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Thomas U. Tuttle

Santana The Man

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by Thomas U. Tuttle

A couple of years ago the Minnesota Twins picked up veteran righty Ervin Ramon Santana with the hope that he could become the club ace and provide leadership to a young staff. Instead, they picked up a very expensive (four years, $55 mil) and challenging player situation, a man who was about to be suspended for half of the 2015 season on suspicion of performance enhancing drug use.

Santana was nonetheless able to contribute a little something to the Twins surprising team that year, finishing 7-5 for first year manager Paul Molitor’s overachieving (83-79) squad – all the while consistently denying the usage of anything illicit.

2016’s debacle season (59-103) was aided by Santana’s inconsistency and lack of support from the Twins offense, resulting in a weak 7-11 record despite an impressive ERA of 3.38 – among the top ten in the American League. Those of us who watched a number of his appearances in ’16 know that he pitched in hard luck on several occasions, but also gave up some crucial blows, at critical times, from the opposing side.

This year, our man Ervin is just right. His win in shutting out the Giants on a recent Friday gives him more wins than last year (eight) and one of the best all-around statistical seasons in baseball to this point, with one more shutout (three) than the rest of the league combined (two). Pretty amazing run thus far, and an All Star game start could well be just a couple more wins away.

(Interesting but little known fact: Ervin was actually born Johan Ramon Santana in La Romana, Dominican Republic – but there was a problem with that first name because, as most Twins fans know, there was already another Johan Santana – the formidable and established MLB star who throws from the left side. “I needed another first name, so I went with Ervin because it sounded good,” he said.

Against the Giants, he not only pitched the Twins to a 4-0 complete game shutout, Ervin also hit a bases clearing three-run double to greatly help his own cause. Not bad for a guy who rarely takes batting practice.

In serving up an exceptional 4-hitter, with 26 of 31 possible first pitch strikes and a triple San Francisco’s only well-struck base hit, he provided more evidence that, right now, he’s one of the best in the game.

Granted, recent two-time World Champion San Francisco has been having trouble this year, but the Minnesota road warriors continue their dominance away from home. When you think about it, the facts are nothing short of amazing; as of this writing the Twins are a baseball-leading 20-8 when visiting and a MLB worst 12-18 in the friendly confines of Target Field.

With a team not that much different from last season, they are in first place by two games in a division that looks like it could remain in play all summer. The defending AL best Cleveland Indians are struggling to find themselves, with some major cogs underperforming to this point. The White Sox continue a period (years) of struggle and the ongoing failure of Kansas City requires more study; the Detroit Tigers, for my money, could still be a team that emerges strong.

Minnesota has a bullpen that puts out fires with gasoline, including a closer in Brandon Kintzler who pitches with grit and technique rather than overpowering hitters. That said, and despite a couple of glaring blown save outings, his efforts have garnered 17 saves and the faith of manager Paul Molitor. “Brandon has to pitch to his spots, but he can be effective doing that,” said the Twins skipper. In other words, he “pitches to contact” – not exactly the classic flamethrowing bully called in to safely close out a win.

With Kyle Gibson finally giving a first-rate pitching performance and Jose Berrios looking like he has found his confidence on the mound, things are continuing to evolve with the starting rotation. Those two are the recent good news, with both garnering important wins of late. Early season starter Phil Hughes was disappointing in recent starts before he went on the DL, and erstwhile number-four man Hector Santiago has been Mr HR Dinger of late, with 12 home runs in 25 innings during his recent miseries.

Frankly, the starting pitching still has to be regarded as suspect, and the bullpen can be considerably worse. The cause for optimism is that this team finds ways to win despite clear challenges on the mound (former closer Glen Perkins won’t be back to help this year, if ever). And the offense can be darned explosive at times despite inconsistencies – more on that next time.

So back to the good news of Johan, er, Ervin Santana. With a great lead starter who commands confidence from the players behind him and strikes a little fear in the opposition, there are possibilities that good things can continue to happen in the Twin Towns. Or at least, perhaps, on long road trips for the battling squad that plays its home games near the banks of the Mississippi.

Minnesota Twins pitcher Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana leads the Major Leagues with 3 Shutout peformances thus far…

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Thomas U. Tuttle

Twins Roar Ahead

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by Thomas U. Tuttle

Years ago, when yours truly was playing high school baseball in the Chicago area, pitching won a bunch of games for us, but a dynamic offense won a lot more. We would put the hammer down with a diverse bunch of talent and outscore the opposition en route to a 26-4 record and a league title. Speed and power and solid defense was a fun way to win.

While most of us will agree that pitching wins ball games, we clobbered teams with bats, led by future Chicago Cubs first round draft pick Brian “Ozzie” Rosinski. He was the biggest threat, but not the only one; a trip down memory lane reminds me of the names Bobby Brasher, Ronnie Strong, Brian Walker, Bobby “Chief” Schwartz and a host of others. They could hit, night and day…

We also had an ace on our generally passable staff, big Cazzie, and when he was on the hill we were awful tough to beat (a state tournament-ending loss revolved around a blown call at second base involving yours truly with Caz on the hill). He was our Ervin Santana and that tourney loss might have been one of two defeats he suffered all year.

Ah, Glory Days, baby, as Boss Springsteen so brilliantly put to music! “He could throw that speed ball by you, make you look like a fool, boy…”

Yep, the Twins are living in the best of both worlds, as exemplified by their 14-7 offensive thumping of Baltimore which was followed by a 2-0 Santana gem and another Jose Berrios confidence builder, a 4-3 victory concluding Minnesota’s sweep of the Orioles. Look out Ma, the Boys have won four in a row and have led the Central for more days than any other team in the division. And with Cleveland’s best hurler, Corey Kluber, on the disabled list, there is no way the Indians are going to run and hide like last year

If the Twins have a solid June, they should stay relevant for the balance of the season – not bad for 2016’s worst team in baseball.

This year’s Minnesota team doesn’t have a bunch of cannons coming to the plate, but they can manufacture runs and even had a record tying 16-game home run streak. And while they are not going to flat-out crush you on most days (they’ve only scored in double figures a couple of times), they are led by the increasingly formidable Miguel Sano, who looks to be developing into one of the best power hitters in the game and is putting fear into American League pitchers – hanging around the league leaders in 4-baggers, slugging percentage, RBI’s and runs scored will tend to do that.

Sano leads the offense, brings a great attitude almost all the time, and is the unofficial leader of the Twins sizable Latin brigade. “Love to hit, love to hit…” he told a few of us after a strong game this spring. “Just doing my thing.” You can’t help but think of the one-time young Minnesota slugger David Ortiz when our big Miggy talks, smiles, hits etc…

The Latin thing is for real, with major contributors to offensive – and pitching – success coming from locations around the Caribbean. Jose Polanco, strong at shortstop and strengthening as a hitter; Kennys Vargas, potentially an important piece of a successful offensive ballclub; Eddie Rosario, Eduardo Escobar, Santana, Berrios, Santiago, etc…etc…

These guys from the warm winter spots, although they exhibit occasional youthful inconsistency, can really play. And they’re a lot of fun to watch as they mature, playing much better baseball than last year.

It’s also fun to see Joe Mauer look like he’s enjoying the game a good deal more than he has the past couple of years. He had his first three-hit game since last August, ’16 recently, and Mauer’s glove has been just short of brilliant at first base. He’s both laughing AND leading – one can almost remember why we’re paying the man about $25 million a year.

Almost…Monopoly money aside, this is a team that mixes and matches their players well. “It’s a well thought out team,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter after being swept in the three game set. “You can see how the parts fit.”

Max Kepler is becoming a major leaguer, the solid Brian Dozier is strengthening and leading, and Jason Castro is the serious catcher that he was expected to be. In a word, he’s exceptional at handling pitchers. The Byron Buxton saga continues – and is going to continue for a long time, hopefully including some offensive production to go along with the Gold Glove center fielder. My sources say he’s getting close to being the steady offensive threat that is expected; all of us are waiting for the arrival of consistency at the plate.

Pitching wins more games than hitting, so they say. The Twins will need to add a few pieces on the mound and likely at the plate to truly contend for a pennant. But one has to give manager Paul Molitor credit; he has stayed patient while staying the course and keeping faith in his young squad – emerging, once again, as an early manager of the year candidate.

Back in Chi-town, in the glory days, things could have ended awful sweet…just a few outs away from a state title. There was something about a missed tag at second base, surely a blown call by a visionchallenged umpire, and a baseball dream that slipped away.

It was just one of those crazy things that happen in the sport, something like going from worst to first at the major league level. You just never know about about baseball, but I’ve got to tell you – I tagged him!

HE WAS OUT!

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Thomas U. Tuttle

Twins Starters Hold The Key

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by Thomas U. Tuttle

 

The Minnesota Twins are only a few games from being a quarter of the way through the 2017 season, and things are looking – and feeling – pretty good around Target Field. And well they should, as the squad holds onto a share of first place as of this writing.

Starting pitching has been pretty solid in general, with the recent upside surprise from Jose Berrios adding to the positive vibe. Of course, just about anything he delivered would have looked better than most of last year’s outings. Berrios was considered a key to a successful 2016 campaign and his miserable 8.00 ERA – in a fair sampling of outings – matched the futility of Minnesota’s entire baseball season, the worst in its history.

It’s awfully early in his return to offer predictions, but JB (as Brian Dozier likes to call him) looked like a different pitcher his first time out – pitching with the command and confidence that was sorely lacking last year. For the Twins to make a meaningful run in 2017, Berrios could be critical. Count me among those who think he’s going to continue on a new path this year.

Ervin Santana has been outstanding, with the exception of the blowout loss to the Red Sox, where he gave up a trio of four-baggers and poured a little gasoline for the bullpen to ignite. He’s throwing well, keeping the ball down and staying among the league leaders in ERA, innings pitched, and won-loss record. At least for now, Ervin is one if the best guys on the mound anywhere, and this true team player is enjoying it. Look for Santana, tough after the break last year, to keep his mojo going.

Of course, the Twins need to have a strong Santana because the other starters inspire significantly less confidence, despite winning records at this early stage. That does not include the departed Kyle Gibson, the number three hurler jettisoned along with his 8.20 ERA on May 4th. Gibson has good stuff, as he displayed during a strong spring, but move him up here and things have consistently turned frustrating – maddeningly so.

The great St. Thomas baseball coach Dennis Denning always preached, “work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.” A simple mantra that he demanded from his pitchers, and they were rewarded with results including a national championship. Gibson might have had trouble pitching D-3 for Denning, as he worked slow (frequently going deep into counts and taking his time doing it), struggling mightily to control his sinker while showing little confidence in his fastball – and generally getting rocked once he found himself in trouble.

“It’s not working. He’s putting us in a bad spot more times than not,” said manager Paul Molitor in sending him down. I’ve regarded Gibson as a key to the Twins success over the past couple years, given his tools and potential, but I could be completely done with him if Berrios can rise to the occasion. Jose has jumped into the number four starter spot, and we need him to perform well immediately – which he did! That said, good luck Kyle Gibson – here’s hoping you make it back to MLB – somewhere…

Starters Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago have benefitted from pretty good run support and fairly solid defense. That said, Hughes has had good command of his pitches despite giving up a lot of hits and runs, per usual. Phil has to use his multi-speed change-up effectively, and thus far he has, utilizing veteran knowledge and experience to make his less-than-overpowering stuff work for him. Watch his ERA, already high, and if it heads north expect the Twins to start heading south.

Same kind of thing with Hector Santiago, the new lefty who throws hard and can be outstanding when he is on. He’s a strikeout pitcher when things are right and is super-tough on left handed hitters with his delivery and pace. Molitor likes him and said earlier this year in Florida, “he’s a major league guy with big-league stuff who is going to help us this year.”

Hector is a competitor known for his intensity and is eager to have a great year; he should be, given his mediocrity after the Twins obtained him last year (but thanks for helping us dump Ricky Nolasco!). Santiago has always been around the .500 mark during his runs with the White Sox and the Angels, was 3-6 in Minnesota last year, and could break out this year. He needs to – and like Phil Hughes, if he stumbles badly the challenges will be great. But so far, pretty good…

Let’s hope the new rotation can hold things together.. The Twins need the starters to remain accountable, particularly given the uncertainties of the bullpen, led by the gutty closer Brandon Kintzler and a few guys named Moe (everybody else in the pen with ERA’s over four). Can this rotation stay solid? Clearly this is strictly a wait and see for Twins fans, but if Berrios can fill a big gap in keeping us off the Tyler Duffey feed-bag and win a bunch of games, things could stay tight in a winnable division.

And that’s because the offense is interesting. More on the lively Minnesota bats and the awesome Miguel Sano later this week.

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