Twins squander Game 1 opportunities
Minnesota veers from style of play that got it to playoffs
MINNEAPOLIS -- When Michael Cuddyer lofted a long fly ball to right leading off the ninth inning of Tuesday's American League Division Series opener between the Twins and A's, it looked to be a routine first out recorded by Oakland closer Huston Street.
As right fielder Milton Bradley held his arms out, indicating he lost the ball in the Metrodome roof, and Cuddyer raced around to third with a triple, the Minnesota right fielder finally thought the breaks were going his team's way.
"I hoped it was a sign of good things to come," Cuddyer said. "Unfortunately, today wasn't our day. Things didn't work out."
Oakland's 3-2 victory Tuesday, ending the Twins' streak of 23 straight victories at home when Johan Santana started, can be looked at from two distinct perspectives. For starters, take a glance at this somewhat damaging loss from Minnesota's point of view.
Ron Gardenhire's crew took its usual aggressive approach, trying to bring the action to the opposition and force the other team to make game-changing mistakes. But on Tuesday, aggressiveness didn't translate into results.
It was the little things adding up to the sum total of Minnesota's improbable run to the 2006 American League Central title. It was the same little things costing the Twins on Tuesday.
In the opening inning, when Barry Zito was up with his pitches and searching for the strike zone after walking Luis Castillo on five pitches, Castillo was thrown out stealing by Oakland catcher Jason Kendall. Nick Punto, who was hitting behind Castillo, helped out Zito by swinging through a high fastball on a 2-1 offering, but then took the next high fastball with Castillo running. Minnesota hitters wanted to make Zito get his pitches down, but they didn't execute that plan early on.
That mistake was one of ommission. Unable to get Jason Bartlett over to third in the eighth with the Twins down one run, following Bartlett's leadoff double off Zito, the Twins then committed a costly error of omission. Castillo bunted through Zito's first pitch, almost leading to Bartlett being picked off at second, leaving Bartlett to wrap up the Twins' day with one brief sentence.
"On that pickoff, I stumbled trying to get back," Bartlett said. "It seemed like I was stumbling all day today."
According to Gardenhire, the Twins wanted Castillo to bunt toward third, but he took a swing in an attempt to get the runner over with first baseman Nick Swisher charging hard. Castillo grounded out to third baseman Eric Chavez, without advancing Bartlett, followed by Punto's groundout to second and Joe Mauer's line out to left.
The Twins finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, but that statistic was more a credit to Oakland's pitching. Being unable to get a runner over and in from second with nobody out is a very uncharacteristic trait for this fundamentally sound Minnesota squad.
"You don't see that much with Luis, because he usually gets the bunt down," Bartlett said of Castillo, who reached base three times previously. "He got the strike on him and he was seeing the ball good today and tried to swing me over there."
"We didn't get a bunt down, and that's not like Twins baseball," Punto added. "Every once in a while, those things happen. We can't get down on ourselves."
Even mistakes that didn't cost the Twins in the run column ultimately came back to haunt them. With Frank Thomas on first and nobody out in the seventh, Bartlett bobbled what looked to be a routine double-play grounder for an error. The A's eventually loaded the bases with one out against Santana, but the frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award emerged unscathed from the jam.
Yet, the miscue forced Santana to throw 17 pitches to get out of the inning, when he could have retired the side three pitches later against Jay Payton. The elevated pitch count caused Jesse Crain to replace Santana in the ninth after 107 pitches, with Crain allowing Thomas' second home run as an important cushion.
"It's something I thought about," said Bartlett of the after-effect brought on by his error. "[Santana] probably could have pitched the ninth and gone from there and held them to two runs. You definitely think about what it meant."
This less-than-perfect day for the Twins, though, didn't leave them panicked or searching for answers after losing a game they seemingly needed to win. In fact, a number of Minnesota hitters pointed out how they stung the ball consistently all day long.
On this afternoon, there were more breaks going against the Twins than for them, like Cuddyer's ninth-inning triple. Then again, if you listen to Thomas' postgame comments, the Twins accounted for themselves just fine.
Tuesday simply was an example of playoff baseball, with Oakland holding the slight edge.
"We had two great pitchers on the mound, and there were not that many breaks to be made today," Thomas said. "Barry was lights-out and Johan did his thing, as usual. It's one of those things where we were lucky to get the few breaks. A 3-2 ballgame, that's what we expected. That's exciting baseball, and hopefully it will be that way the entire series."
"Everything is magnified in the playoffs," Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter added. "But little mistakes, that's what costs you in a close game."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.