Yesterday the Twins lost by a run; Friday they won by one. This afternoon, they lost by two. Kevin Slowey, uncharacteristically, gave up three home runs today and left after four innings, but he didn’t really lose by much.
Tiny margins can keep the pitching staff from feeling too oppressed, but it should also be noted that over the past three games the Twins have cranked out a total of 5 runs.
Diagnosing the problem is easy, as it always is in sports. Too many men left on base! All we have to do is score more runs, and the raw material is sitting right there to be used.
In sports, the spectator can always see exactly what’s wrong. How can you not? Sports failures are blazingly obvious, since they involve not doing the especially difficult thing that the sport is about. Just throw strikes. See the ball, hit the ball. Make that diving catch!
Over this series in Seattle, the Twins left perhaps 20 men on base while scoring those five delicate little runs. Four times today alone we had the leadoff man on base. We ended numerous innings with men on and two out. A difficult hitting situation to be sure, but it’s also unusual to fail to cash in quite this often.
So I’ll go a step further in diagnosing the problem. The Twins, all season, have had a bit of a problem getting the cylinders of the entire lineup to fire.
In April, almost all the production came from lefties Denard Span, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel, with some righty help from Joe Crede. Mauer, you’ll recall, missed the month.
There was a sharp dropoff from the lower part of the batting order in righthanders Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and Carlos Gomez.
In May, Mauer returned and Cuddyer seemed to come to life as well. For a few games we had the whole crew rowing together, but it became clear that certain hitters were going to have dismal seasons: Punto, Gomez, Tolbert, and Casilla looked semi-hopeless. However, the cardinal rule of baseball is that hope is always possible.
In this Seattle series, we’ve begun the month of June with some extra life in the lower half of the order. Casilla was demoted for a while and returned with his skills and focus improved; he’s been hitting a bit. Tolbert has been situationally sharp, coaxing walks when he can. Brendan Harris now has a 12-game hitting streak going.
Cuddyer has just come off the DL with a still-inflamed right index finger, while Punto remains sidelined, so we’ll see about the two of them. Young and Gomez remain question marks, but Gomez is so valuable as a defensive replacement in center field and a pinch runner that he will have a role.
So the bright side is that there’s been a little improvement in the bottom of the batting order. Unfortunately, for the last three games we’ve seen problems, for the first time all season, with the top half.
Joe Mauer has been merely mortal for about two weeks now. He’s still toting an average over .400 thanks to his hot start, but the bonus shower of home run power has disappeared.
I’m not even sure I want to wish for it back, because it was such a different aspect of his game that I worry he would lose his knack for contact. In any case, it’s been two full weeks since Mauer had his Superman cape on to save the game.
Morneau is perhaps marshalling his strength for the long season. In any case, he’s not depositing dingers or rocketing RBIs with the same consistency. And Span had a miserable day yesterday, though it was the first bad day I can remember for him all season.
In this series, Kubel hit two lofty balls that wilted in the Seattle atmosphere, falling short of breaking open the game. His bat has remained tepid to hot, but it must be noted that he hasn’t approached the power display of the early season.
Can we draw any conclusions? Sports fans, including me, are fabled for our short attention spans. It was only last Thursday that we clobbered the Indians, scoring over 10 runs if memory serves.
After three games in Seattle, I’m supposed to see a pattern? It might be the much simpler pattern that arises from time to time, namely: it’s tough to score runs against major league pitchers.
If there is a more profound pattern here, it’s probably that it’s difficult to get the entire batting order to hit in any kind of productive flow. Last season, the Twins almost patented success at precisely that, collecting small but timely hits from top to bottom of the order.
I think it was Ozzie Guillen who labeled the lightweight, persistent Twins hitters, like Nick Punto, piranhas. They just kept snapping and biting.
It’s probably harder to make that come true than to buy Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Johnny Damon and put them on the same team. For the Twins in 2008, it happened over an entire season, but it hasn’t really occurred in 2009.
The only change in the lineup is adding Joe Crede to eliminate the constant shuffle at third base, and having Cuddyer available every day. Where did our fierce, nibbling fish go?
They didn’t go away, they just paused to show us how very difficult it is to hand the hitting baton smoothly through the lineup. We’re hitting the way most teams do now, with one or two guys having a hot day and everyone else cooling off. Pooling hitting powers is rare; magnificent, but rare.
Yet the Twins have done it from time to time already. They haven’t exasperated their opponents with a consistent, coherent attack, but they have had their hitting barrages.
Recent high-scoring games against the White Sox and Indians showed one version of it; nail-biting wins against other clubs (almost all of them in the friendly confines of the Dome) portray the other style.
We left way too many men on base this weekend. Just as every team does form time to time, because getting the hits to flow is expecting nature to plant trees in a row instead of the chaos of the forest.
I don’t apologize for the Twins here, I simply recognize a harsh baseball truth. For example, the Mariners were equally guilty—they scored seven runs all weekend and marooned just as many men.
The problem is easy to diagnose—score more runs! The solution lies in the delicate, strange region where ability and desire mesh, but so briefly the confluence is always at risk.