Blackburn nearly tosses shutout; Gardenhire makes brilliant bullpen move
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Nick Blackburn came within one out of tossing his first career shutout on Saturday in the Minnesota Twins' 1-0 win over the Seattle Mariners, but the most interesting plotline revolves around the man who recorded the game's final out -- left-hander Brian Fuentes.
Blackburn pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and two walks while striking out six. One of those free passes was issued to Chone Figgins with two outs in the ninth, putting the tying run on first base with the left-handed Russell Branyan coming up to bat.
Branyan has a career .840 OPS (.240/.340/.500) against right-handed pitchers, compared to a .735 mark against lefties (.208/.290/.445). That number is even worse in 2010 for Branyan -- .615 OPS in 86 plate appearances (.198/.244/.370).
Rather than allowing Blackburn to face Branyan in a dangerous situation, manager Ron Gardenhire went to his bullpen.
In a save situation.
But he didn't go to Matt Capps. He went to lefty specialist Fuentes, who struck Branyan out on four pitches.
This was a brilliant managerial decision by Gardenhire, who threw the egos of Blackburn and Capps out the window in favor of the best possible match-up. Fuentes hasn't allowed a home run to a left-handed batter since 2008, and Branyan struggles mightily against left-handed pitching.
To put the move into perspective, forcing Branyan to face a left-handed pitcher instead of a right-handed pitcher essentially transforms him from Ryan Howard (.847 OPS this season) to Jason Kendall (.616 OPS).
This doesn't mean Capps has been removed from the closer role. Instead, it just shows that Gardenhire is willing to use Fuentes against tough left-handed hitters in high leverage situations.
And that's likely exactly why the Twins acquired this lefty specialist in the first place.