Foul tip: Bradke ball is back
After a terrible opening week, the Twins need to notch a slew of victories at home between now and next Thursday. While we wait for the hometown nine to get their season back on track, some things to consider--worry about is more like it--going into tonight's Dome opener.
1) The return of Bradke ball. Brad Radke will start his ninth home opener tonight since 1996. He's gone 6-2 in his role as the team's opening ace, and Twins execs, coaches and players will tell you that's a testament to Radke's consistency. Perhaps, but Radke is also amazingly consistent in what I call Bradke ball: That is, giving up home runs early and often.
In his first start of the season last week in Toronto, Bradke proved to be in fine form, giving up two dingers in the first inning, spotting the Blue Jays three runs early. This season, I'll keep unofficial track of how often Radke gives up a homer in the first three innings. Smart money says he does it tonight.
Twins hurlers can bitch--legitimately--about lack of run production, but the ancillary truth is that they're great at giving up runs early, deflating the team and forcing batters to press at the plate.
2) How many black holes are there in the lineup? The most dispiriting part of the season thus far is not just lack of run production--though that's tough to take--but how clueless the Twins are at the plate. It's a full-blown regression to 2005, after a promising spring.
The Twins, with an anemic .225 team batting average, have been outscored 33-27 in this young season, and that includes the 13-run aberration in Toronto. But more vexing is a lack of grit at the plate and quality at-bats. Players like Luis Castillo (.250) and Rondell White (.091) were supposed to be tough and professional--working the count, fouling off pitches, generally looking competent at the plate--even if they produced outs rather than hits.
Instead, most of the team has defined the term "easy out," with the exception of Shannon Stewart (.360) and--gulp--Juan Castro (five hits in 14 at-bats). For instance, only two players have more than one walk. Joe Mauer, who's hitting a misleading .300, has failed to advance runners in scoring position with alarming regularity. And the much-touted rightfielder Jason Kubel has so far accrued one hit.
In short, the Twins, with a team on-base percentage of .270 (compared to .369 for opponents), appear to have no offense--not even of the small-ball variety--and only one regular line-up player, Stewart, who is a threat to get on base.
3. The Liriano factor. Scott Baker's performance in Cleveland on Saturday was admirably workmanlike. He pitched himself into, but then out of, a number of jams, and it's hardly his fault the Twins were blanked by journeyman pitcher Jason Johnson (53-86 lifetime, 4.86 ERA), a creampuff they've repeatedly defeated in the past. Baker looked like a decent enough choice as a fifth starter in what, on paper, is an impressive starting rotation.
But he was spelled by Francisco Liriano, and that alone was enough to make the Twins look foolish for adhering to the current rotation. Baker was hitting 93 mph on the gun periodically; Liriano's heat made Baker look like a slo-pitch softballer. The Twins have made Baker and Liriano nominal competitors for the fifth spot. But here's a solution: Let Baker stay, but move Kyle Lohse (15.43 ERA out of the gate!) to the bullpen. Or, better yet, see if anyone is silly enough to take Lohse and Lew Ford for a quality left-handed middle reliever, or--if Dennys Reyes proves himself in Rochester--a real bat.
It's too early to panic, especially since a team doesn't really reveal itself until a month or so into the season. Even so, it's obvious that for the Twins, who have the worst record in the American League, the time to rack up some quick victories begins tonight against a very tough Oakland team.