ALDS: Twins vs. A’s: Twins dive into big hole

The Oakland A’s have absolutely played well in the first two games of their series against the Twins, and they certainly deserve to be ahead two games to none. But there’s also no question that the Twins have helped the A’s out by uncharacteristically making mistakes and just not playing good baseball.

In game one, there were a lot of little mistakes. There was some bad discipline at the plate, some bad baserunning, some bad fielding and a bad managerial decision on a pitching change. In game two, there was one really, really big mistake.

As everybody reading this probably already knows, the Twins had just tied the game in the bottom of the sixth when Mark Kotsay came to the plate with one on and two out in the top of the seventh. He proceeded to hit a soft line drive, and five-time Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter proceeded to play that soft liner into a two-run, inside-the-park home run.

Almost everybody is talking about Hunter’s decision to dive for the ball, which allowed the ball to go all the way to the wall when his dive came up short.

However, the problem appeared to come much earlier than that. First, Hunter appeared to get a bad break on the ball, which cost him any realistic chance of making the catch.

At that point, Hunter should have taken a more side-to-side angle at the ball and played it on a hop, keeping the runners at first and third with two outs, which would have been a very manageable situation. Instead, he decided to take an angle at the ball coming in toward home plate in an attempt to catch it. Once he did that, he was in trouble. Even if he had stayed on his feet, the angle he had taken likely would have prevented him from fielding the ball and Jason Kendall, at least, would still have scored.

Another overlooked part of the situation is Kendall’s contribution. Kendall came to the plate with a runner on first and one out, and he hit a ground ball to shortstop Jason Bartlett. If he gets doubled up, as many runners would have, Kotsay never hits his “home run.” Instead he just beat the relay throw for a second time in the game, and Kotsay did come up and the game was essentially over after that.

Justin Duchscherer mowed the Twins down in the seventh and eighth innings and Huston Street survived a minor two-out threat in the ninth.

Wednesday’s game actually had a lot of similarities to Tuesday’s game. As with Johan Santana in game one, Boof Bonser pitched about as well as could reasonably have been expected in game two, allowing two runs in six innings with three strikeouts and one walk.

After a 1-2-3 first inning, Bonser was in and out of trouble in the next four innings, but it only caught up to him once. In the fifth, Nick Swisher and Marco Scutaro led off with back-to-back doubles for Oakland’s first run and Kendall hit a one-out RBI single to make it 2-0.

Just as in game one, the Minnesota hitters were having significant trouble putting any runs on the board. In game one, they were able to get the leadoff hitter on base, but they couldn’t string any hits together.

In game two, they were able to string the hits together, but they all came with two outs. Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer hit back-to-back two-out singles in the first, but Justin Morneau flied out to end the threat. Morneau and Hunter hit back-to-back two-out singles in the fourth, but Rondell White grounded out to end the inning. Luis Castillo and Nick Punto had back-to-back infield singles with two outs in the fifth, but Mauer grounded out to waste another opportunity.

The Twins finally got on the board Wednesday the same way they did Tuesday, via the long ball. Cuddyer had a nice at-bat where he worked the count from 0-2 to 3-2 before depositing the ball in the left-field stands, and Morneau followed with an upper-deck shot to right field to tie the game.

The Twins actually had a chance to take the lead in the inning after Jason Tyner drew a two-out walk and stole second base, but Bartlett struck out swinging on a low pitch to end the inning.

Minnesota was second in the league with a .296 batting average with runners in scoring position during the regular season. In two games of the ALDS, the Twins have yet to get a hit with a man on second or third, going 0-for-9 Tuesday and 0-for-5 Wednesday. That, more than anything else, is why the A’s are headed back to Oakland with a 2-0 lead in the series.

There were at least three other similarities between the two games as well, two of them involving Punto. One was good and the other was not so good.

The good bit of deja vu was that Punto made almost the exact same excellent defensive play for the second day in a row, running over to the third base stands and leaping against the wall to catch a foul pop. The only difference was that he didn’t get his foot caught in the netting that was next to the wall Wednesday, like he did Tuesday.

Punto’s less-than-stellar bit of deja vu had to do with running the bases, where he decided to slide headfirst into first base two more times. He was safe one of those times, but that’s because second baseman Mark Ellis didn’t throw the ball, not because sliding is faster. Somebody really needs to tell Punto to stop doing that, as it doesn’t help him beat the throw and it does make him more susceptible to injury.

The other similarity was a strange decision by Ron Gardenhire on how to use closer Joe Nathan. On Tuesday, Gardenhire opted not to use Nathan in the ninth inning of a one-run game despite the fact that there was never going to be a save opportunity for Nathan in that game. The move cost the Twins a run, and possibly the ball game.

On Wednesday, with the Twins trailing 4-2 going to the ninth, Gardenhire opted to leave Juan Rincon in the game. Rincon yielded a leadoff double to Swisher, and Swisher moved to third on a ground out by Scutaro. At that point, Gardenhire turned things over to Nathan.

The question, then, is that if that fifth run is so important that it’s worth bringing Nathan in to try to prevent it from scoring, why didn’t he just bring Nathan in to start the inning instead of waiting until there was a runner on third with one out? Nathan wasn’t tired and he’s not pitching today, so why save him? Instead of giving him a clean slate to work with, Gardenhire stuck Nathan in a difficult position and the run ended up scoring on a wild pitch. It didn’t cost the Twins anything, but Gardenhire’s handling of an excellent closer has been baffling, to say the least.

Twins fans should just hope that Gardenhire doesn’t make an equally inexplicable decision if the Twins win game three. The Twins need to win three games in a row, two of which will not be started by Johan Santana. Under no circumstances should Santana pitch game four on three days rest if the Twins win on Friday.

Brad Radke on full rest, Carlos Silva on full rest and Santana on full rest is a much better bet for the Twins than Radke on full rest and Santana and Bonser both on three days rest.

If Minnesota can find a way to win games three and four, they have Santana waiting to pitch game five at home on full rest, which is a situation that worked out very well for Minnesota every time this season until Tuesday.

For the A’s, things are pretty simple. Win one of the next two games and they don’t have to worry about Santana or Minnesota any more.

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