Wednesday, October 01, 2008

2008: A long look back


I’ve been playing NCAA Football ‘07 on PS2 lately. Have a season going with Oklahoma (I’m not a Sooner fan, I just like running the option with Adrian Peterson).
So I just beat Nebraska 59-0 in the Big 12 championship game to finish the regular season at 13-0. Peterson has rushed for 4,032 yards and 41 touchdowns.
So the Heisman trophy presentation comes on screen after the win over Nebraska, and who gets it? Some running back for Tennessee who had 1,700 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
What? Are you serious?

It’s kind of like how the Twins had to go on the road for the one-game playoff thanks to a coin flip, even though they won the season series. Doesn’t seem fair.

But I’m not going to focus on that. I have no sympathy for the Twins, particularly after they lost two of three to a bad (yes, the Royals are still bad) team at home when they had a chance to clinch.
And they actually played a good ball game in the loss to the Sox. I wasn’t expecting much from Nick Blackburn, but he sacked up and then some. He wasn’t perfect by any means - the Sox missed a few hangers, and of course, Jim Thome didn’t miss one - but you couldn’t have asked for more.
But John Danks was far better. He was nearly perfect. Everything had tons of movement, and he just didn’t make any mistakes.
The only thing that bugged me watching the highlight shows over and over today was how so many people were crediting Ken Griffey for his “great throw” to get Michael Cuddyer at home.
What? He was barely 30 feet behind second base and he two-hopped it. It was, in fact, a terrible throw. I could’ve got that ball home on the fly, and that’s no exaggeration.
It was such a bad throw, however, that it helped the Sox. AJ Pierzynski had to come out in front of the plate to catch it on the second hop, and by doing so, he took himself out of Cuddyer’s path. Cuddy made a valiant effort to slam into AJ to dislodge the ball, but because AJ was so far out in front of the plate he couldn’t get a real good piece of him. Had Griffey’s throw been better, there’s a good chance Cuddy would’ve caught him dead-on, and the ball just might have popped out.
(It was a great play by AJ, however. Ask any catcher how easy it is to try to scoop a short-hop throw from the outfield with a catcher’s mitt while keeping a leg in front of the plate with a runner bearing down.)

Anyway, the season has ended for the Twins. I probably won’t watch much of the first round of the playoffs, as I’m still too bitter. But I sure hope the White Sox and Cubs both lose, and once they do, I’ll probably tune in to Angels-Rays and Phillies-Dodgers.
The Dodgers-Cubs series offers a conundrum. Root for the Dodgers and their Anti-Christ leftfielder, or root for the freakin‘ Cubs?
I’m going with Man-Ram.
Ugh. Having said that, I need a shower.

So back to the Twins.
We’ll look ahead to 2009 soon enough, but for now, the question on my mind is just how are we supposed to (or how will we, in a few years) look back on 2008?
My buddy Rusty called from Houston after the game last night, and man was he pissed. He rattled on and on about AJ, about the coin flip, about how we wasted Blackburn’s gem, and he was pretty much right about everything he said.
But then he said, “I haven’t been this frustrated since…” whenever, and I was like, ‘What?’
I mean, I never really had high expectations for this team, so I can’t say I took the loss to the Sox that hard. I mean it sucks, and it really sucks that we lost to the Sox, in Chicago.
But I expected them to lose this game. Once they lost the series to KC, it was hard to really feel like the Twins deserved to be in the postseason, and it was equally hard to feel like they’d have much of a chance against the Rays (then again, it would’ve been nice to face a team that actually had less playoff experience than us for a change).
I can’t say I’m all that mad. More disappointed. I actually even kind of feel sorry for the players, because really, they let themselves down more than they did the fans. Most fans feel like the team overachieved. So they’re happy. The players know there’s a weak field this year, and they know that Detroit and Cleveland’s misfortune this year gave them a golden opportunity. They wasted it, and Cleveland will likely be back next year (the other three teams are kind of hard to peg for next year, at least right now).
And that’s why Rusty (and any sensible or knowledgeable fan) is so frustrated. The rest of the division tried to hand it to the Twins, and they gave it away. That’s frustrating no matter how bad you expected to be.

The Twins offense scored over 800 runs despite hitting only 111 homers. That’s a statistical anomaly not likely to repeat itself. While the Twins were genuinely better than expected this year, there was a lot of luck involved. They hit 20 points better than any other team with RISP. That, math majors, is called an outlier.
Not surprising, either, that while the Twins still finished with an excellent mark with runners on, that number spent most of the last couple months coming down. The Twins would’ve been in the playoffs if they’d got a big hit or two either in the KC series or in the one-game playoff against the Sox.
The Twins did not homer in their final six games of the regular season. I’m sorry, but an amateur team - using wood bats - shouldn’t go six games without a homer, let alone a major league team in a pennant race.
That simply isn’t major league offense. The Twins can talk up their small ball all they want, but the reason they had success scoring runs this year was not “flying around the bases and bunting and hit and running”, as Ron Gardenhire liked to claim. It was their unprecedented success in hitting with RISP. Once that started to slow, the Twins stopped scoring runs.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Twins style of play. I like that they’re aggressive. Denard Span and Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla are exciting players that put pressure on the pitcher and the defense. But to win the big leagues, you have to be able to hit the ball out of the park more than once a week.
And remember, this team is perfectly suited for the Metrodome, but that’s only gonna be home for one more year. The Twins won’t be able to pound choppers off the plate to create rallies at Target Field. Then again, with Cuddyer contributing almost nothing and 3B Mike Lamb a total disappointment, small ball was really the only choice the Twins had this year. I’d say they took it as far as it could possibly take them.

As for the pitching staff, it was OK.
The rotation was the biggest and best surprise of the year. Scott Baker took another step forward as an ace, while Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn settled in as solid 2-3 guys. Francisco Liriano is at least a No. 2 right now. Glen Perkins was pretty good for a 5th starter. And don’t forget that Livan Hernandez gave the team several quality starts before predictably reverting to the line-drive machine that he is after awhile.
All five should return, but with so many quality arms in the minors, there’s no telling who the Twins might look to package in a trade for offense.
But if that doesn’t happen, they have five solid starters coming back with at least four or five strong minor-league arms to challenge them in spring training.

The pen was clearly the team’s weakness. With Pat Neshek gone, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Dennys Reyes all struggled to get leads to Joe Nathan.
They tried bringing back Eddie Guardado to fill that role, but ended up turning Jose Mijares into their primary setup guy only a week after calling him up.
I’m not saying the Twins should’ve been able to guess that would happen, but they could’ve been proactive sooner.
Rather than trying something different to fix the bullpen, they just kept trotting out Guerrier and Crain with the same disastrous results.
They continued to use Boof Bonser as a mop-up guy instead of trying him in short relief, and they refused to call up, not necessarily Mijares, but any of the several relievers who were having success in the minors. All because they didn’t want to lose Brian Bass to waivers (and then, of course, they ended up trading him to Baltimore anyway).
Boof eventually became the team’s only decent right-handed reliever, and Mijares was great in the 8th inning. Craig Breslow was also pretty good. But by the time the team trusted them it was way too late.

Give Ron Gardenhire credit. He guided this team through some awfully tough times. I think that outweighs any mistakes he made (pitching changes, lineups, etc.). And first year GM Bill Smith didn’t give him much help if you ask me.

The Twins had their chances in 2008. In fact, they had more than they deserved. But from the injury to Neshek, to the repeated blown leads, to the Republican Convention forcing them on the road for 24 of 30 games, to the lost coin flip for the playoff game, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

1 comment:

Lee Schoenbeck said...

Zimm - great to read your assessment - just great to ahve you back --- I was at an Arrows football game tonight and we were talking about the Twins -- if they trade some arms from the farm system for a stick - this team is the real deal next year ---- if it wasn't for pheasant hunting and Christmas I'd be ready for opening day tomorrow - Lee Schoenbeck