Friday, October 08, 2004

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

We have come to it at last. Game 3. The “swing” game. Since baseball expanded it’s postseason to three rounds in 1995, 36 first-round Division Series have been played. Of those 36 series, 14 saw the teams split the first two games. However, only three times of the 14 (21%) has a team lost Game 3 yet come back to take Games 4 and 5 and win the series. One of those times, we all remember, was the 2002 ALDS matchup between the Twins and Athletics.

So while tonight’s game is not a do-or-die situation for the Twins, it’s about as close as it gets. That’s a ton of pressure for a 25 year-old with absolutely no postseason experience. Let’s hope Carlos “The Jackal” is up to the task.

Over the past 24 hours, I have recovered somewhat from yesterday’s stunning loss, enough to finally think clearly about the future ahead. There is no doubt that tonight’s game is extremely important for both teams. If the Twins lose, they will be hard pressed to win twice (once at The Stadium), especially given the way Brad Radke pitched Wednesday. If the Yankees lose, they will be in the most unenviable of positions: they must beat Johan Santana on the road in an elimination game. Both teams realize the importance of tonight’s contest, and both will do whatever it takes to win.

The Pitching Matchup
In addition to the intrigue created by the series’ first two games, tonight’s battle will also feature the most interesting pitching matchups of the series. Carlos Silva (14-8, 4.21 ERA in 33 starts) will go up against “Next Great Champ” hopeful Kevin Brown (10-6, 4.09 ERA in 22 starts).

Brown, who has thrown only 5 2/3 innings over the past five weeks since losing that fight with a locker room wall, is the wild card in this game. It is possible that he’ll be effective enough to give the Yankees a fighting chance. The Twins are a relatively undisciplined offensive team, and if Brown’s sinker is on, the Twins will probably be unable to lay off. Notice, however, the added emphasis placed on the word “if”. Even before his scatter-brained injury, Kevin Brown was not the Kevin Brown of old. He started only two games in June and none in July. In August, he was mediocre, posting a 4.05 ERA while allowing 11 walks and 33 hits in 33 1/3 innings. And who could forget his fiasco against the Red Sox a couple weeks ago? The Twins can get to Kevin Brown, and if they can knock him out early, things will to look even better. With Tanyon Sturtze likely unavailable, tonight’s Yankee long reliever is none other than… Esteban Loaiza. Let the feeding frenzy begin.

Of course, none of this will matter if Silva cannot be even mildly effective against the New York All-Stars. The Twins aren’t going to outslug the Yankees anytime soon, so Silva is going to have to expand upon his September success and keep the Bombers at least somewhat in check. There can be no five-inning, seven earned run performances this time out. But like I said the other day, I think there is a pretty good chance that Carlos will go out there and do his job tonight. Call it a hunch, but I’ve got a good feeling about this one. If Silva can go five or six innings and allow three runs or less, there’s a good chance the Twins might just steal this one.

Managerial Mishaps
Wednesday’s game was not Ron Gardenhire’s finest moment, and I think (and hope) that he would be the first to admit it. He obviously screwed up big time by leaving Nathan out there for the 12th, but there were at least two other mistakes that were just as costly.

1. Not pinch-hitting Lew Ford for Jason Kubel in the 8th with men on second and third with one out.
This was by far the biggest at-bat of the game, yet Gardenhire chose to stick with the 22 year-old rookie, he of the 70 major league plate appearances. To make matters worse, Kubel had only faced Rivera twice in his short major league career (he was 0-1 with a walk). Also, everyone knows that a lefthanded hitter has absolutely no advantage against Rivera’s cutter, so that excuse isn’t valid either. Worried about not having an emergency outfielder? What about Michael Cuddyer? There was simply no good reason for Gardy to leave his leading hitter on the bench in that situation, and the non-decision possibly cost the Twins the game.

2. There is no one ready in the Twins bullpen when Nathan walks Miguel Cairo in the 12th inning.
This is just as inexcusable as #1. It’s possible to see some semblance of logic in Gardy’s decision to trot Nathan out there for the 12th (I’m not saying I actually saw any logic there; I’m just saying that it’s possible). But there is no excuse for not having Jesse Crain warmed up and ready to face Jeter and/or A-Rod. Gardy, I know it’s a pressure situation and you want to have “your guys” out there, but the kid has proven himself already this year! He’s murder against righties (.158 BAA) and he’s very capable of getting the big strikeout. I simply can’t believe he wasn’t even warming up at the start of the inning.

I know Gardenhire made a few other mistakes throughout the course of the game, but these were two that really stuck out in my mind. Unfortunately, it seems he hasn’t learned his lesson quite yet: there’s a report from mlb.com indicating Gardenhire might start utilityman Augie Ojeda over Cuddyer at second base tonight. I’m hoping it’s just a silly rumor, but this sounds like something Gardy might do. How could you possibly justify benching arguably your hottest hitter in a near must-win game? Who cares if Augie knocks down one or two more balls that second base? Ojeda’s an 0-4 waiting to happen, and we’ve already got one of those (see Blanco, Henry). Cuddyer has performed admirably at second thus far this series, and he’ll be just fine again, even with the grounder-inducing Silva on the hill.

Final Thoughts
And now, back to the matter at hand. I’m going to go out on a limb here and forecast a Twins win tonight. I said I was skeptical yesterday, but I changed my tune a bit when I heard that Brown would be the Yankees’ starter-by-default. If Silva doesn’t implode, I think the Twins will be able to manufacture a few runs off Brown and get into the Yankee bullpen (the weak part of their bullpen, that is). I’m predicting a 7-4 Twins victory

If in fact the Twins can rebound tonight and take Game 3, they should be in great position Saturday afternoon. Johan Santana will almost assuredly start, and he hasn’t had two consecutive below-average starts (below average for him, that is) in months. But that won’t mean a thing if the Jackal doesn’t have that swing tonight.

That’s all for today. We usually don’t post on weekends, but John will be in attendance at tonight’s game and says he’ll have a recap up for Saturday morning. Be sure and stop by then. Have a good one.

Stunned

One bounce.
One choice.
One swing.

Baseball is a game of turning points, and last night the Twins made one too many turns. Simply put, yesterday’s 7-6 loss was one of the most bone-crushing, strength-sapping, emotionally draining games in franchise history. It was the worst nightmare of any Twins fan come to life. I could probably go on forever, but quite honestly, I don’t feel up to it. Instead, I’m going to quickly touch on a couple of relevant topics pertaining to last night’s game.

As utterly disappointing as the ending was, you have to admit that it was one of the most exciting games this team has played in years. Down by two runs to the Yankees with Mariano Rivera in the game? You might as well phone it in; that’s how good he usually is. But Corey Koskie delivered with an ├╝ber-clutch RBI double to conclude what was the team’s best at-bat this season, and it looked like the Twins might steal one in regulation. That hope was dashed in one moment: the bounce. If the Twins are playing in any other stadium in the major leagues, Koskie’s double rattles around in the corner, Rivas scores easily from first and the Twins take a 5-4 lead. Instead, it bounced into the stands, setting up a predictable Jason Kubel strikeout. Guzy couldn’t come through either and the Twins had to be content with a tie.

Fast forward to the 12th inning. Torii Hunter (who would have been the game’s hero had the outcome been different) has put the Twins ahead by a run, and Ron Gardenhire has a choice to make. Does he leave in his closer for an unprecedented third consecutive inning, simply because he’s the closer and it’s a save situation? Or does he go to a fresh Jesse Crain out of the bullpen? Hindsight is 20/20, so we all know what the right choice would have been, but at the time it wasn’t quite as obvious. Had Nathan been able to get the job done, Gardy would look like a genius today, but it didn’t happen. If the Yankees win this series we’ll undoubtedly hear the Grady Little comparisons (in fact we’re already hearing them now), but I think that is unfair. I disagree with Joe Morgan (the TV commentator last night) about a great many things, but he hit the nail on the head: Gardy took a chance and it backfired on him, simple as that. Ever hear the old saying “you play with fire, you get burned”? Gardy’s getting treated for some major third degree burns about now.

As much as it pains me to admit, the Yankees deserve a little credit as well. They knew Nathan was gassed, and they made him throw strikes. And when that strike finally came, A-Rod hammered it. In just about any other ballpark that’s a three-run homer, so it was no cheap double. It seems Rodriguez has finally earned the respect of the Yankee faithful.

We don’t yet know the ramifications of this game. Can the Twins bounce back in Game 3? I’m skeptical. I know these guys are big leaguers, but there are simply so many factors working against them. The Yankees have their swagger back, while the Twins are on their heels. Plus, the Yanks get to face Carlos Silva, who will need to pitch out of his mind to avoid a shelling on Friday. Going back to the Dome with a split seemed acceptable before the series began, but now I’m not so sure. A lot of things will have to go right for the Twins to win this series, and it’s going to be an uphill battle. Everything rests on the shoulders of Silva right now. Let’s hope he’s up to it.

Sorry about the truncated length of today’s post. When you follow a team so closely for so long, you can’t help but invest your emotions in that team. When something like yesterday happens, it’s tough to take.

The Twins are off today, so be sure and check this space again tomorrow as we’ll have an in-depth look at Game 3. In the meantime, stay strong and hope for the best.

-Ryan Maus
twinsfan21@msn.com