Twins primed and ready for A.L. playoffs

John Gilbert

Cloquet-Carlton defender Mireye Moose hustles the ball upfield from Denfeld’s Gigi Boheim in the 1-0 victory over the Hunters at Denfeld.

As if on cue, the Minnesota Twins have secured a place in next week’s American League baseball playoffs, just as they appear to have gotten the majority of their key players back from injuries and ailments. While this week’s games will determine final pairings, it appears the Twins will face — fanfare, please! — the New York Yankees next Tuesday to start the playoffs.

But they should be ready. After riding the waves of inconsistency and assorted injuries, the return of solid regulars such as Josh Donaldson, Mitch Garver, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and several pitchers, gives the Twins their best lineup of the season, and by being sidelined for various stretches, they all should be fresh for a serious run at the playoffs.

Garver got off to a horrible start at bat, but he has come up with some key hits and crucial points in recent games, and he gives the team its starting catcher. Miguel Sano is at first base, although his sudden strikeout tendency is an issue. He went 1-4 and 0-4 his two games to end the recent road trip and while his one hit was a home run, the other seven at-bats were strikeouts. Luis Arraez has been sidelined with a minor ankle injury, but he should be back as second baseman. And Jorge Polanco is set at shortstop, Donaldson at third for what could be the league’s best defensive infield. With Arraez out, Marwin Gonzalez has done a good job at second, and Ehire Adrianza is solid at either short or second.

The outfield, at its best, has Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center and Kepler in right. That’s an airtight outfield that can chase down hits and throw guys out trying to take an extra base on a hit. Nelson Cruz is as good a designated hitter as there is, and he needs to be 100 percent to give the Twins that extra edge. And Jake Cave has been impressive in spot duty in the outfield, hitting with power on occasion.

 That brings us back to pitching, and Jose Berrios, after a season of a lot of irregular performances, pitched his best to squelch the Cubs 4-0 in Chcago to finish the road trip and clinch a playoff spot. And after Berrios went six, Trevor May, Taylor Rogers and Sergio Romo came in for one inning each and finished the shutout. The day before, the Twins found their groove for an 8-1 victory over the Cubs, and Michael Pineda — at 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds an imposing figure — went the first five innings, with Tyler Duffy, Matt Wisler and Tyler Clippard finishing it off. Wisler went two innings, gave up one hit and struck out the other six hitters he faced.

Kenta Maeda, the Japanese ace who has been very good all season, gives the Twins a strong 1-2 combination with Berrios, but, Pineda, Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill are other solid starting candidates. And Cody Stashak and Tyler Clippard have done well in spot service out of the bullpen.

There have been some unusual circumstances that have drawn harsh and grossly unfair criticism by some in the Twin Cities media. Rosario, always aggressive and willing to take risks for the sake of inspiring his teammates, ran through the third base coach’s stop signal a week or so ago, and was out, on a close play, at home. He tried to take another extra base and was thrown out between second and third a couple days later. And he eased up when a hooking double down the line glanced up and off the limestone facade parallel to the left-field line. Rosario assumed it was a ground rule double, and didn’t hustle after it, so it went for a triple. Mistakes, for sure, but if you want to go back over the season and see the great plays Rosario has made defensively, and the clutch RBI hits he’s delivered despite never getting into the .300 groove I anticipated for him. But one columnist called for him to be traded away or benched. Please.

Donaldson was the victim — along with Sano, Cruz, and Rosario and Polanco — of some horrible umpiring in Chicago. Pitches that were 2-3 or even 4 inches outside were often called strikes. It got bad on a call to Donaldson, and he grumbled about it, but a couple pitches later, Donaldson socked a home run. He circled the bases, and when he got to home, he made a little scuff step to leave a bit of dirt on the plate. The plate umpire ejected him for that. Donaldson turned back and kicked a couple more times to put more dirt on the plate. A couple columnists took Donaldson to task, but be defended himself saying somebody had to call attention to the terrible job being done by a couple of umpires, who never seem accountable. The critics who stabbed Donaldson shut up a bit after he responded publicly.

Funny, but Cruz also was ejected, and so was Baldelli, during those couple weird nights in Chicago, and the same critics didn’t have the guts to rip Cruz, or the manager. The point is, guys who spend time in press boxes and never played the game should be careful about their sometimes reckless criticisms. You want to be on the Twins in the playoffs? I’ll take ‘em, but I like the team a lot better with Rosario and Donaldson in the lineup, doing whatever their whims lead them.

Defender Claire Barlass got plenty of encouragement from Denfeld goalkeeper Mary Johnson while clearing a dangerous rebout.

You want criticism?

Now, if you have to have a target to criticize, try the Vikings. I’m afraid the preseason analysis I provided a couple of weeks ago has come through more than I expected. Kirk Cousins, the high-buck quarterback who still seems flummoxed every time a play calls for him to improvise, was sacked in the end zone for a safety for the second time in two games, and he threw three interceptions while compiling his worst passer rating n his quarterbacking career. The Vikings lost 28-11 to the Indianapolis Colts.

Cousins was 11-26 for 113 yards and a 15.9 quarterback rating. Philip Rivers was 19-29 and had a 97.8 rating.

The Packers rallied from a 14-0 deficit to whip Detroit 42-21, behind Aaron Rodgers, but the prize game of the weekend, and maybe the season, was in Seattle, where the Seahawks beat the New England Patriots 35-30 in scintillating duel between Russell Wilson and the Patriots new phenom, Cam Newton. Wilson was 21-28 with five touchdowns, despite an early strike that went through a receiver’s hands battled back and was picked off and returned for a touchdown. The Seahawks took the lead in the second half and seemed in control at 35-23 with five minutes left. But Newton brought the Patriots back. Newton, who had run for two touchdowns on short, impossible to stop slashes, was 30-44 for 397 yards and a touchdown and the game boiled down to whether Newton could do it in the final seconds.

The Patriots were stopped at the 2, and with time for one final play, and everybody not in the stands knew what was coming. Newton sent his blockers left, and slashed for what was sure to be his third TD run, but little-known L.J. Collier, a defensive end, submarined through a blocker and took Newton’s legs out from under him. He landed a yard short as the final second ticked off, and the Seahawks won 35-30.

Seattle faces Dallas next weekend in another battle of elite teams. The Vikings come home to face Tennessee. At 0-2, the Vikings are tied with Detroit at the bottom, while the Packers and Bears are both 2-0.

Uncertainty still

The Big Ten suddenly reversed itself and will have football and volleyball this fall, after all, pushing shortened seasons back to the end of October. That is good news for fans of the Gophers in football and volleyball, where both of those teams have become annual threats.

Minnesota high schools, also, have reversed directions, giving in to pressure to play shortened seasons in football and volleyball. Volleyball has become a huge entity in high school sports, to say nothing of college, where the Northern Sun Conference is without question the toughest league in Division II volleyball. UMD is a perennial favorite, challenging Concordia of St. Paul for supremacy every year.

But there has been no movement among Division II officials, and since the NCAA declared no championships will be conducted in any fall sport, it seems that playing some games next spring is the best they can hope for. “We’re waiting to see what happens and hoping that we might have a shortened schedule next spring,” said UMD coach Jim Boos, who has only three seniors on this year’;s team, led by Kate Berg, who is one of the most potent outside hitters in the country.

At the high school level, a late start is better than nothing for football and volleyball, while soccer is flourishing for both boys and girls. The competition at the top might be more ferocious among the girls, with a half dozen strong teams right in the Duluth area. Cloquet-Carlton is strong, and Marshall’s girls team is outstanding, with Duluth East, Hermantown, Denfeld and tenacious Proctor all capable of knocking off the favorites.

Cloquet-Carlton knocked off Denfeld Monday night in a dominant performance that ended 1-0, as Denfeld goalkeeper Mary Johnson got a great workout from facing constant pressure. Cloquet-Carlton, meanwhile, didn’t allow a single shot to get to their goal.

The Stanley Cup will be decided by perhaps the two most complete teams, as Tampa Bay and Dallas continue their series. I like Tampa Bay, but Dallas is rugged and would just as soon knock Lighting players down as skate past them. Both have a lot of talent, but the best news was that after Dallas won 4-1 in the first game, Tampa Bay came back to win 3-2 in overtime in Game 2. That guarantees that it should be a long series, hopefully seven games. There’s no such thing as too much hockey.

Speaking of which, new Wild general manager Bill Guerin traded first-line center Eric Staal to Buffalo for a Swedish forward not known as a scorer. Two days later, everybody thought Mikko Koivu decided to retire — he didn’t, but Guerin decided he wouldn’t offer a contract to the team’s all-time leading scorer, long-term captain, and outstanding defensive center and face-off specialist. Losing both Staal and Koivu will be impossible for the Wild to replace. And for the Wild to spew all sorts of platitudes about how great Koivu has been and how they’ll miss him, plus taking out a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a tribute to Koivu, all I can say is: Crocodile tears.