Opening Day's Potpourri
April 5, 2005

I don't really have a topic to cover, but there were a few things I wanted to address about the first couple of days this season.

First up: I love Dmitri Young and not just because he's on my AL Tout Wars team.  He had a fabulous Opening Day against the lowly Royals, becoming only the third person - the others were George Bell and Tuffy Rhodes - to hit three homers on Opening Day.  But that isn't the reason he's one of my favorite players.  He's been one of the tops of my list since a game a couple of years ago I was scoring a game in Baltimore.  On May 6, 2003, entering the ninth inning he was one double away from hitting for the cycle.  He had already hit two homers and was 4-for-4 when he came up to bat for the fifth time in the game.  Facing Buddy Groom, he laced a line drive to the left-center gap.  Now if you remember, 2003 was not a good year for the Tigers.  In fact, they were historically bad.  On May 6, they were 5-25 on their way to losing 119 games.  So he wasn't helping his team back into the pennant race if he tried to stretch a sure double into a maybe triple.  And he could have coasted in for his double and become one of 200 or so hitters in the history of the game to hit for the cycle.  But there was Dmitri motoring around second and going hard into third.  When the dust settled, he had his second triple of the game.  He finished 5-for-5 with 5 RBI on a single, two homers and two triples... and no cycle.  As he confirmed afterward in interviews, all he cared about was helping his team win.  He didn't score on either of his triples as his teammates were woefully inept at the plate.  But he did give them a chance and the Tigers did in fact win that game 7-6.  Perhaps the nicest thing about his effort was that, although he didn't join the ranks of the circle of cycle-hitters, he joined a more elite club: he became the first player since Willie Mays to hit two homers and two triples in a game and one of only a handful to have ever done it. 

As for his performance on Opening Day, while I'd love to see him continue his home run hitting binge all season, he's not the type of hitter who leads the league in homers.  He had favorable conditions for his feat on Monday, the most important of which is the pitchers he was facing.  Jose Lima, off whom he smacked two, is highly susceptible to giving up home runs, and Mike MacDougal, off whom he hit his last one, is a noted hard-thrower with control issues.  His last pitch to Young was pretty much a get-me-over-the-plate fastball with decent velocity, so Young really only had to get the fat part of the bat on it and MacDougal would supply the power.  I do like Young for 30+ homers and a .300 average this year though and the addition of Magglio Ordonez to the line-up should give him enough extra at bats to get there comfortably.

Number two on the to do list: I'm probably too hard on Ron Gardenhire for his mistakes and don't give him near enough credit for the job he does.  He has an advantage over most managers in that almost all of his players are from the Twins organization, so they are in many ways like a bunch of brothers.  Most clubhouses are kind of clique-ish, but because the Twins players know each other so well, there's very little factioning going on.  So Gardenhire really doesn't have to worry about team chemistry, if there's any real value in that.  Still, he keeps things loose with his team, taking infield grounders with his players during batting practice and if not actively helping, at least turning a winking eye with the rookie hazing.  For example, last year J.D. Durbin was promoted to the majors when the team was in Baltimore.  For those who don't know, Durbin is a highly regarded pitching prospect who clocked in at 100 mph this past fall in the Arizona Fall League.  He's also somewhat of a jokester, once referring to himself as "the Real Deal" in an interview, a nickname that has followed him much to his chagrin.  When Durbin arrived in the visitors clubhouse, there was a makeshift red carpet of bath towels from the door to his locker, where a large sign read "Home of the Real Deal".  In his locker was a pink Barbie lunch pail and a PowerPuff Girls backpack along with his uniform.  Anyone who has followed the Twins knows that every rookie pitcher must tote these two items across the field to the bullpen before his first game in full view of the fans.  I'm not sure a Powerpuff Girl backpack was previous manager Tom Kelley's style, so this appears to be a Gardenhire convention.  Anyway, there walked the "Real Deal" across the field at Camden, while thousands of fans watched wondering if the ballpark vendors sell those in orange and black.

Anyway, I give him a hard time for his handling of the Twins formidable pitching yet do not give him credit for doing a very good job managing the game on the field when it comes to his offense.  For example, tonight the Twins found themselves down by four runs to the Mariners, but had started a rally in the 5th inning.  By the time Joe Mauer came up to bat, they had cut the lead in half and had men on first and second.  Mauer has good bat control, a good eye and showed good power last year in his brief stint.  With one out, the Mariners had taken down starter Gil Meche (who had been very good until the fifth) in favor of hard-throwing but quite wild lefty Matt Thornton to face the left-hitting Mauer.  Sure enough, Mauer worked the count to 3-1 and everyone in the ballpark knew a fastball was coming.  However, what they didn't know was where it was going.  This is a pitcher who threw 12 wild pitches last year in just over 110 innings.  Thornton could throw one in the dirt or way outside or right down Broadway.  The safe play would be to let Mauer look for a pitch in a particular zone and if he didn't see it, take it for a second strike and work from a full count on the next pitch.  But Gardenhire guessed (correctly) that Thornton would try to aim the next pitch in order to insure a second strike and had Mauer swinging away on a hit and run with both baserunners on the move.  Mauer made contact with the fastball on the outer half and had the runners not been going, would have grounded into an easy inning- and rally-ending double play.  As it was, the shortstop was out of position covering second base because of the movement and the ball trickled into left field for an RBI with men standing on first and third, thus opening the floodgates to an eventual 8-4 win.  After watching Gardy work the last couple of years as a game scorer and as a spectator, this is not an isolated occasion.  He has a knack for calling the right play when a play is called for.  I still have questions about the way he manages his pitching staff (although he does do a good job managing the pitch counts of his starters), but he's a pretty good manager everywhere else.  Over a 162-game season, the Twins probably come out ahead.  I just thought it was time to give props where they are due and show the flipside of the coin.

A couple of people have taken me to task about my division appraisals, especially the notion that the Pirates could win the Central over the Cardinals. I could be wrong, but remember one very important thing about the Cardinals this year: they were healthy all last year.  It wasn't until late in the season that Cris Carpenter came down with an injury and he was about the only guy who missed significant time.  They are depending on an outfield of which two thirds consist of Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, two guys who have not recently been noted for their durability.  What are the chances those two play 140+ games each this season?   Combine that with the likely increased workload on a bullpen that is not as talented as last year's and I'd say there's the makings of a very exciting race in the NL Central that could involve anyone, including the Pirates.

One of the possibilities I didn't cover in my previews, but one that became apparent today, was the chance that John Smoltz won't get injured while starting this season.  He could just stink.  One of the benefits of pitching as the closer is knowing you don't have to hold anything back.  A closer can throw as hard as he can for as long as he can and know that for the most part, he'll never throw more than two innings.  Not so with a starter.  A starter has to take something off his pitches so that he can pace himself through at least five innings.  A guy who gets comfortable being able to throw a ball past hitters might have some trouble adjusting to not being able to throw as hard all the time, just the way pitchers have to adjust as they get older and they start to lose velocity.  I guess what I'm saying is that it's possible that 38-year old John Smoltz, by moving back to the rotation, just accelerated his aging process exponentially so that not only is the risk of injury greater, but that he will have the additional adjustment of having to pace himself where he can't just let loose whenever he needs to blow a hitter away.  Obviously, he knows how to do that as he was a pretty good starter back in the day.  But also back in the day he was also much younger and threw much harder and didn't have three arm surgeries on his resume.  I doubt he will stink this year, but it should be noted that the last time he was a starter (back in 2001) he posted an ERA of 5.76 and a WHIP of 1.52.  Granted, that was after missing the 2000 season due to arm surgery, but it is what it is.