Monday

11-18-13 Wild Blog: Josh Harding - Best Story In The NHL?

With a concussed Niklas Backstrom on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time, Josh Harding has solidified his hold on the number-one goaltender position for the Minnesota Wild. More than that, he may have locked himself in as the best story in the NHL this season.

The 29-year-old net-minder is in his 8th season in the NHL, all with the Wild. A career back-up, he was supposed to continue in that role this season after Minnesota resigned Backstrom to a three-year deal. But a series of injuries have thrust Harding into the starting role, and he's responded better than most would have imagined.

Seventeen games is a relatively small sample-size for NHL goalies, but Harding's numbers still stand out. Coming into Sunday night's game against Winnipeg, he led the league in Goals Against Average (1.26, a quarter-goal clear of his nearest competitor) and Save Percentage (.945, tied with Robin Lehner of Ottawa).

He is also tied for first in Shutouts (2) and tied for second in Wins (12). His 11-game point-streak (9-0-2) is also the longest by any Wild goaltender in the team's history.

Compared to some of his career averages – 2.49 GAA and .918 SV% - those eye-popping numbers would seem to be prime for regression. Except for the fact that his defense is playing so well in front of him.

Coming into Sunday night, the Wild led the league in fewest shots-against at 24.1 per game.

Defenseman Marco Scandella talked about building off of Harding's play, saying, “Hards has been playing great. We're breaking out of the zone clean and I feel like we have possession of the puck a lot more than we did before.”

But in typical Harding style, when asked about how few chances he's surrendering, the first thing he does is deflect the credit.

“I think our team's not giving up much. When they do, that's when I have to make that big save,” Harding said, “but I can't say enough about the way the D-men are playing. It's fun to watch from my end.”

His coach, Mike Yeo, is far more willing to credit Harding's skill and hard work.

“I'm kind of running out of things to say,” said Yeo after the game, “He just keeps going out and it's amazing what that does to your group when your goalie's playing like that. When you have that confidence in that guy back there it makes a huge difference.”

Of course, what makes Harding's story all the more special, is the one thing he hates most to talk about: namely his health.

In October of 2012, right before the season started, Harding and the Wild announced that he'd been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an auto-immune disease which attacks the central nervous system.

Because the symptoms and progress of the disease are notoriously unpredictable, no one knows when – or, thanks to advances in treatment, even if – Harding will be affected to the point that he can no longer play at a professional level.

Still, one would have to think that the threat of numbness, paralysis and even loss of vision – all potential effects of the disease – would weigh on the mind of someone who's been diagnosed.

But instead of allowing that to become a distraction, Harding has become one of the leading advocates in town for fund-raising and awareness. He established his foundation “Harding's Hope” (www.hardingshope.org/) for those expressed purposes.

And – as was noted earlier – on top of that added responsibility, he just happens to be having the best season of his career to date.

There are many story-lines in the NHL worth telling.


But it would be tough to argue that Josh Harding's isn't one of the best.

Sunday

10-13-13 Wild Blog: Lone Star Rivals

October 5th, 1993 was the first time the franchise formerly known as the Minnesota North Stars would play a home game somewhere other than Bloomington, MN.

That night they beat the Detroit Red Wings 6-4 in Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas, officially and for the foreseeable future to be known as the “Dallas Stars”.

Though Minnesota hockey fans would count on the promise of a future franchise from the NHL, they had to wait seven long years to get it.

In that time, they had to watch a Dallas Stars club – which included former North Stars: Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, Craig Ludwig, and Shawn Chambers – win a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

Needless to say, it left a bad taste in the collective mouths of the State of Hockey.

Then came the 2000-01 season, the inaugural campaign of the Minnesota Wild. NHL hockey had returned to Minnesota and found a new home base in a fantastic new facility in St. Paul.

As one might expect, it was a bumpy first year for the expansion franchise, but one that came with a sweet, sweet highlight for Minnesota hockey fans.

On December 17, 2000, the Wild welcomed the Dallas Stars to the Xcel Energy Center for the first time. For many, that was the night that the North Stars were officially retired as Minnesota's team and the Wild really took hold of fans' hockey-loving hearts.

It began with former North Stars Captain – and to this day, the franchise's second leading scorer – Neal Broten doing “Let's Play Hockey”.

Though, in truth, many fans may not have heard him say those three famous words.

That's because Broten took to the Fox Sports North stage wearing a “Stars” jersey. One he promptly tore off to reveal a Wild sweater underneath. The ovation was so loud, it drowned out the PA for several minutes.

And with two goals within a minute of each other in the first period, the party kept right on rocking. Jeff Nielsen got it started, and then rookie sensation Marian Gaborik tipped home the Wild's second goal of the night.

Four goals later, the Wild had completed a 6-0 rout of the Stars and for one night at least, all was right in the State of Hockey.

But while there was certainly a sense of rivalry in Minnesota, it was really a one-sided affair. The folks in Dallas really had no reason to hold any animosity towards the Star of the North state. After all, Minnesotans had provided them with their chance to experience the great sport of hockey, as well as the chance to experience a Championship. What did they have to feel mad about?

Over the intervening years, Wild fans' blood has cooled somewhat. Oh sure, you'll still hear the occasional die hard try to get a “Norm Still Sucks” chant going, but it never seems to have much staying power.

Which brought us to Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

Why was this game a little different? Because for the first time in the 14-year history of the Wild, they now occupy the same division as Dallas, the newly-minted “Central” Division of the Western Conference.

Two things create rivalries in sports: familiarity and epic playoff clashes.

Now that the Wild and Stars are in the same division, they're playing each other four times during the regular season (once in October, twice in January, and once in March). And perhaps more importantly, they're competing directly against each other for a spot in the playoffs.

And with the new playoff format, if both teams make the post-season, there's a solid shot that they'd meet each other in the first round.

So Saturday night, the familiarity, at least, began. At the start, it felt a lot like that December 17th, 2000 game.

Justin Fontaine opened the scoring with the first NHL goal of his career.

“I mean that's a good way to start a night,” said Fontaine, “Definitely gets you in the game. We wanted to take it to their top line all night and starting with a goal was huge.”

Matt Cooke continued his offensive hot streak midway through the first with his 3rd goal of the season.

“Thank God they don't ask how,” Cooke said after the game, “Nothing pretty about it. The one I that have a chance to do something fancy, I miss. What's most important to me is the team wins.”

Matt Dumba was the beneficiary of a pretty tic-tac-toe play with the man advantage in the second for his first as an NHL'er. Nino Niederreiter continued a night of firsts with his first goal as a member of the Wild to make it 4-0.

But the Stars weren't going to allow it to keep going that way. A power-play goal at 12:40 of the 2nd got the goose egg off the board for Dallas.

Fortunately for the Wild, Zach Parise salted it away in the third period with a power-play marker of his own, making the final 5-1.

Goaltender Josh Harding stopped 18 of the Stars 19 shots on goal, but wasn't too sure it felt like a rivalry just yet, saying after the game, “They're a great club. You can't play too many games that aren't a rivalry any more. There's bad blood between everybody, because everybody wants to win.”

There weren't any fights and the physicality was average for your standard NHL game. So perhaps the rivalry isn't reminiscent of North Stars/Blackhawks just yet... but given where both teams are trying to get to, it may only be a matter of time.


Oh, and Norm Green still sucks.

9-29-13 Twins Blog: 2013 Rewind

Another baseball season is in the books and once again, there was disappointment in Twins Territory.


Another 66-96 record was certainly not what fans, or the club for that matter, were hoping for.


But baseball – like life – is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So how did the 2013 Twins arrive at this point?


Let's rewind and take a look, shall we?


April


April always begins with hope. For the Twins, there wasn't really hope for a championship, but hope for improvement certainly existed.


General Manager Terry Ryan had attempted to address the woeful starting pitching for the future through a pair of trades (Span & Revere for Myer & May) and for the present via trade (Vance Worley came over in the Revere trade) and free agency (Kevin Correia & Mike Pelfrey).


Justin Morneau finally seemed to be healthy and Joe Mauer was finally coming off a season that hadn't been side-tracked by injury.


A few new – or relatively new - faces adorned the starting line-up as well. After the trades of Span & Revere, Aaron Hicks was given the keys to center field coming off a torrid stretch in spring training. Pedro Florimon was going to have a shot at shortstop for the long term. Even Eduardo Escobar, who was acquired in the Liriano trade, would be given a chance on the 25-man roster.


Coming off a 66-win season, was 70 or 75 wins too much to ask? Maybe the club would have a shot at .500? In April, all of those notions were squarely in-play.


Unfortunately, the weather decided not to participate in that sense of optimism.


Opening Day brought sunny skies, but unseasonably cold temperatures as the high reached only a brisk 36 degrees that afternoon. A trend that would persist until mid-May.


Opening Day also brought the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander to town. Though he wasn't his usual dominant self, Verlander was good enough to earn a 4-2 win over the Twins that day and Worley appeared to at least be serviceable.


The Twins came back to win the next two games in that series, and managed to spend the next five days tied for first place in the Central division.


Hope remained alive.


Kevin Correia got off to an impressive start, amassing a 3-1 record with a 2.23 ERA. He also was working deep into games, averaging 7+ innings per start over his five starts in the month, which helped keep the bullpen from getting too gassed early in the campaign.


The Twins finished the month at 11-12, and in 3rd place in the Central. Not great, but certainly an improvement over 2012's 6-16 April start.




May


The month of May began with an encouraging 7-5 start, but turned sour quickly in the middle of the month.


The early-season struggles by new CF Aaron Hicks weren't abating. Even those who pointed out his slow starts each time he advanced a level in the minors couldn't ignore his slash-line of .164/.240/.315 over the first 60 days.


Joe Mauer was one of the few bright spots amongst the Twins' struggles, hitting .371/.455/.571 over the month of May and nearly single-handedly carrying the Twins offense.


May also saw the end of the Vance Worely experiment. After a fairly brutal 3.2 innings in Atlanta, Worely was given a ticket to Triple-A Rochester from whence he never returned.


A 10-game losing streak beginning on May 14th quieted much of the optimism that April had engendered. A late-month 4-game sweep of the Brewers helped mitigate things a bit, but the Twins still finished May at 24-29 and in fourth place in the Central.




June


Minnesota bounced back slightly in the month of June, posting their only .500 month of the season.


Rough stretches on the road in Kansas City, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland and Miami kept it from being a truly successful month. But series wins against Seattle, Philadelphia, and a sweep of the White Sox kept it from being a disaster as well.


Brian Duensing posted back-to-back wins on June 11th and 12th, highlighting the improved efforts of the Twins bullpen. 2012 was a lost year on a lot of fronts, including with the relief staff. But in 2013, that trend with the bullpen at least, was mostly reversed.


June also saw the MLB debut of prospect Kyle Gibson. And on that day, at least, he was a success as he pitched the Twins to a 6-2 win over the Royals.


The Twins finished the month at 36-43, still firmly lodged in 4th place in the division.




July


July is “moving month” in Major League Baseball. Teams have until the end of the month to determine whether they're buyers or sellers on the trade market. Will they mortgage the future in an attempt to grab that brass ring in the present? Or will they move some current big league pieces to try and build towards future success?


For the Twins, there was never much doubt as to which side of that equation they'd end up on. The only question would be who'd be the guy/guys to go.


Justin Morneau and Glen Perkins were the two most frequently-mentioned names to be bandied around. It was clear the Twins were interested in getting out of some portion of Morneau's salary. It was equally clear that other teams were interested in bolstering their bullpens with a reliever of Perkins' caliber.


At the end of the month, both players remained Twins. Management confirmed that they viewed Perkins as part of the long-term solution. Morneau? He'd turn out to be a different story.


The only player the Twins managed to move before the July 31st deadline? Drew Butera.


Whether it was the roster uncertainty, young players hitting “the wall” or a combination of other factors, Minnesota had a rough go at 9-17 in July and finished the month at 45-60, mired in 4th place in the Central.




August


“The Dog Days of August” is a well known cliché.


It wasn't the worst month of the season, record-wise for the Twins, but it could hardly be called a positive stretch either.


The dreadful starting pitching could no longer be ignored and moves started to be made.


First, after giving up 4+ runs in three of his previous four starts, starter Scott Diamond was optioned to Triple-A Rochester on August 2nd. He wouldn't return to the big league club until rosters expanded in September.


Perhaps more disappointing was the demotion of Kyle Gibson on August 20th. Even though observers knew he wasn't going to be the savior of the staff, he was at least expected to be a serviceable member of the rotation.


By late August, it was clear he wasn't going to reach even that level. At least not in 2013. In 10 starts, he pitched only 51 innings while compiling a 6.53 ERA and a 1.45 K/BB ratio. None of which are good enough to succeed at the big league level.


One of the few highlights for the month came on August 9th when Brian Duensing achieved a rare feat by earning two Wins in a single day.


He pitched in both ends of a double-header against the White Sox that day and by a quirk of statistical fate managed to be the pitcher of record in both Twins wins. A feat which was last achieved in 2007 by Luis Vizcaino for the Yankees. For the Twins, you have to go back to the Washington Senators days to find a pitcher that pulled that off – one Walter Johnson in 1923.


The punctuation mark on a downer of a month came on August 31st as the Twins announced they'd traded Justin Morneau to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a move which perhaps highlighted the state of the franchise in 2013, Morneau – a former MVP – was only able to bring a utility outfielder (Alex Presley) and a “player to be named later” (widely assumed to be a minor league pitcher) in return.


The Twins finished the penultimate month of the season at 59-76, a full 20 games behind division-leading Detroit and still in 4th place in the Central.




September


In September, rosters expand and some teams push for post-season berths, while others provide younger players with major league auditions for the following year.


While the Twins record suggested that they were in the latter category, there weren't many players close enough to the majors to be ready for one of those auditions.


Chris Parmelee, Cole De Vries, Scott Diamond, Eduardo Escobar, Michael Tonkin, Eric Fryer, and Shairon Martis turned out to be Minnesota's September additions.


None of whom figure to be a significant part of any Minnesota baseball renaissance.


The one name teased throughout the season that would've sparked interest was 3B Miguel Sano who tore up High-A ball in Fort Meyers before earning a promotion to Double-A New Britain where he cooled to a .236/.344/.571 slash-line with 19 home runs in 233 at-bats.


Promising for a young hitter moving up to his first taste of serious competition, but not enough to convince Twins brass that he was ready for a taste of the majors.


To add insult to injury (or would this be “injury to insult”), Joe Mauer went on the disabled list on September 3rd with a concussion, the result of one too many foul-tips to the mask.


While the Twins and Mauer both declared his intention to return before the 2013 season ended, it was just a matter of time before it was announced that not enough progress was being made for him to come back and he was shut down for the remainder of the year.


With Sunday's loss, the Twins finished September with by far their worst monthly record at 8-20, making them 66-96 for the second straight season, and saved from being the worst team in the league only by the addition of Houston to the AL, and a dreadful season on the south side of Chicago.


So what happened in 2013?


Put simply, Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, and Scott Diamond all took steps back, while the only regular to really take any kind of step forward was Brian Dozier, and the cruel reality is he hit .244 for the year.


Of the youngsters asked to help out, Aaron Hicks wasn't able to hit big league pitching and Kyle Gibson wasn't able to get big league hitters out.


Free agent additions Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey were what they were: mediocre additions to a staff desperately in need of front-line talent.


Put that all together and you get a 66-96 ballclub.


“We've got a lot of work to do here. A lot of work.,” said GM Terry Ryan. “We've got a lot of question marks here. We've got to bring in a lot of people. We're going to have to change some things up, there's no doubt.”


Will a managerial change be part of that? More information on that is likely to come Monday at a Twins press conference.


For their part, the players are solidly behind Ron Gardenhire.


“Gardy's a great manager,” said Joe Mauer, “He's managed some great teams here. He's a great leader and I hope to see him back here.”


Glen Perkins was even more forceful in his comments.


“There's no better guy to run this team,” Perkins said, “It's not his fault. He's doing the best he can with what he's given, and Terry [Ryan] is working hard to try and give him more.”


Whatever the changes, turning things around in 2014 won't be easy, but it can be done.



All the Twins had to do to find evidence of that was look across the diamond on Sunday as Cleveland – owner of a 68-season last year – celebrated clinching a Wild Card berth.

Saturday

9-21-13 Wild Blog: A Rivalry In the Offing?

From the moment the gates opened on Saturday night, the vibe at Xcel Energy Center was a little different than usual.


Can a pre-season hockey game have a “vibe”, you ask?


It can when the Winnipeg Jets are in town.


Thanks to NHL realignment, the Minnesota Wild find themselves in the same division as their neighbors to the north. And if Saturday's game is any indication, the contests between the two will be intense all season long.


It started with a quick glance at the main entrance to the X. Yes, there were more Iron Range red and green sweaters than their were blue and white, but not by much.


Once the fans were in the arena, it was clear that Jets fans travel in groups, as there were significant clusters of them occupying the end of the arena opposite the new “Budweiser Lounge”.


It continued during the playing of the Canadian anthem when a loud chant broke out over the lyrics “True North”, and one couldn't help by notice louder cheers for “O Canada” than for the “Star Spangled Banner”.


And it was driven home with the first raucous “Go Jets Go” chant during the first period. Wild fans, seemingly taken aback by the Canadian invasion were only able to muster some loud boos.


(A few “Lets Go Wild” chants were attempted, but never rose to the level of the “Go Jets Go” crowd.)


Asked about the incursion after the game, Wild forward Zach Parise said, “I was surprised. There were a lot of Jets fans here. I think as these two teams become more familiar with each other, you're going to see a lot of that – fans traveling back and forth. That makes it fun. It makes it a good atmosphere.”


On the ice there wasn't much physicality to speak of. Wild forward Zenon Konopka tried to goad Jets defenseman Mark Stuart into dropping the gloves in the second period after Stuart threw a big hit, but he wouldn't bite.


It's worth noting that Matt Cooke - expected to be the Wild's main agitator – wasn't on the ice, or the intensity would've certainly been ramped up a notch.


Still, the action didn't belie the meaningless nature of the outcome of the game. And in of itself, that speaks to the burgeoning rivalry between the two squads.


Ultimately, the Wild got the better of Winnipeg by a score of 4-3 in a shootout.


“It's going to be that way,” said head coach Mike Yeo after the game, “that's for sure. We're going to have fun games. They had a good turnout of fans already there tonight and they were loud. It's going to be a good rivalry.”


The two teams meet a total of five times over the course of the regular season, beginning two weeks from Thursday, on October 10th back in St. Paul.


If you like intense hockey, get your tickets now... before the mullet-wearing masses from Manitoba snap them all up!


Thursday

9-11-13 Twins Blog: What To Do When Your Team Gets Rocked


The Twins got bludgeoned by the Oakland A's Wednesday night by a score of 18-3, and the game was every bit as brutal as the score might suggest.


So what should a fan do when they find themselves watching their favorite club get taken to the woodshed? The answer for most is to give up and leave early.


But that seems like such a waste! You've paid for your ticket, and baseball is as much about the “game experience” as it is about the game itself.


So with that, here are a few suggestions on how to pass the time until the 27th out is mercifully recorded:


1- Put that cellphone to good use!


Most people are leaving, so access to the ballpark WiFi should be plentiful.


Text your friends, and let them know what you're going through. Send them regular updates as the score climbs and climbs and climbs.


Break out Instagram and send a beautifully-filtered shot of the ballpark (I recommend “Earlybird” for baseball). Don't worry, there won't be many fans left to muck up your shot.


Perhaps you could even put together a cleverly-constructed Vine video showing your favorite swings and misses from the home-nine.


2- Go buy a media guide!


If you don't own one already, go to the pro shop and drop a few dollars on a media guide. Every bit of historical information the average fan could want will be at your fingertips.


As the opposing team racks up more hits and runs, you'll be able to impress your friends with anecdotes like “The last time the Twins gave up this many runs in an inning, Glen Perkins was a starter!”


3- Play “Who's the New Guy”!


Plenty of subs will be hitting the field in the latter innings – especially with expanded rosters in September.


This dove-tails nicely with point 2, since you'll be able to use your new media guy to find out fun facts about guys like catcher Eric Fryer who made his Twins debut Wednesday night and hit his first big league home run!


You can even get terribly obscure and point out that Fryer was once part of a trade that sent Eric Hinske to the Yankees. Trust me, your friends will be impressed!


4- Get yourself a foul ball!


It won't be that hard as long as you're willing to scramble. There'll be plenty of open seats to scout out, and plenty of ricochets to chase after.


Worried you don't have the wheels to run one down? There'll be plenty of youngsters who'll be more than happy to snag one for you for a small fee.


How small is up to you and your conscience.


5- Be that guy/gal who won't leave!


Sure some folks who you're with will be annoyed, but you can remind them that you paid for 9 innings and gosh darn it, you're staying for 9 innings!


Think of it as a matter of personal pride and discipline. You waited out an awful ballgame when so many weaker-willed fans just gave up!


Or you can always remind the folks you're with of August 5th, 2001. the Mariners led Cleveland 12-0 after three innings, and 14-2 after five innings. Cleveland fans left the park in droves. And why not, the game was over, right?


Not so much.


A three-spot in the 7th, four more in the 8th and a furious five runs in the 9th tied the game, which Cleveland won in the 11th on a walk-off Jolbert Cabrera single to left.


It can happen!



And wouldn't you kick yourself if you'd left and it did?!



Saturday

8-31-13 Twins Blog: So Long, Justin

[Ed.'s Note: this blog originally ran on the WCCO.com Twins Blog, and can also be read here.]

News broke this afternoon that Justin Morneau has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for OF Alex Presley.


Morneau has spent 11 seasons in the big leagues, all with the Minnesota Twins.


He made his major league debut in June of 2003, hitting .226/.287/.377 with four home runs in 106 at-bats. His “popeye-like” forearms and prodigious power mesmerized Twins fans who hadn't seen a true power-threat at first base since Kent Hrbek retired.


But it wasn't until 2006 that he truly established himself amongst the Major League elite, hitting 34 home runs with a .321/.375/.559 slash line on his way to winning the AL MVP.


2006 was the start of a 4-year stretch for Morneau with 30+ home runs, and at least 100 RBI in each of those seasons. He was selected for four All-Star games, won the Silver Slugger award twice and in addition to his '06 MVP award, he finished second in the balloting in 2008.


But then came July 7, 2010, and a what looked to be a routine break-up of a double-play at second base in Toronto. Routine, that is, until John McDonald's knee collided with Morneau's head. A play that proved to be a pivot-point in Justin's career.


Morneau wouldn't play another regular-season game until April of 2011. And it took him until May 1, 2011, to hit another home run.


Justin would only play 69 games in 2011 as a recurrence of concussion symptoms and a nagging wrist injury would keep him out from June 9th to August 12th and eventually ended his season on August 28th.


He came back to play 134 games in 2012 and has played in 127 of the Twins 133 games here in 2013, but outside of brief hot-spells, has never truly regained the “power threat” status that he displayed in that 4-year stretch from '06 to '10.


So the Twins had a decision to make. Morneau's contract is up at the end of 2013, and while he and his representatives made multiple overtures to the Twins to try and negotiate an extension, Minnesota management showed no eagerness to go that route.


That led many to speculate that he'd be moved in a deal before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, and while GM Terry Ryan took calls regarding Morneau, he didn't find a deal to his liking.


Then came news on August 13th that Morneau had been placed on revocable waivers, allowing the Twins to again take the temperature of other teams' interest in making a trade. A day later it was reported that Justin had cleared waivers – a bad sign for making any kind of significant deal.


Finally, on the last day that teams were allowed to trade players who'd been through the waiver process, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports broke the news that Morneau had been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for OF Alex Presley, cash and a player-to-be-named later.


Presley owns a career slash-line of .261/.299/.389 and a career wOBA of .311 (Fangraphs calls .320 an “average” hitter). So the Twins aren't getting a big stick in return. Defensively, Presley has a 1.6 career UZR, indicating that he's an exceedingly average defender as well.


In other words, the best the Twins were able to get for a player who once seemed destined to be the second coming of Harmon Killebrew, was a replacement-level outfielder.


Certainly a disappointing outcome for a tenure that once looked headed for greatness.


But that may not be the end of the story for Morneau and the Twins. As was stated earlier, Morneau expressed several times his desire to remain in Minnesota. His wife is a native Minnesotan and Morneau has sunk deep roots into the community with lots of charity work including his annual “Casino Night”.


Nothing prevents the two sides from getting together in the off-season and agreeing to a new deal that would bring Morneau back to the Twins – albeit at a significantly reduced rate.


If Morneau has played his final game as a Twin, his story is one of unfulfilled potential. If the concussion symptoms and wrist ailments hadn't derailed the run he was on, would we be talking about a multiple-time MVP and a player worthy of Hall of Fame consideration?


Possibly.



We'll never know. Instead, Justin gets another crack at the post-season with the Pirates, and Twins fans are left to wonder what might have been.

Sunday

8-4-13: Twins Blog: Bull-Dozier & Bullpen Lead Twins To Sweep Of Astros

[Originally posted at WCCO.com on the "Twins Blog"]

While the recently completed home-stand couldn't have started much worse for the Twins – with a sweep at the hands of the Royals, which last happened in 1998 – it was salvaged by a sweep of the Houston Astros.


And a big part of that sweep was the play of second baseman Brian Dozier along with the performance of the Twins' bullpen.


Certainly no victory parades will be thrown over defeating the team with the worst record in baseball. But when a team is seemingly headed towards it's third consecutive sub-.500 season, you take small victories when and where you can.


Start with Friday night's 13-inning affair. There's no question that the Twins have struggled to score runs as of late (averaging just 3.5 runs per game over their last seven), mostly due to a failure to hit with runners in scoring position. But starting Friday night, Brian Dozier bulldozed his way through Houston pitching, most especially with runners in scoring position.


He went 3-for-7 Friday night and 2-for-3 with RISP. He scored a game-tying run in the 8th inning, and then after Houston regained the lead in the top of the 9th, he hit a game-tying RBI single in the bottom-half. Not satisfied with merely tying games, Dozier came through in the clutch again in the 13th plating Clete Thomas with a game-winning RBI single.


But Dozier's heroics wouldn't have been possible without the bullpen making them hold up.


True, Glen Perkins blew a save opportunity in the 9th. But Jared Burton, Caleb Theilbar, Casey Fien and Josh Roenicke all pitched scoreless innings in relief to give the Twins a chance to win. And Ryan Pressly pitched two nearly flawless innings in the 12th & 13th to pick up his third Win of the season.


Fast-forward to Saturday evening. Again, a Twins starter failed to go deep into the game. This time rookie Kyle Gibson was unable to make it past the 3rd inning and the bullpen had to spring into action again.


Enter Anthony Swarzak – one of only two Twins hurlers to not make an appearance the night before. He befuddled the Astros for three straight innings, striking out five Houston hitters before turning the ball over to Brian Duensing – the other pitcher who didn't appear Friday night. “Deuce”, as he's referred to by manager Ron Gardenhire, struck out two more 'Stros in his inning of work.


He was followed by Casey Fein who struck out a pair in a clean eighth inning, and Glen Perkins who could manage only one measly K (insert sarcasm here) in his 1-2-3 ninth inning.


In total, the bullpen threw six innings of one-hit, scoreless baseball, striking out 10 Houston batters along the way. Nobody's going to mistake the Houston line-up for Murderer's Row, but striking out 10 of the 20 batters you face is fairly dominant any way you parse it.


Dozier continued his hot-hitting ways as well, going 2-for-4, including 1-for-2 with RISP. His first hit was a triple to right-center field that looked like a double off the bat to pretty much everybody except Brian. The ball was bobbled slightly by Houston right fielder L.J. Hoes, but Dozier never saw it. He was rounding the second base bag and headed for third with a purpose, sliding in safely.


His second hit was a game-tying double in the 7th inning, which was soon followed by scoring the go-ahead (and eventual game-winning) run off a Ryan Doumit single.


Dozier was asked to explain his hot-hitting and said, “I think the biggest thing is getting good pitches to hit, all in hitters' counts pretty much, and that's what you strive for as a hitter.”


On Sunday, Dozier was held hitless, snapping his career-high 10-game hitting streak. But baseball isn't all about offense. Instead he did damage with his glove, making a sparkling play in the third inning to rob Astros first baseman Brett Wallace of an infield single. That play was immediately followed by Dozier catching a tough pop up which required him to range into short right center to make the catch falling away from the infield.


Once again, the bullpen was called on to prop up a starter who couldn't work deep into the game. Mike Pelfrey managed only 5 innings of 2-run baseball before he had to exit the game due to an inflated pitch count, but the 'pen made it hold up.


Manager Ron Gardenhire said, “Our bullpen, you know, they were saviors throughout this whole thing [series].”


Roenicke, Theilbar (who ended up getting the win), Burton and Perkins combined for four more scoreless innings, setting the stage for Oswaldo Arcia's game-winning home run in the 7th. That marked the 31st time this season the Twins bullpen has pitched 3.0-plus scoreless innings in a single game.


Asked after the game if the relievers are feeding off each others' performances, right-hander Jared Burton said, “Yeah I think it's an overall confidence thing for us down there. I mean, everybody's just been pitching well. We've been pitching more than we'd like, but they [the coaching staff] take care of us and haven't over-used anybody.”


Fresh off that success, the Twins head out on the road to face their next opponent, the same Kansas City Royals team that swept them to begin the home-stand.


They'll do so with a hot-hitting leadoff batter and a very confident bullpen.




6-2-13 Twins Blog: A Few Firsts

[Ed.'s Note: This column was written for the WCCO.com Twins Blog and can be found here: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2013/06/02/twins-blog-a-few-firsts/ ]

Kansas City Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre likes to tell a story about a conversation he once had with legendary Detroit Tigers play-by-play voice Ernie Harwell.

Lefebvre asked Harwell about his approach to coming to the ballpark day after day when the club he's covering is playing consistently lousy baseball.

Harwell's response was something along the lines of, “you go to the ballpark every day, because you'll probably see something you've never seen before.”

After consecutive 90+ loss seasons, I've taken that philosophy very much to heart when attending Twins games. In fact, I do my best to specifically look for things I've never seen before.

They can be as simple as a rookie getting his first big league base hit or as complicated as a wacky 9-4-5-6-2 scoring play.

Sunday's 10-0 Twins win over the Mariners provided a few interesting “firsts”.

For Seattle, starter Jeremy Bonderman was making his first big-league start in 975 days.

No, that number's not a typo.

Twins fans will remember Bonderman from his days in Detroit where he squared off against the Twins 20 times (17 starts). More specifically, they might remember some of Bonderman's spectacular dugout melt-downs which often included a bevy of colorful metaphors and kicked Gatorade jugs.

Bonderman's last big-league start came on October 1, 2010. He became a free agent after the 2010 season, failed to sign a big-league contract in 2011 and went on to have Tommy John surgery in April of 2012.

He signed a minor-league free agent deal with the Mariners in January of this year and amassed a 1-2 record with a 4.46 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma, and was promoted to the big-league club in time to make Sunday's start.

Unfortunately, things didn't go Jeremy's way as he pitched only 4.2 innings, surrendering seven runs on nine hits and taking the loss.

Twins manager Ron Gardehire said of Bonderman after the game, “You know, this is a veteran guy and you tip your hat to him. He's hung in there and been through an awful lot. So to see him back pitching is a special thing. Unfortunately for him, we were swinging the bats pretty good today.”

Fortunately for the clubhouse attendants, no Gatorade jugs were destroyed on Bonderman's way out of the game.

The other firsts in Sunday's game came courtesy of Twins left-fielder Chris Herrmann.

Herrmann appeared in seven games for the Twins in 2012, but Sunday was only his second start of 2013 and first of the season in left field.

With the Twins leading 3-0 entering the fourth, Herrmann fell behind Bonderman 1-2 before hammering a pitch to the opposite field for his first career home run.

“It's a dream come true. You know, everybody's dream is to hit a home run in the major leagues,” Herrmann said after the game, “I put a good swing on that ball and it went out of the park. I can't ask for more than that.”

In his next at-bat, Herrmann chased Bonderman from the game with a base-hit up the middle. That hit made Sunday's contest the first multi-hit game in Herrmann's career.

Asked about his overall performance in his current stint in the majors he said, “I'm just here. I'm having a good time. Hopefully I'll be here for a while and just help out the team in any way I can.”

After a 4-1 home stand, the Twins find themselves in third place in the AL Central, only 4.5 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers.

So the season's a long way from being another wash, something that couldn't have been said as recently as week ago when the club was mired in a 10-game losing streak.

But even if things start to go bad again, there will still be reasons to come out to the ballpark.


Who knows what “firsts” you might see?

Tuesday

5-14-13: Aaron Hicks Had Himself A Night


[Ed.'s Note: This column was originally posted on the Twins Blog at WCCO.com which can be found here.]

To say that Aaron Hicks' first month-plus in the big leagues has been a trial is more than a tepid understatement.

Coming into Monday night the rookie had a slash-line of .137/.239/.216. As bad as those numbers look, considering that they were numbers on the rise, they look even worse.

He'd struck out 35 times in 102 at-bats, and had only 14 hits – though five of those were for extra bases. He'd managed to up his on-base percentage by virtue of drawing 14 walks, but was still struggling mightily to put the ball in play.

But for as long of a haul as a baseball season can be, it's funny how often one night can change the course of a player's season.

Hicks may very well have had one of those nights on Monday.

It started out innocently enough with a routine fly ball out to right in the second inning.

But after the Twins had grabbed the lead from the White Sox in the third, Hicks came to the plate to lead off the fourth. He worked himself into a 1-2 count, and then hammered a Hector Santiago pitch to center for only the second home run of his young career.

It's impressive enough to hit a ball 416 feet into a spot at Target Field where Twins fly balls usually go to die. It turned out to be all the more impressive given what happened in the sixth inning.

The White Sox had just closed to within two runs of the Twins when Adam Dunn – he of 412 career home runs – hit one to nearly the same spot that Hicks had hit his home run.

The difference? Aaron Hicks got a better jump than Alejandro De Aza – the Chicago center fielder – did. Hicks raced to the wall and made a leaping grab reminiscent of the kind of catch that earned Torii Hunter the nickname of “Spiderman”.

“When a ball's struck like that, you don't kind of know, you just have to break back and do the best you can,” Hicks said, “It hung up for me and I made the catch.”

A home run and the highway-robbery of a long-ball would be enough to earn the hearty cheers of any fan base, and Twins fans greeted Hicks loudly as he returned to the dugout.

But he wasn't done.

After Oswaldo Arcia struck out to lead off the bottom half of the sixth, Hicks took Santiago deep again, this time 412 feet to left-center. The two no-doubters not only constituted the first multi-hit and multi-homer game of Hicks' career, but also the first multi-home-run game by any Twin in 2013.

“I think the second one was more fun,” said Hicks, “Right after the catch I just felt amazing, I felt loose, and for that one to come right after, just capped it off.”

This time the cheers from the Twins faithful were so loud and sustained, they prompted another first for the first-year center fielder... his first curtain call.

Hicks had one more at-bat in the 8th. This time after a bloop-double by Arcia and with first base open, Chicago reliever Deunte Heath decided that discretion was the better part of valor and issued Aaron a 5-pitch walk.

As the old Metrodome scoreboard saying goes, “Walks Will Haunt”, and haunt Heath they did as Hicks came around to score on a bases-loaded walk.

Of course, one game does not a career make. Heck, it doesn't even make a season.

Manager Ron Gardenhire just hopes a night like tonight helps build Hicks confidence, “That's kind of what we're all waiting for. You know, you get a couple of big hits like that, you have a moment out there and hopefully that can maybe get him past some of these things.”

If Hicks begins to establish himself as a legit starter in the Major Leagues, he'll be able to point to May 13th as the night were things started to click.

In his words, “I've just been battling, you know, every day and that's the thing you gotta do in this league. I just made some plays today and had fun.”  

Sunday

4-28-13: WCCO.com Twins Blog - Kevin Correia

[Ed.'s Note: This column was written for the Twins Blog at WCCO.com, and can be read here: http://cbsloc.al/17rzjXU ]


4.21/4.34... 4.79/4.38... 5.40/4.06... 3.91/4.14...

Those are the ERA's and xFIP's (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching – which attempts to isolate pitcher performance from defensive variance) for Twins starter Kevin Correia over the previous four years of his career. Two of those seasons having been spent with the Pirates, two with the Padres.

So when the Twins signed him to a two-year, ten-million dollar deal this past off-season, it left many baseball fans scratching their head.

In a market full of mediocre starters, why would Twins GM Terry Ryan sign a right-hander - who in no obvious way stood out from the crowd - to a two-year contract when most of the comparable starters were being inked to one-year deals?

While it's too early in the season to declare complete vindication for Ryan, Correia's efforts so far seem to bolster the case that Terry knew exactly what he was doing with the signing.

Coming into Sunday's start against the Rangers, Correia had an ERA of 2.86 in 28.1 innings pitched. And while his xFIP of 4.06 and baBIP of .283 would seem to indicate that he's been the beneficiary of more than his fair share of luck, you really can't argue with his results.

Even he's cautious to read too much into his early success, “I'm getting balls hit to people right now, and very easily when you go out there and get balls put in play a lot like I do sometimes those things can find a hole and it can seem really hard to get people out. Right now it's just going my way.”

Conventional wisdom says that pitchers moving from the National to the American League tend to struggle, seeing their strikeout rate drop, on average, by a half-point and their ERA's rise around a half-run. Over the course of 30+ starts those number can and do have a significant impact.

So far, Correia's enjoying the transition to the American League style of baseball, “I think if I was in the National League I would probably have maybe 5 less innings than I do right now. Pitching in close games you're going to get pinch hit for and being able to go out there a little longer, it's fun. It's nice to be able to go deeper into games.”

So why is Correia having success where so many others haven't? Again, one has to stress the importance of the small sample size involved. And the truth is, his numbers don't provide an obvious answer.

His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is almost a full half-point lower than his rate last season. But even though he's getting fewer ground-outs, his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is only half has high as last season, so far fewer of the fly balls that he's surrendering are making their way out of the park.

His strike out rate is right in line with past seasons, though his walk-rate is lower. Fewer free passes means fewer opportunities for cheap runs.

Sunday's result was Correia's best yet. He went 8 full innings, scattering 6 hits without giving up a run to a very potent Texas Rangers lineup and dropping his ERA to 2.23 on the season.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said, “He was unbelievable. His success is about throwing it over and working ahead in the count and I think we saw him do that pretty much all day.”

Expectations have to be managed, however. Correia is the first Twins player to start his career with five straight quality starts since Ramon Ortiz in 2007. Ortiz ended up appearing in only 28 games that season with a 5.14 ERA before being traded to Colorado.

So while statistical analysis would seem to indicate that Correia's due to regress to his career mean at some point, so far in 2013 he's more than justifying the faith Terry Ryan and the Twins showed in him this past off-season.

Wednesday

3-27-13 Twins Blog: Opening Day Starter Named


On Wednesday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire confirmed what had long been suspected by Twins pundits, namely that off-season trade acquisition, Vance Worley, would get the start on Opening Day in Minnesota. Worley was part of the package of players the Twins received on December 6, 2012, in return for outfielder Ben Revere.

The 25-year-old California native will be his team’s Opening Day starter for the first time in his career. Last season – his first full year in the majors – he started the Phillies third game of the season (on the road) and their fifth game at Citizens Bank Park, their home field.
Worley’s the owner of a career 3.50 ERA, a 2.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has surrendered 23 home runs in his 272 and 2/3 Major League innings pitched. On the surface his 2012 numbers don’t inspire much confidence (a 4.20 ERA, a 95 ERA+, and a 1.511 WHIP), but dig a little deeper and there are extenuating circumstances.

Elbow inflammation landed the right-hander on the disabled list on May 16th, 2012 and eventually ended his season in August so he could have bone chips surgically removed.

And if that’s not explanation enough, he had an moderately high BAbip of .351, meaning that an inordinate number of balls put into play turned into hits rather than outs.

That being said, there’s no guarantee Worley will return to his 2011 form (3.01 ERA, 1.230 WHIP & 119 K’s) when he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. And while we should never put too much stock in Spring Training numbers, Worely’s haven’t been what you’d call “reassuring”.

The pitcher who will oppose him for Monday’s opener? Just a gentleman who owns a Rookie of the Year award, a Cy Young award (he’s been in the top 5 in voting 3 times) and a MVP award… one Justin Verlander of the Tigers.

But the beauty of baseball is that unanticipated outcomes can and do occur. And when you throw in forecasted temps in the mid-30’s and winds from 15-20mph, who knows what fluky things will happen?

First pitch Monday afternoon is scheduled for 3:10pm. Bring your parkas and blankets and check out “the Vanimal” (@Vanimal_49 on Twitter) as the Twins begin the 2013 campaign.