Three Games In May

Over the weekend, I felt a little like Mr. and Mrs. Giles must feel whenever their two boys, Brian and Marcus, are playing against each other. Well, okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it was a weird feeling when the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s played a three-game series, starting Friday.

As many of you probably know, the Twins are my team. At the same time, the A’s are my favorite non-Minnesota team in all of sports. But that wasn’t the toughest part. I mean, I’ll always root for the Twins, no matter who they’re playing. These two teams squared off in the 2002 ALDS and I’ve never wanted a team to win as much as I wanted the Twins to win that series. It’s sort of like someone rooting for their brother to beat their cousin at something. It’s a tough situation, but an easy decision.

The particularly difficult experience came in the first inning of Friday night’s game. It was one of the first times I’ve actually been able to watch the Twins this whole season. You see, they started their own cable channel, Victory Sports, but none of the big cable or satellite providers here in the Twin Cities picked it up. That left fans like me in the dark, except on Friday nights, when the games were shown on another (available) channel.

So I had the great pleasure of seeing Johan Santana walk Eric Byrnes to start the bottom of the first. Johan is the player I have probably talked about, written about and obsessed about the most over the past two years or so, and I even dubbed him “The Official Pitcher of Aaron’s Baseball Blog.”

With Byrnes on first base, guess who came striding to the plate? None other than Bobby Kielty, the former Twin and perhaps the player I have talked about, written about and obsessed about most often aside from Santana. I realized before the game started that this matchup was likely to occur; Kielty beats up on lefties pretty well (.293/.401/.518 from 2001-2003).

Still, when it was actually a reality, I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to see happen. Did I want Santana to strike Kielty out? Did I want Kielty to get a hit? How about a walk, which would sort of be like a compromise between the two?

Just before Santana delivered his first pitch, I decided I wanted to see Kielty smack a bloop single on the first pitch he saw. That way, Kielty gets his hit, which is good because he’s been struggling this year. Still, it’s only a blooper, not a line drive, and by getting it on the first pitch he keeps Santana’s pitch count low. Makes sense, right?

Well, that’s not quite what happened. In fact, that’s not at all what happened. Kielty took the first pitch for a strike and then, on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Santana left a fastball up and out over the plate and Kielty deposited it over the fence in straightaway center field for a two-run homer.

Santana managed to get out of the first inning without any more damage, but it was a major struggle. The A’s were at their pitch-taking best and Santana, who typically checks out of games around the 100-pitch mark, threw 35 pitches in the opening frame.

Johan started cruising along pretty well after his trouble with Kielty. He struck out two of the next four batters he faced and got two ground outs, including a double play that erased a single he allowed to Damian Miller. He seemed to be throwing pretty well. He had good velocity and his off-speed stuff had the batters pretty fooled. And then Eric Chavez came up and blasted a solo homer into the stands in left field, and suddenly it was 3-0 Oakland.

Santana got out of the third without any more runs scoring, but then served up a two-run homer to Eric Karros with no outs in the fourth. The game was typical of Santana’s problems when he gets in trouble. His “stuff” was perfectly fine, he was getting strike outs, he was mixing pitches and he had batters sufficiently off-balance. The problems came when he simply left fastballs out over the plate. Sometimes you get away with that, but Kielty, Chavez and Karros made him pay.

After the Karros homer, Santana got the next two batters to strike out swinging, and then ended the inning by getting Eric Byrnes on a fly ball to center field. After four innings, Santana had given up five runs off of three homers, and his pitch count stood at 82, despite the fact that he had thrown 63% strikes and only walked one batter.

Santana’s night was done after four innings as Ron Gardenhire, not realizing what was in store for the rest of the evening, decided he’d let his bullpen take over to start the fifth inning. In retrospect, I’m guessing Gardenhire may have allowed Santana get to 100 pitches before calling on the pen.

But, Joe Roa came in to start the fifth and became the first of six Minnesota relievers. Yeah, that’s right, six. Oakland’s starting pitcher, Mark Redman, left after five innings and five Oakland relievers followed him. All together, relievers combined to throw 16.2 innings and 330 pitches on Friday night.

While Santana left after walking just one batter — the first one he faced — the bullpen ended up walking 10 Oakland hitters. The A’s weren’t a whole lot better though, as Redman walked three in his five innings and then the bullpen gave out five more free passes.

As you can infer from all this information I’m giving you, this game went extra innings; three be exact. After a combined 19 walks and 30 hits, Eric Byrnes — the same guy who led off the first inning with that walk against Santana — ended all the madness with a two-run homer to deep left field, giving Oakland the 11-9 victory.

It was, in the understatement of the year, a very strange game. One thing that happened off the field actually made it even weirder, at least for Twins fans. Minnesota’s TV announcers, Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, started the broadcast by saying they had “an exciting announcement for Twins fans.”

I had an idea of what it was, considering the dispute between the Twins’ new channel, Victory Sports, and the cable and satellite providers, but the actual announcement surprised me. Perhaps waiting for the right moment and perhaps wanting to toy with their viewers one last time, Dick and Bert waited a couple innings to let everyone in on the secret news.

Then they announced that the Twins would be back on TV, starting with Saturday afternoon’s game, but it wasn’t going to be on Victory Sports. Instead, Dick and Bert told us, the team was going back to FOX Sports Net, where they’ve been for years, signing an eight-year contract.

This was interesting news for any number of reasons, chief among them that I’d be able to watch Twins games now, which had me more than a little excited. The more intriguing part of this was that the Twins were basically admitting defeat to the cable and satellite companies, scrapping their network that was supposed to bring in so much money for the team.

Additionally, in admitting their defeat, the team was going back to FOX Sports Net, whom they have been saying some very unflattering things about over the past couple months, while this whole dispute was going on. In fact, Victory Sports president Kevin Cattoor made some comments in an interview here with me last month that were pretty inflammatory:

THT: Do you feel FOX Sports Net has had anything to do with the problems in the negotiations with the major outlets?

Cattoor: They are owned by the same company as DirecTV. They have stalled talks with us because of that.

As to the other providers, we know that they have told many operators that the Twins will be back on FSN. They will not. FSN has made offers to us back as far as 2002. We recently rejected their last offer earlier this year. Victory is too far down the line and it’s the right thing for the Twins organization to do.

FSN was the only regional network in the market. They were a monopoly and we believe they behaved like it. They didn’t come to the table with a fair deal. Our previous deal put the Twins in the bottom five teams in MLB for television revenue, so we needed to establish Victory as another alternative in the market. Victory will be good for sports fans and other teams in the market because now we have competition and more sports programming will come from that, which is a win for upper Midwest sports fans.

That’s a pretty big change of tune in a month.

Cattoor said the team would not be back on FSN, and they are. Cattoor called FSN a monopoly and said “they behaved like it.” And now they’re partners with them once again. Cattoor talked about how the Twins could not make a deal with FSN work on a financial level and…well, now they can, I guess.

I’m thrilled that the team is back on TV, but I am also fairly discouraged, not only by how this all went down and by how horribly the Twins’ “big” plan went, but also by the fact that it seems they have failed to secure the type of money they had been hoping to get with this new channel.

Does this mean all the talk about increasing payroll is out the window? Apparently the new deal with FOX Sports Net is for about $12 million per season, which is about double what they had been getting the past few years. But $6 million more per year is a whole lot less than Victory Sports was supposed to bring in.

Time will tell I suppose. It just seems very strange to me that the team would spend so much time and money on a new channel, break off their relationship with FOX Sports Net, say some strong things about the situation, and then just say “We take it all back, let’s be friends again” a month later. The big lesson here, I suppose, is to make sure you’re standing on some pretty firm ground before you decide to take on the big boys of the media world.

The first game of the year on FOX Sports Net — and the first non-Friday game that I’ve been able to watch since Opening Day — was a good one (and a long one) too.

With both bullpens totally blown out from the night before, the Twins and A’s took vastly different approaches to the second game of the series. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the pitching matchup: Tim Hudson vs. Seth Greisinger.

The A’s pretty much told Hudson it was his game. He gave up a run in the first inning and another in fourth, but ended up pitching nine innings while throwing 119 pitches. He was very efficient, throwing 70% strikes and, after the walk-fest the night before, the Twins didn’t draw a single walk. The A’s did, of course. Five, actually.

Greisinger pitched well too, allowing just two runs, but he was yanked after throwing 92 pitches. Joe Roa, who threw 34 pitches the night before, came in to relieve him and threw 24 more pitches.

Roa was followed by J.C. Romero, who threw just 13 pitches the night before. Amazingly, Romero ended up throwing 50 pitches in 2.2 innings. That’s the most pitches he’s thrown since his days as a starter. In fact, Romero had thrown more than 40 pitches in a game just once since 2002 and he has averaged just 15.5 pitches per appearance during that time.

Romero wasn’t at his best, but he managed to make it through 2.2 scoreless innings. Then, with Hudson finally out of the game (and Jim Mecir in), the Twins scratched a run across in the top of the 10th. Shannon Stewart led off the inning with a single and then later scored from first on a dropped pop up by Bobby Crosby. As Stewart said after the game, “I looked at third and didn’t see the pitcher [covering], so I kept on running.”

After that, with the 2-2 tie broken for the first time since the fourth inning, Joe Nathan came in, after throwing 32 pitches in the first game, and slammed the door with three strikeouts (and one walk, just for good measure).

Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 was a bit of a letdown. It didn’t go extra innings, the game wasn’t particularly in doubt at any point in the late innings, and the Twins lost (okay, so that last one is only disappointing to me).

The A’s once again walked all over the place. They drew six free passes in four innings off of Minnesota’s starter, Kyle Lohse, and then drew three more off the Twins’ bullpen. That gave them a three-game total of 25 walks. Now, they played some extra frames and the umpiring was highly questionable at times, but that’s still pretty incredible, especially considering the Minnesota pitching staff usually has great control.

The Twins walked the second-fewest batters in the American League last season and the third-fewest in 2002. They came into the Oakland series once again near the top of the league, with the second-fewest walks (3.0 per game). By the time the series was over and all the walking was done, the Twins ranked ninth in the AL in walks allowed.

Thanks to the walkathon by Oakland, Kyle Lohse lasted just 4.1 innings, though he managed to get in a full game’s worth of pitches (102) in that time. He threw just 52% of them for strikes. Juan Rincon came in and threw 39 pitches and he was followed by Aaron Fultz, who tossed 35 more.

Just like in Game 2, Oakland rode one of their horses. This time, they didn’t even need the bullpen at all, as Mark Mulder tossed a complete game six-hitter, allowing four runs (three earned), while throwing 110 pitches.

With Hudson and Mulder both throwing nine innings, the bullpen totals for the series were incredibly lopsided.

                     MIN           OAK
Innings             17.1           9.0
Hits                  17            11
Runs                   9             5
Walks                 16             6
Strikeouts            16             5 
Home Runs              1             0
Pitches              346           173

That’s right, in three games, the Twins’ bullpen threw 346 pitches. That’s 115 pitches per game, or five fewer than Mulder threw in his Game 3 complete game.

The bad news for the Twins is that they lost two out of three in Oakland. The other bad news is that their pitching staff threw 623 pitches and their bullpen was completely blown out. The good news? They have today off, before starting a homestand on Tuesday. The other good news? I’ll be able to watch.

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