Mauer, Willingham, Plouffe Lead Surging Twins

John Gilbert

Sweden, in yellow, battled USA to a scoreless tie in the U-15 Boys final of the Sister City Soccer Cup at Stebner Field, but USA won the title 3-2 on shootouts.  -John Gilbert
Sweden, in yellow, battled USA to a scoreless tie in the U-15 Boys final of the Sister City Soccer Cup at Stebner Field, but USA won the title 3-2 on shootouts. -John Gilbert

 

It just doesn’t matter whether the Minnesota Twins scratch and claw their way to .500, or even into contention this season, but rarely have the Twins been as interesting to watch as this season.

As Major League baseball sails into next week’s All-Star break, the Twins have been captivating for baseball fans willing to overlook the frustration of the first six weeks and enjoy the sheer entertainment value the team is offering.

We have catcher-first baseman-designated hitter Joe Mauer headed off to the All-Star game, and he is sort of symptomatic of the whole Twins season. Off to his worst first month as a Major Leaguer, Mauer has been flat amazing as he’s climbed to third in the American League batting race. And maybe higher, by the time you read this. Justin Morneau, his M&M twin until both were plagued with injuries last season, is starting to hit, and I anticipate a really strong second half for him.

When both of them were slow starting, the Twins were too, as their plunge to the bottom of the standings rotated among failures to hit, score, play defense, and pitch, and usually a combination of at least two of the above.

Talk radio bozos in the Twin Cities -- the same ones who have been hard on Joe Mauer’s case last year and early this season -- were actually suggesting the Twins would have to dismiss manager Ron Gardenhire. Poor Gardy was the victim, rather than the problem, in the first six weeks. It’s tough to come out of Spring Training fired up for a strong season and have everything sputter for over a month.

On the other hand, the current rise of the Twins to respectability has ridden some odd inspirational forces. First off, Scott Diamond was banished to the minors early in training camp, but since being called up in desperation a month ago, Diamond has been the Twins best pitcher. True, Francisco Liriano has come up with a few gems in recent starts too, but he is just living up to expectations when he does that. Finally.

The major sources of inspiration have been twin home run hitters. No, not Mauer and Morneau, but Josh Willingham and Trevor Plouffe. Reports were that Plouffe had “some pop” in his bat, and would be playing for the Twins as soon as he could get a chance and adjust to Major League pitching.

Willingham, signed as a free agent after the Twins let Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel both go via free agency, was one of the scariest outfielders I’ve ever seen in a Twins uniform. There have been some real dandies in that category, but early in the season, I watched Willingham misplay pop flies, and once he raced toward left-center for a soft, Texas League single, and he flat over-ran the ball, which went behind him for a double or triple. That was back when we were wondering where the Twins might hide Willingham, since the DH spot was usually filled by Mauer or Morneau.

We also wondered where Plouffe might fit in. Now, as we reach midseason, Willingham has worked hard to improve his defensive play and has now reached the level of at least adequacy. He’ll never be the defensive stalwart Denard Span is in center, or the mercurial Ben Revere is in right, but he’s no longer a liability in left. Especially because he is pounding the ball.

Plouffe, meanwhile, is making strong plays at third base, and the pop in his bat is sending pitch after pitch into the seats, home or road. In Tuesday night’s game at Detroit, the Twins led 1-0, then fell behind 4-1. With two out in the fifth, Revere singled, and his speed prompted a balk, and may have provoked a wild pitch. Mauer socked one up the middle that was very tough to handle behind second base, and he was safe on an error as Revere scored. Next up was Willingham, and he launched one into the left field seats.

The two-run homer tied the game 4-4. It also was Willingham’s 18th homer of the season, tying him with Plouffe for the team lead. After Morneau went out, however, Plouffe came up and whacked another pitch into the left-field seats to give the Twins the lead, reclaiming the team HR lead at 19. It was the sixth time this season that both Willingham and Plouffe had homered in the same game. The game later was tied 6-6 in the seventh when Mauer and Willingham both socked opposite-field doubles, and a sac-fly later, the Twins regained the lead in the crazy game at 7-6.

In the last of the seventh, the Twins got into a bind of sorts, but when slugger Miguel Cabrera blasted a line drive down the third base line, Plouffe lunged to stab the shot with his glove, then fired a bullet across to first for a double play. Just for insurance, Mauer came up again to lead off the ninth, got to a 3-1 count, and drilled a home run to left for an 8-6 cushion. In came Glen Perkins, a fireballing left-hander who has adapted well to the role of closer with Matt Capps out with an injury. Perkins blew down the Tigers to complete a four-game sweep for the Twins.

Go back to the start of the season, when most observers were picking the Tigers, with Prince Fielder added to Cabrera in a potent lineup, to win the pennant, and they were just as certain the Twins would be at the bottom. The Twins are still at the bottom, but you couldn’t prove it by the Tigers, who were sent into another tailspin by the Twins.

It almost seems as though the early-season struggles forced the Twins to play some questionable players in the infield and outfield, but by sheer repetition, or latent skill, those players have become fixtures. At the same time, the pitching staff is improving, with the starters getting better and better, and the middle relief always solid, while Perkins has been nothing short of sensational as the middle-reliever turned closer. The Twins are poised to play a tough second half. Will it be good enough to get into contention? Probably not. But who cares? The Twins are providing entertainment, night after night, and nothing is predictable or impossible.


AMATEUR
HIGHLIGHTS

A couple of high-level amateur sports tournaments took over the stage in Duluth last weekend, with the Sister City Soccer Cup going on all over town, and the Duluth Lakeview Classic American Legion baseball tournament being played also at various field around town.

While the World Cup continues on worldwide TV, it’s good for residents of the area to get a chance to see the rhythmic flow of soccer at the youth level first-hand. If the Sister City theme implies cordial hospitality, there was plenty of it, as Sweden was runner-up at both Under 15 Boys  and Under-16 Girls competition, and claimed third place in the Under-16 Boys.

Soccer still has its way of deciding ties that I think is in sorry need of alteration, but the games go to overtime and then a shootout, where the shooter has a huge advantage against a goalkeeper and a huge net.  In the Under-15 Boys, Sweden and the USA team played to a scoreless tie -- “nil-nil,” as they say in soccer. In the shootout, USA won 3-2 on penalty kicks to claim the championship. In case it doesn’t seem representative of the game, here were two teams unable to score a single goal in regulation and overtime, then scored five goals in shootout action. In the semifinals, USA was tied 4-4 by Denfeld, and also won 3-2 in a shootout.

In Under-15 Girls, USA beat Gitchi Gummi 5-0 in a title game blowout.

The Under-16 Boys, Ashland beat USA 3-1 in the final, and Sweden bounced back from losing in the semifinals to beat Bemidji 3-1 for third place. In Girls U-16, USA beat Sweden 3-0 in the final, while Denfeld topped Ashland 2-1 for third place.

The American Legion baseball tournament came down to a lot of Twin Cities teams taking home the hardware. Chester Bird was the top regional entry -- either that, or it was a Twin Cities team named after a noted ornithologist. Wayzata beat Chester Bird 9-7 in the semifinals, while Bloomington topped Fridley 6-4 in the other semi. Then, Bloomington beat Wayzata 4-3 in the final, at Ordean Field. Fridley beat Chester Bird 14-11 for third place.


TRACK FIREWORKS

Duluth’s fireworks always have been a summertime highlight, while around the rest of the world, motorsports seems to focus in on this midsummertime.

Duluth’s Greg Anderson was surprised in the NHRA Pro Stock final in Moline, Ill., when he ran a strong 6.641-second pass at 208.36 mph, but his Camaro was beaten to the finish line by Erica Enders’s Cobalt, at 6.627 and 207.40. Her slightly better elapsed time held off the charging Anderson, who proved again that nobody can beat the top speed of teammates Anderson and Jason Line, of Wright, MN.

Line finished ninth in the bracket standings for the weekend, while Minnesotans Warren Johnson and his son, Kurt Johnson, also were in the field. No other form of motorsports has four top runners like Anderson, Line, Johnson and Johnson in the hotly competitive Pro Stock category. Remember, it’s barely a month until the NHRA circus comes to Brainerd.

This weekend, you can also tune in on Silverstone, England, where the Formula 1 phenoms go after the British Grand Prix. Two weeks ago, the European Grand Prix at Valencia, Spain, was one of the best Formula 1 races to watch, and with all the passing and drama before Fernando Alonzo brought his Ferrari home first, it was a bonus that it was on network TV.