Twins offer Mariners a chance to flip script

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 4, 2012 

After a six-game losing streak soured a road trip that began with a four-game winning streak, the Seattle Mariners return to Safeco Field tonight desperate for something to pummel.

They get the Minnesota Twins, baseball’s version of a piñata.

Blessed are the schedule-makers.

The Twins are 6-18 and reeling from the sweep they just took from the Los Angeles Angels, who a few days ago weren’t feeling so hot themselves. Then they faced the Twins, a team that enables struggling opponents to celebrate a real-life truism: No matter how down and out you think you are, there’s somebody else in the world who makes your troubles look like untied shoelaces.

The Mariners’ troubles, for instance, are steeped in their habit of stranding baserunners at third and second bases.

(The popular phrase to describe baserunners at third and second is that they are in “scoring position,” which I refuse to use. When Kyle Seager hit a single to left field at Tampa Bay the other night, Ichiro Suzuki didn’t score from second. Third-base coach Jeff Datz signaled stop – prudently, I might add – sparing his team from running itself out of a potential rally. Ichiro was in “scoring position,” yet was unable to score on a base hit. This is why the phrase is hokum.)

In any case, at least the Mariners are putting some runners on base.

At least they’re hitting the ball on those infrequent occasions they aren’t striking out.

The Twins? They were victims of a no-hitter thrown by the Angels’ Jered Weaver on Wednesday, one night after journeyman Jerome Williams held them hitless after the third inning. The Twins now have gone 15 innings – and 49 plate appearances – without a hit.

A glimpse at a Minnesota box score reveals a lineup that’s less capable of scoring runs in bunches than even the Mariners. Cleanup man Josh Willingham has hit five home runs; the eight other starting position players have combined for seven. Six starting position players own RBI totals in single digits.

But the feeble offense isn’t Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire’s most pressing problem. Gardenhire’s most pressing problem is a pitching staff whose collective ERA (5.77) ranks as the league’s worst. The Twins have allowed the most hits in the American League, while recording the fewest strikeouts.

Most hits and fewest strikeouts? As occasional Mariners broadcast analyst Ron Fairly might say, that’s not good. That’s not good at all.

Check out some of these starting-rotation numbers: Nick Blackburn is 0-3, with a 6.64 ERA; Liam Hendriks is 0-2, with a 9.00 ERA; Francisco Liriano is 0-4, with a 9.97 ERA. The only ERA below 5.00 belongs to the well-traveled Carl Pavano (4.91).

“We got dominated by a very good pitcher over there,” Gardenhire said after Weaver’s nine-strikeout, one-walk gem. “But we played terrible. We didn’t pitch worth a damn. Not aggressive, missed a key play or two.

“We looked like Little Leaguers out there.”

Garendhire’s “Little League” remark reminded me of something: The Minnesota Twins were the ballclub 12-year-old owner Billy Heywood inherited after the death of his grandfather. Heywood spent a week or so behind the scenes, noting lots of negative vibes between a gruff, old-school manager and players worn down from the daily brow-beatings.

Heywood concluded a change in the dugout was necessary, and appointed himself as interim skipper. The 12-year-old proved himself a prodigy as both a tactician and general sports psychologist. Under Heywood’s steady guidance, the Twins became improbable wild-card contenders.

If the saga sounds as though it were taken from a movie script, well, it was. “Little Big League,” released in 1994, is one of my favorite baseball movies. The premise might’ve been kooky, but the execution – with spot-on dialogue about inside-the-lines tactics – was terrific.

The movie included cameo appearances by such Mariners legends as Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and manager Lou Piniella, given five words in the script.

Helplessly looking on as the Twins dupe the Mariners with the hidden-ball trick, Piniella grouses: “What the hell was that?”

There are no hidden-ball tricks in the big leagues, of course, and even if there were, Piniella’s four-letter word of choice would’ve been quite more graphic than “hell.”

Still, the sight of the Mariners competing in a must-win game, if only in a movie requiring the viewer to suspend any notion of logic, remains a joy.

The three-game series this weekend between the run-challenged Mariners and hit-challenged Twins doesn’t figure to be fodder for a movie.

The series merely figures as a payoff for the investment Gardenhire made in his daughter’s college education: He’ll be in Minnesota, attending her graduation.

But I appreciate Gardenhire’s “Little League” reference after his team was held without a hit, because sometimes I forget about the ancillary joys of baseball. Sometimes I forget the endless days my son and I watched “Little Big League” on a couch, and watched it again and again.

A 12-year-old managing the Minnesota Twins?

With that anemic lineup, and that overmatched pitching staff, labor laws protecting children from dangerous occupations would send somebody to jail.

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