to step up and be the hero/leader.

That didn't sit well with me. Guys should have enough fire and will to win to say, "Yeah, I need to step up my game. I want to be that guy who gets the bats going for my team." I get they're a team with talented guys, but where's the passion? Take it upon yourself to get the big hit.

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game Three

Game Three - Yankees 6, Twins 1 - Series is officially over

Well, I'd say Game Three was the worst for the the Twins. Just one run (coming in the eighth inning) and seven total hits for the night in their last game of the 2010 season. Just an abysmal effort. Fortunately for me, at this point of the series I was already a bit past the bitter station, and I had moved on to the "over it" station on the postseason train.

Hitting was once again the biggest problem. The regular lineup for the Twins made Yankees starter Phil Hughes look like a Cy Young candidate. He threw perfectly the first time through the lineup, and faced the minimum through four (after Denard Span's lead-off single was quickly negated by Orlando Hudson's double-play ball).

It was just depressing. The Twins were consistently swinging and missing on 91, 92 mph pitches. I'm not a huge expert when it comes to pitching, but I didn't feel like those pitches and their speeds were insurmountable. I mean, it wasn't like the guy was throwing 99-mph heat up there.

You're major league hitters, make some contact with the baseball, preferably something that makes it out of the infield.

Total Twins hit count: 7. LOB (left on base) count: 7.

On the pitching side for the Twins, young Brian Duensing failed to make it through the fourth inning. But you know, the hitting for the Twins was so bad, I really don't hold him responsible. It's ironic though because he seemed to take the loss pretty hard, as did Carl Pavano in Game Two.

When the Twins finally got their one run in the eighth, with a couple of hits, it was very much too little, too late. You can't wait until the end of the game to start putting runs on the board, especially in New York. There was something one of the TBS announcers said that stuck with me, saying Twins hitters were "due."

Yeah, they're all "due," but they're not "dueing" anything.

At one point of frustration with the Twins lineup, I suggested mixing it up. Why not swap out players for the three utility infielders on the postseason roster, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and outfielder Jason Repko.

None of the regulars were getting it done at the plate, so why not try something different? They might surprise you. What have you got to lose? (except the game, series and pride)

Twitter is good therapy
Shifting gears a bit, I'll once again plug how great Twitter and sports fit together. During Game Three I probably Tweeted about 35 times. I even started a hashtag - #postseasondepression as the game got deeper. It's just nice to share your thoughts with Twins fans and the media who cover them.

The loss didn't seem to hurt as bad because half of my attention was really focused on Twitter, rather than hanging on every at-bat during the game. It really is a great outlet to vent, plus get some insider information during the game - like learning that the classy New York faithful were chanting and taunting Span while he was in center field.

Same old story
By game's end, the result was the same. The Twins losing to the Yankees in three straight games, and not really showing up to play their best baseball in any of them. I won't get in to all the statistics, but the numbers in most categories for the Twins when facing the Yanks are not good.

Watching the Yankee celebration was quite telling - because there was no celebration. They shook hands on the field like it was a normal game, because their competition had failed to make the series competitive.

Handshakes said it all.

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game Two

Game Two - Yankees 5, Twins 2

So if I thought Game One was a must-win, it goes without saying that Game Two at Target Field was a must-win-otherwise-it's-over game.

If there is someone out there confident enough to think the Twins could win three straight against New York, with two games in the Bronx, then they have to be lying. While it's true that anything can happen in sports, and it's not over until it's over, holding that optimism just seems unrealistic.

Gardy sent veteran and rotation-stabilizer Carl Pavano to the hill, a former Yankee. Just like Liriano, he really didn't have that poor of a showing. It also wasn't a huge Yankee blow-out, just a handful runs.

The call that wasn't
Probably the turning point (or at least the most-talked-about moment) of the game came in the seventh inning when veteran Lance Berkman was at the plate for the visitors with two strikes in the count.

Then there was a pitch that caught a very large portion of the plate, according to booing fans, the TBS pitching graphic and Orlando Hudson, who apparently was jumping up and down in the infield after home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt failed to ring up the Yankee.

The very next pitch, Berkman hit an RBI double to center to break a tie game. The Yanks never looked back. Gardy made a trip to the mound, not to change pitchers, but to calm Carl down (according to the skipper). When Wendelstedt made the "break it up" walk out to the mound, Gardy was vocal about the non-call.

As has happened many times, Gardy got tossed as he tried to plead his case in true Gardy fashion. These two guys have a history together, and it's not good at all. Plus, managers Bobby Cox (Atlanta) and Joe Maddon (Tampa Bay) got tossed last week as well. This coming after five years of no postseason managerial ejections.

It hasn't been a banner year for the umpires in the postseason, just like in 2009. But that's another topic for another time.

Bad luck, but still...
Now, I am in no way saying that the Twins lost Game Two because of a very, very questionable call from behind the plate. Their bats were very silent for the entire series, so there's one of the biggest reasons for their fate.

But when I'm on Twitter seeing many media personnel and fans express their complete disagreement with the call, you know it's a bad one. Still, it's not enough to blame the loss on. You've got to support your pitching staff with more than two runs and six hits.

Total Twins hit count: 6. LOB (left on base) count: 3.

Then it was off to the Big Apple for some really must-win games. Going down 0-2 to the Yanks - it's familiar, and yet, another way to say "series over."

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game One

Game 1 - Yankees 6, Twins 4

The anticipation for Game One of the ALDS at Target Field last Wednesday was high. I was pretty pumped for the Twins to kick things off in the postseason; so many things just felt different about it this time. My friend Cassie and I even went to Billy's in St. Paul so we could take in the game in a fun atmosphere.

I was still a little nervous for Francisco Liriano, who was making his first career postseason start. As it turned out, good news on that front. He did not struggle early, which was the concern. He did well until he hit a wall in the sixth inning. He saw the 3-0 Minnesota lead shrink down to a 4-3 deficit.

The biggest blow came off the bat of former Detroit Tiger Curtis Granderson, who struggled at the plate this season until about mid-August. He hit what first appeared to be a catchable fly ball to right center, but instead it hit off the wall for a triple.

Cuddy starts the scoring
It looked to be a good start for the hometown boys when Michael Cuddyer (the only current Twin to have played on all the postseason teams of this decade) smashed a two-run homer to the pine trees in center field. Jim Thome was on base after getting plunked on the hands by the big ace CC Sabathia.

Even when they went down 4-3, they came right back the next inning to tie the score (by resisting the swinging temptation) with a bases-loaded walk. But that score was once again short lived. Jesse Crain came on in relief and watched as Mark Teixeira hit a two-run shot down the right-field line, just barely staying fair.

That was the game's difference.

Need to cash in on opportunities
Of course, that's not to say that the Twins didn't have their chances. The most notable one sticking out in my mind was J.J. Hardy striking out with the bases juiced in the sixth inning. He helped Sabathia get out of a jam by swinging and missing when the big man was having trouble finding the strike zone.

Total Twins hit count: 8. LOB (left on base) count: 10.

Must-win? Yes, it was.
Looking back, I would say that Game One was the best one for the Twins. They got progressively worse as the series went on. At least the first game had that familiar feel of a close game, with the Yankees always managing to get that extra boost to come out victorious.

Game One was a must-win game for the Twins. Not technically, but it still felt that way, especially being at Target Field. The loss meant that no matter what happened in Game Two, the Twins still needed to find a way to win in New York.

I got most of my frustrations and anger-filled emotions out after the first game. Even though hope wasn't all lost (it was just the first game, after all), it still felt like the Twins were backed into a huge corner. The Yanks do have something to do with that.

If it had been any other opponent for the Twins, I wouldn't have been as worried. But the Yankees are always a dangerous team to try and prevail over, especially for Ron Gardenhire and his team.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Previewing the postseason: Twins versus Yanks... again

Alright kids, here we go. The 162-game (yes, not 163 this year) regular season is complete, and it's time for October baseball. In case you're not aware, here are the Major League Baseball playoff teams.

American League

Minnesota Twins - Central Division champion (and the most important team of interest to this blogger and fan)
New York Yankees - Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays - East Division champion
Texas Rangers - West Division champion

National League

Atlanta Braves - Wild Card
Cincinnati Reds - Central Division champion
Philadelphia Phillies - East Division champion
San Francisco - West Division champion

While the Twins were the first team in baseball to clinch a division and playoff spot, the other clubs waited a bit longer to decide their fates. The Rays and Yanks both knew they would be in the postseason, but their division and wild card positions weren't decided until the last day of the season.

These two AL East squads played below-average ball in the final stretch of September, very much like the Twins did as they went 3-8 after clinching their title. I think because no team got on a hot streak to end the regular season, this makes it easier to digest Minnesota's recent skid.

It's often not who you play but when you play them. So the fact that the Rays, Yanks and Twins all sort of limped to the No. 162-finish line, that puts them on a more even playing field.

The experts have told the Twins Territory fanatics not to panic with the way the Twins have been playing. I'm hoping they're right. It's a clean slate beginning with the first pitch of postseason play Wednesday, so the boys from Minnie better bring their 'A' games.

Facing an all-too-familiar foe
That's right, the Twins get the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs yet again. This brings back so many bad memories from the past decade that I'm really not going to get into it. We all know the history, the mystique, the winning ways of the defending World Series champion Yankees.

They took out Minnesota in the first round last year in a convincing three-game sweep. The second-half/September miracle run to the Central Division title (capped with that amazing Game 163) had the air taken out of it by the Bronx Bombers. With the big homers they hit against the Twins last year, there's a reason that's their nickname.

The Twins still struggled against the men in pinstripes earlier this spring. Much was made of their series, but one could also be quick to point out that a lot happens over the course of a season, so just because they didn't beat New York earlier, doesn't mean there's no hope now.

Things are different
With history strongly stacked against Minnesota when it comes to the playoffs and the Yankees, it would be easy to give the edge to New York. But there are some differences that might be working in the Twins' favor.

For instance, since the Yanks are the wild card team rather than the division champion, the Twins are the ones with home field advantage for the best-of-five series. This is huge. Playing in Yankee Stadium for games one and two is quite an intimidating and obnoxious (due to Yankee fans) atmosphere. The Target Field faithful will be out in full force to support the Twins in hopes of bringing a 1-1 or, dare I say it, 2-0 lead back to the Bronx.

The Twins also have a very different lineup than last year. Delmon Young has had a huge turnaround this season, producing clutch hits and more than 100 RBI. Danny Valencia has brought his explosive bat up from the minors, and looks to be the team's new consistent third baseman. Jim Thome has added some power, and Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy also weren't with the team last year.

When it comes to bullpens, the Twins have been one of the best in baseball. But they will have to be careful not to throw any cookies to the Yankee lineup. They've proven they don't miss. The Bombers still have a strong team, but it isn't the same team from a year ago either, and age may soon start to play a factor with their top players.

Game on
Because playoff television coverage caters to the big-market Yankees, the Twins are looking at prime-time games for the first round. The game-one first pitch is scheduled for 7:37 p.m. central time on Wednesday for the first playoff game in Target Field history. Game two will be at 5:07 p.m. Thursday.

The pitching match up for game one will be 21-game winner CC Sabathia versus Francisco Liriano (14-10), making his first-ever postseason start. Sabathia has nasty stuff, but Liriano has emerged this year as the dominant pitcher we all thought he was before Tommy John surgery. The only problem will be if Liriano gets a case of nerves; his pitching is strong.

A key to success for the Twins will be keeping their cool on the defensive side, and then getting the bats going. I think it'll be tough to win a game with one or two runs. I'd like to see the Twins put up a few rallies, get some run support for their pitchers (and insurance) so they can stay away from the nail-biters in the late innings.

As far as a prediction goes, I'm not sure I want to offer one. First off because sports are so hard to predict, that's why the games aren't played on paper. But also because I am still a bit superstitious. It's a no-brainer that I want the Twins to finally prove all the critics out there wrong and be able to advance past the Yankees to the AL Championship Series.

If Minnesota fails to make it past the first round, especially if they get swept again, it will be a disappointment. They need to get the New York monkey off their backs and prove they belong deep in the postseason.

Oh, and if Phil Cuzzi is part of the umpiring crew, heaven help the Twins hitters who try to hit a double down the line.