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Ah, baseball. What a game! You can live the game, play the game, study the game, and have a photograph memory for fundamental details, and you still can be astounded by the game of baseball on any given day.
The Minnesota Twins, meanwhile, are the most incredible example of consternation-causing bafflement that I’ve ever seen. And here I am to tell you that the Twins might be one of the most entertaining teams in the Major Leagues in the second half of the season.
No, they aren’t going to make a miracle run to get into contention. Such a possibility is so implausible that we won’t even consider it. But after a first half that was downright laughable, the Twins have shown a weird split personality. When they win, they look invincible; when they lose, the often look hopeless.
For most of the first half, it seemed that it would take a miracle for the Twins to get to the All-Star break and still have any semblance of respectability. Maybe they don’t have respectability everywhere, with the worst record in the entire American League, but you can believe that down in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Texas Rangers and their fans have complete respect for the Twins, with their American League-leading record notwithstanding.
I have been as critical as anyone about the Twins and their first-half ineptitude. Coming out of Spring Training, it seemed that optimism was everywhere. The starting pitching looked great, the middle relief might be questionable, but the closing guys were outstanding. Meanwhile, we knew that Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe would all have bounce-back, or bounce-up, years. Also, everyone was convinced Miguel Sano would light up the league pitchers, and newly obtained Byung Ho Park would be an instant terror with the bat.
So right out of the gate, the starting pitchers couldn’t get anybody out, the hitting, except for Mauer, struggled. The middle relief was awful, and the 1-2 closer duo of Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen completely collapsed. Perkins is out for the year after surgery, and Jepsen has cleared waivers and been released. Faltering closers might have been the least of their worries, because in order to properly “close,” a team has to be leading in the last inning. And that wasn’t happening.
All that remained was the defense, and that, too, collapsed. The 0-9 start seemed just about right for as poorly as the Twins played. They sank to the bottom and have never come up for air. When they did have a fair hot streak, they followed it up with a slump. Again.
With the worst record in the AL’s three divisions, it looked pretty bleak when the Twins had to face Texas – the team with the best record in the whole AL. So what did the Twins do? They beat the Rangers a couple times, then lost, but then beat on them some more. They’ve played Texas seven times and beat the Rangers five of them.
Consider that Texas went to the All-Star break 54-36, while the Twins took a 33-56 mark to the break. And that INCLUDES the five-out-of-seven splurge.
There is no logic for Earvin Santana to throw a 2-hit 4-0 shutout at the Rangers, no reason for the rest of the starters to start looking impressive, and maybe it’s only luck that two or three newcomers in the bullpen have helped the starters in recent weeks.
Similarly, there is no logic to the fact that the hitters started hitting, particularly when the “Big Three” of Mauer, Dozier and Plouffe have been only marginal contributors. The hitting load is suddenly being wrenched away from them by new guys.
The guy from South Korea is down in the minors, but I suspect he’ll be back, and able to hit consistently when he returns. With Plouffe out of the lineup injured, Sano got a reprieve from being sentenced to an ill-fitting term in right field. He looks good at third base, even though he’s still about 20 pounds too heavy. Eduardo Nunez was partly at third and partly at short, and he made the All-Star team as a shortstop, hitting a team-leading .321.
But, to repeat a point I made over the last couple of weeks, when guys named Buxton, Rosario, Sano and Park failed to get it going at the start of the season, manager Paul Molitor was amazingly patient before finally turning to guys named Grossman, Kepler, Nunez and Suzuki. Never mentioned through spring training, those latter four are igniting the offense in a youth movement that wasn’t expected to be happening this year.
Despite the disparity in their record next to Texas, there are some eye-popping statistics to ponder. The Twins have scored runs in double figures five times this season – all of them in the three weeks starting June 21.
Suzuki might be my favorite story on the team, because his hitting was so anemic the Twins gave up Aaron Hicks to get a backup catcher from the Yankees who could hit a little bit and take over. Instead, he hit nothing, while Suzuki shot up from his barely-.200 status and reached .294 by the break – second only to Nunez, and ahead of Mauer, Plouffe and Dozier. Robbie Grossman also moved up smartly and is third in team batting average at .289, ahead of Mauer’s .271.
Right before the All-Star break, the Twins had to go to Arlington to face the league-best Rangers. Because the Rangers had been stung by the Twins at Minnesota, it seemed that payback might be brutal. Instead, the Twins hit 10 home runs in the four-game series. But let’s look only at Sunday’s final game of the series.
The Twins erupted for five runs in the fifth inning to take a 6-0 lead, then they erupted for seven in the seventh and zoomed to a 15-2 lead before winning 15-5. The Twins had 18 hits in the romp – and struck out only five times, for those who might question my belaboring of the connection between those two elements. But the interesting thing to me was that the bottom four hitters in the lineup got 11 of those hits. Grossman, Rosario and Suzuki each had three hits and Eduardo Escobar, hitting ninth, got two. Max Kepler, by the way, the mad German, was hitting fifth in the lineup. He only had one hit, but it was the team’s first grand slam of the season to put his name on the 5-run fifth. Escobar and leadoff man Dozier hit back-to-back homers in the seventh.
All-Star break is over now, of course, and the Twins will find out quickly if they are still flying high or have come back to earth, because they open the second half against the Cleveland Indians, the team leading the Twins own Central Division at 52-36, which is second only to Texas.
Oh, and about that pitching. More names you never heard mentioned during spring training are guys named Kintzler, Abad, Rogers, Pressly and Tonkin. Those five have found a home in the bullpen, and have the five best earned run averages on the Twins roster!
Altogether, that crazy patchwork quilt of latter-day success makes you glad the break is over.
Sports Fans Need Some Flights of Fancy
Being a sports fan in Northeastern Minnesota gives you some time off. When the high schools and colleges pause for summertime, things slow down on the sports scene to a great extent, and you have to look for your sources of entertainment.
Fortunately, the area has a lot of active-sports possibilities, and we can always sit back and enjoy baseball or motorsports or occasional-highllight sports like golf or tennis on television. Also fortunately we have a lot of activity on the entertainment front, and last weekend was among them.
Not only did we have the Duluth Airshow Saturday and Sunday, with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds putting on a spectacular all-day show, with a little help from their compatriots in the Navy and Marines, but we got our annual big-time pleasure of hitting Bayfront Festival Park for a Trampled by Turtles concert, complete with several impressive preview acts.
Somehow, we made it from the throng of 25,000 at the Airport Saturday to Bayfront where another huge crowd enjoyed the concert, which, in my opinion, will remain the highlight of the summer music scene.
With the Twins in All-Star break, there was the final rounds at Wimbledon, and, for me, a chance to watch the British Grand Prix from Silverstone at dawn last Sunday, where Lewis Hamilton won again to close in on season points leader and teammate Nico Rosburg. At Wimbledon, Andy Murray won on his “home court,” after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were upset along the way. And Serena Williams won her 22nd major title, although her sister, Venus, was whipped in the semifinals and prevented us from a reprise of an all-Williams final.
What was harder to find was Duluthian Greg Anderson winning the NHRA meet’s Pro Stock title, closing him up on teammate Jason Line from Wright, MN., and giving their team victories in every Pro Stock event this season. That circus will come to Brainerd in about six weeks, where we can see our hometown guys up close and personal.
Then there was the All-Star game, and I must admit, I enjoyed it. I think the format needs revision, and the managers’ tactful attempt to play everybody is commendable but detracts from the game in my mind.
Growing up as a crazed baseball fan, I looked forward every summer to the All-Star game as a highlight, every season. In those days, with eight teams in the American and eight in the National, teams were selected on how great they were playing, and several players on either team might play the whole game. I recall games when one team might send three starting pitchers out to throw three innings each and blow down the other side.
The point is, if you tuned in, you got to watch the best players of that season playing each other. Along came expansion, and with more and more teams there were more and more players, and different methods of selecting the All-Stars were tried. At the same time, it was determined that every team should have at least one token player. The managers decided, right about then, that the only fair thing was to get every player into the game.
There’s plenty to be praised about the new way of All-Starring it. But often you get a pitcher throwing only one inning, or part of an inning – because each team has 14 pitchers! Same with position players, where you might have three shortstops. Me? I prefered when the managers went all-out to win, sticking with their starters for at least four or five innings, sometimes more.
As it turned out, this year’s game was a treat, in San Diego. I found it disagreeable that Chicago stuffed the ballot box and got Cubs playing all four infield positions, even though none of the four is hitting .300. All are good players, but that left out Daniel Murphy, who is stationed at first base for the first-place Washington Nationals, and came into the game as possibly the likeliest candidate for most valuable player. Despite leading both leagues in hitting at .348, Murphy sat while the Cubs Joe Rizzo (.299) started at first.
In the All-Star game, Murphy, wound up replacing Cub Ben Zobrist (.283) at second base. With the bases loaded, and his National League team trailing 4-2, Murphy dashed hard to his right, backhanded a low grounder, whirled and threw an inning-ending bullet to first. It was the play of the game.
Twins shortstop/third baseman Eduardo Nunez followed Houston’s Jose Altuve and Seattle’s Robinson Cano to briefly play second base for the American League, which held on to win 4-2. Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer, who homered and singled, was MVP and chose the Midnight Edition Chevrolet Colorado over a glistening Camaro as his reward. The victory means the AL gets home-field advantage for the World Series, once again.
And, by the way, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds did a flashy 6-plane flyover above the stadium to start the game in spectacular fashion, and give those of us in Northern Minnesota an immediate connection.