Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Homers and pitching the name of this World Series

Some people have compared this year's World Series to the 1991 seven-game classic between the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. It's hard for me to make a true comparison, since I don't recall the '91 Series, but the Minnesotan in me says that is still better than this contest between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers. It's all about loyalty.

Anyway, this year's series has just about everything - including a Game 7 on tap for Nov. 1. It doesn't get much better in sports than a winner-take-all game 7. The Dodgers won Game 6 at home by a 3-1 margin Tuesday night. Two teams that won 104 (Dodgers) and 101 (Astros) games during the regular season will play for one shot at the championship.

I'd like to go through and write about all the clutch home runs in this series, but that seems impossible. There have been a record number of homers hit in this postseason, with one game to go.

Take Game 5 the other night in Houston in a 2-2 tied series. It ended in 10 innings and five hours, 17 minutes after the first pitch. The Dodgers jumped out to an early 4-0 lead off Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, and it looked like the pitcher's duel with Clayton Kershaw wasn't meant to be.

Except that was far from the whole story of the game. The Astros tied the game 4-4 with a three-run homer from Yuli Gurriel in the fourth. Then, Cody Bellinger put the Dodgers back in front with a three-run homer in the next half inning. 7-4 Dodgers lead. Jose Altuve answered back in the bottom of that inning - the fifth - with a three-run homer of his own. 7-7 game.

George Springer made a poor decision in center field in the seventh, diving for a ball that should have been a straight-up single. Instead, the ball got by him allowing the go-ahead run to score and the hitter to end up at third base. So naturally in a game like this, Springer came up the next inning and hit a home run to tie the game on the very first pitch he saw. 8-8 game.

To keep it short here, Alex Bregman hit a walk-off single. The final score was 13-12 in 10 innings, with the Astros winning. Eleven total runs were scored from the seventh inning on.

This game, and the series, must be tough to watch for fans of either team. Fingernails are probably bitten off by now. But for the average baseball fan like me, this series has been so fun to watch. With Game 5, I was all in - for most of the night. Once the game hit the later innings and double-digit runs, I grew weary of the constant run scoring and therefore lack of pitching.

Pitching is a different animal in the postseason
The completely different way pitching is managed in the postseason is catching up with baseball. During the 162-game season, the rotation is typically five starters with plenty of rest in between. The bullpen is managed in a way to give guys rest when they need, like not pitching in four straight games, for example. Closers pitch the ninth inning and look to get three outs; this also varies slightly with extra innings and the occasional four- or five-out saves.

That seems to go out the window in the postseason. Staff aces pitch on three days rest. Other starters come out of the bullpen in the mid-to-late innings to help out. Six-out saves are routine for closers.

I can see the benefits here. Managers want their best pitchers in key situations to get outs. That makes sense. But at the same time, they're asking guys to do more than they have all season, so it shouldn't be shocking when home runs are given up, saves are blown and pitchers given in to the pressure.

It's happened with Ken Giles for Houston, who is throwing batting practice. Kenley Jansen for the Dodgers is a dominant closer, but even he's faltered this postseason.

However the pitching is managed, it hasn't necessarily taken away from some great baseball throughout this postseason.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

It was all about that 1st inning in Wild Card loss for the Twins

"The Twins just can't beat the Yankees" is a tired narrative. Sure, it might be correct considering the Twins are 2-13 against the New York Yankees in recent postseason memory. I just think to leave it at that doesn't tell the whole story of the 8-4 Twins loss in the AL Wild Card game Tuesday night.

It's one ball game, and the Yankees were the better team, so they won. Pretty hot take right there, I know. But this wasn't like the Twins v. Yankees games of old where it ended with a late-inning homer or extra-inning heroics from the Pinstripes. Even if it's still a loss.

The analysis of why the Twins lost can go many directions. I think it comes down to the first inning (yes, which lasted 45 minutes). The big concern for the Twins coming in (OK, at least for their fans) was hoping the offense could do something, especially early, against the Yankees pitching which started with their ace Luis Severino and includes a dominant bullpen.

Twins needed early scoring. They got it. 
I felt confident all the way that the Twins could make some noise with their bats. After all, they got to Severino a couple weeks ago for three early runs. Never mind that the Twins went on to lose that game 11-3. The Twins did what they needed to with the bats right away Tuesday night. Brian Dozier hit another leadoff home run, his 35th of the season and apparently the first postseason leadoff homer in Twins history. Dozier's energetic trip around the bases immediately sent a burst of energy through the dugout and undoubtedly fans all over Twins territory.

Eddie Rosario followed up with a two-run homer to make it a quick 3-0 lead. That's a pair of homers for two guys in their first career postseason plate appearances.

Eduardo Escobar singled and Max Kepler doubled to put runners at second and third with just one out in the inning. Advantage, Twins. That's when Yankees manager Joe Girardi lifted his ace and turned to his solid bunch of arms in the bullpen. Girardi was highly praised for this move after the game, though I thought it was a little over hyped. I understand why this was an unconventional move, but it's also a winner-take-all game, so the rulebook gets a bit skewed here.

Byron Buxton and Jason Castro each struckout to end the inning and leave two valuable runs in scoring position. It felt very much like a wasted opportunity, but it still wasn't so bad because the Twins still had that 3-0 lead.

A tale of two half innings
Then Ervin Santana came to the mound in the bottom of the inning. He walked leadoff batter Brett Gardner, and that unfortunately set the tone for the rest of the script. Rookie superstar Aaron Judge singled putting two runners on for Didi Gregorius. With a full count, a pitch from Erv got too much of the plate. The Derek Jeter replacement didn't miss, sending the ball to the right-field seats to tie the game with one swing. 3-3.

It seemed like a backbreaker at the time, and even morseo after the game. The Twins batters did everything right to get an early lead, and it was erased just like that in the bottom of the inning.

Santana, a pitcher who started the season with a near non-existent ERA and five complete games on the year, didn't have his best stuff. He last two innings, giving up a solo homer to pesky Gardner for a 4-3 Yankees lead in the 2nd. The Twins turned to Jose Berrios who went three innings and struckout four. He pitched alright considering the stage and situation. Unfortunately, he was tagged with the loss after a Judge two-run homer was the ultimate dagger for a 7-4 lead. The final run scored on a bases-loaded walk off the arm of Alan Busenitz.

An uphill climb versus the 'pen
The Twins couldn't solve the Yankees bullpen, which wasn't a huge surprise considering the success those arms had in September. As each inning passed, the task was tougher and tougher for the Twins to surge to a comeback.

Fans were treated to a Buxton highlight catch though, as he jumped up to snag a flyball against the center field wall. Unfortunately, he came out of the game a couple innings later with a back injury. There's always a moment of breath-holding when Buxton dives, leaps and crashes for his catches. They're great to see, but it's also potential for injury. Just be careful, Buck!

Buxton's replacement was Zack Granite, a native of Staten Island. His big moment of the game was forgettable. He hit a grounder and ran through - and over - the first-base bag. The fielder dropped the ball at the base, so Granite was alertly tagged out as he tried to scamper back to first base. Yes, this was not a proud moment. Though I would not agree that this was a major reason for the outcome of the game.

Tough ending to a great year 
It was disappointing that the Twins weren't able to move on to face the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. It was disappointing to see this team lose to the Yankees in the postseason, yet again. It was also disappointing because so many didn't seem to even give the Twins a chance at all.

Still. You have to enjoy and applaud the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. They are the most improved Twins team in history, going from 59-103 to 85-77 for a 26-win improvement. It can't be said enough: They're the first team in MLB history to make the postseason a year after losing 100 games.

The Twins hit more than 200 homers this season, good enough for the third-best in Twins history. Guys like Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Dozier, Rosario and Escobar all had great seasons at the plate. Joe Mauer finished with a batting average over .300 and is a solid candidate for a Gold Glove at first base. Guys like Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger and Busentiz out of the 'pen turned into solid options for manager Paul Molitor.

There were walk-off wins, games with six and seven Twins homers, grand slams and overall just a winning atmosphere for a team that just wouldn't die. It was a great run in 2017. Remember that.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A trip down memory lane: Twins v. Yankees

The old saying in sports never gets old for me: That's why they play the games.

It's used in the context of upsets and underdogs. Just because a team is Goliath when it comes to odds, stats and analytics, doesn't mean Goliath will win. They play the game to find out.

I bring this up in reference to the AL Wild Card game set for Tuesday night in the Bronx between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. Just based on a few random buzzings I've heard about this game, there's an attitude out there that suggests they shouldn't even play. I mean, the Yankees are just going to the American League Division Series. The Wild Card game is just a formality. (I write that with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Please re-read accordingly.)

The numbers and the history between these two teams in the postseason, and regular season as well, point toward an obvious David and Goliath situation. Or a curse, if you believe in that kind of thing. Or, as Minnesotans like to harp on, there's the standby: "Minnesota sports. We can't have nice things."

Looking at the past
Ok, so let's look at some of the history. The Twins were an AL Central powerhouse in the 2000s with six division titles but just one postseason series win. They've been swept out of their last three ALDS appearances (2006, 2009, 2010). The Twins are 2-15 in the postseason since 2003, 2-12 against the Yankees (Oakland swept the Twins 3-0 in 2006.). The Twins last postseason victory came in game 1 of the 2004 ALDS to the Yankees - 13 years ago, so maybe that's lucky. Their other postseason victory was also game 1, in 2003.

The Twins beat the A's in 2002 in five games before losing in the AL Championship Series to the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Angels (or were they just Anaheim back then?). It was a great showing for a team that would win back-to-back-to-back division titles. But the success really stopped there.

The playoff format was slightly different, so the Twins kept facing the Yankees because Boston was also in the postseason. I believe the rule was the wild card winner could not face their division winner in that first round. The Twins didn't end up with homefield advantage much either (2006, 2010).

Good starts turn into late losses
In 2003, the Twins beat the Yankees 3-1 to take a 1-0 series lead. They couldn't get the offense going and were outscored 16-6 in the 3-1 series loss. The next year brought some late/extra inning heartbreak. Johan Santana pitched seven innings for a 2-0 Twins shutout in New York in game 1, with Shannon Stewart hitting an RBI single and Jacque Jones hitting a home run.

The Twins had leads in the series. Justin Morneau and Corey Koskie tied game 2 in the 8th with RBI knocks. Torii Hunter homered in the 12th inning as fans got excited about heading to the Metrodome up 2-0 in the best-of-five series. Instead, Alex Rodriguez doubled in the bottom of the inning off Joe Nathan to tie the game, then Hideki Matsui provided the game-winning sac fly. The Twins lost 7-6 in 12 innings, making a 1-1 series feel like a deficit.

In game 4, the Twins were up 5-1 through seven innings before the Yankees tied it with a three-run homer from Ruben Sierra in the 8th. The winning run scored on a wild pitch from Kyle Lohse in the 11th inning for a 6-5 loss and another series loss to the pinstripes.

More heartbreak in the later years, too 
I've written about 2006 before and how heartbreaking that was for fans. Used to the routine, the two teams met up again in 2009. It was another sweep, with game 2 being the big disappointment. The Twins had a 3-1 lead in the 9th after RBI singles from Nick Punto and Denard Span in the 8th. But Nathan couldn't close it out, giving up a single to Mark Teixeria and homer to ARod to tie the game. The Twins lost in 11 innings, 4-3, with a walk-off homer from Teixeria.

The last time the Twins were in the postseason was 2010. They hosted the Yankees this time, so everyone hoped it would be a different outcome. Unfortunately it left a bigger feeling of emptiness with another 3-and-out. The Twins were outscored 17-7 and couldn't solve legendary closer Mariano Rivera as he notched two saves. Phil Hughes (that's right) earned the win in game 3 for the Yankees.

Familiar foes, new setting
So now here we are. The Twins and Yankees meet again. The Twins went 2-4 v. the Yankees during the 2017 regular season, including two wins at home and then getting swept in New York a couple weeks ago. Yes, rookie superstar Aaron Judge homered off Twins pitching. It will be Twins ace and veteran pitcher Ervin Santana, a 16-game winner, versus the Yankees ace Luis Severino. The Twins got to him early on in New York, before the Yankees won that game 11-3.

Santana started out in perhaps the best way possible this season, hardly allowing runs and recording more complete games than the rest of baseball. His ERA came back to earth a bit the rest of the year, but his veteran presence on the mound makes him the go-to guy. Jose Berrios is also available out of the bullpen; he got the victory in relief the other night against Detroit as the Twins skipped his start in the rotation.

Miguel Sano returned to the team over the weekend, getting some at-bats after missing more than a month with a shin injury. Put a bat in his hand, and he's still a threat to knock one out of the park. Guys like Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton (with his defense, especially), Jorge Polanco and Brian Dozier have all stepped up in the second half to provide an offensive spark.

This isn't the same team
The encouraging thing about this Wild Card game is it's just one game, and this is a completely new Twins team. The Twins don't have to win a series against the big, bad pinstripes; they just need one win. Anything can happen in one game, so that's reason enough to not count the Twins out.

Again, this Twins team is not the same one that got knocked around in the last decade. Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins are the only two players still on the roster from the 2010 squad. Paul Molitor is the new manager. One would think that should help with the mental side of things when it comes to this matchup, although maybe that's really more in the heads of fans at this point.

This 2017 Twins team has already accomplished something no other team in baseball has ever done: Make the postseason a year after losing 100 games. This season, the Twins have never fallen off the cliff, even during tough stretches. They grabbed one of two AL Wild Card slots and celebrated their postseason berth after such an improbable feat.

To me, it isn't a lock to choose one team or the other to win this game. You can analyze it all you want, but just because there's all this bad history going against the Twins doesn't mean it will continue. It's a new decade, a new group of guys in the clubhouse.

We'll just have to watch them play the game.