ALDS Series: A's 1, Twins 0
From: Chuck Terhark
To: Britt Robson
Wow, two homers by Frank Thomas and suddenly the Twins are underdogs.
The knee-jerk reaction here--and believe me, I heard plenty of it out in the right-field stands this afternoon--goes something like, "Nice time to lose your first home game in over a year, Johan," or "Why the hell did Gardy put Crain in there?" or, immediately afterward, "Why the hell didn't Crain pitch around Thomas?" Those are all understandable points, especially that last one (the Big Hurt was so keyed up, his only strikes were 400-foot foul balls), but the bottom line is you just can't blame the pitching for this one.
Everyone knew this series was going to come down to starting pitching, and Twins fans were counting on Santana making a strong start. Turns out Santana made a dominating one--eight innings, eight Ks, five hits. But Zito's was stronger; that, or the Twins just have a knack for making pitchers like Zito (and, sadly, Loaiza, Harden, and Haren) look like freaking Cy Young. I'm afraid it's the latter.
You're going to hear a lot in the next 24 hours about how Boof has to step it up tomorrow, but it's the heart of the order--Mauer, Morneu, Cuddyer, and Hunter--who really need to find their post-season groove. And fast. That means learning how to tune out the din of 55,000 screaming fans, settling down, and getting hits when they need 'em. If that doesn't happen by noon tomorrow, this magical season is all but over.
From: Britt Robson
To: Chuck Terhark
I had to be content with talking to myself in front of the television set, and what I was muttering, especially in that critical second inning, was why didn't Santana heed the advice of Strib writer Joe Christensen and former World Series hero Jack Morris and rely more on his fastball rather than off-speed pitches? Christenson said flat-out that a tendency to lean on the changeup and slider was Santana's biggest potential vulnerability, and Morris said hitters often sit on changeups in the postseason. I don't begrudge the high 3-1 changeup Santana threw Frank Thomas, who's been murdering all sorts of pitches since the All-Star break. But the high 1-0 changeup to Marco Scutaro is the run-producer that really irked me.
But as you pointed out, it's hard to blame pitching in a 3-2 game, especially when most people would agree the Twins have the stronger lineup of the two teams. The hitters have been aggressive all year and sometimes, when a pitcher recognizes it and hits his spots, mixes his speeds, they pay for that aggression, as 14 shut-outs during the regular season attest.
The biggest stat of the game is the Twins going 0-10 (it might have been 0-9 or 0-11, but you get the picture) with runners in scoring position. And it wasn't as if the big knockers weren't at the plate when this happened.
Also, a tip of the hat to announcer Joe Morgan, who is not usually right, but nailed the observation that the Twins let Barry Zito off the hook in the first inning. First Zito walks Castillo. Then Nick Punto swings at a 2-1 pitch around his eyes. Two pitches later, Castillo, who's bum knee turned a potential double into a single on his hit later in the game, tries to steal second on a high fastball (ball four if Punto had laid off the second strike) and is thrown out. Instead of first and second with nobody out and the crowd going crazy, Punto flies to right for the second out and the Twins don't score until they're down by two with two outs in the 7th inning.
From: Chuck Terhark
To: Britt Robson
I don't know, Santana's off-speed stuff looked pretty nasty from where I was sitting. Plenty of those Oakland dudes looked downright silly. I'm not convinced hitters sit back on change-ups more in the playoffs either--I suspect Thomas, being a veteran, doesn't really change his approach in October. Then again, it's only his third post-season appearance, so maybe's he's as jittery as the M&M boys. Somehow I doubt it.
As for Zito, I would argue that the Twins let him off the hook all day. Sure, Rondell White homered (he has a history of doing damage against Zito, so that wasn't too surprising) and Castillo, failed steal notwithstanding, demonstrated why he's an elite leadoff man by drawing two leaf-off walks. But everyone else failed to work the count, allowing Zito to glide through eight innings and not getting so much as a whiff of the A's bullpen.
Also, speaking of Punto: What did the replay show of his headfirst dive into first? He looked safe to me, but I was 500 feet away, so what do I know. Also, how about that foul ball catch at the railing? (I'm grasping for a silver lining here.)
From: Britt Robson
To: Chuck Terhark
Well, I'm certainly not going to argue that Santana's stuff doesn't make hitters look silly, today or most any other time he has taken the hill in the past three years. But I guess the Strib/Morris stuff resonates with me for precisely that reason: When the pitcher is as overpowering as Santana, instead of trying to guess with him on his myriad options, or simply reacting to his overpowering stuff, why not sit on a certain type of pitch? And, given his fairly notorious love of the changeup, why not sit on that rather than the nasty slider or the hopped-up fastball?
You're totally right about the Twins not working the count. Even though Zito had more balls than strikes through his first 40 pitches, the Twins still bailed him out on numerous occasions when 1-0 could have been 2-0, 2-1 could have been 3-1, and so forth. Hunter and Morneau in particular seemed anxious to jump on the first decent pitch they saw. Second, much as I loved his feel-good quote about having more fun in three weeks with the Twins than he had previously in his entire 12-year career, Phil Nevin is an all-or-nothing hitter who has given them very little since he came aboard. I'd rather have Mike Redmond DH-ing or catching (with Mauer DH-ing) against lefties.
Don't talk to me about Punto sliding into first for the umpteenth time this season. First of all, as Morgan and his broadcast partner pointed out, it slows down the runner. How many times have we seen Punto called out in a cloud of dust, and how many times has he beaten the throw this way? And who doesn't realize it's an invitation to dislocated fingers or a jammed shoulder? Stupid, stupid, stupid, and one of those times when the baseball "purists" have it right. That said, it was pretty damn close.
Another missed opportunity: Castillo not getting down a bunt after Bartlett's leadoff double, followed by Punto and Cuddyer grounding out on either side of a Mauer walk.
As silver linings go, Punto's beer-spilling, spikes-caught-in-the-fence grab along the third base line certainly qualifies. So does Neshek getting his feet wet in the post-season with a nifty four-pitch strikeout; Castillo's lightning quick rely on a DP in the 6th, and White's six total bases, which included going to right for a double on a hanging changeup for the Twins' first hit as well as that quick-wrist pull over the wall in left on a high fastball.
Last questions for you: Will the Twins lay off Loaiza's sinker or continue to take stupid at-bats? (I say, depends on the hitter, but mostly stupid at-bats.) What's the over-under on runs scored in Game Two? (I say 10.) How many semi-intentional walks will Thomas receive? (I say one.) And will the Twins even up the series? (Yup.)