I’ve heard of a lot of baseball curses—from the Curse of the Bambino plaguing the Boston Red Sox until 2004 to the Curse of the Billy Goat that’s supposed to have plagued the Chicago Cubs since 1946 (tavern owner Sam Siamis was denied bringing his beloved goat into Wrigley Field, or some such thing)—but I’ve never heard of a curse tied to a baseball writer.
The Minnesota Twins and their fans may be tempted to change that. On 24 July, here is what Hall of Fame baseball writer Murray Chass (formerly of The New York Times, now writing for his own Website) wrote about the Twins returning to the thick of the American League Central hunt:
Two years ago, not long after the All-Star break, maybe the beginning of August, I declared that the Minnesota Twins would win the American League Central title. The Twins, at the time, were somewhere from four to six games behind Detroit and hadn’t posed a challenge to the Tigers all season.
The problem was I didn’t make my declaration to anyone but myself; I never wrote it anywhere so I couldn’t take credit when the Twins pulled even with the Tigers on the next-to-last day of the season, then beat them in a one-game playoff.
I’m not going to make that mistake again. I will say simply they’re back.
I will say also that I don’t feel as strong about these Twins as I did about the 2009 Twins, and I wouldn’t feel strong about them at all if I listened to the executive of an American League club who disagreed with me and pronounced them “a .500 club.” But he also acknowledged that the Twins have “had a lot of injuries” and they have “been impressive in what they have accomplished as far as coming back.”
The Twins have lagged behind three other teams in the division virtually the entire season and some days they were behind all four of the other Central teams.
“We dug ourselves a huge hole early in season,” general manager Bill Smith said, referring to the team’s 17-37 record in the first third of the season. “But our managers and coaches and players never quit.
We have got our work cut out for us, but we’re in contention.”
After games of June 1, the Twins were 16 ½ games from first. When I talked to Smith last Thursday, they had slashed that deficit to 5 games.
Since then, they lost twice to the first-place Tigers, showing how difficult their task is. Earlier in the week they lost a doubleheader to the first-place Indians but rebounded and won the final two games of the series. They also won the third game of the four-game Detroit series, putting themselves in position with a win Sunday to do to the Tigers what they did to the Indians.
Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Twins: it promises to be a good, down-to-the-end race, and probably any of those teams could win it.
That was 24 July. It just so happens that on this year’s 24 July, two-time Twins pitching bellwether Bert Blyleven was inducted into the Hall of Fame, provoking an end to the boycott another longtime once-upon-a-time Twin bellwether, infielder Rod Carew, was performing until Blyleven was enshrined.
This is the morning after 25 July, on which fine Monday night the Twins were so completely disemboweled by the Texas Rangers that manager Ron Gardenhire compared the first five innings’ worth of Rangers scoring to a U.S. Postal Service trademark: The first five innings looked like a ZIP code, that will tell you how it went . . . 33354. I think that’s Florida . . . Fort Lauderdale.
As a matter of fact, it is a Fort Lauderdale zip code.
But you wonder what Blyleven—who works as a colour commentator on the Twins’ television broadcasts—was thinking or feeling when the carnage was over at last.
Gardenhire wanted only a start from Nick Blackburn that was quality enough to give the bullpen a spell of much-needed rest. What Blackburn got—and he’s only beaten the Rangers once in his career, including a no-decision against them earlier this season—was so badly torched in two and two thirds innings that, when Jose Mijares was brought in to relieve him, one out after Ian Kinsler slammed home an exclamation point with a three-run homer, you could have sworn Blackburn heaved a huge THANK GOD! as he left the mound, even if only to himself.
Blackburn had nine runs on his day’s ticket, three of them unearned, and the Rangers were only beginning to have their fun. Mijares had second and third and one out in the bottom of the fourth when Mitch Moreland whacked a two-run double that was abetted by Twins left fielder Trevor Plouffe misreading its path so completely he looked like an addled running back trying to squeeze through a wall of linemen in a bid to retrieve it. Mike Napoli came home on Endy Chavez’s infield hit, and Kinsler sent home Moreland on a long single. The least painful strike had to have been Josh Hamilton’s sacrifice fly off Chuck James relieving Mijares.
Chavez started the scoring in the next inning when he swatted a two-run single off James, following a run of singles interrupted rudely enough by James striking out Chris Davis. Then, with Phil Dumatrait coming in to relieve James, it was another single (Kinsler) and a two-run double (Elvis Andrus), and Gardenhire must have begun wishing he and his were in Fort Lauderdale, instead.
If the Rangers’ clubhouse features a kangaroo court, Davis figured to be the docket’s most prominent defendant. Every Ranger in the starting lineup had two or more hits except Davis. The third baseman went 0-for-6 with two strikeouts, reaching base once only because Minnesota shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka threw his grounder wide from deep in the hole, and coming home on the Kinsler bomb.
Dumatrait actually pitched credibly into and out of trouble with nothing else going on the scoreboard against the Twins for another full inning, but then Gardenhire decided to let him off the hook before the Rangers could find a way to pry more runs out of him and sent out Alex Burnett for the Texas seventh. The manager also moved catcher Joe Mauer—whose season began in injury and who’s lately been a subject of ponderings as to whether to move him to first base permanently—to first base in favour of Drew Butera behind the dish. Poor Mauer, the former MVP, must have been wondering where it all went wrong and why it seemed every pitch for which he called got turned into run-producing stokes against his Twins at about half the turns of the game.
Burnett actually accomplished something his predecessors other than Dumatrait couldn’t seem to muster all game long. He actually got two outs on the Rangers before anyone got anything resembling a base hit, a walk to Andrus sandwiched between a fly out and a swishout. That’d teach him. Omar Quintinilla, who’d replaced Michael Young defencively to open the sixth, hit a triple to the rear end of the ballpark to send Andrus home, and barely had time to catch his breath after pulling into third before Nelson Cruz doubled him home. Burnett got Davis to ground out for the side, but there went any ideas he had of having an easy night at the office.
As a matter of fact, only one Twins pitcher other than Dumatrait seemed able to pitch out of trouble, and this one got into hot water earlier than Dumatrait had done. Only this pitcher wasn’t really a pitcher. Michael Cuddyer, the consistent outfielder who’d pitched in high school and harboured dreams of throwing an inning in the Show before his career might end, got his chance for the bottom of the eighth. And he was greeted immediately with a double (Napoli) and a single (Moreland).
Well, ok, no sweatski, Cuddyer must have thought to himself. Not even when Chavez pushed Moreland and Napoli to second and third with an unassisted groundout to first. Not even when Kinsler walked to load the bases. He merely got Andrus to fly out on 0-1 and David Murphy to pop out to shortstop for the side. He also got bragging rights on the entire pitching staff: the only Twins pitcher who pitched his way out of a bases-loaded jam all night long.
Somehow, some way, the Twins managed to hang up six runs. Cuddyer himself started the Twins’ scoring in the top of the fourth, when he pushed Alexi Casilla home while grounding into a double play. That cut the Twins’ deficit to a mere 9-1. Danny Valencia (leadoff single) came home while Nishioka’s grounder to third was mishandled in the top of the seventh. That cut the deficit to a mere 18-2. Jason Kubel hit a one-out two-run bomb and Plouffe whacked an RBI double an inning later, cutting the deficit to a mere 20-5. Jason Repko (leadoff single) came home when Cuddyer’s whacker in front of the plate was thrown away by Rangers reliever Neftali Feliz, usually their closer but probably just getting in the work, and that was it for the Twins.
“Why do I like the Twins? For one thing, I like their resilience,” Chass had written the day before, of a Twins team extorting their way back to contention after an injury-plagued, 17-37 record in the season’s opening third. (A lot of the Twins’ Monday lineup missed significant time to injuries this season.) “As their general manager said, they dug themselves a really deep hole, but they’ve climbed most of the way out, and they’ve done it without some of their best players. If they have their ‘A’ team for the final six weeks, they will make life difficult for the other contenders.”
The Rangers certainly hadn’t noticed life getting difficult for them until the bottom of the eighth Monday night. They’re only the third team in 111 years to hang up three runs or more in the first five innings of a game. The Philadelphia Phillies laid it on the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900, and a slightly different collection of Rangers had it laid on them by the Oakland Athletics two decades before Monday night.
“I was just surprised I threw some strikes,” Cuddyer cracked after the massacre.
I’m willing to bet the Rangers by then didn’t think any Twin could throw any strikes that they couldn’t hit. As a matter of fact, the Twins pitching (including Cuddyer) threw 134 strikes out of 203 pitches and 90 of those strikes came on balls batted foul. Ten of the Twins’ strikes were swing-and-miss strikes; 34 of the strikes were lookers.
But I don’t know whether I’d bet on Chass going on strike until the Twins throw some untouchable ones again.