Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Notebook Dump (07.01.08)

Game: Twinks 4, Tigers 5

Box Score

Record: 45-38, 2nd, 2.5 games back

Streak: 1 loss

Minnesota Twins' Glen Perkins throws against the Detroit Tigers in first inning of a baseball game Monday, June 30, 2008, in Minneapolis.

The Quote: "When you have lead and go to our bullpen normally it holds up. Tonight it didn't... We just couldn't get them out tonight and we end up losing a ballgame." - Ron Gardenhire

The Inning: What's a bench coach-slash-third base coach-slash-acting manager to do? Scott Ullger's squad was clinging to a three-run lead in the top of the seventh against a very potent offense. A Detroit line-up that had devoured left-handed starters to the tune of 15 wins and just 5 losses while hitting .296/.368/.446 and the Twins left-handed starter Glen Perkins had spent the evening scattering six hits around his eight strike outs. Sure, Marcus Thames in the second inning did the one thing that Marcus Thames does well which is hit home runs. Thankfully for Perkins, it was a harmless solo shot. So far in 2008 Marcus Thames is hitting a home run every 11.2 plate appearances. The frequency increases to a home run every 10.5 plate appearances when facing left-handed pitching. In his following two plate appearances against Perkins, Perk struck Thames out with good 90+ mph fastballs. Thames is a microcosm of everything the Tigers are in the past two weeks. In the past 14 days, Thames has hit .382/.417/.794 while hitting 4 home runs. As a team the Motown Cats having been hitting .317/.369/.506 in that same span. In the past 14 games, the Tigers have scored 5.8 runs per game. Entering the final third of a game while holding this offense to just the solitary run is almost a victory in and of itself.

Unfortunately "almost" is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In the sixth inning Perkins had retired the aforementioned Thames (on the second strike out), Gary Sheffield (on a nasty 79-mile per hour curveball that dove towards Sheff's shins) and Ivan Rodriguez (on a 2-1 fastball that Rodriguez lifted to Alexi Casilla in short right) with 11 pitches. His pitch count was at 85 pitches through those six innings. When the bottom half of the inning concluded and the Twins' hitters tacked on one more to stretch the lead to three, it was obvious that Ullger was letting Perkins take the mound with a short leash to face the eighth (Ryan Raburn), ninth (Curtis Granderson) and lead-off (Edgar Renteria) hitters. In his most recent start in San Diego, Perkins needed 91 pitches to complete five innings before being lifted. The start before that Perkins used 107 pitches to get through 8 innings of baseball against the Washington Nationals but had a comfortable lead against a very bad hitting team. Before that, Perkins made consecutive starts of 93 pitches each. Only six times in his career has he been asked to face a batter after throwing 100 pitches. The seventh inning would start with the right-handed batting Ryan Raburn. In his small sample size of 33 plate appearances in 2008 against left-handed pitching, Raburn had show power as indicated by his slugging of .563. In his two prior at-bats, Perkins had gotten him to pop out to center and ground into a fielder's choice with Rodriguez being forced at second. Raburn pulled a slow curve to Brian Buscher at third who tossed across the diamond to retire him for the first out. The Raburn at-bat cost Perkins five more pitches bringing his nightly total to 90. The next two would have to be very efficient match-ups if Perkins expected to finish the seventh. It would be a difficult task to make Granderson, a batter that averages 4.2 pitches per plate appearance, and Renteria, who averages 3.6 per plate appearance, to hack quickly this late in the game.

Granderson has typically been a spectator when the opposing teams start a left-handed pitcher. Just 20% of his career plate appearances totals have come against southpaws. His .207/.268/.367 career line coupled with a 27% strikeout rate is reason enough to clear some space on the bench for him. Regardless, manager Jim Leyland penciled him in against Perkins to unexpected results. In his first at-bat, Granderson singled up the middle. He was called out on strikes in his second at-bat but he made Perkins throw seven pitches to get the out. Perkins feed him fastballs away. The first one, up and out of the zone, Granderson chased and fouled. The second was low and away which was taken for a ball. With a one-and-one count and one out, Perkins returned to the outer half of the plate with a fastball - one that caught too much of the plate as Granderson lined it to center. With a runner on first and three right-handed batters due up, Ullger decided that 93 pitches was the magic number for Glen once again. Awkwardly, Ullger approached the mound, signalled for the right-handed Canuck Jesse Crain and fumbled for the ball out of Perk's hand who left the game with the runner in his name and a game score of 57.

Since the Milwaukee series at Miller Park, Crain has been nearly untouchable. In his 6 appearances and 5.2 innings of work, Crain has struck out seven and walked just one resulting in three holds and one blown save in San Diego (the Twins won anyways). Logically Crain would be the ideal seventh inning candidate to bridge to Matt Guerrier (or possibly one of the two left-handed option) in the eight to Joe Nathan in the ninth for the save. Crain and Guerrier led the team with 9 holds a piece. Crain walked Renteria on five pitches. This brought up Placido Polanco. Polanco, like the rest of the Tigers team, had been hitting exceptionally well the past two weeks. In 45 plate appearances in that time, Polanco had been hitting .415/.422/.532. It took one 95-mph fastball from Crain to Placido to bring Granderson home from second and move Renteria to 3rd.

Suddenly, the Twins were now clinging to a two-run lead with the tying run on first with Carlos Guillen now approaching the plate. It was evident that Crain simply did not have it. Ullger went to retrieve him only to replace him with Dennys Reyes. This to those that follow things like statistics, is a curious move. Reyes in his 38 match-ups against right-handed batters had seen a significant uptick in his platoon splits of .344/.447/.469 (lefties were hitting just .180/.226/.260 in 54 plate appearances). In 67 plate appearances against left-handed pitching the switch-hitting Carlos Guillen had hit lefties at a .333/.409/.544 rate while batting from the right side of the plate. Managerially, Ullger was attempting to play one move ahead thinking Reyes could retire Guillen then easily handle the left-handed batting Clete Thomas. Most often, it is better to focus on the task at hand as one slider from Reyes to Guillen and the lead quickly vanished to one with Polanco moving to scoring position with just the one out. This would be the first earned run the bullpen would allow in nearly 25 innings of work. Reyes, as predicted, got the left-handed batting Thomas to ground out to short. Then Ullger was forced to make one more move. With Marcus Thames coming up Ullger reached in for his last right-handed set-up man in Matt Guerrier. Guerrier used five pitches to strikeout Thames, getting him to watch his big curve for strike three.

In just one inning, the Twins bullpen need three arms to get two outs. I don't necessarily blame Ullger for the first two maneuvers. Perkins was nearing hit pitch threshold. Crain had been rested for three days and was ineffective and had to be removed. Guillen, however, was the difficult decision. His platoon splits on his career suggest he hits better left-handed but on the season he has been far better against left-handed pitching indicating that a match-up against a right-handed arm might have been more appropriate. Second-guessing aside, this is not the way a team would like to open a three-game series against a very good hitting team by burning through most of their bullpen. Yes, Kevin Slowey's complete game shutout gave the relievers an extra day of rest allowing both Crain and Reyes to enter the game on three days of rest but even though the two relievers threw less than 10 pitches and could be called on to perform in one of the next two Tigers games. Unfortunately now Guerrier, after tossing 30 pitches and eventually being accountable for the loss in the eighth inning, is probably unavailable for tonight's game and might also need Wednesday off too.