How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.

In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.

When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.

Danny Valencia

By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.

Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that mlb.com columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:

So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.

Or it could be a swan song, his final season.

Jim Thome

In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.

So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.

But let’s look at the pitching.

Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

Jesse Crain

So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.

Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.

Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have  started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)

So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?

I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.

But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.

It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

No, I’m not contemplating the origins of the universe and I’m certainly not about to begin a debate over Creationism, Darwinism, or any other “ism” that much deeper thinkers than myself have put forth to explain mankind’s existence.

I just thought now might be a good time to take a look at just how our Twins went about becoming the first team in Major League Baseball to clinch their Division’s championship banner. It feels like this season has just flown by.

It seems like just yesterday that I was earning a March sunburn as I followed the Twins around Florida for a week during Spring Training. At the same time, it also feels like ages since we’ve been able to enjoy the sight of Justin Morneau in the batters box. Still, here we are… 152 games in to a 162-game schedule and the Twins are the AL Central Champions!

When your team has put together a second half like the Twins have, it’s easy to overlook just how difficult winning the AL Central really was. So today, before we get back in to discussions about playoff rotations and whether the Twins should carry 3 utility infielders or 3 catchers on their ALDS roster, let’s pause to glance back at what the Twins have accomplished this season… and how they did it.

In the first part of this post, let’s look at what went on before the 2010 season even got started.

Bill Smith

Let’s start by giving credit to General Manager Bill Smith. While other GMs made the big offseason splashes, Smith quietly laid the groundwork for this season. Shortly after the end of the 2009 season, Smith struck a deal with Milwaukee for shortstop JJ Hardy, in return for Carlos Gomez. The trade was widely viewed as two teams exchanging spare parts, each hoping the player they were getting might bounce back from an off year and fill a need for their new team.

There was speculation that the Twins might not offer arbitration to Carl Pavano, allowing him to become a free agent without the Twins receiving any draft picks as compensation. But Smith offered arbitration to Pavano and the offer was accepted. Still, Smith and the Twins were being loudly criticized by the end of the Winter Meetings in December when none of the Twins’ perceived needs had been addressed.

There was also speculation that the Twins might not have enough money to keep their bullpen depth together. Jesse Crain was considered a possible non-tender candidate. But Smith offered arbitration to all eight of the Twins arbitration-eligible players and signed all of them to deals… including Crain (whew!).

Orlando Hudson

As January came to a close, the Twins finally created a little buzz when it was revealed that the they had interest in Jim Thome, primarily as a late inning pinch hitter and occasional DH. On February 4, the Twins signed Thome to a one-year $1.5 million base contract that would, at best, be considered adequate for a part-time role player. The buzz got a bit louder the next day when the Twins announced they had signed 2B Orlando Hudson to a one-year deal.

With most of the roster set, Smith and the Twins headed to Spring Training with really only one more major issue to spend some time working out… a little matter about a contract extension for their catcher. But only the most pessimistic of Twins fans and media doubted that eventually a deal would get done… and it did.

Joe Nathan

The Twins entered March widely considered the favorites to win the AL Central again in 2010. That consensus lasted just long enough for Joe Nathan to take the mound in his first Spring Training game. On March 6, Nathan was pulled from the game “for precautionary reasons” due to “tightness and achiness” in his right elbow. After giving the injury a couple of weeks to magically repair itself, the Twins announced Nathan would miss the 2010 season and undergo Tommy John surgery. Immediately, the national media experts declared the Twins dead meat without their All Star closer and declared that the White Sox and Tigers would battle for the AL Central crown.

While Smith sniffed around the Padres camp for a possible trade for their closer Heath Bell, Gardy declared that the Twins would have a, “closer by committee… I think… no wait… I mean Jon Rauch will be our closer… for a while.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

There were a few final roster spots and pitching roles up for grabs as the Twins prepared to break camp and a couple of them would turn out to be critical to the team’s ultimate success.

Alexi Casilla

The last position-player spot was given to Alexi Casilla, over Matt Tolbert, largely because Casilla was out of minor league options and Tolbert wasn’t. Danny Valencia was given a long look in Ft. Myers but in the end it was felt he needed more time in AAA to work on his defense.

Francisco Liriano

As difficult as it may be to imagine now, Francisco Liriano ended Spring Training in a battle for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. A fair number of people felt he couldn’t be relied upon to pitch deep in to games, but might make a good closer. Brian Duensing ultimately lost out to Liriano for that final rotation spot but made the team as the long relief arm in the bullpen.

I don’t know who made those final roster decisions… Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith or some combination of the two… but those decisions would prove crucial to the Twins’ ultimate success. We’ll take a look at just how that happened in Part 2. – JC

GameChat – Indians @ Twins, #2, 7:10

First some good news:  if you haven’t already heard, Joe Mauer’s MRI today came back with good news.  It’s just some inflammation, they’ll likely give him a cortizone shot and he should be back in 4-5 days.  Justin Morneau still doesn’t have any specific prognosis other than extremely imminent fatherhood.  Obviously, that also effects his possible playing time.  But I wish him the best with that and health and safety for mom and baby!!  I can’t wait for news.

The somewhat less than good news:  because of the shortened schedule between the end of the game tonight and tomorrow’s noon game, even if the Twins DO clinch tonight, they will not be allowing fans to stay and track the White Sox game as they need to get the field ready for tomorrow.

The bad news:  Hardy is a late scratch from the lineup tonight due to a migraine.  Punto gets his spot at short.

Cleveland @ Minnesota
Brantley, CF   Span, CF
Sutton, SS   Hudson, O, 2B
Choo, RF   Kubel, RF
Hafner, DH   Cuddyer, 1B
Brown, J, 1B   Thome, DH
Marte, A, 3B   Young, D, LF
Crowe, LF   Valencia, 3B
Valbuena, 2B   Punto, SS
Marson, C   Butera, C
Carmona, F, P   Baker, S, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Cleveland 1 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 0 4 10 0
Minnesota 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 4 x 6 12 1

 

Tonight is definitely a night of landmarks.  This season’s 3 millionth fan walked through the gates to see a game at Target Field – this the most people to come see Twins baseball in a season since sometime in the 80′s, I think, and we still have a lot more to go.

800 Wins with the MN Twins

And our most sincere Congratulations to Ron Gardenhire for his 800th win as Manager of the MN Twins!  There are many who give him a lot of criticism but I gotta say that he’s been someone I have respected more in this game than any other manager I can think of.  This isn’t an easy job and he knows how to make his boys shine.  Sadly, that particular talent has kept him as the bridesmaid never the bride in the MOY honors but .. maybe this year!  Thanks for all you do Gardy!

And of course the biggest landmark that we’re all waiting for is whether or not this win is able to clinch the division title for the 6th time in 9 years.  Apparently the boys are still in the clubhouse watching the White Sox just like we’re all doing here at home.  They had all planned to go home tonight because it’s a short night before tomorrow’s noon game but I think the turn around rally of tonight’s game just has the whole team pumped up and they want to wait it out.  I hope they are having a great time in that clubhouse and really enjoying the game of baseball and the experiences of this season so far.

Tonight really did work up the energy tonight because it started pretty roughly.  Baker didn’t have a GREAT outting to speak of.  He’s obviously still working some things out.  It wasn’t horrible but he’s not ready to be a post game starter quite yet.  But once that turn around started, it seemed like EVERYONE was contributing.  So just in case the boys are planning to be doing any imbibing tonight, as a special one night occurance, we here at Knuckleballs are providing a giant sub sandwich for the whole team – all you can eat so the boys can keep themselves well-snacked while watching the Sox in California.

However, the special BOD award for tonights game chat does go to Jim Thome for his leadership tonight, including 2 hits, a HR, 2 RBI and a walk.  It was brilliantly done and I was MOST impressed by that lovely single to left field beating the fielding shift!  Great job, Big Jim!

GameChat – Twins @ Indians #2, 6:05

Ok, let’s pretend that yesterday didn’t happen and try this again.

Player updates:  Punto and Mijares are now activated – Punto’s hammy is still a bit off so running is not likely but if we need him, I’m sure he’ll be jumping up & down waving his arm saying “Put me in Coach!”  Fuentes said he’s feeling good, bullpen went great and he should be available by tomorrow.  Thome is back in the lineup and that is sure a boost to team morale I’m sure.  Baker is still working through soreness, has had one bullpen session and will likely have another in Chicago.  And Jason Repko is finally a DADDY!  He and his wife now have a little girl.  Congrats Ripcord!

For tonight, I just want Blackburn to pitch well and the offense to hit well.

Minnesota @ Cleveland
Span, CF   Brantley, CF
Hudson, O, 2B   Cabrera, A, SS
Mauer, C   Choo, RF
Kubel, RF   Hafner, DH
Cuddyer, 1B   LaPorta, 1B
Thome, DH   Crowe, LF
Young, D, LF   Donald, 2B
Valencia, 3B   Valbuena, 3B
Hardy, SS   Marson, C
Blackburn, P   Carrasco, C, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 8 0
Cleveland 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 2

 

Where do we begin to tell the story of this game?

I suppose we should begin with the fact that the game didn’t get started until almost two hours late, due to rain in Cleveland.

But once we got things going, the Twins got 8 innings of darn fine shutout pitching by Nick Blackburn. He took a no hitter through 5 innings and ended up giving up only 5 hits and a couple of walks. Jesse Crain followed with a couple of innings just as fine. Matty Guerrier came in with runners on 1st and 2nd and nobody out, made one heck of a play on a bunt to get the lead runner at 3B, then closed out the inning without giving up the winning run. Matt Capps gave us a 1-2-3 for the save. How about a nice big New York cheesecake with the toppings of their choice for those pitchers?

Now about the offense. Each team had 8 hits in 12 innings. The Tribe had 8 singles. Until the top of the 12th inning, the Twins had 7 hits, all singles. Ahhh… but that last hit… I know we all got excited, but should it really have surprised us that Jim Thome would eventually launch a ball several hundred feet and over the CF wall in his old stomping grounds? It was almost like it was scripted (though I’d be fine with the script being shortened 3 innings next time).

And you know what’s REALLY cool about that home run? With one swing of the bat, Mr. Incredible got to shove a knife in to the gut of TWO former teams… enabling the Twins to beat the Indians 1-0 AND the Bitch Sox (who lost to the Royals and thus lost a full game in the standings and two games on the “Magic Number” chart).

And for that game winner, Jim Thome (is our Homey), you are our Boyfriend of the Day! – JC

Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome! and the return of BATGIRL!!

TD Davis

After three straight games with 4 towering homeruns.. you know, we have to have a better word for hitting the top of the American flag pole or denting the pavement in the Target Field Plaza… But really, what do you call it?!?  When he used to hit them AGAINST us while playing for the White Sox, it was monstrous, even villainous. 

But now?  Big Jim is one of the good guys!  He’s our hero!!  In fact, we jokingly referred to him as Mr. Incredible in our gamechat.  So when a friend of mine posted this to his facebook this morning, I giggled with glee!  His friend, TD Davis, had had a little bit of fun with editing and here we have our own Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome!  He currently sits at #586 career homeruns, tied with Frank Robinson, but you have to know he’s not done yet!  I hope he enjoys being with the Twins as much as we fans are enjoying him being with the Twins!

Joe C. from the Strib shared this quote from Delmon Young that I think says it all:

No wonder the Royals tried pitching around him.

“Heck, I would,” Young said. “He’s been hitting downtown too much lately. It’s fun to watch. It’s a tough act to follow because he’s hitting balls 500 feet. To hit it farther is impossible, unless you’re swinging from second base.”

 

And that’s not the only thing that Joe C. shared!!  I know not all of you are twitter followers but just in case you are, there’s a new user as of last night! @Twinsbatgirl has returned to commentary – however she chooses to use it.  I’m just ecstatic to see a little bit of true sass return to the world of Minnesota fandom.  We’re glad you’re back Batgirl – hope to see more!  Please forgive the use of your logo to identify you for those less familiar with your body of work.

GameChat – Royals @ Twins, 1:10pm

So my plans changed and instead of watching the game from Huberts with Kristie over by Target Field, I’m home in bed wishing my head didn’t weigh 20 lbs.  There is an Unplugged event at Huberts tonight after the game so our plan was to be sure we had good seats by getting there before all the people let out of the game.  Oh well.  Next time. And it’s starting to get a bit.. moist.. at the field today so let’s hope that the rain passes quickly.

News about our call-up situation continues to dribble out.  Ben Revere is with the team now and seems practically speechless that it’s happened for him this year.  Fox and Delaney have both been sent down so that we have room.  I’m sure we’ll see more of them in coming years.  Joe C. was kind enough to make sure that a question was answered that has hung in the back of my mind all year.  No, Jacque Jones won’t be up with the team this year.  Apparently, while they would really have loved to see him up here, there just wasn’t enough machinations they could make with the 40 man roster.  Ok, but we needed Ben Revere?  I like the kid but I don’t see it.  But I know Jacque was glad just to be with a team playing ball this year – and have a big league chance – even if it was only the Rochester Red Wings.

As Slowey’s first start coming back from the DL, I’m glad to see more and more starter names coming back into the lineup.  Yes, we still have Tolbert out there though.  Valencia is being handled very carefully – to make sure that he doesn’t actually do serious damage by going back out too early.  I’m fairly certain that Gardy doesn’t want to have another Punto situation.  Btw, Punto is much better and eligible to come back but the team says it’ll probably be another week before he could go full out – they may do so sooner than that though if they need him for a pinch. 

hmmm..  Nick Punto as a pinch hitter??  LOL  Ok, so we know he’d be a defensive replacement.  But let’s hope that the wins continue – our cushion with the White Sox isn’t nearly big enough. The offense just needs to keep up their thing – a very successfull thing as it turns out. The Twins have the highest team BA in the league. Who would ever have guessed.

Kansas City @ Minnesota
Blanco, G, CF   Span, CF
Maier, RF   Hudson, O, 2B
Butler, DH   Mauer, C
Ka’aihue, 1B   Kubel, RF
Betemit, 3B   Cuddyer, 1B
Gordon, A, LF   Thome, DH
Pena, B, C   Young, D, LF
Getz, 2B   Hardy, SS
Betancourt, Y, SS   Tolbert, 3B
  O’Sullivan, P     Slowey, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Kansas City 0 2 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 4 10 1
Minnesota 0 1 0 1 3 0 0 0 x 5 9 0

 

Today’s game started out in a bit of a frustration for everyone.  I know we all wanted to see more from Slowey, including Kevin himself, but as far as injury returns go, that was NOT a bad outting.  He just didn’t have what he wanted with every pitch.  He still was getting the job done for the most part though.  I knew he wasn’t going to be able to go deep in the game but past the 4th would have been nice.  But Jeff Manship came in and did a great job of holding down the fort for us.  So it’s good to have that expanded bullpen right now.

The offense really did do its thing.  We were all wishing it would have done just a little more because these 1 run games are always tense.  But a win’s a win.  Tense, easy, blow out, close… these wins are all necessary to keep on track since the White Sox don’t seem to be slowing down at this point of the season either.  Gardy did verify that we’ll be adding Neshek and Perkins into the bullpen now too.  But today, the offense story was .. HOMERUN!!!  Delmon ALMOST got one, Kubel NAILED one and Thome… well, I’m not really sure there is a word for what Thome did.  Field staff put out an estimate on the distance and then put out a REVISED distance – 480 feet.  Wow.  Of course, that’s an estimate of where it would have landed if the travel would have been unobstructed because he HIT THE AMERICAN FLAG POLE!  Just a ridiculous mashing of taters there.  For that, Jim Thome is today’s BOD.

GameChat – Rangers @ Twins #2, FOX & am1500, 3:10 pm

Since KL & Babs are doing the State Fair and JC is doing Hawkeye football today, we are short on time and access to get the gamechat up. Hopefully, things will be filled in soon to give you the lineups and such.

Texas @ Minnesota
Andrus, SS   Span, CF
Young, M, 3B   Hudson, O, 2B
Hamilton, CF   Cuddyer, 1B
Guerrero, DH   Thome, DH
Cruz, N, LF   Young, D, LF
Kinsler, 2B   Hardy, SS
Moreland, 1B   Repko, RF
Francoeur, RF   Tolbert, 3B
Molina, B, C   Butera, C
  Lewis, P     Pavano, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Texas 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 1 4 10 0
Minnesota 5 0 1 3 0 0 3 0 x 12 11 0

 

hehehe..  heheheheheee .. HAHAHAHAHAAHHAAHA!!!!

THOME PASSED MCGWIRE!!!!  He hit 2, count them 1 – 2, homeruns in todays game so as not to spend unnecessary time tied with one of the steroid princes (less than half an hour) and is continuing his pursuit of 600.  I hope he’s able to stay with us long enough to achieve that lofty goal.  But for now, he achieved a stellar mark in itself and doing so with integrity.  For that, Jim Thome is most definitely today’s BOD.

But today’s game was just so much fun even aside from the Thome Taters.  When a team has 12 runs, there was more than one person being pretty successful with the bat.  Believe it or not, TOLBERT was the one really swinging well today – 2 triples and a career-high 5 RBI.  JJ Hardy was 3/4 with 2 RBI – I like it that he’s back to hitting well.  So even on a day where we have the “B” lineup out there, we just killed with the bat.  We’ve had person after person go down with one injury or another and the most unlikely people keep stepping up to get us wins.  So Tolby, Hardy, you boys can share a great big bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies and all the milk you can drink.

And Pavano went out there and threw 8 innings of masterful baseball against that Texas lineup.  God love him, he still has the ‘stache.  And Rob Delaney makes his major league debut for the 9th inning.  It wasn’t perfect, especially since the first batter he faced took him yard, but it was most definitely a good outting.  And it’s good to have the rest of the bullpen get a good rest.  You guys both get Pronto Pups with the condiments of your choice.  Thanks bunches!

Boyfriend of the Month for August: Dead Heat at the Wire

The folks who have gathered in our GameChats handed out 22 Boyfriend of the Day (BOD) awards in August (a few more than the actual number of Twins wins because we had some co-BOD games mixed in there). Heading in to the final game of the month, there were no fewer than eight players tied for the lead in the Boyfriend of the Month battle. That’s a far cry from the month of July when Delmon Young had his monster month and walked away with BOM honors.

But before we get to this month’s BOM award, let’s take a glance at where the race for Knuckleballs’ Boyfriend of the Year stands heading in to September. This race is all but over, folks. It will take someone getting awfully hot down the stretch to overtake DY’s lead in the BOY race, given that he holds a 12 to 7 lead over Francisco Liriano on the year. Frankie’s grip on “runner up” honors is much more tenuous, however. Fellow rotation members, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano have racked up 6 BODs each, while the group of Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, and Danny Valencia all are still within reach of Liriano with 5 BODs a piece.

Turning back to Boyfriend of the Month… as it turns out, it was very appropriate that Valencia and Michael Cuddyer wrapped up the month of August with co-BOD performances against the Tigers on Tuesday night. Heading in to that final game, those two guys joined Mauer, Liriano, Slowey, Jim Thome, Scott Baker and Brian Duensing with two BOD awards during the month, making August by far the month with the largest number of players earning multiple awards.

But with their efforts on Tuesday, Michael and Danny did just enough to separate themselves from the pack and earn co-Boyfriend of the Month awards for August! – JC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P.S. A huge thank you to Joe Christensen at the Star Tribune for sending out via text message (and his blog) a link to this column by Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin. It’s a terrific read for anyone who saw games at the Met, the Dome and Target Field (and a pretty darn good read even for those who didn’t). If you only have time to read one more article online today, make it that one. – JC

Retaliation: Manning Up or Sophomoric Silliness?

The discussion started during the series with the White Sox.

Sox pitcher Sergio Santos threw a pitch “high and tight”, causing Twins hitter JJ Hardy to have to react quickly to avoid taking the pitch in the helmet. Later, Delmon Young went after Sox catcher AJ Pierzynski with both forearms extended in the general vicinity of AJ’s face on a play at the plate. Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson suggested Young needed to experience a “Rawlings in the earhole” as a result of the play. The rest of the series, however, was relatively uneventful as no further extracurricular activity took place between the two teams (though I would say there were a couple of clearly “hard and late” slides in to second base by Sox runners).

This week in Texas, the discussion continues. Immediately after a coaching visit to the mound Tuesday night, Twins  hitter Jim Thome took a Neftali Feliz fast ball to the leg, with light-hitting Matt Tolbert in the on-deck circle.

Comments from the Sox and Twins clubhouses after each of these events avoided direct accusations. But is that because the teams are giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt… or are players and managers just wising up to the reality that the quickest way to draw a fine from MLB is to speak openly about possible retaliation?

Few topics draw opinions as polarizing as the issue of what a team (and specifically, its pitchers) should do when they feel opponents have intentionally hit (or even thrown at) one of their batters.

There are generally two schools of thought on the issue. The “old school” philosophy is pretty simple, really. You need to protect your team mates. If you think someone is targeting your guys, someone needs to step up and make it clear there will be consequences for that kind of thing. The folks at BleacherReport.com did a pretty good job of expressing this point of view in this article last season.

On the other side of the spectrum are the pacifists who argue that intentionally trying to hit or injure another player, even if it’s in retaliation for similar attempts by an opponent, is at best childish, silly and counter-productive, and at worst extremely dangerous. Fanhouse columnist Jay Mariotti wrote this piece last season, strongly arguing this side of the debate. (I should add, however, that given Mr. Mariotti most recently made the news by being arrested and jailed on a felony domestic violence charge, perhaps he’s not the most credible source to cite in making the case for controlling tempers and concern over inflicting serious injuries on others.)

A lot of hitters wear enough body armor to feel right at home at King Arthur’s Roundtable and that allows them to crowd the plate and get much better coverage of the outside corner. Pitchers are entitled to throw inside and, in fact, those who can’t/won’t/don’t do so regularly have little chance of prolonged success in baseball. And since throwing a baseball 90+ MPH is not an exact science, throwing inside means sometimes you’re going to hit a batter. That’s an acknowledged part of the game, which is why there’s a rule awarding 1B to a hitter struck by a pitch.

I think there may be a couple of things we can all agree on. First, not every HBP calls for retaliation. Most HBPs come in situations and circumstances where there clearly is no intent on the part of the pitcher to hit the batter. Maybe it’s a close game or maybe it’s a lousy hitter with a good hitter on deck or maybe it’s just a hitter who has a reputation for intentionally “taking one for the team”. In these situations, any form of retaliation is simply not called for and a hitter who gets all bent out of shape in those situations needs to just chill and take his base.

Likewise, I think we can also all agree that it is never OK to throw a pitch with the intent to hit a batter in the head. This goes beyond anything that could even arguably be considered appropriate retaliation as it truly has not only the potential to cause life/career ending injury, but a high likelihood of doing so if the pitch makes the intended contact. There’s no place for that sort of thing in any sport at any level.

But what about those situations where you and your team mates are pretty damn sure your opponents are using your hitters for target practice? What about those hitters who crowd the plate and as a result, they are rattling the opposite field wall with one extra-base hit after another? What about the players who are, shall we say, “overly aggressive” on the base paths and are barreling hard in to your fielders?

I readily admit that I fall in to the “old school” camp. (I was a pitcher in my playing days and I distinctly remember the first time I hit a batter intentionally. I was 14… and he was far from the last guy I intentionally plunked in the butt.) I suspect most men who played organized baseball growing up 30-40 years ago probably join me there. Is it a “guy thing”? Is it generational?

Are there other, better, more civilized ways of policing this kind of thing? Should players just trust Bud Selig and MLB to police the sport and hand out appropriate punishment?

I expect the Twins to retaliate for the pitch that struck Jim Thome on Tuesday. It may or may not be tonight. It may or may not be through the expected method of a Ranger hitter getting hit or knocked down by a Twins pitcher. The Twins are in a pennant race and teams in that situation are smart enough to realize they can’t risk an important player getting suspended. But there will be a message delivered at some point. Ballplayers have long memories (and on this subject, Delmon Young probably should stay loose in the batters box during the upcoming trip to The Cell in Chicago, too.)

But let’s hear what you think. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. – JC

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enema?

NOTE: Yes, this is another long JimCrikket rant but if you’ve been coming here halfway regularly this season, you should be used to it by now and I’m tired of apologizing for being long winded. – JC

Enema… that’s the plural form of the word “enemy”, right? (I may be off on the appropriate word, but I just don’t feel like looking it up and it still seems to fit since this post is about the Bitch Sox and Yankees.)

Almost nothing riles up the folks who populate Bitch Sox message boards and blogs quite like when Ozzie Guillen says something complimentary about the Twins to the media. (Yes, I peruse their sites occasionally. I suppose you could say that makes me a “troll”, but I never post any comments to stir up the locals, so I don’t really think of it as trolling. It’s more like feeding some sort of harmless, but deep-seated, voyeuristic fetish that conventional society may consider borderline perverted… and who among us doesn’t have one or two of those?)

To put it in terms Twins fans may be able to relate to, Bitch Sox fan responses to Ozzie’s man-love for Gardy and the Twins is comparable to comments you see on Twins boards and blogs when Gardy becomes effusive about how Nick Punto “gets after it”. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with expressing respect for how an opponent (or a player with limited natural ability) works hard to play the game “the right way”, it’s just that hearing it over and over and over (and over) again starts to wear on you, I guess. I’m sure this is especially true of  Bitch Sox fans who have had to endure watching their team lose something like 741 out of the last 742 games to the Twins (again, I could be off a bit on the number, I just don’t feel like looking that up either).

Has Ozzie overdone his man-love for the Twins a bit? Yeah, probably. It appears as though he was so impressed by the “piranyas” the Twins fielded a few years back that he convinced his GM, Kenny Williams, to clone that team and put them in Sox uniforms in 2010. Can’t you just imagine the conversation those two had in the offseason?

Williams: “Hey Ozzie, what do you think about bringing Jim Thome back as our DH?”

Ozzie: ”No, no, no… he’ll never stay healthy and he can’t play defense. We need flexibility. Give me Mark Kotsay, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Mark Teahan and I’ll have plenty of DH options.”

What’s the matter, Ozzie, weren’t Jason Tyner, Lew Ford, Rondell White or Jeff Cirillo available?

Anyway, as I was trolling… er… reading through the Bitch Sox fans’ post game comments Tuesday and Wednesday, it struck me just how similar they were to what I’ve read about Twins fans’ feelings toward the Yankees (or as I prefer to refer to them, the F’ing Yankees). The frustration level is off the charts in both cases.

But being a Bitch Sox fan having to endure this kind of one-sided relationship has to be even worse. Can you imagine how it would feel if the Twins not only were consistently getting slapped around by the Yankees, but were having it happen 18 times a season AND were having to spend October playing golf instead of playoff baseball because the Yankees consistently were winning the Division? You might as well be a Blue Jays fan.

There are signs lately, however, that perhaps the Ozzie/Twins love-fest may be wearing a bit thin, even with the Bitch Sox and their manager themselves. Ozzie’s been quoted as saying he, “hates the Twins”. He certainly was not appreciative of Carlos Quentin, being hit by a couple of pitches in a game with the Twins at The Cell (is that an appropriate nickname for that prison of a ballpark in Chicago, or what?) a couple weeks ago after Quentin hit a home run in the game. He was convinced that at least the last HBP by Glen Perkins was intentional. Frankly, I’m convinced of it, too. But how can you complain when you pretty much stand on top of the plate the way Quentin does?

Then there was the comment Sox bullpen coach Juan Nieves made prior to this series. (Who the heck interviews a bullpen coach, anyway? What’s next, interviewing the batboy? From what I can tell, the bullpen coach’s primary, perhaps only, responsibility is to answer the phone when the call comes in from the dugout to get a relief pitcher warmed up. And this guy is talking trash?). If you listen to it, (starts about at the 27 minute mark) it’s pretty clear that (a) he’s not a Twins fan, and (b) he wasn’t kidding about wanting one of his pitchers to intentionally drill Joe Mauer for the purpose of starting a fight. So when one of  Nieves’ relief pitchers zipped a heater past the bill of JJ Hardy’s helmet Tuesday, I think it’s safe to assume the Twins dugout took notice.

The next inning, when Delmon Young broke for home from 3B on a ground ball to second, I believe he had two things in mind: 1-score the run and 2-if I can knock AJ Pierzynski in to the next galaxy in the process, that’s cool, too. When it became clear the throw was going to get to AJ well before DY could get to the plate, it’s quite possible the two priorities swapped places in Young’s mind.

Bitch Sox fans were enraged. In fact, perhaps their biggest fan (or at least the loudest), “Hawk” Harrelson proclaimed from the broadcast booth that Young should find out what it feels like to have a Rawlings “in his earhole”. (That Hawk… classy as ever, isn’t he?)

Not that Bert Blyleven (or I, for that matter) would say anything too different if a Yankee like Mark Teixeira took similar aim at Joe Mauer, of course. That’s the nature of a bitter rivalry. The team (and its fans) that feels like it’s getting bullied and beaten around by another team becomes blind to anything but exacting revenge. It can cause a team and its fans to lose focus on what’s important… winning the game and competing for a championship.

I know that keeping things in perspective is easier said than done. I know that because when I consider what I think the Twins should do about this escalating level of tension between the teams, I’m torn myself. My head says, “Don’t be stupid, win the games and don’t risk losing anyone important to injury or suspension and, along with him, your grip on the Division.” But my instincts say, “Get the first two outs of the game and then drill Alex Rios in the ass! Get the first punch in, take the resulting inevitable umpire warning to both benches, and prevent the  Bitch Sox from being able to retaliate with impunity.” It’s a tough call.

Here’s another thing that I find very interesting: The near-universal and absolute hatred among Bitch Sox fans for all things and people Twins-related. I could not believe the number of “F*** Jim Thome” comments I read on their boards. Virtually to a person, they feel that the Twins have been, are, and always shall be, dirty players and cheap-shot artists. Reading their comments, you would think they’re talking about a team full of Ty Cobbs over here. I mean… seriously? This obviously runs 180 degrees counter to the widely held (though arguably inaccurate) perception among Twins fans that this roster is too soft… that there’s nobody with any sort of competitive edge… too “Minnesota nice”.

But here’s the thing… my sense is that most of us have always considered the  Bitch Sox to be a rival, certainly, but more of an annoyance than anything else. They had a nice season in 2005 and Thome beat us in game 163 a couple of years ago. But I’ve just never considered them a serious threat to the Twins continued success. The Indians (during eras when they ride their rollercoaster to the top) and the Tigers (more consistently a thorn in the Twins side) tend to concern me more than the Bitch Sox do. The A’s, Angels and F’ing Yankees? Absolutely, as they’ve presented the hurdles the Twins have been unable to clear in recent efforts to get to the World Series. But the Bitch Sox? Eh, not so much.

I realize that those of us who are former Batlings were pretty much obligated to join Batgirl in her hatred of the Bitch Sox “with a white hot fire.” But I always felt that the “hatred” was like something you felt toward an annoying little brother that you know you can just slap out of the way when you get bored with him.

But when I read garbage like what’s spewed in this lovely thread entitled “Drill Baby Drill” from one of the Bitch Sox message boards, I realize that Batgirl may have had it right. Throughout the thread, Bitch Sox fans not only whine about how badly abused their poor players have been by the Twins, but advocate that season and career ending injuries be inflicted upon Delmon Young and Joe Mauer.

So let me conclude with a couple of appropriate, and apparently timeless, Batgirl quotes from 2004:

“…you could fire every player on the Bitch Sox, plus their coaching staff and management and still have a character problem.”

“Put your playing where your bitching is, boys.”

I wish I had Batgirl’s way with words. – JC