That's Why They Play Nine, You Communists: Meet Your First Place Minnesota Twins

AP Photo/Hannah Foslien

I’m not a fair weather fan. Honest to God, I’m not.


I’m not.

This season, however, I am trying very hard not to let the game eat me alive. I’m also trying very hard not to allow the game to eat up so damn much of my time. It’s a hard habit to break, though, and so far it’s been a rough balancing act. I was in New York for a week –the Yankees were out of town, but I did get out to Shea to see the Mets– and I had promised myself that while I was out of town I would limit myself to a brief perusal of the boxscores each morning. No Baseball Tonight. No channel surfing. No sitting in front of a computer tracking the Twins on the internet.

I didn’t do so well on that last one, but it really could have been a whole lot worse.

I was at Shea the night Morneau hit his grand slam to put the Twins up 5-0 at Texas. They flashed that bright bit of news on the scoreboard. It seemed like fifteen minutes later I looked up there again and saw that the score was suddenly 5-5.

I should have kept that night in mind on Sunday afternoon, when I turned off the game after the first inning –with Boof and the Twins down 6-0– and headed off to the May Day festivities at Powderhorn Park. Throughout the afternoon, whenever I saw somebody wearing any sort of sports apparel (rare, this), I’d ask them if they’d heard a score for the Twins game. I got a lot of blank stares and shrugs. Eventually I encountered an old fellow sitting on a blanket, wearing a Twins cap, and listening to a transistor radio.

"Do you have a Twins score for me?" I asked.

The guy scowled. "They were getting killed," he said. "I turned it off."

It was a beautiful day to be outside, even without baseball, and even though I was surrounded by thousands of communists and hippies (just kidding, comrades; like millions of other people, if I could really believe in the things I think I believe in I could be one of you, just as long as you didn’t ask me to ride around on one of those Dr. Seuss bikes or forsake Mountain Dew and Twizzlers).

At any rate, it was wonderful to come home, call up the ESPN page on the computer, and discover that the Twins had come back to knock off the Tigers.

And if you’re paying enough attention that you’re paying attention to me and my blather (which means, obviously, that you’re paying way too much attention), then you know that our local nine has now won five straight at home and moved into first place in the Central, a division that is suddenly –at least through the season’s first month– locked up in a pleasant and almost inexplicable parity scrum.

I like this Twins team. Right from the get-go I thought they were going to be fun to watch for the long haul, won-loss column be damned. And they haven’t disappointed me so far. Do they look or feel like a first-place team to me? No, honestly, I can’t say that they do. Not yet, at any rate. But neither do any of the other teams in the Central at the moment.

This is crazy, I’m sure, but I’m ready to write off the Tigers. A month isn’t a large enough sample size, I know, but this is a team with some serious problems, a blockbuster roster with a severe identity crisis. They seem to have a different problem every night, and I don’t think that bodes well for either them or for Jim Leyland’s sanity. Only three teams in the AL have scored more runs than Detroit, but only one (Texas) has given up more runs –the Tigers have surrendered 174 runs, 44 more than the Twins. And all those runs Detroit has scored have come in bursts; they’ve also been shutout four times, and scored just one run on four other occasions (true to their schizoid nature, they’ve also scored ten or more runs four times). The starting pitching has been miserable. The bullpen is worse than it’s looked –even though it looked plenty shaky against the Twins. The defense is sketchy, and has been made even worse by Leyland’s insistence on playing guys out of position.

There have been plenty of encouraging things about the Twins performance thus far, but this is by far the most encouraging number to me, particularly given the insane unbalanced schedule: they’re now 12-6 against the Central. Detroit is an astounding 4-12, and everyone else is hanging around .500.

I’ve also been encouraged by the starting pitching, the Liriano debacle notwithstanding. Livan has been Livan; living large and dangerous, and fun to watch when he’s spotting his fastball [sic] and working in that outrageous 60-mph shazam special. I know I made the Ramon Ortiz comparison early on, but the difference here is that even when Hernandez has been mediocre in his career he’s always been a freakishly healthy innings eater.

Most surprising to me has been the poise of Bonser, Scott Baker, and Nick "The Milkman’s Mauer" Blackburn. You saw it from Bonser on Sunday; after getting nicked and knocked around in the first –and throwing, what? 48 pitches?– he managed to gut out five more shutout innings (without walking anybody) and get the game to the bullpen. Baker and Blackburn have done the same thing time and again. Even at their worst they’ve all pitched; they just keep making adjustments and mixing their pitches and grinding, and it was a huge thing for the offense to come back on Sunday and hold up their end of the deal. For the most part the entire rotation has been performing like crafty veterans, and that was a whole hell of a lot more than anybody expected back in March.

The starting pitching may yet be the serious concern we all thought it would be –particularly if injuries become even more of a factor– but right now the more obvious worry is the offense, and that seems to me to be one thing the Twins could reasonably address. I worry about an American League team with an on base percentage of .310 and a slugging percentage of .374, and a team with the second fewest runs scored in the league. I worry about a team whose one and two hitters are tied for the team lead in strikeouts.

Carlos Gomez is worth the price of admission. He’s serious fun to watch, and, at 22, promises to be even more fun to watch in the years to come. When he gets on base he might already be one of the most exciting players ever to wear a Twins uniform. Despite being a pretty crummy bunter, he’s on a pace to obliterate the team record for bunt hits in a season. But, fun and exciting as he is, Gomez is not a leadoff hitter. A guy with 26 strikeouts, three walks, and a .297 OBP is not a leadoff hitter, particularly when he’s generally being followed by a guy –Brendan Harris– with 26 strikeouts, six walks, and a .315 OBP. This is just basic baseball logic, and you’d think it would be more widely accepted by now.

What do you think the over and under is on Gomez’s 2008 OBP? I’d be delighted –and surprised– if he cracks .325.

This is the third year in a row I’ve harped about this, and maybe the problem here is that it just makes too much logical sense, but Joe Mauer should be leading off for the Twins. Every night. I know he just seems to be getting comfortable in the three hole, but tough shit. That sort of thing is hogwash anyway. If a guy can really hit, he can hit anywhere in the lineup. Mauer now has a .396 OBP; he doesn’t strikeout much, has pretty good wheels, is one of the most fundamentally solid baserunners on the club, and he’s not yet –and may never be– a consistent middle-of-the-order run producer. What he would be, though, is a damn good leadoff hitter. He already leads the team in runs scored batting in the two and three spots.

So, dammit, move him up. Start there, move Gomez down to ninth, and he’ll still have Mauer batting behind him every time he’s on base and wreaking havoc. Go ahead and bat Harris second if you want –I can’t think of anybody else, other than Mauer, wh
o’s suited for that slot– and why not toss Jason Kubel into the three hole and see if he can get some better pitches to hit (and learn to be a lot more selective)?

Watching the Chicago series last week, I was a little bit astonished by how incredulous Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven were by the fact that Nick Swisher, with his .220 batting average, was leading off for the White Sox. They couldn’t believe it. How long, they wondered, would Ozzie Guillen persist in this folly? Never once did they mention Swisher’s walk totals, runs scored, or on base percentage (23, 20, and .354 as of this moment).

It amazes me that so many apparently serious fans of the game –and so many people within baseball organizations (including managers)– still don’t seem to get it.

Why not try to assemble a fucking batting order that actually makes baseball sense and is designed to maximize production?

Why the hell not?

What do you have to lose besides games?