Mackey: Twins attempt to balance big picture with important June games
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MINNEAPOLIS -- With Magglio Ordonez at the plate in the fourth inning of a 0-0 ballgame on Wednesday, the fire alarms started blaring throughout Target Field. An automated voice over the PA system warned, "attention!"
Kevin Slowey stepped off the rubber with a look of slight bewilderment.
"I started laughing," Slowey said.
"Do we know what that was about?"
Rumor has it there was a grease fire from one of the food stations.
I was told the sirens were actually a warning for Delmon Young to watch out for flying objects in left field. Sure enough, Ordonez connected shortly after with a base hit to left, and Miguel Cabrera followed with a rope to the gap in left-center, giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
The temptation was to say, 'OK, great. Slowey has allowed at least five earned runs in his last three starts, and he has a history this season of struggling in the middle innings. Here we go again.'
But that would be knee-jerk -- reacting too quickly to short-term events in a sport that primarily rewards players and teams based on long-term successes. The RBI double by Cabrera was the only run Slowey allowed, en route to a 5-1 Twins victory.
We're likely all guilty of over-analyzing baseball in the short-term, especially in Minnesota during June and July, when the Vikings are mostly dormant, and when the Wolves and Wild are mostly irrelevant.
After taking two of three in Philadelphia, the Twins were on fire. After losing three-straight in Milwaukee, the Twins were screwed. After losing two of three to the Mets, then game one against Detroit, the season was over.
That said, after seeing the Twins play game 163 two seasons in a row, it's difficult not to hyper-analyze every series.
"I think you guys may have hyped (this series) up a little bit too much, for it being June," Denard Span said. "I mean, OK, after we lost the first game they were in first place, but it (was) June 28th. It doesn't matter in this division. It normally doesn't matter until the last day, especially in this division.
"Even last year, game 163, it's kind of tough to go back and say, 'oh, man, if we would have won that game in May... maybe we wouldn't be in this predicament.'... You play too many games to look back at June and July."
That doesn't mean the Twins weren't fired up to play the Tigers. Span acknowledged that they were, and so did others.
"I feel like every time Detroit and Chicago come to town, the crowd gets more elevated, we elevate our game," Nick Punto said. "It's just human nature to get up. You guys get excited, we get excited, and that's just part of it."
Ultimately though, Span has a point. Kind of. I don't necessarily agree that the series was over-hyped, because the Twins and Tigers need every edge possible against each other. These are crucial games, regardless of the date. But Span, and others in the Twins' clubhouse, seem to be putting things into perspective -- the season wasn't riding on these three games.
"I don't think we needed to win," Slowey said. "We're certainly glad that we did. We have a lot of season left to play, and we have a lot of games, specifically against them, left to play.
"We just want to be playing a little bit better than we had, certainly on the road. I felt like we accomplished that."
Let's look at the big picture: The Twins have dug themselves some massive holes in recent seasons with rosters that were far inferior to this one, and they've found ways to make surges in the second half.
On June 30, 2009, they sat one game over .500 and four games back in the division. On June 30, 2006, they sat eight games over .500 and 11 games back in the division -- and that was after winning 18 of 20.
After Wednesday's victory, the Twins (43-35) sit 1.5 games up in the division.
Do they have flaws? Absolutely. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, the hitting has been sporadic, and the injuries have piled up throughout the first three months. But holding a division lead in June buys the Twins time to iron out kinks, as opposed to facing an uphill climb with those same flaws weighing them down.
"I think maybe that's a good sign with this team," Justin Morneau said. "We've been in first place most of the year, and I don't think we've hit as a unit yet for more than two or three days. I think that's probably a good thing, that when that all starts clicking it's going to be a lot of fun.
"You'd rather be the team out front. It's a lot more stressful to (say), 'If we don't win six in a row, we're going to be eliminated. If we don't come out and sweep Chicago, or if we don't sweep Kansas City, we're going to be eliminated.' When you're sitting there going, 'We win one out of the next five and we're going to be in the playoffs,' it takes a little pressure off."
Of course, the only way to build a comfortable lead in late September is to steamroll teams in June and July, which is where the disconnect lies for anyone downplaying these last three games against the Tigers.
I understand players wanting to keep a flat line during a 162-game season. It's not beneficial for them to ride an emotional rollercoaster on June 30.
But it's also not beneficial to enter September trailing by five games because of a lengthy stretch of lackadaisical baseball surrounding the All-Star break.
It's a tough balance.
"I think that's part of what's happened to us in the playoffs," Morneau said. "We spend so much energy coming back in the division, and the goal is just get in and see what happens, instead of maybe build a lead and kind of cruise in there without using up all your energy that you have. You're playing playoff-type baseball for two weeks in August and the whole month of September, and that can wear you out. We get into the playoffs, and it's almost like we don't have anything left, just because it's such a grind to get in.
"I think if we can build a lead and maybe cruise through the last couple weeks of September... obviously it's not looking like that the way this division always is, but it would be nice to get that hot streak and be ahead, instead of chasing and using up all we have just to get in."
So, with the Tampa Bay Rays -- another AL playoff contender -- coming to town for four games this weekend, keep those comments in mind. We'll see if the Twins can stay ahead of the curve.
But if they get swept, it's not the end of the world.
Funny how baseball works.