With Joe Mauer just a few days away from returning to the team, the Twins would be very fortunate if they were to be at the .500 mark come Friday. As we, the fans, have learned so far this season, no victory comes easy to the Twins. After taking two of three from Cleveland, the defending American League Champion, Tampa Bay Rays came to town for a three game set. After being the Cinderella story of the Majors last year, the Rays have started the 2009 season like previous season, near the bottom of the AL East. Although it is early, both teams need some victories to stay close in their respective divisional races.
After a few rough outings for Scott Baker, he should some improvement. He worked six innings, giving up four earned runs off six hits. He struck out seven batters and walked only one. You may be wondering where the homeruns are? Well, that’s the best part. He didn’t give up a homerun tonight. His pitch location was much better tonight, as he wasn’t leaving as many strikes up in the zone. Some fans were a little worried about Baker’s first couple starts, but I don’t think there needs to be any panic. It’s too early in the season to be saying if someone will have a bad year or not.
The Twins offense was only able to get five hits off the Tampa pitching. However, one of those hits was a Joe Crede homerun that came in the sixth inning of Jeff Niemann. That was really the only highlight of the Twins offense all night. The Twins 3-4-5 hitting (Morneau, Kubel, Crede) went 1-for-11 with the lone hit being Crede’s homerun. If these three guys aren’t hitting well in games, it will be very tough to win them.
Francisco Liriano is another Twins pitcher that has had early season struggles. If there is on pitcher that all eyes are on this year, it has to be Liriano. He is entering the 2nd year after having Tommy John Surgery and that is about the time when pitchers are close to being fully healed and back to their old self. Today Liriano looked like the pitcher of old. Although his stats weren’t stellar, he was able to keep the Rays in check. He would give up two earned runs off seven hits in six and two-thirds innings of work. After Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares were able to pitch 1⅓ scoreless innings, Nathan came in for the save attempt. This is more than usually a piece of cake. Well the very first pitch from Nathan to Ben Zobrist was not what we expect. Zobrist launched the pitch to right field for a homerun over the baggy. Nathan was able to get out of the 9th without anymore harm done.
With the blown save by Nathan, this forced the Twins offense to step up and get him the win. After hitting a first inning, two run homer, Justin Morneau was relatively quiet throughout the game. Well that all changed in the ninth inning. After two Twins hits and a wild pitch, the Twins were in position to win the game. With the bases loaded and one out, Justin stepped up to the plate looking for a game winning hit. As we the fans have seen so far this year, a base loaded situation with one out is no sure bet for a run.
The Rays actually brought Zobrist in from right field to be a fifth infielder. Well even that couldn’t stop Morneau from being the hero. Justin would hit a fastball right to Akinori Iwamura, who flipped it to Jason Bartlett at second. However, Akinori had trouble getting it out of his glove, which allowed Justin to reach first just before the ball got there. This allowed Jose Morales to score the winning run. So the Twins almost found a way to blow a perfect situation, but Lady Luck was on our side.
After a dramatic win last night, the Twins looked to carry the momentum into the rubber match of the series. With Scott Kazmir on the mound, it seemed like it might be tough to get some runs. Well, it was a totally different story. The Twins got to Kazmir early and often. The Twins scored four runs in the first inning, allowing them to bat around the order. The Twins would later tack on four more runs, before Kazmir was finally pulled from the game. The key to the Twins scoring was the top of their order. With Morneau hitting the 3rd spot, the 1-2-3 hitters went 9-for-14 with six runs scored and two RBI.
With early run support, Nick Blackburn was able to pitch without much worry. Looking for his second straight win, Blackburn pitched a very good game. Blackburn isn’t known as a big strikeout pitcher, which was evident in this game. He was able to force 11 groundouts and 7 flyouts. He was able to get three strikeouts on top of that and walked only one batter. Craig Breslow and Luis Ayala would later each pitch an inning. Ayala however did give up one run in the ninth, but by that point the game was out of reach.
The Twins will start a three game series against Kansas City on Friday night. The biggest news in the upcoming series will be the return of Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Twins fans are ecstatic about his anticipated return. He instantly will provide protection for Morneau and his leadership behind the plated so coveted by many around the league. The Twins, will however, have to decide who to send down to Triple-A or place on the disabled list. There has been talk of placing Mike Redmond on the DL with a sore shoulder, as Jose Morales has been playing very well. I will keep you updated on this as more information is revealed.