ALDS: A’s vs. Twins: Zito hurts Twins

Having an “unbeatable” weapon is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s something every team wants. A pitcher who is so good that you expect to win every time he takes the mound is probably the most valuable commodity there is in baseball.

On the other hand, when said pitcher doesn’t win, there are suddenly a lot of problems.

The formula for the Twins was very simple. Johan Santana wins Game 1 for them. They win one or two of the next three games on their own. Johan Santana wins Game 5 for them if they need him to.

But the Twins find themselves in an early hole. Instead of needing just one win in the next three games (three games in which they don’t necessarily have the pitching advantage), they need to win two. And that’s just to give Santana a chance to win Game Five.

Suddenly, the widely favored Twins are definite underdogs. It’s not that they can’t win the series any more; it’s that they no longer have any margin for error.

With a win by Santana, Boof Bonser would have been pitching with little pressure, as a second win would have been gravy. Now Bonser almost has to win so that the Twins don’t put themselves in a position where they have to win three in a row.

Santana Dominates

Having said all of that, Santana’s performance, while it didn’t yield a win, certainly wasn’t disappointing. He was masterful most of the game, making the A’s look silly several times.

Jason Kendall struck out to open the game, losing his bat on a terrible swing for strike three. Mark Kotsay followed with another strikeout on which he was way out in front of a slider for strike three. Eric Chavez struck out on a 95-mph fastball in the second, and Santana struck out Mark Ellis, Kendall and Kotsay in order to end the second and start the third. He then struck out Chavez in the fourth on three terrible swings, the third one on a fastball up and out of the zone.

Santana didn’t strike anybody else out until the eighth, when Milton Bradley stared at a 96-mph fastball at the knees for strike three on Santana’s 107th and final pitch. In all, Santana struck out eight in eight innings and produced a number of pathetic swings from Oakland’s hitters.

The only problem for Santana was the second inning. He fell behind Frank Thomas, who yanked a 3-1 pitch down the left-field line and barely kept it fair for his first postseason home run since 1993. He nearly hit another home run in the same place in the fourth inning, and he did hit a second home run in the ninth.

Big Resurgence

Twins fans will disagree, but it was nice to see Thomas in top form at the plate again. The Big Hurt has been hurt so much in recent years that you may have forgotten just how good a hitter he was in the 1990s. Well, here’s a reminder.

From 1991-97, Thomas was in the top 10 in the American League in batting six times, leading the league once. He was in the top four in on-base percentage in each of those seven seasons, leading the league four times. He was in the top six in slugging seven times as well, leading once. He was in the top three in OPS all seven years, leading four times.

He finished in the top 10 in runs scored six times in that span, leading the league once. He was in the top 10 in hits four times and in the top 10 in total bases all seven years. He led the league in doubles once and was third another year. He was in the top 10 in homers six times and the top 10 in RBIs all seven years. And he was in the top five in walks all seven years, leading the league four times.

He was in the top five in both OPS+ and runs created each of those seven seasons, leading the league three times. And so on and so forth. And then from 1998 to 2005, Thomas ceased being a regular on all of those top 10 lists. So it’s nice to see him doing well again, if only to give us a chance to remember just how great he used to be.

Of course, Tuesday’s game also provided a glimpse at how much age and injury have taken from Thomas. Leading off the seventh inning, he poked on outside pitch into right field for a single. Except that it almost wasn’t, because Michael Cuddyer came up throwing and nearly beat Thomas to first base. Big Frank probably wasn’t running all out, but he wasn’t loafing either. He just doesn’t have any legs left.

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Thomas, however, was only the first of Santana’s problems in the second inning. After Chavez struck out, Jay Payton was able to fight a pitch into center field for a single, and then Marco Scutaro pulled a high, inside changeup down the left-field line for an RBI double. Suddenly Santana was in a 2-0 hole and the Twins were in trouble.

Zito’s Gem

While Santana was masterful except in the second inning, Zito’s outing could probably best be described as effective wildness. He only struck out one batter in eight innings, and he issued three walks. And of his 92 pitches in the game, only 52 were for strikes. Even that 54.7-percent strike rate is misleading because the Twins helped him out by swinging at a number of balls out of the zone, which is a big part of why he only needed 11.5 pitches per inning.

It’s too simplistic to say that the Twins should have won the game had they not done so many things wrong, but it’s certainly a game they could have won.

As effective as Zito ended up being, Minnesota had a chance to get to him right away. Luis Castillo opened the game with a walk, and Zito fell behind 2-1 on Nick Punto. Punto then swung at a pitch that was very high to even the count. On the next pitch (a ball that could have been another walk for the Twins), Castillo was caught stealing. In a span of two pitches, a potential game-opening rally turned into a relatively easy scoreless inning.

Castillo walked again leading off the fourth inning, but Punto decided to try to bunt for a base hit, resulting in three annoying things happening on one play. First, a batter bunted in the fourth inning trailing by two runs, which doesn’t make a lot of sense (and if he thinks a bunt is his best chance of getting a hit, he probably shouldn’t be batting second). Second, he slid into first base, which has never made any sense. Third, he was credited with a sacrifice even though he was clearly bunting for a hit. At any rate, the Twins once again wasted a leadoff baserunner.

The Twins didn’t really hit a ball hard until the fifth inning, when Justin Morneau ripped a line drive to left-center that Mark Kotsay made a nice running catch on. Rondell White later doubled for the first hit by the Twins with two outs in the inning but was stranded by Phil Nevin.

What If?

Then the Twins decided to switch from being sloppy on offense to being sloppy on defense, as Jason Bartlett booted an easy double-play ball after Thomas’ leadoff single in the seventh inning. Instead of two outs and the bases empty, the A’s had no outs and two runners on. No one scored, but the error still had an effect on the game.

Had Bartlett turned the double play, Thomas may not have come up in the ninth to hit a second home run, and the run the Twins scored in the bottom of the ninth might have tied the game. Even if Thomas had still come up in the ninth, he may not have homered without that error. The error forced Santana to throw an extra 14 pitches in the inning. Without those, he may have stayed in for the ninth and faced Thomas himself, possible retiring him without harm.

Of course, the error did happen and Santana did leave after eight innings and Thomas did lead off the top of the ninth. And even with all of that, the Twins still could have gotten him out with better managing by Ron Gardenhire. Instead of using lights-out closer Joe Nathan in a one-run playoff game, a game in which another run for Oakland makes a huge difference to the Twins chances of winning, he brought in Jesse Crain, his fifth-best reliever.

Crain was on an incredible run at the end of the season, pitching his final 22 2/3 innings without allowing a run. Even with that impressive stretch, he still finished the season with a 3.52 ERA. Nathan had a 1.58 ERA, didn’t pitch on Monday and isn’t going to pitch on Thursday, so using him Tuesday had no ill consequences for the Twins. Instead, Crain gave up Thomas’ home run, and the run the Twins scored in the ninth was pretty meaningless.

It’s only one game, and it’s a game the Twins could easily have won with a break here or there, so there’s no reason to panic.

And yet, there’s every reason to panic, because that’s the natural response when your unbeatable weapon gets beat.

Now the formula is simple for the A’s. Win two of the next three games, and you don’t have to try to beat Santana, in a place he hadn’t suffered a loss in 14 months before Tuesday, for a second time in a week.

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