2011 Series Preview: Rays vs Twins (4/26-4/28)
By Wally Fish
The Twins are starting to pick things up and have quietly won 5 of 7. With the scheduled off day today the team has some extra time to get healthy, purge the flu bug from their systems and prepare for a three game series against Tampa Bay. Like the Twins, the Rays have recovered from a terrible start to the season but have done so in more impressive fashion winning 10 of their last 13.
Earlier this month, Minnesota lost 3 of 4 to the Rays in Tampa, but with a combined 27 runs scored (TB 15 and MIN 12) neither team was very exceptional at the plate. Fortunately the Twins bats appear to be stirring from their slumber and do not have to travel to Tampa again this season. Six games remain between the two teams and all 6 will be played at Target Field. In addition to the upcoming 3 game series, the Twins will also host the Rays for a 3 game series later this summer (July 4th, 5th and 6th).
Helping me out by injecting the Tampa Bay perspective into this preview is Rays Colored Glasses Lead Writer Ben Ice.
Tampa Bay Rays:
2011 Regular Season Record: 11-11, 2nd in the AL East (2.5 GB)
79 Runs Scored (11th in the AL) / 84 Runs Allowed (6th in the AL)
2011 Regular Season Record: 9-12, 4th in the AL Central (4.0 GB)
71 Runs Scored (14th in the AL) / 95 Runs Allowed (8th in the AL)
April 26th (7:10 pm): RHP Wade Davis (2-2, 2.73) vs LHP Francisco Liriano (1-3, 7.40)
Like the rest of the Rays pitching staff things didn’t start out great for Davis, as he allowed six runs in his first two games. In the two games since he’s been solid, allowing a single run each game and showing why the Tampa brass made him the #3 pitcher in the rotation. The Rays have hit opposing pitcher Francisco Liriano well, and will need to provide some run support on this road trip if they want to continue their dominance over the Twins.
Liriano is expected to be the Twins ace but through 4 starts he’s fallen well short of that. In fact he has been nothing less than the team’s worst starter so far this season. By the numbers his last start (6.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER) was an improvement over the first three, however he continued to struggle with his control (5 BB) and once again struggled to put batters away when he needed to (2 SO). The team has enough rotational depth that it can survive injury and/or struggles to anyone else, but the Twins need Liriano to anchor the rotation and live up to the lofty billing of a legit major league ace.
Liriano’s career against the Rays: 33.1 IP, 2.16 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 3.00 SO/BB
April 27th (7:10 pm): RHP Jeff Niemann (0-3, 7.08) vs RHP Nick Blackburn (1-3, 4.01)
Niemann seemingly had a breakout year last year but his spot in the rotation should be in danger if he can’t right the ship. Niemann has struggled uncharacteristically so far this season after having won 25 games in his first two years of work. Minnesota won’t be feeling sorry for him and his 0-3, 7.08 ERA stat line and the Twins lineup is finally starting to gain some confidence. Niemann needs this game or the Rays might be tempted to call up one of the many young arms the team has down on the farm.
In his first 2 starts, Blackburn allowed just 3 runs (only 1 of them earned) in 11.2 innings pitched, but anyone who watched those games knew that aside from keeping runs off the board, he was not at his best. Over the course of a season, things tend to even out and that is just what happened to Nick. In his last 2 starts he’s given up 17 H and 10 ER in 13.0 IP. The combined results of all 4 starts sum up why Blackburn has been, and will continue to be, a back of the rotation starter. He has not fared well against the Rays in his career so that, coupled with Niemann’s struggles, could result in big days for both offenses.
Blackburn’s career against the Rays: 26.2 IP, 6.41 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 1.86 SO/BB
April 28th (12:10 pm): RHP Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 4.32) vs RHP Scott Baker (1-2, 3.24)
I’ve resisted thus far in using his nickname and if he pitches the Rays to a win I promise not to use it for another week. Regardless, the 24 year old from Iowa was eased on to the scene last year and was the reason Matt Garza became expendable. Hellickson won numerous accolades as he moved up the ladder in the Rays farm system, including the Topps AAA All-Star in 2010 and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. A win against the Twins could help propel the Rays to another series win, something that has eluded the Twins since 2006.
Through 4 starts this season, Scott Baker has done everything that any Twins fan could reasonably expect from him. In 25.0 innings he has a 3.24 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 24:8 SO/BB. In his first 2 starts he allowed 4 runs in each, first over 6.0 innings and then 5.0 innings of work. These are the kinds of starts that make a healthy Baker so valuable to the Twins and so very under-appreciated. Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he generally keeps his team in the game and grits it out. In his last 2 starts he’s been nothing short of a god-send helping to protect the bullpen and keep the pressure off the struggling offense. Baker has lasted 7.0 innings in each with a total of 8 hits, 1 ER, 2 BB and 15 SO. If he stays healthy he is the Twins #2 starter behind only Liriano in terms of talent.
Baker’s career against the Rays: 40.2 IP, 2.88 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.50 SO/BB
Tampa Bay Rays:
In the last 7 days the hottest Rays are Johnny Damon (0.353/.353/.647), Sam Fuld (0.345/.387/.448) and Casey Kotchman (0.333/.400/.389).
On the pitching side of things, James Shields is without a doubt the hottest starter going for the Rays and possibly in all of baseball. In the past week he’s thrown 18.0 innings with 8 H, 1 R, 3 BB and 16 SO.
Jason Kubel remains solidly on the “hot” side of the ledger thanks to a line of 0.409/.440/.545 with 3 2B, 3 R and 5 RBI in his last 6 games. Michael Cuddyer didn’t hit his 1st HR until April 20th, but hit his 2nd on the following day. In addition to the 2 HRs he hit 0.318/.400/.636 in the last week. But no one belongs on this list more than Justin Morneau who returned to the lineup and went 4-8 with 4 RBI this past weekend.
Scott Baker had the team’s start of the week allowing just 4 hits and no runs in 7.0 innings of work against the Orioles. He struck out 9 and walked just 1.
Tampa Bay Rays:
The Rays cold awards for the week go to Jeff Niemann (4.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB and 4 SO) and Cesar Ramos (2.0 IP, 1 H, 2 ER, 1 BB and 1 SO). Joining those two are B.J. Upton (0.136/.200/.136 in 22 AB) and John Jaso (0.143/.200/.357 in 14 AB).
Alexi Casilla has hit just 0.158/.238/.158 in his last 6 games which would certainly earn him the distinction of being the “coldest” Minnesota Twin. At least that would be true if not for Matt Tolbert who is hitting a paltry 0.118/.118/.235 in his last 5 games. Meanwhile Trevor Plouffe continues to hit (0.300/.367/.700) down in Rochester …
In the last week, Joe Nathan and Dusty Hughes each sport lofty 13.50 ERAs. Hughes also has a team worst 2.25 WHIP over that stretch.
Tampa Bay Rays:
15-Day DL: 3B Evan Longoria (oblique strain), LHP J.P. Howell (left shoulder surgery)
Day-to-Day: LF Delmon Young (flu and sore ribs)
15-Day DL: C Joe Mauer (bilateral leg weakness), 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka (fractured left fibula), RHP Kevin Slowey (shoulder strain)
3 on 3 Questions
Tampa Bay Rays
Wally: The Rays appear to have a massive void in their lineup at 1B. Are there any better solutions beyond Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman or is that all they have to work with this season?
Ben: I’ve felt like they had a massive void when Carlos Pena was manning the post, except for 2008 when he actually had a decent batting average to go with the power. The last couple years he regressed, much like he did after breaking out in Detroit, and became unreliable to the extreme.
As far as the replacements Dan Johnson isn’t the answer. I really thought Casey Kotchman had earned the job in spring training and felt justified when they brought him back when Manny Ramirez retired. No, he doesn’t have the power expected of a 1B, but he has the defense the Rays covet and he can put the ball in play. That fits the Rays style of play.
W: After a win on Sunday against the Blue Jays the Rays are back at 0.500. Obviously neither extreme is representative of their talent, but which version of the team is closer to reality, the one that went 1-8 to start the season or the team that has gone 10-3 in their last 13 games?
B: I’ve said all along that the Rays are a contender, that the team reloaded and wasn’t rebuilding. Their job is more difficult because first, the AL East is the premier division in baseball…I know others won’t or don’t want to agree but it’s a reality. Second, Baltimore, Boston, New York…even Toronto…can easily outspend a Tampa team that is in the smallest television market of any team. The Rays are crafty…I’ve often compared them with the Twins in how they assess and evaluate talent…and I expect them to be in the hunt. I predicted over 90 in the win column.
W: As a team Tampa Bay is hitting 0.227/.286/.365 which ranks them 13th, 14th and 11th in the AL in the slash stats. Obviously the return of a healthy Longoria will help those numbers but he can’t resuscitate the offense on his own and Sam Fuld figures to regress at some point. Aside from Evan, who do you feel will step forward and help drive the offense over the last 140 games of the season?
B: I’d be surprised to see Fuld hit over .280 by the time the season is over, but he could surprise people. He’d done it pretty much all his life. Obviously when Longo returns it will be both an emotional and material gain by the team. But numbers have never told the whole story with this team. In 2010 they had the 28th best (or worst depending on how you look at it) batting average in baseball but were third overall in runs scored. With Longoria expected to return in a week or so, some of the young guys like John Jaso and Sean Rodriguez should perform better as well.
Ben: It looked early on like Joe Nathan might cruise right back into being one of the league’s elite closers after a year off recuperating from Tommy John surgery. The wheels fell off and Ron Gardenhire demoted him in favor of Matt Capps. Recently it looks like Nathan might be getting dialed in again. Is this just the typical inconsistency we often see from players rushing back too soon from the surgery? Will Nathan be back as closer or do you think Gardenhire will keep him in a reserve role for most of the season and let Capps handle the higher leverage situations?
W: In all actuality Gardenhire didn’t “demoted” Nathan. It was Nathan who went to his manager and suggested they make a switch for the good of the team. It’s an important distinction which speaks to his future role. Once he pitches back into form he will be the team’s closer again, but it’s going to take some time. He’s made 8 appearances so far this season. In 4 of them he’s given up at least 1 earned run and the other 4 have been scoreless. His latest outing on April 23rd against Cleveland was a clean inning with 2 strikeouts. It was certainly an encouraging sign, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that it came on the heels of 3 appearances that totaled 2.1 innings with 5 H, 7 ER, 4 BB and 0 SO.
Considering he’s just over a year removed from surgery, he’s going to have his ups and downs. When right, he’s one of the 2-3 best closers in all of baseball so if he can recapture his form from past years, he will be the Twins closer again as soon as he’s ready. If he can’t Matt Capps will continue to keep the seat warm.
B: Jason Kubel has provided an offensive spark for the previously moribund Twins and they are showing signs of life. His defense is a weak spot, which I think is why he tends to be a gypsy, but his bat is major league gold. Is there any realistic scenario that keeps his bat in the lineup once the team gets healthy?
W: The Twins plans have always included Kubel’s bat in the lineup. When the team is fully healthy he is their everyday DH who can also spell Delmon Young in LF or Michael Cuddyer in RF if Gardy chooses to get Jim Thome some playing time. Because of Cuddyer’s ability to also play 1B or 2B, the Twins have a great deal of flexibility with their lineup. Kubel has played in 140+ games each of the last 3 seasons and has played in all 21 games this season. That’s not going to change anytime soon unless he is the one that gets hurt.
He’s far from a defensive wizard in the OF, but given that he spells Delmon and Cuddyer the Twins don’t lose much when he plays in the field. He’s certainly not a liability along the lines of Adam Dunn or Jose Guillen when he is out there.
B: Speaking of the Twin’s offense, they’ll miss the top of the Rays rotation for this series and will counter with Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. Do you see this as a critical series for the Twins? If the Rays win it, what does that say for the state of the team?
W: No series played in April will ever be critical for any team regardless of the circumstances. While the Twins do miss David Price, the Rays don’t have to face Brian Duensing who has been far and away the Twins best starter this season. It’s not critical but obviously being able to continue their momentum and extend their winning streak beyond 3 games would be immensely valuable.
If the Rays win the series I don’t think it reflects negatively on Minnesota in the least. Regardless of what happens, the Twins are still without Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Delmon Young will not be 100% if he plays. Further the Rays are a very good team and there is no shame in losing to them at any point.