Mackey: Twins outclassed defensively by teams they aspire to catch
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After falling completely flat in a three-game, opening-weekend sweep in Baltimore, the Minnesota Twins came back home and showed some life against two of the best teams in the American League.
Well, sort of.
Two come-from-behind wins to take two of three from the Los Angeles Angels, 18 baserunners in a losing effort against Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers (nevermind the lack of a big hit), and a strong 2012 debut from Liam Hendriks on Sunday. Again, in a losing effort.
Those were the silver linings in a 2-4 homestand.
But Twins general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire made it clear before the start of the season that this is not a rebuilding year. This team broke camp in Fort Myers with the intention of winning.
Well, that has only happened twice so far. And truth be told, this completed six-game homestand only magnified how long the road is coming back from 99 losses.
Yes, Rangers pitchers were able to put out every fire the Twins offense attempted to spark. And yes, the Angels offense took the Twins' two best starting pitchers behind the woodshed.
But perhaps the most glaring difference between the Twins and their World Series-aspiring opponents this week was how unyielding the Angels' and Rangers' defenses were -- particularly the infielders.
Offense will come for the Twins, who entered Sunday with a top-10 on-base percentage (.325) but bottom-10 batting average with runners in scoring position (.213).
Pitching will only come if Twins defenders carry a large load, and that hasn't happened to this point -- as the manager has noticed, particularly with missed double-play opportunities.
"I haven't put my counter on it, but too many," Gardenhire said. "Let's just say too many."
Officially, the counter says the Twins have turned only five groundball double plays through the first nine games of the season. The Baltimore Orioles lead the way with 13.
And for the Twins, the lack of double plays has little to do with a lack of opportunities. The Twins' pitching staff came into Sunday inducing the eighth-most groundballs in baseball (48%).
"We have to do better," Gardenhire said. "There's no doubt about it. We've bobbled balls, we've stayed too close in the base paths a few too many times. All those things we've talked about, clearing the base paths, knowing your runners. So we have to do a little better."
"I addressed that with Alexi (Casilla) and talked to him about not getting sloppy and all those things, so I think you're going to see a better player. ... Sometimes he just floats a little bit."
Nick Blackburn was as dialed-in for last Monday's home opener against the Angels as he's been in three years, inducing 14 groundballs and at one point retiring 15 batters in a row. He lapsed momentarily and walked Bobby Abreu to start the seventh inning, but then got the next batter, Alberto Callaspo, to hit a groundball to the left side of second base.
Shortstop Jamey Carroll -- otherwise very sure-handed -- sprawled to his left and had the ball kick off his glove into the outfield. Instead of a rally-killing double play that Carroll said "absolutely" should have been converted, the Angels had two on with nobody out for Chris Iannetta, who smoked a two-RBI double to break the game open.
In the outfield, Josh Willingham and others have allowed too many extra bases. Some of that can be made up offensively, but the Twins cannot afford to be dishing extra outs and extra bases, especially against elite teams like the Angels and Rangers, and upcoming opponents like the Yankees and Rays.
The Angels and Rangers, meanwhile, combined to make just one error in six games at Target Field this week -- a bobble by Texas third baseman Michael Young (starting in place of Adrian Beltre) on a hard one-hopper in Saturday's game.
With Albert Pujols, Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Callaspo, the Angels might have the best infield defense in the American League. Texas isn't far behind, if at all, with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland.
Now, it's worth pointing out the Twins did tally 27 hits out of 87 groundballs hit against the Angels and Rangers, which works out to a .310 batting average. Texas' defense held opposing hitters to a .224 groundball batting average last year. The Angels were even better, holding opponents to a .214 mark.
So neither team was converting groundballs into outs at the rate they normally do over the past week, but they didn't compound it by kicking the ball around.
"Look at all the plays they make," Gardenhire said, talking specifically about the Rangers. "They made plays all over the field on us, and the same way with the Angels. They were all over the field. So it's pretty incredible to tell you the truth. That's why they win. You talk about great pitching, and they have all that, and they have offense, but in talking with Ron Washington he says, 'Gardy, we're really playing.' When he said that, I said, 'You're catching the ball good too,' and he says, 'We're all over the field.'
"And that's exactly what you saw during the game. ... Left fielder makes a diving play, second baseman makes a spectacular play, right fielder makes a diving play. I mean, they were all over the field. And Beltre at third base, I don't know how many guys are better than him. He's unbelievable. ...
"You win like that. Believe me, pitching and defense wins. Plus they can hit too. A tough team. And the Angels are the same way."
It wasn't too long ago when opposing managers were saying the same thing about the Twins.