Thursday, September 28, 2017

Twins clinch AL Wild Card spot, completing improbable comeback season

What a difference a year makes. 

Yeah right. I definitely have a more creative lede than some cliche. The story really writes itself: The Minnesota Twins clinched a spot in the postseason late Wednesday night. They did it with many of the same players on the roster from 2016, the team that lost 103 ball games.

The most impressive thing about this? The Twins are the first baseball team to ever lose 100 games and then make the postseason the next year.

The Twins are headed back to the postseason for the first time since 2010, Target Field's inaugural season. Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins are the only players still on the squad from that season. This 2017 Twins team earned the second AL Wild Card spot. Not that this matters too much, but it's the first Wild Card berth for the Twins.

Talkin' magic numbers once again
It seemed like a near certainty for a while now, but there's just something about officially clinching that gives you all the sports warm and fuzzies. Plenty of suds soaked the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland during the late-night celebration. It brings back memories of the 2000s when the Twins won their string of AL Central Division titles.

The Twins had a magic number of 1 headed into play Wednesday night, needing a win or an Angels loss. Unfortunately, the Twins and their bats was no match for Danny Salazar on the mound for the rolling Indians (a team that's lost just three games in the past month or so). The Twins finally managed a couple hits in the 9th, with a two-run homer off the right-field pole from Jorge Polanco, but the Indians won 4-2.

So, the Twins didn't get to celebrate on the field. They probably didn't care a couple hours later though. Instead, they went back to the clubhouse to watch the end of the Angels game v. the White Sox in Chicago. Naturally, the Angels tied up the game 4-4 and it went to extra innings. Nicky Delmonico hit a two-run homer in the 10th, and it was time to pop the champagne.

The little team that could
Fox Sports North stayed on with their coverage after the game and through the celebration. They talked with Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Falvey mentioned the word "resiliency" for this team, because he said he couldn't think of another word for this group of guys.

It really is true. Fans could have written off this team (and maybe they did) more than once this season. The awful series against Houston in May. The dreadful road trip out west just before the trade deadline. There was some frustration from players when the front office dealt closer Brandon Kintzler at the deadline in a throwing-in-the-towel move.

They went on some modest losing streaks but always came back with a solid series or by beating a team with a better record.

One of the fun things to watch with this team is their home-run power. The Twins have hit 83 home runs since August 8, the most in baseball. They have 202 homers for the season, which ranks in the top five all-time for the Twins. They have four players with 20-homer seasons; Max Kepler needs one more homer to reach 20 to make it five players for the first time in team history.

So many great storylines this year 
Sometimes, you point to a moment or a player that is the biggest reason for a turnaround. The list is pretty lengthy with this club. The front office didn't end up trading Brian Dozier in the offseason like some thought might happen. He's not on the home-run tear of late in 2016, but he's still come on strong in the second half and leads the team with 33 homers. His biggest one came late in Tuesday's game with the Twins down by a pair of runs. He went opposite field for a three-run homer to right to give the Twins the win.

There's Ervin Santana, a veteran pitcher who also wasn't traded away. He has complete games, shutouts and plenty of solid outings to his name this season. He was nearly unbeatable early in the year with a nonexistent ERA.

Youngster Jose Berrios has come around on the mound, too, settling his nerves after last season and turning into a go-to starter in the rotation tagged as a future ace. Kyle Gibson has made a complete turnaround this year after being sent to AAA; all he does is lower his ERA lately. The bullpen has come through in key moments, with some rookie faces, too. Matt Belisle has found a home as a closer. Guys like Taylor Rogers and Alan Busentiz are reliable arms.

Joe Mauer is having one of his best years yet, hitting .300+ and playing Gold-Glove defense at first base. He's probably saved his infielders some errors on the scoresheet. Polanco came back from a dreadful start at the plate to hit homers and drive in runs. Eduardo Escobar has filled in well at third base in the absence of slugger Miguel Sano (he's been out since mid-August with an injury).

The outfield is pretty well set with Eddie Rosario-Byron Buxton-Kepler. Rosario has a great arm and also had his best season at the plate, whacking away at homers. Buxton's offense was slow early on but has really come alive. To me, it doesn't matter anyway because his defense outweighs everything. His speed allows him to cover practically the entire field by himself, resulting in highlight-reel catch after catch.

Enjoy the journey 
This year has been so much better than the last. The Twins starting winning games. They held the division lead for a while before settling in to the wild card race. If they took a lead in a ball game, their pitchers held the lead and the offense went to work adding runs. Just this month alone the Twins have hit double-digits in runs seven times, including 17-0 and 16-0 shutouts. They've hit six homers in a game more than once, plus a seven-homer game at Target Field, setting a park record.

No matter how the Twins clinched, or who they play (not going there right now), or the debate about whether the wild-card game is considered the postseason, the jump from 2016 to 2017 for these Twins is one to enjoy. It's hard to believe too many people expected this at the start of the season.

What a fun ride.

Friday, September 15, 2017

A little bit of everything in Twins' record-setting night

Sports can bring about the unexpected, which definitely makes the games worth watching. You can predict all you want. It doesn't compare to the real thing.

At the start of their homestand Tuesday night, the Minnesota Twins did something that no other team had done before in the history of baseball. That's right. In the history of baseball, not just "since year xyz.." They hit seven home runs in the first seven innings of their romp of the San Diego Padres.

The home runs accounted for 12 of the 16 runs in the Twins 16-0 shutout of the Padres, their second such blowout victory in just a couple weeks. They also beat the Royals 17-0 the last homestand. Both games had Kyle Gibson on the mound, and he pitched well. Tuesday, he surrendered just four hits and didn't walk a batter through six innings. The bullpen finished it off with three hitless innings. 

The pitching was an afterthought though. Let's get to the real excitement: The homers. 

1st inning: Brian Dozier, solo, 370 feet to right
2nd inning: Jorge Polanco, two-run shot, 396 feet down the left-field line just staying fair 
3rd inning: Jason Castro, two-run shot, 355 feet clearing the wall in left
4th inning: Eddie Rosario, two-run shot, 393 feet to the bullpen
5th inning: Jason Castro, solo, 409 feet to left for his 2nd of the game
6th inning: Eduardo Escobar, solo, 427 feet over the right-field seats and to the plaza
7th inning: Kennys Vargas, 3-run shot, 430 feet to the second-deck in right-center 

(Distance estimates via the Twins.)

It was also the first time the Twins have ever hit seven homers in a game at Target Field (history that goes back a modest few years to 2010). Since they hit a homer in seven innings, they obviously also scored in all seven innings as well. Not exactly something you see every day either. 

Vargas, who came into the game at first base for Mauer as the September-baseball, blowout-game subs entered the game on both sides, absolutely crushed his home run to the second deck in right-center. It came with two men aboard and was the final scoring of the evening. 

The Twins were unable to hit another homer in the 8th. It was a boring 1-2-3 inning. Gabriel Moya made his Major League debut in the 9th to complete the shutout. 

Everything seemed to happen in the same game. Since Brian Dozier hit his 29th home run a few games back, I've been waiting for his 30th to note his special place in Twins history. He's the fifth Twin to hit 30 home runs in consecutive seasons, joining Harmon Killebrew (of course), Bob Allison, Gary Gaetti and Justin Morneau. 

Dozier's homer was another leadoff homer, his 8th of the season and 27th of his career, which extends his team record. 

Niko Goodrum, also into the game later on, got his first Major League hit with an infield single in the 7th after starting 0-for-10 in his career. The crowd, no doubt on adrenaline from the powerful night at the plate, gave Goodrum a standing ovation as he walked back to first-base bag with a shy smile on his face.

They had the defense covered, too. Zack Granite made a spectacular leaping catch against the center field wall after he came in to replace Byron Buxton. It definitely took away an extra-base hit, if not a home run, from the Padres. 

It's nice to see Buxton isn't the only one the Twins can rely on for some of these highlight-reel catches. I expect many Gold Gloves in Buxton's future, and I think he has a strong case for one this year. Joe Mauer better join him with a Gold Glove at first base.

A complete turnaround the next night 
Predictably after a team completes a homer-fest the night before, the Twins struggled to get anything going at the plate Wednesday against the Padres. Luckily, the Padres didn't do anything either, until an 8th-inning home run tied the game at 1-1.

The Twins got their run when Rosario doubled in the second inning, then scored trying to take third and the wild pitch was thrown away into left field allowing him to score. The Twins had chances late in the game. Mauer singled to start the 6th, but another sacrifice bunt went to waste as he was stranded at third base went the inning ended.

They loaded the bases with not outs in the 7th with a couple singles, one off the pitcher, and a hit batter. In keeping pace with the odd game, Robbie Grossman hit into a 6-2-3 double play before Dozier went down swinging. It seemed like a a game the Twins would lose late after failing to capitalize on opportunities.

It went to extra innings, with the help of Matt Belisle's good work in the 9th and 1-2-3 frame in the 10th. Mauer had his third single of the night with one out in the bottom of the 10th. With two outs, Rosario stepped to the plate. He promptly ended the game by crushing a pitch to the right-field plaza, much like Escobar's homer the previous night.

Twins won 3-1 with their fourth walk-off victory of 2017, second on a home run (Mauer had the other) and first walk-off hit for Rosario. He was mobbed at home plate with water and a bubble-gum bucket.

Up next: 
For the weekend, the Twins welcome the Toronto Blue Jays to town. They're in last place in the AL East, but they seem to have the Twins' number in recent meetings. The Twins did take 2-out-of-3 from the Jays across the border late last month.

Going forward, the Twins still hold a lead for the second AL Wild Card spot, chasing the Yankees by a couple games and ahead of a few teams like the Angels and Royals. Quite the turnaround to be talking about the postseason a year after the Twins lost 103 ball games - a different kind of record.

I didn't get this draft posted earlier, and since then the Twins completed another walk-off victory Thursday night. This time, Byron Buxton hit a home run in the 10th inning to give the Twins a 3-2 win. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Let's hope this is just the beginning for a new chapter in women's tennis

It was not a three-set match. Nor was it a nail-biter. There was not much suspense in determining a winner. But the women's U.S. Open final still ended with a great moment between American foes and friends, No. 15 seed Madison Keys and unseeded Sloane Stephens.

The Saturday-afternoon match ended with a shot into the net from Keys. On the other end of the court, it wasn't a display of emphatic or vocal emotion. Stephens looked up toward her box seemingly in disbelief. She had just won her first grand slam in her first trip to a final, beating Keys 6-3, 6-0.

As she made her way to the net for the customary handshake with her opponent, the two friends embraced for a long few moments. Tears were shed. They had both fought nerves at the beginning of the match, each stepping onto the big stage in Flushing Meadows for the first time. Not to mention there's the pressure of it being the U.S. Open, the slam in their home country.

When I watched them hug at the net, I could feel the relief. The happiness for Stephens. The disappointment for Keys. And still, the accomplishment for both of them. I certainly hope this is the start of something great for them and the women's tennis landscape in general.

Expect the unexpected
It was a much better women's tournament than I expected. As I outlined in my preview, the women's draw had some key players like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka out. Plus, players seem to get upset a lot. That still happened; No. 2 seed Simona Halep lost in the first round to Maria Sharapova, the qualifier on the comeback tour.

I did make mention of Keys and Stephens in my previous post, also mentioning that it's anybody's guess as to the two women that would step up to compete for the title.
"A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far."
In the past, Keys and Stephens haven't always matched the pressure of the slams. They've bowed out in early rounds when they had a higher seed next to their names. This time though, they just kept winning.

The semifinal matches were already historic. Stephens beat Venus Williams; Keys beat CoCo Vandeweghe. The all-American affair marked the first time since 1981 that it was four American women left standing at the U.S. Open. I think I also saw that with Stephens' win, she's the first American female winner of a grand slam not named Williams, since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open in 2002.

Women's tennis scene has been the same for a while 
That isn't some insignificant statistic. Women's tennis for the past decade or more has been dominated by the Williams sisters. Sure, there were others in there. Capriati had her time. Then there was Lindsay Davenport - now the coach for Keys. But I keep waiting for someone else to step up and dominate; Venus had re-surged as a 37-year-old, and sister Serena, with a ton of titles, is 35 and just had a baby. They've had plenty of success, but in sports, that doesn't last forever.

I've seen some flashes in the pan over the years. The big one that comes to mind is Melanie Oudin, who made it to the quarterfinals of the Open in 2009 when she was just 17 years old. She beat Sharapova in her prime. But she wasn't heard from much again, going through some health issues before officially retiring from tennis last month.

So, I figured Stephens and Keys could fill the void. They've had their share of upsets though. I wasn't sure if they'd be here to stay, or if they'd be players you'd hear about getting bounced in the first round more often than not.

Of course, maybe the expectations were too high. After all, Keys is just 22 years old, Stephens is 24. Still plenty of time for these gals to have their spotlight in tennis. That's what makes this tournament so encouraging. In the semi against Venus, it took Stephens three sets in an odd match. Stephens cruised to a first-set win as Venus seemed out of sorts. Venus took the second set without any trouble. In the third set, Stephens dug deep and pulled off some spectacular shots to give her the edge for the 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory.

Focus on the bigger picture, not the final Xs and Os
Again, the final match wasn't the thriller everyone might have expected. Keys just had too many unforced errors while Stephens hardly made any. Keys seemed to find her game again down 4-0 in the second set, but she let three break chances slip away.

The specifics of the match really weren't the story though. There are the rankings, of course, with Keys ranked No. 16 in the world and Stephens 83 - apparently the lowest rankings for the two players in the title match at the U.S. Open since computerized rankings were a thing. But even more amazing is the fact that both players were injured earlier this year.

Oh, and they each had surgery. They both sat out the Australian Open in January. Stephens had surgery on her foot that month. She was ranked No. 957 in the world on Aug. 1. Keys dealt with a wrist injury and a pair of surgeries.

If you like rankings drama, consider that with the win Stephens will be ranked No. 17 come Monday. From 957 a littler more than a month ago to 17. Numbers aren't my strong suit, but I'd say that's pretty good.

Sure, there was no Serena in this tournament. No Azarenka. Both players with slam titles under their belts. I'm still encouraged by what I saw from Keys and Stephens throughout the tournament. I'd like to think it will give them both a confidence boost to keep improving their games so Stephens can add more slam titles to her list, and so Keys can be hungry to come back and win a slam, too.

I wouldn't mind seeing these two in a few more grand slam finals over the next few years.