Twins, among others, falter as season winds down

John Gilbert

Target Field is an emerald jewel on a perfect, 80-degree night for baseball in late August.
Target Field is an emerald jewel on a perfect, 80-degree night for baseball in late August.
Joe Mauer watched the trajectory of his fly ball as his average dipped to .309 Tuesday.
Joe Mauer watched the trajectory of his fly ball as his average dipped to .309 Tuesday.
Twins slugger Josh Willingham could only pound Hisashi Iwakuma's pitch straight down.
Twins slugger Josh Willingham could only pound Hisashi Iwakuma's pitch straight down.
Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma baffled the Twins on one hit through six innings.
Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma baffled the Twins on one hit through six innings.

It was a beautiful night for a ballgame, on Tuesday, and a lot of the beautiful people of Minneapolis flocked to Target Field to watch the Twins play Seattle. Target Field has numerous clubs arranged around the park, and while the majority of fans were well and truly into the game, a whole lot of young adults realized that with their team out of any race, and an 80-degree evening beckoning, it was the perfect chance to mingle and do a little socializing.
   The Twins are struggling to reach the finish line of a disappointing season, one in which the entire starting pitching staff collapsed, and a herd of unheard-of young pitchers tried to carry the club to the end. Against Seattle, the hitting collapsed, too.
   On Monday night, the incomparable Felix Hernandez shut the Twins out 1-0, which was a crime for Liam Hendricks (who?), the latest in a string of unknown pitching prospects trying to prove to the Twins brass that the cupboard is not bare. Hendricks pitched the entire game, a rarity for the Twins in any season, and he fired a 3-hitter at the Mariners in an impressive performance. It was his bad luck that one of those hits, by Eric Thames (who?) went out of the ballpark and decided the game. Hendricks has an amazingly bad 0-7 record for the Twins this season.
   On Tuesday night, Scott Diamond, who climbed from no-name to staff ace with a 10-5 record -- the only pitcher on the staff to crack double figures in victories -- took the Target Field mound to face the West’s last-place Mariners and their Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. The Twins, of course, are the last-place team in the entire American League.
   It started out as a great game on a perfect night, although Seattle jumped to a 2-0 lead when Kyle Seager doubled home two runners in the third. The Twins cut it to 2-1 and it was an interesting duel until the fifth, when Seattle leadoff hitter Dustin Ackley laced a 3-run home run off Diamond in the fifth.
   The Twins big hitters -- Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, and Ben Revere -- couldn’t get anything going against Iwakuma. He of the 4-3 pitching record as a 31-year-old rookie coming off arm surgery. He gave up one hit, to Jamey Carroll, with an assortment of pitches ranging up to 87-89 mph, and the only run was unearned, coming in on a Revere sacrifice fly. Mauer popped up, took a called third strike, and grounded into a double play. Morneau and Willingham were mishitting balls most of the night against Iwakuma, but when the bullpen took over in the seventh, Morneau immediately got the Twins second hit of the game. Willingham later got a single, and Ryan Doumit got a run-scoring double after Mauer and Morneau went out in the ninth.
   When Tuesday night’s game ended, the Mariners had their seventh straight victory over the Twins this year, while the Twins, who were playing with such spirit a month ago, had won only three of their last 19 games. A few weeks ago, I predicted Joe Mauer would win the batting title, because he was on a sizzling hot streak. I was wrong. The sizzle has gone away, Mauer has dropped to .309, and for now isn’t even leading the Twins -- Ben Revere is, at .311.
    The Twins are still a good show, and Target Field is a great place to go for a night on the town. The socializers could have gone bar-hopping and had fun, but not as much fun as hanging out and wandering from lounge to lounge outside at Target Field. My wife, Joan, and I weren’t into the lounge-cruising scene, but Joan reported that the hot dog she ate was outstanding, and I can only add the same for the bowl of Loon Chili I had. It cost $6, but the Loon chili is the best you will ever eat -- no beans, thank you, because that’s how the trail-driving cowboys made the original stuff on their cattle drives -- and the Target Field serving had to be more than a pint, filled with large chunks of beef.

BASEBALL’S
FADING GRASP

   As baseball fades away and football is ready to jump into the spotlight, there were a couple of other baseball highlights this past week. If you watched the Little League World Series boil down to the finish, you saw some amazing baseball from 11-12-year-olds.
   The fences have been brought in to an absurdly short distance, and the many cheap home runs blunted the excitement, but with extremely short bases, and pitching from 46 feet, the solid hits and amazing plays in the field filled each game.

   To protect the hopes of U.S. teams, and prevent foreign kids from taking over the championship game, the tournament plays down to a U.S. champion and an international champion, then they play for the title. So the U.S. is assured of a place in the finals. The semifinal round was something for the archives, as Tennessee romped to a 15-5 lead and an apparent rout over California’s stunned team. In the last of the sixth, however -- Little League games are six innings long -- California got rolling and staged an enormous rally, scoring 10 runs to tie the game 15-all. Just as incredibly, Tennessee came back and scored nine in the top of the seventh, and won the game anyhow.
   In the final, Japan, which had beaten Panama to win the International semifinal, thrashed Tennessee 12-2 to win the Series.

OH-FOREVER

    And then there was the state Over-35 tournament. And we made it. The SeaFoam Hawks, formerly the Shoreview Hawks, needed one more game to make the season complete, but the Charlie Brown All-Stars were unavailable. Charlie Brown’s All-Stars are the legendary kids from the Peanuts cartoon strip, reprinted forever since Charles Schulz died, and they try hard, game after game, but Lucy in right field, or Snoopy at second base, or wherever, accomplish the right misplay at the wrong time to assured the team of a winless season.
   We, of the SeaFoam Hawks, have our own Lucy/Snoopy/Linus impersonators who try hard, but seem to find the way to pull a misplay out of their hat, and other places, at exactly the moment arrives to decide the game.
    Against all odds, the Hawks finished a perfect season -- unencumbered by anything resembling a victory.
    I have managed and played on the Hawks for about 30 years now. We used to have great teams, then good teams, then faltering teams with occasionally rebuilt teams. A year ago, we only won one game until the state tournament, then we won a couple more with our best baseball of the season. That gave us a lot of optimism for this season, because we went at it with probably the best pitching depth in the whole league, a bolstered infield, and a very solid outfield.
    We played almost every team competitively. We hit, we fielded, and we pitched well enough to win, but we rarely did all three of those fundamentals at the same time and place. We had managers from other teams come over to our dugout after great games and congratulate us on how much we’d improved and how we were sure to win a lot of games this year. But we didn’t.
   My wife, Joan, made the comment that she’s seen it all during my Hawks days, great teams, good teams, mediocre teams, and bad teams. “But this isn’t a bad team,” she said. “I don’t understand why you don’t win.”
   We don’t understand it, either. We have fun, which is the main factor that keeps us keepin’ on. My theory has always been that I don’t want bad guys who are good players, I want good guys who will pull together, and then we’ll see how many we can win. It is frustrating to know that other teams in our league bend the rules a bit, and even quite a bit, in order to win. Some use illegal players, some cheat with a player who hasn’t yet reached 35. We don’t cheat, but we rarely get the rewards of winning.
    We do have the rewards of a lot of laughs. We have developed the ability to not take ourselves too seriously -- to try our hardest, and to walk away knowing we did, is a great reward. And we have filled a journal about inventing colorful ways to lose games.
    During the season, we were locked in a scoreless game once, and lost 1-0 on a long home run in the sixth inning, on the only bad pitch our pitcher threw all game. Another time we were leading 3-1 and playing our best game of the year, but we ran into trouble in the last of the seventh, and a big guy from the other side blasted a 3-run home run for a walk-off 4-3 victory.
    In the state tournament, we were willing accomplices by yielding big innings. But we had one outstanding game where we fell behind 3-0, but rallied for two runs, and we went into the final inning down 3-2. I sent Jay, our second-to-the-elder-statesman, up to pinch hit, and he delivered a leadoff single. Then I put a lean and quick rookie in to pinch-run for Jay. Now, this guy who we’ll call Bill, has been playing only slow-pitch softball, where there is no leading off. Earlier in the season I got a hit and summoned him to run for me at first. On the first pitch, he strolled off to take his lead and got picked off before a pitch was thrown. “I made the mistake of taking my eye off the pitcher,” Bill said. I told him that would seem to be a priority.
    Flash forward to the seventh inning. With a left-hander pitching against us, I knew Bill would be cautious, but I didn’t give him the steal sign, so he’d be extra cautious. He got a decent lead, not too big, but the big lefty made a great move, and as he threw to first, Bill, incomprehensibly, was breaking toward second. As if by some act of justice from above, the pickoff throw was erratically low and skipped past the first baseman. Bill made it to second. We were excited to get the kind of break we had watched other teams get against us, and later in the inning, Bill scored the tying run to make it 3-3.
   We didn’t care if it was drizzling a little on the field at Union Hill. We’d been waiting a long time for this, and now was our chance to put a notch on the right side of the ledger. All we had to do was get them out, in the last of the seventh, and we’d go into extra innings with momentum on our side.
    As an aside: We have two catchers. One is good, and he has a rocket for an arm, although when he gets aroused sometimes he adds a new definition to the term “high, hard one” when he attempts a pickoff throw. The other doesn’t have nearly the arm, but he is unexcelled at blocking low pitches and scooping them out of the dirt. In this game, we were going with rocket man, and even though the other team got two men on, we weren’t desperate. Or make that, we weren’t desperate enough.
   A low pitch skipped away a few feet from our catcher. He was on it in a flash, but the runner was trying for third. No chance! He’d be out by 20 feet! Our catcher flipped his mask off as he lunged for the ball in the wet grass. When his mask flipped off, his glasses came with it. As his vision changed from 20-20 to 20-200, our catcher came up with the ball and fired. As he released his rocket throw, he realized that the ball was very wet from the grass, and that he hadn’t gotten a very good grip on it.
   He thought of all those things in a millisecond. All I realized, from the bench, was that I could see portions of the sky between the ball, in flight, and the trees, somewhere off in the distance. The ball landed in left field, and the winning run jogged home, pinning a 4-3 loss on our sorry form.
   When we finished our winless season, unencumbered by a single victory, except for a very distasteful forfeit we were forced to accept, our spirits were still high. Jay conducted his 19th annual retirement ceremony, which will be followed, next spring, by his 19th comeback. We shared a lot of laughs, although I was probably the most depressed guy of the bunch. I worry for the guys, all being good guys and trying their hardest, to never get rewarded with the kind of victories my teams always used to win routinely. I guess the good news is that, winless or not, we never went into a game thinking we wouldn’t win.
    At Union Hill, they run a concession stand, as they do at Jordan, Lonsdale, and Veseli, too. But at Union Hill they cook hamburgers, and they cook ground pork burgers, too. A couple years ago, I suggested that it’s too hard to decide between the two, so could they make a burger that consisted of a ground beef pattie, then cheese, then a ground pork pattie, then grilled onions. The burgers were $3 apiece, but they made me my custom burger for $4.50. Two years later, it’s right there on the menu -- a “Gilburger, $4.50.” The perfect antidote to soothe the frustrations of losing a ballgame.   
 
     Well, we made it. An incredibly perfect season, unencumbered by anything resembling a victory.
   The SeaFoam Hawks -- formerly Shoreview Hawks -- came off a very disappointing Over-35 baseball season in 2011, in which we won only one game but created great optimism for 2012 with a spirited performance in the state tournament. A bolstered pitching staff and solidified infield seemed to have us aimed for a resurgence this season.
   We hit well, we made some incredible defensive plays, including a dozen slick double plays, and we got very capable pitching. We just didn’t get all three at the same time. We challenged almost every team we faced. Oh, there were a few where we would blow up, walk a half-dozen guys, or make four errors in an inning, and fall hopelessly behind.
   But there were always bright spots. Even when we got blown out, you could look it up and find that we gave up seven runs in one inning, then outplayed our foe 4-2 -- resulting in the cruel mathematical equation of losing 9-4. In many games, it seemed as though the other team would hit six pop flies that all fell with micrometer precision, just out of reach of our converging fielders, while we would hit six line drives that smacked directly into the gloves of opposing fielders.
   After years of covering sports at the professional, college, and high school levels, as well as playing and coaching in this league, and spending many more years coaching youth and college-age athletes, a few theories have engraved themselves in my mind. One of those is the need for great camaraderie and unity within the team’s players, and the other is that when things are clicking, you ride the wave of having fun, and when things aren’t clicking, you make some changes to shake up the troops, and try to locate the missing unity and fun quotient.
    That’s what was so perplexing about this team. We have great guys, with almost all of them on the same page, or at least willing to read from the same book. And we had fun. In senior baseball, there are teams that play cut-throat style, using illegal players and/or bending rules if it will help win. Some teams have some jerks playing, with better skill and capable of winning more. It’s not worth that to me. We want good guys, who get along, and have fun, and then try our hardest to win within that framework.