Minnesota Twins: The Good, the Par and the Ugly from the Series in New York
While the New York Yankees surprised no one by taking a three-game series from the Minnesota Twins in their trip to the Empire State, there are certain observations that should instill both optimism and pessimism for the Twins as the season trudges through its first weeks.
Some aspects of the roster are improving on their own or will right themselves (the good), some could use a couple degrees of augmentation (the par), and a few glaring weaknesses probably need to be addressed immediately (the ugly).
The Good: Tuesday's 10-Inning Victory
Games played in April are never as important as games played in October, but the 5-4 victory Tuesday night proves they are never meaningless.
While CC Sabathia absolutely dominated the Twins on Tuesday, the New York bullpen faltered- and this is not a bullpen that's lacking talent (Rafael Soriano, Mariano Rivera, Dave Robertson and Joba Chamberlain range from above average to sometimes invincible). And despite facing one of the premier setup men in the game (Soriano), Minnesota remained patient, bleeding out three walks and a single before Delmon Young added a bloop double that cleared the bases and tied the game. Then in the 10th, a walk to Denard Span, followed by back-to-back singles by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Joe Mauer put the Twins ahead and Joe Nathan closed out the bottom half of the frame to finish off the astonishing victory.
The fact that Minnesota launched one of its patented, never-say-die comebacks against a Yankees team that's consistently had their number—especially in the Bronx—should be the standout memento that Minnesota takes away from the series.
The Good: The Bullpen Pleasantly Surprises
The Twins bullpen was very impressive in the series, allowing no runs, no walks and only three hits over a total of 8 IP. What was thought to be a conspicuous weakness for Minnesota this season shut the Yankees down with what seemed like minimal effort—case and point, Matt Capps retired the New York No. 2 through No. 7 hitters on just 16 pitches Tuesday night.
While Joe Nathan doesn't have his velocity back quite yet and guys like Dusty Hughes, Jose Mijares and Jeff Manship aren't what one would call "established," a strong showing against a perennial World Series contender should quell some anxieties as well as inspire confidence for an unproven 'pen.
The Good: Patience Takes Precedence
During the first four games of the season, Twins batters were letting the opposing pitchers off easy—an average of 124 pitches per game. It seemed as though Twins' hitters were anxious to swing at any semi-decent pitch that came their way, and the results (1-3 record) spoke for themselves.
But in the second game of the series, the lineup seemed to get back to its old ways—waiting for good pitches and hitting for high OBPs. CC Sabathia may have dominated the game, but the Twins made him throw over 100 pitches in order to get there. From there, Minnesota hitters forced Yankee relievers into a total of 81 pitches over three innings and drawing four walks.
Minnesota built on that in the third game of the series as well, constantly getting ahead in the count and thus allowing themselves better opportunities at better pitches. The Twins need to continue maintaining their composure at the plate in order to give themselves better scoring prospects.
The Par: The Offense
Justin Morneau and Jim Thome are starting to hit for extra bases after somewhat of a sluggish start, Jason Kubel has gone 7 for 21 thus far—including 2 for 3 against Mariano Rivera—and no one believes that Joe Mauer won't add about a hundred points to his meager .222 average by the season's close.
There were times in the third game where it seemed Thome and Morneau—especially Morneau—were swinging wildly at pitches they probably should've left alone, but that could be chalked up to too much desire to make a play during bad circumstances.
Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young are a different story. Aside from Young's bloop double in the 5-4 victory, the duo has done next to nothing, going a combined 5 for 41 with one walk (.122 AVG, .143 OBP, .146 SLG). While Delmon Young gets a bit more of a pass on this than Cuddyer—solid defense, including a run-saving catch on Monday and the aforementioned three-run double on Tuesday—these two have to begin producing if the Twins are going to have any shot at competing this year. Cuddyer especially, as he apparently hasn't gotten the memo that Kubel did that he's in a contract year. If Nick Punto taught us anything, it's that the Minnesota front office has no issues with nonchalantly dismissing "heart and soul" players if they're not meeting expectations.
The Par: The Rotation
The Tigers pitching staff—including their No. 1, 2, and 3 starters—gave up a total of 23 runs over three games to the Yankees—the Twins allowed about half of that, all of them coming off of the starters—the Nos. 2, 4, and 5. Each starter allowed 4 ER apiece, and while that's not something worthy of bragging rights, there were positives that could be taken from each performance.
Brian Duensing's Numbers from Tuesday:
First three batters vs. Duensing: 2 H, 1 BB, 1 HR, 3 ER.
The next 25: 1 ER, 4 H, 1 BB, 7 SO.
What was most impressive is that after Andruw Jones' home run in the second, Duensing never looked like he ever lost control of the game from that point on. He would allow a baserunner every now and then, but he calmly collected himself and moved on through the order.
Aside from the dreadful 34-pitch 4th inning, Francisco Liriano's effort wasn't terrible. His fastball isn't quite back to its normal speed, but his slider and change-up are still as deadly as ever—he went right after Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez, striking out all three at one time or another.
Baker's performance wasn't nearly as clean- he allowed only four runs, but that total could've gotten quite a bit higher if not for stellar defense and good luck. Jeter, Teixeira and Cano to name a few had very sharply hit balls that veered foul at the last moment, preventing extra base hits. And of course, Delmon Young's sliding catch in the sixth saved two runs.
All in all, the performances weren't worthy of anything other than the title of mediocre. But as they were pitched by the No. 2, 4, and 5 pitchers in the rotation, there's no regret in handing out a passing grade.
The Par: A Lost Series
Minnesota can be forgiven to a certain extent for losing the series to the Yankees—New York is seemingly always a contender for the pennant, their payroll is approximately double of the Twins, the series was in the Bronx, the two games they lost were only by one run apiece, etc.
None of this changes the fact that the Twins lost two of three.
But while it is technically a statistical negative, most Twins fans will take solace in knowing their team wasn't swept again by the dreaded Yankee overlords.
The Ugly: Nishioka Goes Down
The ramifications of a perfectly clean slide are fairly massive in this situation.
First off, the Twins haven't declared a timetable for Nish's return, but leg fractures usually sideline athletes for an average of four to six weeks—and given that all reports seem to indicate this is a fairly bad fracture, you can expect more towards the latter if not longer. As the Twins have enough injury-prone players, this is essentially the last thing they needed.
Enter Luke Hughes. The Australian prospect will likely be penciled into the starting lineup immediately, as Matt Tolbert has far more flexibility in where he can be placed around the diamond. Hughes, on the other hand, has very minimal experience at shortstop. Keeping Tolbert available in case Casilla needs a day off should prove useful. While Nishioka going down is undoubtedly a loss, the team can take comfort in the addition of Hughes' power to their already potent lineup. But his defense isn't proven, and he'll likely be towards the bottom of the lineup due to low average.
The truly ridiculous aspect of this is the likely prospect of seeing Alexi Casilla hitting second in the batting order. With Span beginning the season with a reemergence, this sounds like a recipe for double plays.
The Ugly: Danny Valencia's Everything
Like most of the Twins, Valencia hasn't started hitting yet Unlike most of the Twins, he's proving to be a defensive liability. Valencia already has two errors to his name and likely could have two or three more if not for decent fielding by Morneau and favorable calls by the scorekeeper. Great plays were counteracted by errant throws and that's when he could get the ball out of his glove.
Another positive of Luke Hughes being called up is his ability to take over at third if needed, as he has garnered quite a bit of playing time at the hot corner. However, if he has to take over a massive amount of the playing time due to Valencia's uninspired performances, this could be a long season.
The Ugly: Where's the Speed?
Over the offseason, the Twins made a big stink about getting faster and adding more base-stealers to the lineup. They were relying heavily on a Span resurgence, Alexi becoming an everyday player, and Nishioka to pilfer at least 30 bags over the course of the year.
Six games into the season, the Twins have two stolen bases, tied for 25th in the majors. Nishioka is going to be out for a while, so that option is temporarily off the table, but Span, Casilla and Tolbert remain—all have the ability to heist some bases.
But as many times as Span has been on base this season, he hasn't gotten so much as one green light to go thus far. Whether Ron Gardenhire is merely playing conservatively or not trusting his players, someone might want to tell him that speed doesn't do a team much good if they're not going to run.
The Twins have to come away from this series with a certain degree of optimism. While they lost the series, they weren't swept. While the bats haven't come around quite yet, there's signs of life emanating from the key players like Mauer, Morneau, and Thome. The starting rotation each allowed 12 ER against the Yankees, but Detroit's allowed 17. And although Nishioka went down in with a leg fracture, the Twins have contingencies to get them through his recovery.
Overall, the Twins have good reason to take more positive away from this series than negative as they travel back to Target Field to take on the Oakland Athletics.