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Something has got to be done about Major League baseball. Where is it written that at some mystical point in the season, a gong sounds and all the teams are suddenly given super-human insight for the rest of the year, and all of them either become “buyers” or “sellers.”
It happens every year, and this season the Minnesota Twins have poured all their resources and a mountain of untimely bad luck and bad calls into a gigantic blender, and never has the result been so absurd.
Let’s go back to Los Angeles, where the Twins were facing the Los Angeles Dodgers, considered by many the best team in baseball. The Twins did a good job in that opener, clinging to a 4-3 lead until the last of the eighth. Then Cody Ballinger socked a 3-run home run and the Dodgers won 6-4. Ouch!
Next day, the Twins didn’t have it and the Dodgers won 6-2. In the third game, the Twins got off to a rollicking start, taking a 5-0 lead as Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier knocked in two runs apiece. Ervin Santana on the mound, how could they fail? Well, the Dodgers pecked away, scoring in the fourth, fifth, and seventh to knock out Santana. The bullpen? Not bad, but the Dodgers tied it in the last of the eighth on a sacrifice fly.
At this point, Brandon Kintzler came on to hold the 5-5 score and hope for extra innings. Here is where one of the bad calls hurt mightily. Kintzler is pitching to Josh Turner, he of the bushy lumberjack-style hair and beard. It’s been a messy inning, but there are two out and runners on second and third. Kintzler threw what might be his best career slider, and it broke just as Turner started swinging. It crossed the middle of the plate, and drooped and it took everything Turner had to hold back his swing so as not to look like a clown, because he would have missed the pitch by 6 inches. The umpire called it a ball. The replay box showed the pitch arched just across the plate above the knees and dropped, and strike three would have sent the game to extra innings.
Blowing a 5-0 lead leaves no grounds for saying the Twins should have won, but the call that I can charitably call “gutless” in Dodger Stadium meant Kintzler had to throw another pitch. Turner popped a small hit into right-center, and the winning run scored. The Dodgers celebrated like they had just won the World Series, and the Twins had to trudge off the field with the indignity of blowing a 5-0 lead and losing 6-5.
A day off, and on to Oakland for a Saturday night game. The Twins got off to a 4-1 start by the top of the fifth. But the Athletics come back. Matt Chapamn, hitting .196, homers in the last of the eighth to close the gap to 4-3, then Taylor Rogers tries to hold it in the last of the ninth, but instead give us a two-run homer to Rajal Davis in the last of the ninth. Second straight walk-off loss, this one 5-4 after blowing a 4-1 lead.
Sunday saw Bartolo Colon make another start, and he pitched well, making it through six innings this time after the Twins jumped ahead 5-0 yet again. Colon got in trouble in the seventh, but when he was pulled, the Twins still led 5-3. In the last of the eighth, when, after the first two went out, Oakland got a walk, a single, and then Chapman doubled home two runs for a 5-5 tie.
As the game went on, there seemed to be more and more questionable calls on balls and strikes. In the top of the 11th, Max Kepler hit a two-out double. Miguel Sano came up and, with two strikes, you had to admire how much he’s learned this season, because he held up on an off-speed pitch that stayed outside, passing the plate at least 2 inches outside. The umpire said “Strike 3.” Sano, probably more enraged than usual because he had just succeeded in holding back on the kind of pitch he used to routinely struck out on, threw his bat on the ground. The umpire ejected him.
The game rolled into the 12th inning, and with one out, Yonder Alonso hit one down yonder, over the fence in center off Tyler Duffey, and the Athletics had stormed back from a 5-0 deficit to win 6-5.
That means the Twins went 1-5 on the road trip, leading in all six games — and 5-0 in two of them and 4-1 in another — while their only victory was a pretty well pitched game by newly acquired Jaime Garcia. That was the “1” in the “1-5.” But one day later, the Twins blew a lead, lost the game, and the Twins braintrust made the pivotal decision. They had obtained Garcia in hopes the Twins could make a final run at contention in the Central Division, and his one start made that look possible.
But one game later, and Derek Falvey, the new chief baseball officer, and general manager Thad Levine made the decision that in one blown game, the Twins went from hopeful to hopeless. They traded Garcia to the New York Yankees. One game later, they traded Kintzler to the Washington Nationals.
The Twins weren’t alone. Prodded along by an impatient media, virtually every team decided if it was a buying contender or a hopeless seller. The big question this season was whether Falvey and Levine, trying to display their abilities with the “Moneyball” venture into computerized team building, could possibly have the feel, and the touch, to make crucial decisions that might make the difference for the Twins. For four months, we were thinking they were doing OK, but this week...I’m not so sure.
What if the ump had called Josh Turner out on that perfect slider and the Twins were able to hold on for the victory? What if another ump had called an outside pitch a ball, and Sano blasted a home run when the pitcher had to come back with a better pitch? Those two calls could have made the difference in two potential Twins victories.
If the Twins had won two in a row instead of only one out of six, would they have made the commitment to keep on keepin’ on? If so, does that mean that in a 162-game season, one defeat, no matter how ugly, can determine the fate of a whole bunch of players and their families? This is not Monopoly money they’re spending on these players, but it’s also not simply swapping Boardwalk for North Carolina Avenue.
It would seem altogether fitting and proper for the Twins to rebound from this low spot and win a few games in the next couple of weeks. Maybe win enough to get back to .500, and then keep winning, without a closer adn with faltering starting pitching, and make a run at a wild card spot. And then it would be fitting to finish one game shy of reaching the playoffs -- a game that might have gone the other way with one more pitch by a playoff caliber pitcher.
Hamilton Yields Podium
Watching the Grand Prix of Hungary last Sunday morning, it was fascinating to see Ferrari teammates Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen take off from the start and run 1-2 all day, finishing that way even though Vettel had a weird steering misalignment that caused him a couple hundred miles of wrenching the steering wheel unevenly. But the most surprising thing about the race was the duel between Mercedes teammates Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.
Bottas was a strong third most of the way, but Hamilton charged up from seventh and got up to fourth. Bottas, who is battling Hamilton for championship points, let Hamilton get by, deciding that Hamilton was in the faster car and had the better chance of overtaking the Ferraris.
As it turned out, Hamilton ran out of time and realized he had no chance to catch Raikkonen. So even though the points difference between third and fourth might prove critical at the end of the season, Hamilton let Bottas by at the finish, so Bottas got third and a spot on the podum.