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The Fourth of July and baseball go together like strawberries and rhubarb when it’s time to eat a piece of pie.
We’ve had a chance to see the Duluth Huskies come together for an impressive first half of the Northwoods League season and capture the first half title, which means they don’t have to win the second half to wind up in the playoffs, although we only expect them to keep improving.
We’ve also had the chance to watch the Minnesota Twins make awfully hard work out of succeeding in baseball’s worst division. They have a couple weeks before All-Star break, but no way can the Twins get up to .500 by then. But they can make a move in that direction, which would be impressive. And while Cleveland is solidly in first place, the Twins could be hot on the Indians heels had they not sagged to 2-11 in their last 13, going into Tuesday’s game at Milwaukee.
Of course, earlier this week we didn’t know if they could get out of Chicago with their hopes in one piece. In stifling heat, the Twins went cold. They found a way to beat the White Sox 2-1 in 13 innings, thanks to a home run and later a big double by Logan Morrison, who hasn’t been able to reach .200 in batting yet, but came through when nobody else on the team seemed capable. His home run made it 1-0, and when Fernando Rodney blew the save, the game went all the way to the 13th, when Morrison doubled, and the White Sox walked three straight after that, forcing in the winning run on a bases-loaded walk to Max Kepler.
That victory raised the Twins to 4-13 in one-run games. Then the Twins moved across town to face the Cubs in an intraleague series. The Twins scored 6, and lost 10-6; then they scored 9, and lost 14-9; then, in the final game against the Cubs, the Twins scored 10, but lost 11-10, after they gave up 8 in the second, trailed 8-1, but made a determined comeback attempt, only to lose 11-10.
In that game on Sunday, there was an interesting subtlety in the second inning. I like Joe Mauer at first base, and he appears to at last be coming out of his June swoon at the plate. But his glove can be a huge asset at first base, defensively. Morrison, while left-handed, and tall enough, doesn’t have Mauer’s instincts or reactions to make game-saving outs.
In the second inning last Sunday, Twins starter Lance Lynn gave up a 3-run home run to Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. Suddenly trailing 3-1, Lynn came back to get Ian Happ to hit a soft grounder to first. Morrison did not charge the ball, moving to his right to field it cleanly enough, but seeming uncertain whether to try to make the putout himself or toss to Lynn, covering. He realized Happ was quick, so he decided to toss to Lynn. Except Lynn was slow getting over to cover, so Morrison tried to beat Happ to the bag, but failed. One out, runner at first.
While it is elementary for an infielder to move in aggressively for any ground ball, it’s particularly critical at first base. By moving in quickly, Morrison would have caught the grounder about even with the bag and one step from it. If he had moved in diagonally, he would have had an easy chance as well. But by not coming in, then being indecisive about making the unassisted play, Happ was safe and was credited with a single, for crying out loud.
Still, it didn’t seem shattering, except that following a ground out — which would have ended the inning after three runs — the Cubs compiled a walk, a double, another double, and then a third consecutive double, before a final single ended the onslaught at five runs, and eight for the inning altogether.
When the Twins pecked away with two in the fifth, two in the sixth and five in the eighth, the Cubs had all they could do to salvage the 11-10 victory out of an 11-5 lead. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that if the Twins only gave up three, instead of eight, in the second inning, they’d have won 10-6 instead of losing 11-10. Most analysts blamed Lynn for being tardy getting to the bag to cover, and that’s accurate. But Joe Mauer would have made the play on the grounder and gotten the out.
When the Twins finally slinked out of Chicago, they had lost for the eighth time in 10 games, and almost had to leave a few players behind. In the 14-9 loss to the Cubs, catcher Bobby Wilson, left fielder Eddie Rosario and center-fielder Max Kepler had all been taken out of the game for heat exhaustion and fed liquids intravenously in the steamy 100-degree weather.
On to Milwaukee, the Twins got a grand slam from Robbie Grossman in the top of the fifth to gain a 5-1 lead. But the Brewers pecked away at Kyle Gibson and a couple of relievers, and, sure enough, tied the game 5-5 against Fernando Rodney in the last of the ninth.
In the last of the 10th, reliever Zack Littel dug himself a hole and into a bases-loaded mess with nobody out. Manager Paul Molitor brought in Rosario from left field and played a four-infielder array with only two outfielders. A grounder to short, and Jorge Polanco playing his first game of the season, and it took a spectacular play by catcher Wilson, who made a spectacular leaping grab while sprawling to his left but keeping his left toe on the plate for the first out. But it didn’t matter. Littel walked shortstop Brad Miller to force in the winning run on four pitches. Miller, ironically, went 3-for-5 before giving proper meaning to the cliche “walk off” victory.
That also drops the Twins to 35-46 — 11 games under .500 — and 4-15 in one-run games. The good news is that Polanco is back, after sitting out the first half of the season, and Ervin Santana is about ready to return for what could be a pivotal second half on the mound.
No word yet on Miguel Sano or Byron Buxton, but there is still hope that the Twins can put something together in the second half.