The last playoff spot has yet to be decided with Chicago taking the makeup game from Detroit in an 8-2 blowout after an early pitcher’s dual. Now, with the Twins and the Sox carrying identical records, they have extra baseball to play. Both have the postseason in their sights, but they have a tiebreaker before any bubbly is sprayed.
I wanted to take the time to delve into what kind of tools Minnesota will have to work with in terms of the young rotation. I'm sure the majority of the baseball community did not expect them to be where they are, but a key to their success has been the starting staff.
The rotation suffered a potentially huge loss in Slowey when he took a line shot back at his throwing wrist. Slowey, who was set to start the tiebreaker, was the only Twin to throw a complete game (3), two of which were shutouts. If the Twins do make it further, it is hard to tell Slowey would be ready to perform, making his spot on the playoff roster a big question.
Kevin Slowey is the type of pitcher that Brad Radke was for the Twins, the prime example of what a Twins pitcher is supposed to be. He is not overpowering, but he has impeccable control issuing only 24 walks in 160.1 innings. Working both sides of the plate, and hitting his spots coupled with first pitch strikes helped him become a solid number 3 guy in the rotation.
The difference between him and Brad Radke is Slowey doesn’t give up runs in the first inning. As a matter of fact, I believe his scoreless first innings streak is a club record. Slowey’s problem, however, an archetype in the Twins pitching staff, is the inability to keep the ball in the park. He as improved giving only 6 more home run in 100 more innings pitched in ’08 over ‘07. Despite his 12-11 record, he has pitched well enough to be at least 16-6, but lacked run support, another Twins archetype. It would be a shame if he could not make the playoff roster if the Twins were to advance.
Nick Blackburn is set to make the start in the tiebreaker game against Chicago. He has better stuff than Slowey as far as pitches, but lacks the demeanor and composure as Slowey. He tends to give up crooked numbers when he is forced into the stretch. This makes me worried about how he will fare against a hard hitting ball club like Chicago, especially having struggled as of late, elevating his ERA above 4. His results have been mixed against the Sox, going 2-2 in 5 starts posting a 5.67 ERA.
Blackburn is a contact hitter, putting the ball in play and relying on his defense. The defense always has to be sharp when Blackburn gets the nod, and many times it is a weakness for him. This explains why he has allowed 220 hits in 187 innings, and has given up 15 unearned runs, where the rest of the rotation has given up a combined 17 (excluding Livan). He picked up the win in his last start, which was against the Sox, but he needed a lot of help from the pen, exiting after only 5 frames.
The key to Blackburn succeeding is to attack the strike zone against the heavy hitting Sox. He needs to get in the first pitch strikes and change speeds to keep the hitters off balance. He needs to stay ahead of these hitters so he doesn’t have to succumb to hitters count fastballs. He also tends to overthrow when in the stretch, elevating his fastball, and flattening/ straightening out his 2-seam. Pitch selection is going to be crucial as well. His pitch speeds tend to be too constant while living in the low 90’s. He needs to mix things up. The difference between a flat 93 fastball and a tailing 91 can be a two-run shot, or a routine 6-4-3 double play.
Glen Perkins was the Twins’ pleasant surprise this season, pitching very well during the middle of the season. He was 8-1 in 10 starts during the months of July and August pitching 6 plus innings in each start, highlighted by 8 shutout innings in each of the starts against New York and Los Angeles. Fatigue seems to have set in, however, as Glen went winless in August posting a 7.45 ERA for the month.
Perkins is not like most of the lefty starters that the Twins have possessed over the years. The rotation has been spoiled by hard throwing southpaws like Eric Milton, Johan Santana, and Francisco Liriano. Like the rest of the guys, Perkins lives in the high 80’s and low 90’s and changes speeds very well. He mixes up his pitches well, and when he is on, you never see consecutive speeds.
With his struggles of late, he has been relegated to the bullpen, but depending on Kevin Slowey’s progress, might take the starting spot on the playoff roster. It is questionable whether Perkins would even start in the postseason however, with the short series in the first round, short rest starts a big possibility. Glen was great down the stretch, but control problems will definitely hurt his chances of starting again this season.
Francisco Liriano the “Franchise” has done for the Twins since his recall, what CC Sabathia did for the Brewers. He was roughed up against Kansas City and Cleveland, but he pitched well enough in the rest of the starts to post a 6-1 record since the recall. Actually, he pitched well enough to deserve a 9-1 record in that stretch.
I am sure everybody by now knows the Liriano story, so I won’t dwell on it again, but he should be a strong candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year. He has done what he’s been asked to do: clutch performances, keep the team in the game, be the slump stopper, skid stopper, etc. Sure his strikeout numbers are not off the charts like they were in ’06, but he is on his way as his confidence just gets higher and higher.
Control is still a big issue for Liriano, allowing 32 free passes in a half season. This is also a big reason why he was unable to pitch deep into the ballgames in early August. Too many pitches early, and trying to strikeout everybody. He finally learned to pitch for contact, and actually struck out more batters attacking the strike zone. If he continues to do what he’s doing, he will follow in the same path as Johan Santana, and take the torch as the staff ace.
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The departure of Santana and then Livan Hernandez in the middle of the season, the title of the staff ace was given by default to Scott Baker, who is the oldest only by months, but also he has made more career starts than the rest of the rotation.
Scott Baker, an unlikely choice for the role with an arm like Liriano in the mix, has matured and emerged as the dominant force that they expected him to be. In my eyes, Baker really "arrived" when he took a perfect game into the 9th against the Royals in 2007.
Scott Baker has suffered from what all of the Twins’ previous staff Aces have experienced: bad luck, and lack of run support. Out of his 13 no decisions on the season, he has pitched 7 quality starts, and each of his 4 losses were quality starts as well. So despite his 11-4 record, it is obvious that Baker has pitched well enough to keep his team in the game, and is well on his way to becoming a 20 game winner.
He has matured to the point that he can sense what he is doing wrong without the help of pitching coach Rick Anderson, and can make the adjustment to what he has during the game. His 3.45 ERA is the lowest on the starting staff, and he has been the workhorse as well. He has gone 5-plus innings in all but three starts, and two of them were early exits due to injury. Consistent, durable, and composed can be words to describe Baker, and he deserves the role hands down.
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In a perfect world, Slowey would have been my choice to start the tiebreaker, not Blackburn. In a more perfect world, the Twins would have won the division sooner, being able to set up the rotation for the ALDS. If that were the case, I would have pitched the more experienced guys, Baker then Liriano in St. Pete, especially considering Liriano pitched well against them the last time. Slowey would start game three at home, and then bring back the top two on short rest in this short series.
But, since Baker pitched on Sunday, the rotation would be close to their set start dates, and have Liriano followed by Baker at the Trop. Slowey fares better at home, so the Dome, with the fans backing him would be a more comfortable environment.
As for Blackburn and Perkins, if the Twins make it to the ALCS and depending on how Blackburn does in the tiebreaker, they should go with a four man in the long series, with one or the other backing up for long relief. With the way both have struggled late in the season, I won’t be surprised if both were on very short leashes.
Especially with each and every game being so crucial in the playoffs, it would be a luxury to save the setup guys in the pen. Having a starter go long relief would take off a lot of pressure from those guys bridging to Nathan.
T-minus 1 hour until the tiebreaker, it is do or die. Now lets see what these guys are made of.