Hoo boy. Is this the baseball equivalent of staying up too late the night before and then going to work and having nothing go right for you? If not, it has to be close. At any rate, we’ve got two games to cover and a lot of things happened, so let’s get started with this doubleheader autopsy.
Max Scherzer had a decent start in Game 1. His velocity was noticeably down. He never got above 94 MPH (and most of his fastballs were 91-92 MPH), and we never got a clear explanation for this. In his postgame interview, Jim Leyland said it was deliberate on Scherzer’s part, as he was being cautious. Scherzer himself hinted that since he didn’t go through his normal routing between starts, he couldn’t build up to the velocity he normally has in his starts. The important thing will be how he feels tomorrow, and then we’ll see what happens with his next start (and I’m going to guess they’ll have Drew Smyly on standby just in case). However, even though he didn’t have the fireballing fastball that he normally has, he was able to rely on his offspeed pitches and excellent location to keep the Twins off-balance until the sixth inning. That’s when things went all pear-shaped.
The sixth inning was so full of defensive miscues and mental mistakes that I don’t even think I could describe all of them. It started out as the Many Misadventures of Andy Dirks. Dirks actually made quite a few good plays in left field during this game, but he made two very costly mistakes in the sixth. The first was on a deep drive off the bat of Ben Revere that went off the heel of Dirks’s glove. Dirks proceeded to crash into the wall and then couldn’t find the ball right away, allowing Revere to reach third. It was ruled a triple, but I think Dirks would admit that he should have made the catch. After a run-scoring, slow-rolling ground ball from Joe Mauer that went for an infield single (on a difficult play by Omar Infante, but it was a play that Prince Fielder probably should have been able to hold onto), Josh Willingham caught up to Scherzer’s 92 MPH fastball and ripped a double into left. That chased Scherzer and brought in Phil Coke. This is where Dirks’s second mistake occurred. Justin Morneau hit a pop up to left, but Dirks misread and and by the time he came in, the ball dropped in front of him and the tying run scored (I do feel bad for him, because everybody is going to remember the two misplays and not the four or five good catches that he made the rest of the game). And then, after a walk to Ryan Doumit, a pitching change, and a single by Trevor Plouffe that put the Twins in the lead, we went into another episode of “No Matter How Long You Watch Baseball, You Will Always See Something You’ve Never Seen Before.”
I have never seen an instance before where the bases are loaded with nobody out, the batter strikes out on a pitch that gets away from the catcher, and the catcher gets the ball back to the pitcher before the runner at third crosses home plate. Granted, I’ve only watched baseball regularly for about five years, but Leyland said postgame that he hadn’t seen it in 45 years. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. I did not know that that’s not a force play. I thought that force plays were entirely about which bases were occupied and I didn’t really factor “runner advancing at their own risk” into the equation, mostly because I’d never seen this particular set of circumstances before, and to make things even more confusing, when there are two outs, that DOES become a force play (and please don’t load this post up with a bunch of comments explaining it to me; trust me, I get it now. I’m good). I’d like to think I have at least an above-average knowledge of baseball (hopefully, better than that), but I realize I still have things to learn about it, as do we all, in my opinion. Therefore, I freely admit that I believed that was a force play, and I was wrong. The problem is that Brayan Villarreal also did not know that that wasn’t a force play. As a result of that mistake, Justin Morneau scored instead of being an easy out, and Ryan Doumit made it to third. He ended up scoring on a ground ball from Alexi Casilla (and there really wasn’t anything Villarreal nor the defense could have done about that; Casilla was just too fast for the Tigers to be able to double him up). It was an unfortunate mistake (and I have mentioned numerous times that Villarreal has seemed kind of distracted recently), but Leyland’s explanation was that Villarreal got confused after Escobar (the batter) ran to first (apparently he wasn’t aware that it wasn’t a force play, either). It’s also not the first time I’ve seen a player not realize they couldn’t force a runner (although the two other times both involved first base being open and involved Brandon Inge and Victor Martinez, oddly enough). You can legitimately criticize him for not knowing this, because he’s a professional and all that (though I would guess that the vast majority of people do not know every single law and regulation of their chosen profession), but as I said, this particular set of circumstances is so unusual that it probably did not get a whole lot of emphasis during PFP, it’s unlikely to ever happen again, and even if it does, I’m willing to bet that he will not make the same mistake twice. Nothing allows you to learn from your mistakes more effectively than being humiliated by them (I speak from experience, and so I have nothing but sympathy for him in this case, especially since Game 2 featured two forceouts at home; it’s as if the baseball gods were taunting him).
Lost in all that was the fact that Villarreal’s pitching wasn’t all that bad. He made one bad pitch to Trevor Plouffe, which was the RBI single, and he gave up an unearned run in the seventh inning (oddly enough, the Tigers had so many defensive lapses and mental miscues in the sixth inning, but the only error of the game was charged to Gerald Laird in the seventh inning after his throw into center field allowed Ben Revere to get to third and score on a sacrifice fly), but all the other run-scoring that occurred on his watch related to the force play that wasn’t a force play. Darin Downs didn’t make any mental mistakes as far as I know, but he certainly struggled from a pitching standpoint, giving up four runs on four hits in an inning of work (though two of those runs scored on a triple that Luke Putkonen gave up to Joe Mauer). I get the feeling that any Tiger who pitched in Game 1 just wants to forget what happened and are eagerly awaiting their next outing.
Game 2 featured better pitching but more costly defensive mistakes. Drew Smyly was actually very impressive. He had a little bit of trouble in the first inning, but after a diving catch from Quintin Berry to strand two runners, he cruised until a leadoff walk to Trevor Plouffe in the fifth inning. Matt Carson then singled, bringing up Pedro Florimon in a bunting situation. And this is where Drew Smyly hurt his own case with a throwing error and suddenly the bases were loaded with nobody out. He was able to get Ben Revere to hit a ground ball to first and they got the force at home, at which point he was lifted in favor of Al Alburquerque. Alburquerque, after threatening to throw a wild pitch a couple times, did a good job, but he was also victimized by a defensive mistake. He got a ground ball to third, and again, they got the force at home, but when Alex Avila tried to complete the double play, Matt Carson slid into him and his throw sailed over Fielder’s head and into right field, which allowed the tying run to score. Alburquerque and Benoit kept the Twins off the board from that point on, but Minnesota finally managed a run off Jose Valverde in the tenth inning, and i’m not going to go after him for this one because he didn’t really pitch all that badly. Denard Span’s leadoff single was a ground ball that found a hole, and the strikezone all of a sudden seemed to be really tight. The only mistake Valverde made was on the pitch to Jamey Carroll that he lined into center to drive in the go-ahead run.
You may have noticed that in this very long discussion of this doubleheader that I haven’t mentioned the offense yet. Well, there wasn’t much to speak of. In both games, Miguel Cabrera gave the Tigers the early lead with an RBI double and then they were largely shut down after that. Delmon Young had an RBI single in Game 1 and Avisail Garcia later drove in two, once the game was well out of hand, but it was really quiet outside of that. I mentioned in my preview of Game 1 that Scott Diamond has actually done a good job for the Twins for most of the year, but I’m as mystified as you are why they’d get shut down by PJ Walters. The only attempt at an explanation that I heard from anyone was Rod Allen, who guessed that it was because Walters “didn’t give them anything to hit” and lived on the corners all night (a la Bruce Chen), but it’s tough to tell. All Jim Leyland would say was that they expected to score more runs but they didn’t (I don’t know if that means they were overconfident or what).
And I’ll close this out with a little bit of perspective: The Tigers are still in a better position than they were before this series started, thanks to the White Sox being swept in Anaheim. They are one game out with ten games to go. However, they are probably going to have to do a better job of taking care of their own business in this next series, because it’s unlikely that the White Sox will get swept by the Indians at home. The Royals are coming to town for the finale of the home portion of the 2012 regular season. First up: Justin Verlander against Luke Hochevar.