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You Can Learn A lot by Watching – 04/03/11 – Toronto vs. Minnesota

April 4, 2011

Sometimes an upgrade is really a downgrade in disguise. On Friday, I traded in my normal seat in section 203 for a spot in section 102 – closer to the action, right? In a way, yes. This was a seat pretty close to the centre field camera, but a bit further recessed. Balls hit high were therefore out of sight, requiring a reliance on fielder movement to locate the action. With a butcher like Delmon Young in left field for the Twins, balls in that direction were pure guesswork. Nonetheless, with a full house and a veritable offensive explosion, the Jays provided full value for a baker’s dozen runs, showing up Twins’ pitchers for the lack of stuff they brought to the hill. Another convincing win on Saturday, with both offense and defense showing to good measure and the Jays seems to have taken well to the guiding hands of new skipper, John Farrell.

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Brett Cecil took the hill today, trying to complete a season-opening sweep of the Twins. Cecil has had a frustrating Spring, with poor results directly attributable to poor performance and reports of diminished velocity. Cecil began the game throwing his sinker around 89MPH with good location and movement, earning called strikeouts on the Twins opening two batters, Denard Span and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. With Joe Mauer getting the day off, the aforementioned Young batted third. He fouled off the first two pitches, a couple more sinkers down in the zone, leading Cecil to rear back for something extra, chucking a high four-seamer up to 91. Young did not chase, so Cecil dropped back down for a swinging strikeout. The Twins have not yet finished any single inning with the lead.

Rajai Davis is still resting a sore ankle, hurt in his first at-bat as he got caught leaning after an infield single. Yunel Escobar was once again the replacement lead-off hitter. For the first time this year, today he showed some patience, taking the first two pitches from Nick Blackburn (yet another moxie man for the Twins) before swinging at three in a row, the last leading to a dribbler to third. Today, Juan Rivera hit in the two-hole. After watching a curveball for a first strike, Rivera followed through on a second bender, dumping a single into left field, his first hit of the season. Batting third was a more usual suspect, Bobblehead Bautista. He fell into an early 0-2 hole, as Blackburn showed him both a fastball (not-so-fast, really, at 89MPH) and a change, before smacking a second fast ball past Danny Valencia at third base for a single. Adam Lind ended the potential rally with a tailor-made double-play grounder hit straight to Matt Tolbert at short. The first ended with nothing more than a statement that today’s game will be decided not with power pitching, but with location.

Justin Morneau led off the second for the Twins with the first test of Toronto’s defense. The Blue Jay defense was playing the shift, and Morneau hit right into its teeth, a grounder easily handled by Aaron Hill for the first out. Michael Cuddyer faced a more traditional alignment, but hit a soft liner right to Escobar at short for another quick out. Jason Kubel ensured a quick inning, lasting three pitches before bouncing one back to Hill, playing a more centred second. Cecil remained between 89-91 throughout the inning, decent velocity from the left side.

Nick Blackburn, to say he throws slowly, would not be an adequate description. Everything about his pitching motion is slow. There is no aggression in his mechanics. He doesn’t lift his knee above his hip in his windup and his arm does not fully extend back in his windup, making it deceptively quick. In that sense, his pitches may seem faster to a hitter waiting to time it in the batter’s box. Bad timing leads to bad contact and easy plays for his infield. Such was the case with Aaron Hill, leading off the bottom of the second. Hill worked a full count before grounding out to the shortstop. The next batter, Edwin Encarnacion, also worked the count, getting to an even 2-2, before timing it fairly well, and driving a ball to the middle distance in centre field. Not far enough though, and Denard Span was able to reign it in without much trouble. Travis Snider took a calm approach to his first at-bat, watching three pitches go by before sticking the head out and pushing a grounder by a diving Nishioka into right field for a single. J.P. Arencibia was more aggressive in driving a 1-0 fastball a few steps to the left of Encarnacion’s drive to end the inning. The first two innings were played at a very quick pace, lasting around 25 minutes.

Brett Cecil, when he first came up to the Majors, had a significant arm wrap to his wind-up, allowing the opposing batter a sneak preview of his grip. Watching him now, it seems as if he has learned his lessons (remember a 4-homerun inning against Boston as a rookie). His hand no longer extends so much past his left hip and with his palm down, there is less of the ball to see before he throws. That said, Danny Valencia mus have seen something as he led off the third with a high drive to left above and beyond the reaches of Travis Snider, giving the Twins their first lead of the season. Cecil retired the next two batters, backup catcher Drew Butera and Matt Tolbert, without incident before allowing a genuine base-runner, walking Denard Span on four pitches. Span, if you recall, was the sole Twin (an only child) to get a base-hit off of Kyle Drabek in his impressive debut on Saturday. The speedy Span is a prototype leadoff hitter, and he held Cecil’s attention even while pitching to Nishioka, drawing  several pick-off throws, both from Cecil and Arencibia behind the plate. In the game of chess being played, this particular move came to nothing, as Nishioka ended the inning with an infield pop-up.

Mike McCoy, ostensibly competing with Jayson Nix for the utility player role that will remain after Corey Patterson and/or Scott Podsednik are both available again, attempted to bunt his way on base, dumping the first pitch up the first base line. Blackburn, with a calm delivery, was able to get to the ball without difficulty and beat the sprinting McCoy by a few steps with his throw to first. Escobar followed in his second plate appearance with another patient turn, working the count first to full and then to overflowing, getting a free pass to first. Juan Rivera followed with a concise demonstration of why he should not remain in the two-hole, falling behind and then eating out of Blackburn’s slow moving hand, giving the Twins two double-plays in three innings.

Cecil began the third going up and down with Delmon Young. Missing both ways, he came back to the middle and induced an infield pop-up for the first out. He then attacked Morneau with two sliders, the second of which was driven deep to centre field, where Mike McCoy triangulated the path of the ball and brought it in for a second out. Cecil’s location was off again against Cuddyer, missing on three pitches before coming over the heart of plate on a fourth. That pitch was grounded hard at Edwin Encarnacion, only given the third base job moments before the season began. Encarnacion’s throw was off the mark, pulling Lind off the bag at first, allowing Cuddyer to reach safely. Mixing his pitches to Jason Kubel, Cecil mixed up his catcher as well, throwing a changeup too low and out of Arencibia’s grasp. Cuddyer took off from first, trying to put himself in scoring position. Arencibia, to is credit, showed excellent athleticism behind the plate however, snatching the loose ball and rifling it to second in time to end the inning.

Blackburn opened up the Jays’ half of the fourth forcing Bautista to chase down, down, down, earning his first strikeout of the afternoon. Changing tack against Adam Lind, he kept the ball up and Lind fisted his second pitch into the outfield for a single. With a man on first, Blackburn went back to his grounder-inducing ways, forcing another potential double play ball by Hill. Thankfully for the Jays, Hill’s grounder had more hops than the past few, allowing Lind to reach second and limit the damage to a single out. Encarnacion pulled a few hard ground balls foul before chopping another groundball over Blackburn’s head to Nishioka. Whether Nishioka simply threw off-balance, or rushed his throw to beat a hopefully redemptive and visibly hustling Encarnacion, the ball ended up in the stands. Lind, running on the two-out contact was given a free pass home, tying the game at one. Snider ended the threat by going down on three pitches, the last a cutter that elicited a big swing but little contact, the foul tip ending up in Butera’s glove. One hour, four innings, tied at ones.

Jason Kubel led off the fifth getting Cecil to a full count before poking a hard groundball through infield for a single. With home-run hitter Danny Valencia up again, Cecil played him more carefully, nibbling his way to another 3-0 count, bringing Arencibia out to the mound for a quick chat. To no avail though, as Cecil missed the zone again, putting the Twins in the happy position of having two men on with no out. While that is never a guarantee for success, with the 8 and 9 hitters due up, Cecil should have been reasonably confident in his abilities to escape without lasting damage. Drew Butera, batting eighth, bunted first foul towards the third base side and then fair. Cecil fielded the ball, looked longingly towards third before throwing to first. Too late, with all hands safe. The ninth-hitter, Matt Tolbert, then fisted an up-and-in slider in front of Travis Snider in left field. Snider smartly held up to let the ball bounce, conceding the go-ahead run to the Twins. Valencia thought he could make it a pair and tried to follow Kubel’s path. He made it back to the visitor’s dugout, but not for congratulations. Snider, by pulling up short, was in a great position to throw. Skipping the cut-off man, he threw a long-distance strike to home plate, the ball arriving several steps before the incoming runner for the first out of the inning. That throw was definitely in Butera’s mind on the next play, as Denard Span singled again, and again Snider came up throwing. Butera, a catcher, naturally lacks the wheels of the third baseman Valencia. Wisely (and under the watchful eyes of Twins’ third-base coach Steve Liddle, Butera held up at third, loading the bases again, and prompting Jays’ pitching coach Bruce Walton out to chat with Cecil, buying time for Casey Janssen to loosen up in the bullpen. Cecil tried to keep the next pitch down and away, but Nishioka showed good bat control, putting another ball in the outfield, creating another chance for Travis Snider to show off his arm. The lead runner scored, but nothing more. 3-1 Twins.

Sometimes, the batters at the heart of the order are the easier to retire than those in the lineup periphery. Geared up for power, they might not be as willing to let borderline pitches go by, expanding their zone hoping to take advantage of a pitcher off his game. Delmon Young proved that theory, gifting Cecil with a second out via infield pop-up on a first pitch sinker. Justin Morneau made Cecil sweat some more, working a full count and then giving the ball a ride to left, but this one hung just enough to allow Snider to get under it and end the inning without further damage. Two runs would generally not be damning, but on this day, they were enough for manager John Farrell. Brett Cecil’s 2011 debut was held up at 5 innings and 75 pitches thrown. The bullpen would have to hold the line.

In the bottom of the fifth, Arencibia led things off for the Jays with a deep but harmless fly ball to centre field. Mike McCoy then restated his claim to a permanent spot on the 25-man roster by legging out an infield single up the middle. Pausing only brielfly at first, McCoy took off on the first pitch. Escobar swung and hit what would have been another double-play grounder but for McCoy’s advanced location. Rivera made sure that the extension to the inning was short lived however, meekly popping up the first pitch he saw.

Janssen, now loose, came out for the Jays in the top of the sixth. Picking up where Cecil left off, Janssen allowed Michael Cuddyer, leading off the inning for the Twins, to reach first with a well-placed single. Janssen, a somewhat confounding pitcher, works with a funky drop-and-drive motion that would seem to place a lot of strain on his quadriceps. Such a motion can be difficult to control in terms of balance point and Janssen has earned a reputation as one who has trouble holding baserunners; His career splits show that he has allowed an opponent’s OPS of 719 with the bases empty while being much more generous with runners on, surrendering an OPS of 800 (delta of 81). The Majors as a whole last year had a much smaller delta of 27 (713 when empty and 740 with runners on). Jason Kubel followed Cuddyer with a hard hit grounder past Lind at first to put Twins on both corners. Not fazed, Janssen came back to strike out Valencia on three pitches, the last one catching the corner, Valencia looking on meekly. In turns of run expectancy, that lowered the Twins chances of scoring in the inning by about half of a run against most pitchers, but Janssen was still in his own private Idaho. When Butera popped up to the shallower reaches of the outfield, the Twins lost the likelihood of another three quarters of a run. Matt Tolbert brought that all the way down to zero with a first pitch broken bat ground out that ended the inning and got Janssen out of a jam.

Moving back to the Jays’ offense, it was notable about Jose Bautista’s huge 54-home run season last year (beyond simply hitting 54 home runs) that all but one of those shots was pulled hard to left field. His first home run of the season, on opening night, was also pulled. So, too, was the ball he smashed off the facing of the second deck leading off the bottom of the sixth inning, getting the Jays back to within one run. Lind and Hill could not continue the momentum, grounding out successively before Encarnacion tried to follow in their stead. This third grounder was hit hard enough that his counterpart, Danny Valencia, could not handle it cleanly, bobbling it just enough to allow Encarnacion to reach first and ending Nick Blackburn’s night. Jose Mijares took over, one of the Twins few lefties, to face Travis Snider who entered the afternoon with a career OPS more than 100 points lower against southpaws in his young career. This statistical split was probably not helped by being rested against most lefthanders last season, preventing him from accruing the repetition necessary to improve. With lefty Francisco Liriano starting on Saturday, Snider started on the bench again, not entering the game until Liriano was removed for a right-handed reliever, off of whom Snider promptly hit a double. Here, Mijares worked a quick 0-2 count before catching Snider looking at a fourth slider that looked to be heading for his face before crossing back through the zone and ending the inning.

Jason Frasor took over for the Jays for the top of the seventh.The smallest man to pitch tonight, Frasor was also the hardest thrower, regularly getting his fastball into the mid-nineties. Not yet in mid-season form, Frasor worked more in the 91-92 range today, retiring the top of the Twins line-up without incident.

Mijares, who pitches from the low-arm slot of many lefty-on-lefty specialists came back out to pitch the bottom of the seventh, even though the Jays had three righty bats ready to go in Arencibia, McCoy and Escobar. Throwing mostly sliders, Arencibia, not known for his patience in the minor leagues, earned a rare walk. McCoy followed with another walk, this one on four pitches,  before Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire realized the error of his ways and took Mijares out of the game, replacing him with Matt Capps. While I do not advocate the sacrifice as a way of life, it can be useful to show the opposition that your team has numerous weapons in your arsenal, even if some weapons cause as much self-inflicted damage as offensive impact. In this case, Yunel Escobar dropped one by the third base side moving two runners over at the cost of one out. Looking back at run expectancy tables, this came at relatively minimal cost to the Jays, dropping their likelihood from 1.556 runs (1st and 2nd, none out), to 1.447 (2nd and 3rd, one out). With the slug-like slugger Juan Rivera due up, removing a serious probability of a double play is a move I can support. Lo-and-behold, Rivera hit another meek ground-ball right back to Capps on the mound. Without Escobar’s deft stick-work, this would have ended the inning. Instead, it gave Jose Bautista a chance to put a crooked number on the board. Although, with  first base empty, it gave the Twins the option of walking him to get to Adam Lind. A third option, and the one seemingly taken here was the unintentional intentional walk, where the catcher sets up consistently away, hoping to entice a swing or three, but only willing to miss away. The ply worked, as Bautista swung at one of the low and away offerings, drilling the ball to straight away centre, but straight enough for Denard Span to corral it without difficulty, ending the Blue Jay threat.

Marc “Scrabble” Rzepczynski took the hill for the Jays in the 8th, getting the first two Twins batters to create firewood, first Justin Morneau on a broken bat infield single and then Michael Cuddyer following suit with a broken bat double play grounder to second base. After hitting the third batter, Jason Kubel, in the hands with an up-and-in pitch, Scrabble’s day was done, Shawn Camp being brought in to keep the game within reach. Danny Valencia offered at Camp’s first pitch, hooking lo line drive that Edwin Encarnacion stabbed at, but only deflected into foul territory, setting up a two on two out at bat for Butera. Camp then delivered, getting the young backup backstop into a 1-2 count, he ended the inning with a wicked wipe-out slider that Butera could only flail at.

Glen Perkins, who worked a 1-2-3 6th inning against the Jays on Friday, was then brought in by Gardenhire to try for the same in the 8th today. On Friday, he made quick work of Escobar, Bautista and Lind, and led off with facing Lind again today. Not so much a LOOGY as a pitcher who throws with his left arm, Perkins was perfect again. Lind flew out, Hill grounded out and Encarnacion struck out.

Moving on to the 9th inning, a pitching anomaly, Jon Rauch, took over for the Jays. Over a full foot taller than Frasor, Rauch  does not have nearly the same velocity. The slower pitch worked against 9-hitter Matt Tolbert who was retired on a foul pop-up to the third base side. Back to the top of the order, Denard Span found the going much more to his liking. Not noted for his power as much as his speed, Span nonetheless crushed a Rauch first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field to give the Twins another two-run cushion. A rattled Rauch walked Nishioka to follow, but escaped the damage without further ado by coaxing an inning ending double play off the bat of Delmon Young, an ignominious end to an ignominious day for the former 1st overall draft pick – 0 for 5 with four runners left on base.

Down to the last three outs, Joe Nathan was called to take back his customary role as Twins’ closer, his first appearance since going under the knife before the start of last season for ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery. Travis Snider, whose maturity level has come on tremendously since this time last year, battled Nathan for eight pitches before hitting a grounder to the right side that Nishioka barely got to, keeping the ball in the infield but not in a position to get Snider at first. J. P. Arencibia followed, a quicker and notably louder at-bat. Arencibia nailed a ball on a line to deepest left field which had just enough parabola to it to fall into a leaping Delmon Young’s glove for the first out.

Clutch, as a repeatable skill, is non-existent. There are some players who are decidedly anti-clutch, unable to rise to the challenge in late game situations. Mike McCoy is not one of those players. Seeing what Nathan had to offer, McCoy deposited his fourth pitch towards right field, in front of a charging Jason Repko. In most cases, that ball would have been a single, with the lead runner possibly in a position to get to third. McCoy is nothing if not a hustler, and the Jays now had runners on 2nd and 3rd and the top of the order back up. Yunel Escobar, still triggering debate over his bunting away of his last at bat, this time gave it his all in sending a deep drive out to centre field. Racing back, Denard Span made an over-the-shoulder play, but was unable to prevent both runners from tagging up, Snider scoring and putting the Jays within a single run once again.

And that’s the beauty of baseball. Everyone gets a turn. In a single game, a single man can be, in turns, both a goat and a hero. Having failed at nearly every previous attempt, Juan Rivera was given one more chance at redemption. One out to go, the equalizing runner on third base and one of the steadiest closers of the past ten years on the mound. The first pitch was slider down and away. Rivera started to offer at it, but held up. 1-0. With over 35, 000 fans on their feet, Nathan threw another, straighter ball, just off the outer black and waist-high. Rivera swung and got just enough to foul the ball towards the visiting dugout.  1-1. The third pitch was thrown too low, bouncing in front of Butera behind the plate. Rivera just watched it go by. 2-1. With the advantage slowly going towards Rivera, Nathan went back to his slider, a pitch that starts in the zone and then tails away from the batter. Rivera watched it yet again and earned himself a hitter’s count. 3-1. With Jose Bautista waiting on deck, Rivera had to know that Nathan would want  to pitch to him and end the game here. Coming back off such a long injury lay-off, would Nathan trust himself to throw a breaking ball for a strike, or could Rivera guess at a fastball? Rivera let a fastball go by, high and well outside. Not quite a heroic tale for Juan Rivera, but he put the game in the hands of Bobblehead Bautista. Bautista had fans lining up for tickets more than two hours prior to game time, and he now had a chance to give them something more to remember, in addition to the home run he hit before. Not wanting the game to end on a force play and giving the |Jays better chance to score two on a double, Rivera was lifted for a pinch runner in Jayson Nix. With his hands held back above his head, Bautista wagged his bat with the threat of imminent danger coiled within. He swung on top of the first pitch and then watched a little curve land inside for strike two. 0-2. A good two-strike hitter, Bautista watched a third pitch land down and away. 1-2. A fourth pitch was not quite so down and not quite so away, but still not quite a strike. 2-2. Next, Nathan threw a fastball, similar to that which gave a free pass to Rivera. 3-2. In on his fists, Bautista fought a sixth pitch off and blooped a foul just out of reach of the Twins first baseman by the visitor’s dugout. Still 3-2. Nathan next threw a change-up away that Bautista stayed on and fouled away harder down the first base line. Pitch number eight ended the at-bat, low and away again. Nathan lost the battle, loading the bases for Adam Lind.

Two outs and bases loaded, the runners will be moving on contact. A single would win it. Or not. Nathan threw a breaking ball that Lind offered at, grounding a ball meekly towards first base. It was fielded cleanly and the first baseman jogged it over to the base himself, giving the Twins their first victory of the season and welcoming Joe Nathan back to the majors with his first save since the 2009 season. Final score Twins-4, Blue Jays – 3. Unable to get the sweep, the Jays still manage to impress in their first series of the season, taking two out of three at home to the defending Al Central champs from Minnesota.

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