Road Trip To Camden Yards

I’ve got a few new work responsibilities these days, so I haven’t been able to follow the Twins as much as I’d like, much less blog about them. On the other hand, those new responsibilities also have me in Baltimore this week and I’ve taken advantage of that by staying at a hotel just a few blocks from Camden Yards, home of the Orioles. Sure, it would have been nice if this trip had corresponded with the Twins’ series in Baltimore a week ago, but my luck doesn’t run that good (besides, the weather this week was much better for baseball in Baltimore).

I didn’t pack the camera on this trip, but I took a few pictures with my phone and thought I’d share.

On Tuesday, I joined a few coworkers at the first game of the O’s/Red Sox series (the company has some pretty nice seats just up from the visiting dugout). It was a bit warm… close to 80 degrees… and a bit on the humid side, but it sure beat the 40 degree weather back home.

A fixture out on Eutaw Street beyond RF at the ballpark is “Boog’s Bar-b-q”. Wednesday night, Boog Powell was on hand to sign autographs, pose for pictures with fans and just generally shoot the bull with anyone who cared to do so. Seemed like a really good guy. (If you don’t know who Boog Powell is, I’ll try not to hold your relative youth against you… but he and Harmon Killebrew were having their own little “home run derby” contests during Twins/Orioles games throughout most of my youth.)

I moved around a bit on Wednesday. I spent some time early in the game in the upper deck, under the overhang, avoiding raindrops and hoping the lightning I was seeing to the west of the stadium didn’t get much closer.

Fortunately, the storm moved just to the north of Camden Yards. Again, it was in the mid 70s and humid… with a few raindrops here and there… but nothing to complain about, especially compared to the snow that the Twins and Rays were playing in back at Target Field!

Later, I moved back down to the RF line… grabbing a beer and a bit of Boog’s BBQ and watching an inning or so from the standing room area above the large out-of-town scoreboard that serves as the RF wall.

Then I grabbed a seat near the RF foul pole.

Speaking of the foul pole… I didn’t realize those poles were actually carry-overs from old Memorial Stadium. Gotta like that they brought a bit of the “old ballpark” to their new one (hard to believe this place is already 20 years old, though!).

Finally, on my way out, I just snapped a shot of Eutaw Street between the signature warehouse and the OF seating area and the Oriole Hall of Fame plaques behind the large scoreboard in CF.

Oh… and I apparently brought a bit of good luck to the O’s as they beat the Red Sox both games I attended… 4-1 on Tuesday, when I got to see young Zach Britton pretty much shut down the Red Sox, taking a no-hitter through roughly the first half of the game, and 5-4 on Wednesday, when balls were flying out of the park a bit. Luke Scott and Adam Jones went back-to-back to stake Jeremy Guthrie to a 3-0 lead over Josh Beckett, but a Kevin Youkalis 3-run HR tied the game at 4 in the 8th inning. Vlad Guerrero’s RBI single in the 8th provided the margin of victory for the Orioles.

I made my first trip to Camden Yards just a year or two after it was built and it’s still one of my favorite ballparks. I’m looking forward to making more trips out here during the summer months over the next few years.

- JC

Spring Training Photos

I’ve already posted several photos taken during my trip to Ft. Myers, but I thought the weekend would be a good time to put up a couple of slideshows.

So here they are… old friends like Tom Kelly, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Paul Molitor, and Tom Brunansky… future Twins like Aaron Hicks, Joe Benson, Max Kepler and James Beresford… along with all of the current Twins we’re going to be watching at Target Field all summer long. Most you will recognize instantly… others you’ll have to learn to get to know.

What I Learned On Vacation

Make no mistake, the worst part of spending a week hanging around the Twins Spring Training site in Ft. Myers is the first day back at work when you get home. But as bad as that is, it’s well worth it to have made the trip.

Channeling the inner child in me, today I thought I would reflect and write a bit about what I learned on my vacation, much the way my 2nd grade teacher asked the class to do upon the start of a new school year.

I attended five “official” spring training games, as well as parts of a few minor league games, several of which included appearances by various members of the Twins MLB club. I arrived at just about the right time to start getting looks at Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, who hadn’t taken part in games before I got down there. On the other hand, I only got to see Michael Cuddyer face minor league pitching and take batting practice (which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing for a hitter of Cuddyer’s abilities). So, what have I learned?

Tsuyoshi Nishioka looks like the real deal. He’s riding a ten game hitting streak and he’s been very impressive at second base. He and Alexi Casilla are looking very smooth turning double plays, as well.

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

There actually is a very real and very close competition for the utility infielder spot on the roster. Most of us just assumed Matt Tolbert would be handed the job, but Luke Hughes has hit five home runs and three doubles in 19 games. He’s also leading the team with 15 strikeouts, but the prospect of having a right handed hitter with some pop on the bench has to be pretty attractive for Ron Gardenhire. That said, over the past few days, it has been Tolbert that’s looking better at the plate and he’s certainly more accomplished and versatile with the glove. This race is still too close to call, though if I were the one getting to make the decision, I think having that strong righthanded bat available off the bench would nudge me in the direction of giving the job to Hughes.

Gardenhire has announced that Kevin Slowey is the odd man out of the rotation to start the season, assuming everyone stays healthy over the last week of Spring Training. That makes sense to me and Slowey is handling it like the classy professional he is. His shift to the bullpen means the competition is coming down to the wire for the three remaining spots in the pen.

Depending on which media outlet you read and on which day, any one of seven candidates are “likely” to claim one of those three roster spots. Here’s a rundown on the guys still competing for those spots, including the three that I believe should… and will… open the season in the Twins bullpen.

Scott Diamond, who is the Rule V draftee that the Twins took from the Braves, is a lefthanded pitcher that the Twins reportedly have long “liked”. I didn’t see enough of Diamond to really judge his abilities, but I don’t see much chance that he opens the season with the Twins. Ideally, they can send Atlanta a minor leaguer in exchange for the right to keep Diamond and send him to Rochester, but from what I’ve seen and read, if the Twins have to send him back to the Braves, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe.

I’ve seen articles indicating the Twins like Kyle Waldrop enough to keep him on the roster to open the season. Maybe. But if that’s the case, they sure have a funny way of showing it. He’s only pitched five innings in Spring Training (about half of what most of the other bullpen candidates have thrown) and while his numbers are impressive (no earned runs, 7 Ks, no walks), if they were serious about keeping him to open the season, I think they’d be giving him more opportunities to pitch. Let’s see how much work he gets in the next few games. UPDATE: mlb.com’s Rhett Bollinger reported Wednesday afternoon that the Twins announced Waldrop would be among a group of players who would make the trip to Atlanta for the final exhibition games and then be reassigned to a minor league team.

Jeff Manship is another guy who a lot of people seem to think will be sticking with the Big Club. I don’t see it, unless the Twins do trade Slowey before Opening Day. I see Slowey and Manship as potentially filling the same role in the bullpen and as long as Slowey is there, Manship would be redundent. Manship’s spring pitching line (6.30 ERA in 10 innings, 11 hits, 5 Ks, 3 BBs) just hasn’t been all that impressive when compared to some of the guys he’s competing with.

Carlos Gutierrez is the young, up and coming bullpen arm that Gardy has been hinting he’d like to keep around. It’s not going to happen. As long as there are other options, the front office is going to want to hold off on bringing Gutierrez up until at least June to keep his MLB service clock from starting until then. If he were head and shoulders better than any other option, you wouldn’t let the service time issue keep him down on the farm, but he’s not… so it will. UPDATE: mlb.com’s Rhett Bollinger reported Wednesday afternoon that, like Waldrop, the Twins announced Gutierrez would be among a group of players who would make the trip to Atlanta for the final exhibition games and then be reassigned to a minor league team on March 30.

That leaves these three guys as those I believe should, and will, fill those final three spots in the pen:

Glen Perkins

Glen Perkins is a guy a lot of Twins fans seem to love to hate. He’s certainly given plenty of reasons for us to doubt him over the past few years, but this spring, when asked to compete for a bullpen job, he’s done so and pitched well. He’s thrown 9 innings and has accumulated a 2.00 ERA, giving up 8 hits, striking out 6 and walking 3 hitters. I suggest fans put the past behind us and look forward to Perkins being in the Twins bullpen. He’s out of options and there’s no way he would clear waivers so the Twins would lose him if they don’t give him one of the bullpen spots. They could conceivably still trade him before Opening Day, but he’s clearly been one of the three best relief pitchers among the contenders listed here, so I expect #15 to open the season with the Twins.

Dusty Hughes

The Twins are likely to open with three lefties in the pen because, in addition to Perkins and Jose Mijares, Dusty Hughes is going to make the team. The Twins snatched him off waivers from the Royals, largely because a number of Twins hitters confirmed to the staff that the guy is tough for them to hit. If the Twins’ own talented stable of lefthanded hitters think a pitcher is tough, he’s a guy worth taking a chance on. Hughes has proven worthy of their praise this spring, having yet to give up a run and allowing only six hits in 10 innings on the mound. He has walked five hitters, however, which matches the five he’s struck out.

That leaves one final spot and this is the spot I feel strongest about. The Twins need Jim Hoey in the bullpen.

Jim Hoey

Hoey, obtained from the Orioles as part of the JJ Hardy trade, got off to a bit of a slow start this spring in his first few appearances, but over the past week, he has demonstrated why the Twins wanted him. He brings one thing that none of the other Twins bullpen arms (or starting pitchers, for that matter) have… and that is overpowering velocity. While virtually every other pitcher on this list has a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, Hoey throws 95 mph… warming up. When he’s serious, he’ll fire in there somewhere in the 97-99 mph range. His issue, early in camp, was controlling that heat, but he’s been throwing his fastballs at the knees and if he can do that regularly, look for a lot of strikeouts, ground balls, and broken bats.

And here’s the thing… when you have a guy who’s 6′ 6″ and throws the ball almost 100 mph, you don’t really WANT him to have pinpoint control. The only chance 90% of Major League hitters have of hitting a ball traveling that fast on the sweet spot of the bat is if they can dig in and swing early. If the pitcher has a reputation for being jussssssst a little wild, not many hitters will be doing that “digging in” thing. We’re not talking Nuke LaLoosh wild here, either. TC Bear isn’t going to get beaned and John Gordon isn’t going to have to be ducking in the radio booth.

Finally, while not a lot has been written about it lately, a decision is going to have to be made with regard to whether Joe Nathan or Matt Capps starts the season as the Twins closer.

The sentimental favorite is Joe Nathan. He’s certainly earned the faith and loyalty of the Twins coaches, as well as the fans’ devotion. But, frankly, he just hasn’t pitched as well as Matt Capps this spring and unless something changes over the next week, I’d have to give the closing job to Capps while Nathan serves as the primary set up arm. Nathan has an 8.53 ERA and has given up seven hits and walked three, in just 6 and a third innings of work. Granted, a lot of the damage was inflicted in one very poor outing, but as much as I wanted to see the old Twitchy out there on the mound this past week, I don’t think he’s all the way back. Capps, on the other hand, has yet to give up a run in 7 and a third innings, allowing only four hits, not walking anyone, and striking out five hitters. Sentiment aside, Capps has earned the closer role, at this point.

In the end, here’s the main thing I learned on my vacation… looking at this lineup, and even at the quality of the players who will NOT make the Opening Day roster, I see a team with the potential to be very, very good.

Let’s get this party started!

- JC

When Major Leaguers Are Minor Leaguers

If you’ve been paying attention to reports coming out of Ft. Myers for the past week or so, you’ve no doubt read or heard about various Twins playing in minor league games and perhaps you’ve wondered just exactly what that means… and why these established stars would be playing in minor league games.

It seems like there has been even more of that kind of thing this spring than normal and that’s probably due to a couple of reasons. First, so many Twins missed the first several spring training games and they need to get a few extra cuts in order to get their timing down. Second, the quirks of this spring’s schedule resulted in the Twins playing most of their games over the past week or so on the road and the organization hasn’t been anxious to make stars with various aches and pains compound those issues by spending several hours on buses crisscrossing the state of Florida.

But what exactly does it mean when it’s reported that Justin Morneau or Jim Thome is “2 for 4 in a minor league game”?

As I’ve mentioned in another post, the best way I can think of to describe what happens is to envision these Major Leaguers showing up to play in your Sunday afternoon beer-league softball game. The scattering of fans who happen to be hanging out around the minor league complex to watch their games get that kind of close-up view of whatever Major League Twins might be participating in a given day.

Fans are litterally 6 feet away from Justin Morneau as he prepares to hit

Michael Cuddyer signs for fans before the minor league game

On Tuesday, before heading to the airport for my flight home, I stopped by the Twins minor league complex to watch a few innings of the games being played there. On this particular day, there were two games going on between the Low A and High A Twins and their counterparts from the Rays camp. Jim Thome DH’d in the Low A game, while Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau played RF and 1B, respectively, in the High A game.

They gave those fans in attendance plenty to watch.

You see, the Major Leaguers hit every inning. For example, in the High A game, Cuddyer and Morneau batted second and third… every inning for as long as they stayed around. That’s how these players get 4-5 plate appearances while only playing half the game.

If course, you have to curb your enthusiasm a bit when you hear that one of these guys launched a couple of home runs in one of these games (as Thome did in one such minor league game earlier this week), because they’re often facing 19-20 year old Class A pitchers who show up expecting to face guys destined for Beloit and find themselves trying to slip an inside fastball past MVPs and future Hall of Famers!

Doubtful the Rays Class A pitcher expected to face this guy every inning when he got on the bus

Of course, the games aren’t all you’ll see on the minor league complex. When I arrived, a familiar face was dragging the practice infield adjacent to the minor league clubhouse and an hour or so later, a Hall of Famer was hitting ground balls on that practice field to a couple of minor league first basemen.

Former Twins manager Tom Kelly drags the infield on a minor league practice field

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor works with a couple of minor league first basemen

All of this is just a long way of letting you know that, if you ever go down to Ft. Myers during Spring Training, only to find that the Twins are playing road games while you’re there, don’t let that dissuade you from checking out the action at the Lee County Sports Complex. Not only can you watch the Twins stars of tomorrow playing games there every afternoon, but you may get a closer look at some of the Twins’ stars than you’re ever likely to get anywhere else.

A few more pictures from the Tuesday minor league games… not much for zoom lenses needed for most of these pictures.

- JC

Bert, Brian and the Bucs

I think I saw something in Bradenton Monday that I haven’t seen at any of the other Spring Training games I’ve watched over the past week. There were, in fact, a few clouds in the sky. I had almost forgotten what they looked like, though I suspect I’m going to be reminded pretty dramatically in a few hours, when I get back to Iowa.

McKechnie Field, Spring Training home of the Pirates... and a few clouds

I also hadn’t seen Bert Blyleven yet down here until today, though I did see Dick Bremer behind the batting cage last week exchanging a man-hug with Hall of Famer (and Bremer’s former broadcast partner) Harmon Killebrew. Not only did Dick and Bert broadcast today’s game with the Pirates to the folks back home, but Bert also threw out the first pitch. I thought that was kind of cool, given that he did pitch for the Pirates and they took this opportunity to recognize Blyleven’s recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven donned a Pirates jersey to throw out the first pitch, in honor of his election to the HOF

This was my second opportunity to see Brian Duensing start a game on the mound and he looked sharper today. I know there’s a lot of healthy debate around Twinsville about whether Duensing should start the season in the rotation or the bullpen, but I’ve felt strongly all along that he should be in the rotation and I’ve seen nothing this week to change my mind. It allows Ron Gardenhire to go Righty-Lefty-Righty-Lefty-Righty with the rotation and assures that teams see a variety of looks during a three-game series.

Brian Duensing looked good against the Pirates

Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Delmon Young were the only starting position players to make the 90 minute bus ride up to Bradenton for the game, but they gave the sizable contingent of Twins fans in the crowd plenty to cheer about. Span had a double in four ABs, while Mauer and Young each had two hits to lead the Twins 4-1 win over the Pirates.

The Bucs’ only run was unearned, which means that, once again, the whole parade of Twins pitchers shut down an opponent. Today, in addition to Duensing, that included Glen Perkins, Matt Capps, Carlos Gutierrez and Chuck James. The relief appearances were clean, though not dominating. Perkins had a couple of balls hit hard off of him, including a line drive to first base that became a double play ball. Gutierrez was getting ground balls, while James got all three outs on fly balls.

Carlos Gutierrez has been looking good all spring

While the Twins travel to face the Marlins tomorrow, I’ll be heading home to Cedar Rapids. I don’t leave until the afternoon, though, so I may hang out for a while in the morning at the Twins practice facility and maybe even watch some minor league games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the Twins playing in those games, while few of the regulars make the long drive across the state to Jupiter FL where the Marlins train.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to watch a lot of baseball this week and I’ve drawn a few conclusions concerning what I think Gardy and the Twins will be doing about those few remaining roster spots that are still up in the air… and about what I think they SHOULD do (I wish they were the same thing, but they’re not). In any event, I’ll think a bit more about that stuff and throw a post up in the next couple of days with my thoughts.

It’s been a fun trip… as always. The weather has been terrific and while I’d love to hang around here and watch more baseball, it will also feel good to get home again (at least right up until the time I have to show up for work Wednesday morning).

With that, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from my day in Bradenton.

- JC

How close was my seat to the field? I had to move my knees to make room for this young man to get Matt Tolbert's autograph

I had a pretty good view of Denard Span taking the field, as well.

The Pirates mascots force two children to do the chicken dance... talk about child abuse!

Joe Mauer chats up Pirate 1B Lyle Overbay in order to avoid having to talk to 1B coach Jerry White

Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven get ready to go on the air before the game

Spring: A Time of Change

It’s never easy to say good bye to friends and make no mistake, Pat Neshek was our friend. Some of us got to “know” Pat via his blog while he was still working his way up through the Twins’ minor league system and when he and his funky sidearm delivery made their MLB debut, he already had a sizable fan base. That was the same year that he made the AAA All-Star team on the strength of a huge voting block of devoted electronic followers.

And “Sideshow” was good, too! He was a dominant set up man for the Twins in 2006 and 2007. Being a “local boy” in the Twin Cities certainly didn’t hurt his popularity, either.

In typical Neshek style, Pat broke the news of his own waiver by the Twins via Twitter, along with the message that he had been picked up by the San Diego Padres, where he’ll be reunited with other former Twins like Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson.

While you couldn’t help but root for Neshek to find the magic he showed us before undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, it was becoming clear that he was not in the Twins plans for 2011. He wasn’t missing many bats in his handful of appearances this spring and his velocity, while better than last year, still has been a few clicks below the low 90s he routinely hit at his best.

Neshek still had one minor league option year left, so the Twins could have sent him to Rochester to start the season, but going to San Diego represents a fresh start for Pat and I hope he makes the best of that opportunity.

A Day in Dunedin

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin

I made the 2+ hour trip up the highway to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area this morning to watch the Twins take on the Blue Jays in Dunedin. The Florida Auto Exchange Stadium was one that I had not yet attended a game at, so I was anxious to see something new. I won’t say that I regret my decision, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by either the stadium or the Twins performance there.

The Thirst Inning Lounge, inside the stadium

The ballpark is easily the worst of the 8 or so spring training sites I’ve been to. I did have a terrific Italian Sausage before the game and I certainly appreciated the air conditioned Thirst Inning Lounge, where I spent an hour before the game watching basketball, but other than that, this was really just a bad ballpark. With all the communities in Florida and Arizona trying to lure teams in to their areas, I’m surprised the Jays can’t do better than this.

The game wasn’t without its highlights, even though the Twins managed to get shut out 3-0 by the Jays.

Scott Baker threw four good innings. The only run he gave up scored on an RBI single that glanced off the glove of a leaping Alexi Casilla in shallow centerfield. Baker struck out six, walked none, and gave up 3 hits in his four innings. The pitchers that followed all did OK, I guess… but they were nowhere near as solid as what we’ve seen the last few games. Matt Capps, Dusty Baker, Phil Dumatrait and Jeff Manship all gave up some hits. Manship managed the odd combination of giving up a two run home run AND striking out the side in his inning of work.

I also got to watch both of the Hughes boys, pitcher Dusty and infielder Luke. Like the fan-friendly guys our Twins are, they even posed together for a picture.

Luke Hughes (1B) and Dusty Hughes (P)

My own personal highlight of the game came in the eighth inning when Daniel Santana, a minor league infielder called up to finish the game at shortstop for Casilla, lined a foul ball in my direction. Actually, it wasn’t just in my direction, it curved directly at me. I’d like to say I caught the ball bare-handed, but I didn’t. I used two hands (my Little League coaches would be proud), but it smacked my hands and fell at my feet. I then picked up the only MLB foul ball I’ve ever had hit to me and handed it to the boy sitting next to me. I really don’t need another baseball at this point in my life and I’d like to think he’ll enjoy it much longer than I would. Besides, I’ll have these bruised fingers to remember the event by for some time to come, I’m sure.

Jon Rauch, Blue Jay

The ninth inning gave us the opportunity to see yet another former Twin, as Jon Rauch closed out the game on the mound for the Jays. Big Jon was only hitting 87-88 mph with his fastball but that was enough, combined with his towering gaze, I guess, to cower the various minor leaguers finishing the game for the Twins.

On Deck: Where’s Crikket?

Tomorrow will be the last game I’ll be attending on my trip down here this spring as the Twins travel to Bradenton to play the Pirates. Just a reminder that the game will be televised on FSN (and, one assumes, MLB.tv). CapitalBabs has found her way home and that means there SHOULD be a GameChat set up (I think).

As I mentioned during the GameChat last Monday, you all are invited to play “Where’s Crikket?” during the game. I have a ticket for the first row, down the left field line. (At least the ticket says “Row 1″… I suppose it’s possible there’s a row of “Premium” seating in front of it, but I don’t recall Bradenton having those the last time I was there.)

I’ll even give you a little help… the only clean sportshirt I have left is a white one, so there’s a pretty good chance that’s what I’ll be wearing. I’m also wearing the same cap you can see perched on my head in my picture here at Knuckleballs.

Let me leave you with a little air guitar, courtesy of these two fans competing in a contest between innings in Dunedin today!

- JC

 

It’s All Coming Together

I’m trying to restrain myself, but on days like this, it’s not easy. I think with good health and a little bit of luck, this Twins team could be something special.

As Joe Reardon, the fictional manager of the Durham Bulls so eloquently put it, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” On Saturday afternoon, the Twins did all of that and did it well.

This is what I came to Ft. Myers to see. Now I just hope everyone stays healthy and we see exactly this kind of performance all season long.

Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey both looked sharp. Blackburn gave up seven hits, but 2-3 of those were infield hits that I generally don’t mark against a pitcher’s performance. He did give up a 2-run home run, but since it was off the bat of a former Cedar Rapids Kernel (Casey Kotchman), I’m willing to let it slide. Slowey struck out three in his three innings and gave up only one hit.

Jim Hoey, who got one inning of work sandwiched in between Blackburn’s five and Slowey’s three, had another solid performance. That’s two appearances I’ve seen this week from Hoey and let me just say, this man can throw a baseball! He was in the upper 90s again today and he sure didn’t look like he was having any control issues to me.

Every starting position player except Jeff Bailey collected at least one hit. Delmon homered. Span and Nishioka doubled. Span, Casilla and Young all stole bases.

Speaking of Nishioka, I’ve been very impressed with his play at second base. He made three excellent defensive plays in today’s game, in addition to teaming with Casilla to turn a couple of double plays. Denard flashed some speed and leather, as well, tracking down a couple of gappers.

But my goal here today is to try to give you a bit of the flavor of a beautiful day at a ballpark. After all, you can read all you want to know about the performances on the field by checking out any of the great beat writers. Speaking of beat writers, mlb.com’s Kelly Thesier is moving on to greener pastures (quite literally, I suppose, since she’s going to work as communications director for the LPGA) and Sunday is her last day covering the Twins. I’ve enjoyed reading Kelly’s reports, her blog and her Tweets and I wish her all the success she deserves in her new job.

I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to both Kelly and the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III on Thursday over at the minor league complex when several Twins were getting some extra work in over there. They were both very gracious (meaning neither of them yelled at me for bothering them) and I appreciated that.

So let me tell you about my terrific day and share a few pictures (I took 257 of them today… I get carried away sometimes).

I slept in a bit after the late night on Friday. I didn’t get back to Ft. Myers from Sarasota until nearly midnight and by the time I uploaded pictures and posted on the blog, it was after 2:00 before I get to sleep. I’m too old to get by on very little sleep, so I decided that the three days I’ve spent over on the practice fields this trip will have to suffice.

I pulled in to the stadium parking lot about 11:00am and spent a little time dickering with some of the ticket brokers there, before finding one with a single seat available in the section I was hoping to sit in today… the area behind the Twins dugout. Around noon, I entered the stadium and wandered around, watching a few Twins wrap up their workouts. As I was enjoying a beverage, I looked out over the now-deserted Twins practice field and saw a solitary figure in workout clothes, wayyyyy down the far left field line, signing autographs for fans who handed him things to sign over the fence.

At first, I couldn’t tell who it was, but I suspected it might be one of today’s cut victims, getting every last moment he can out of his allotted time with the Big League club before moving over to the minor league complex. I thought he would probably sign for a few people, like the players generally do, and then go about his day.

I was wrong on both counts.

Joe Nathan accommodated every autograph request

The player turned out to be Twins closer Joe Nathan and he just kept signing… and signing… and signing. I watched him sign anything that people stuck over the fence to him for close to half an hour, until he had literally signed for everyone who asked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Major League player anywhere near Nathan’s level sign autographs until there’s nobody left to sign for.

In fact, he signed two more autographs when he finally did reach the fence that connects the practice field to the stadium. It takes a lot for professional athletes to impress me when it comes to interacting with fans, but I was impressed. That earned Joe my “good guy award” today.

All that signing may have tired Joe out...

... but it didn't stop him from signing more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly before game time, I grabbed some food and another beverage and found my seat. Before I could even sit down, someone a few seats away recognized me as Jim Crikket from the  Knuckleballs blog. Seriously. I’ve never had that happen before. Thank God he didn’t ask for my autograph… I haven’t given any thought whatsoever to what I should charge for that kind of thing yet.

This was my last visit to Hammond Stadium this spring. I’m going to two more games before heading home Tuesday, but both games are on the road. Sunday is up in Dunedin against the Jays and Monday is in Bradenton against the Pirates. I’ve never been to the Jays’ ballpark, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. It’s been a couple of years since I was at the ballpark in Bradenton, but it’s one of my favorites, just because it’s an old-school neighborhood setting that reminds me of the ballparks you used to find in small and medium sized towns across Iowa and Minnesota back in the 1960s.

With that, here are a few more pictures from my day at Hammond Stadium:

Hammond Stadium brats are some of the best I've had... well worth the wait

Grab food and beer, then check the lineup board

Newbie Luke Hughes with Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan

Casey Kotchman and Joe Mauer, just prior to Kotchman's launch

Picture quality doesn't do justice to this Nishioka web gem

Coach Steve Liddle "communicating" with Nishioka

Coach Jerry White and Jason Kubel (for our Jerry White fan club)

It's all good fun when TC Bear breaks out the super-soaker...

... until he's looking straight at you!

So long, Hammond Stadium... see ya next year!

 

It’s All About the Pitching

A lot of the media folks that cover the Twins and a lot of the bloggers, as well, have been writing about the team’s pitching, lately. Everyone has an opinion about who should be in the rotation and who should be kept around to fill out the bullpen. I’ll probably get around to trying to sort out my own opinions on those issues eventually, too… but it won’t be at 1:30 in the morning after getting back to my Ft. Myers hotel from the Twins/Orioles game in Sarasota.

Let me just say this… for tonight anyway, the Twins pitching was really good.

Francisco Liriano was looking good against the O's

If tonight’s performance was any indication of things to come, we no longer have to be concerned with Francisco Liriano. Tonight, he demonstrated why you just don’t put a lot of stock in the first couple of Spring Training appearances. That said, in fairness, this one excellent performance doesn’t guarantee Liriano will look just as good when the regular season rolls around, either.

But Liriano did look really good. He struck out 7 Orioles in his five innings on the mound and gave up just one earned run on three hits (two by Vlad Guerrero).

And he wasn’t the only pitcher who looked good. In fact all five Twins who took the mound to face the Orioles had pretty good nights.

Joe Nathan is all smiles as he continues his successful return

Of the four relief pitchers who each threw one inning (Jose Mijares, Joe Nathan, Alex Burnett, and Glen Perkins), only Nathan gave up a run and that was unearned. In fact, Nathan’s the only one of the foursome who gave up a hit and he only gave up one.

Matt Tolbert had a big night against the Orioles

The offensive side of the ledger wasn’t quite as impressive, but the Twins did collect nine hits. Matt Tolbert may have decided not to just roll over and let Luke Hughes have his roster spot without a fight, as Tolbert was the only Twin with more than one hit… he collected three, including a line drive home run over the LCF wall in the third inning.

My seat for the game was in the first row, down the left field line, so I had a nice close-up view of our guys as they loosened up before the game. I have to admit, between seeing several Twins play up close and personal on the minor league complex Thursday and then having this vantage point on Friday, I’m getting a bit spoiled. Here are a few more pictures from Sarasota.

Sarasota gave Ed Smith Stadium a major facelift. They did it right!

Ben Revere shares a smile during warm ups before the Orioles game

 

Jose Mijares signed autographs for fans for several minutes before the game

Vlad Guerrero accounted for half of the O's four hits

Former Twin JJ Hardy went hitless in 3 at-bats against his old team mates Friday night

Saturday afternoon, the Rays visit Ft. Myers to play the Twins. We’re expecting Joe Mauer to catch a few innings for the first time in a Twins spring training game and Justin Morneau is supposed to DH, making it the first time he’s played in back-to-back games. The Twins don’t have another home game until Wednesday, so I suspect we’ll see the A-list lineup against the Rays.

This blogging thing is becoming exhausting… I need sleep!

- JC

Revisiting Not-so-old Friends

I’m about to hit the road for Sarasota for tonight’s Twins game against the Orioles, but I wanted to try to drop a quick post this afternoon because it will likely be late tonight or early tomorrow morning (at the earliest) before I get around to posting anything about that game.

I spent a little time today back at the minor league complex and had the opportunity to watch a few players that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing during recent seasons with the Beloit Snappers, when they’ve visited Cedar Rapids to face the Kernels. I didn’t have time to watch the whole game, but I was there long enough to see former Snappers James Beresford and Angel Morales get hits in the bottom of the first inning and eventually come around to score. In addition to Beresford and Morales, I recognized at least one other former Snapper on the field, Deibinson Romero. Romero was playing first base, though I seem to recall him being a third baseman when he was with Beloit a couple of years ago.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Knuckleballs Spring Training report without a few pictures.

James Beresford gets a lead off of second base

Angel Morales coils at the plate

Deibinson Romero ready at first base

Morales at first base following a base hit

Coach Jake Mauer and Beresford share a smile at 3B in the first inning

With that, I’m headed up to Sarasota for the evening!

- JC

 

A “Minor” Change of Plans

When I set up my plans for this year’s trip to Ft. Myers, I knew the Twins would only have two home games during the six full days I would be here. That’s really not a big deal to me because I kind of enjoy seeing some of the other spring training sites around the state of Florida.

I planned to make the trip up to Lakeland today for my first look at the Tigers’ spring training home, not to mention seeing a bit of action from the only other member of the AL Central Division that trains in Florida. In fact, I was so certain I would be making the 2+ hour drive north that I did something I don’t normally do down here… I bought a ticket in advance.

That ticket is still waiting for me at the Will Call window, I suppose.

When the Twins announced yesterday that the batteries of Carl Pavano/Drew Butera and Matt Capps/Joe Mauer would be getting some work in during a pair of minor league games, I decided to skip the Tiger game and hang around the Lee County Complex today. I’m really glad I did.

Sure, I would have enjoyed seeing Luke Hughes hit home run number five this spring and it sounds like Dusty Hughes, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla provided some highlights. But I didn’t really need to see Brad Penny drill Casilla and Delmon Young with pitches and I certainly didn’t need to see Pat Neshek give up two home runs.

Instead, I got out to the Twins complex around 9:00 this morning and spent some time watching the minor leaguers working out before heading in to Hammond Stadium where some of the Twins who didn’t make the trip to Lakeland were taking batting practice.

The last grouping included Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer (nattily attired in his WIN!/Don’t Be Denied! t-shirt) and sure enough, there next to the batting cage were none other than Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew. Oliva has been a fixture at the complex, but Killebrew just arrived Wednesday night.

Killebrew met with the media earlier in the morning and is expected to be on hand for three days. Usually, by the time I get down to Ft. Myers, Killebrew has been here and gone, but this year, his trip was delayed a bit due to his health issues. I hate that Harmon is going through the challenges related to fighting esophageal cancer, but for a child of the 60s like me, it was terrific just to get to see him on a ballfield again.

After the Twins’ BP finished up, I slipped back over to the minor league side of the facility again and struck up a nice conversation with a couple from the Quad Cities while we waited to find out which fields Pavano, Butera, Capps and Mauer would be playing at.

I’ve got to be honest… I’m not a huge Carl Pavano fan. Sure I want him to do well and since Bill Smith couldn’t/wouldn’t come up with a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher in the off-season, I was fine with bringing Pavano back as long as it wasn’t on a bank-breaking deal. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… when media types write about what a great, fan-friendly group of guys the Twins players are, they aren’t referring to Carl Pavano. He may be a lovely human being among his friends and family and he may even love kittens, but… well… yeah I’d bet he hates kittens… almost as much as he seems to dislike baseball fans.

And in case you think this is just a JC thing… I’ll just mention that it’s an opinion I found to be shared rather widely among other fans I talked to today.

I even have to admit I found it just a little amusing when Pavano got knocked around a bit by a bunch of kids wearing Red Sox minor league uniforms. Some people just seem like they could use an occasional humility lesson. I suspect Pavano is one of those people (then again, some would say I am, too). I also could almost see him do a slow burn when one of those Red Sox punks laid down a bunt that died along the third base line for a hit.

Not to fear, however, the ‘Stache’s trusty sidekick, sweet Drew Butera, gunned down the little twerp when he tried to steal second base.

I was actually more interested in the game on an adjoining field where Matt Capps was pitching the first two innings and Joe Mauer was doing the catching.

Capps looked pretty good to me and I think the young hitters he was facing would probably agree. He didn’t give up any earned runs (a bit of miscommunication between his left and center fielders resulted in an unearned run) and it was good to see he can go more than one inning, when necessary.

Joe Mauer batted in both the first and second innings and while he was 0 for 2, he hit a couple of balls very, very hard. He hit a deep fly ball to CF and almost ended his day by hitting in to a triple play. He hit a shot at the third baseman who immediately doubled off a runner at second base. The second baseman didn’t make a throw to 1B to try to turn the triple play and probably wouldn’t have got that runner if he had made the throw… but it might have been close.

After Capps and Mauer finished up their two innings, I watched Pavano and Butera a bit more. Drew had a nice double to the gap and Pavano settled down after that nasty second inning. I watched Pavano throw five innings before heading out to a Sports Bar to watch some NCAA Tournament basketball. I don’t know if he threw another inning or not, but then again, I really didn’t care all that much.

If you’re wondering what it’s like to have Major League stars play in minor league spring training games, imagine having them show up at your local beer-league softball complex. It makes getting your picture album filled up pretty easy, that’s for sure. Here are just a few examples from the 150 or so I took today.

JIm Thome gets some BP, surrounded by Mauer, Morneau, Killebrew, and Cuddyer (Tony Oliva was behind the cage)

Michael Cuddyer's shirt says it all

From inside Hammond Stadium, looking out over the practice fields

Denard Span doing the autograph thing

Joe Mauer gets loose before his game on the minor league complex

The 'Stache delivers during his game on the minor league fields

Matt Capps was looking good against the RedSox kids

Of course, these were MINOR LEAGUE games, so we really should give a couple of those guys some love. A couple of the Twins top prospects were also playing in these games. Miguel Sano was a team mate of Joe Mauer for the day and Aaron Hicks provided some offense behind Carl Pavano.

Aaron Hicks

Miguel Sano

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for today. Friday night, I’ll be making the trip up the highway to Sarasota to watch Francisco Liriano face off with the Orioles (again). Rumor has it that Justin Morneau may make the trip and Joe Mauer may get a few more swings in during another minor league game in the afternoon.

I hope all of you in the great upper midwest are staying warm! Excuse me while I put something on this little sunburn before I head back to the Sports Bar for some more basketball.

- JC