By Jason Wojciechowski on April 11, 2011 at 2:00 AM
Target Field, as Ray Fosse and Greg Papa pointed out numerous times throughout the last two games, was not particularly friendly to home-run hitters last year. It takes a real blast to get the ball out of this park.
Fortunately, the A's were up to the task of providing just that real blast. First was Hideki Matsui hitting his first bomb of the year, a shot off the advertising on the upper-deck facing in right field. Then came Josh Willingham, powering one down the left-field line onto a walkway in a weird gap in the stands out there. (Jim Thome also demolished a ball off Jerry Blevins, a majestic arcing shot, as so many of Jimmer's homers have been, into straightaway center field.)
Better than these homers, though, both of which were of the solo variety, was the three-run rally the A's put together in the sixth inning following Willingham's homer (making a four-run inning all together). A two-run lead, even against the Twins, might not have been safe, but a five-run lead was nearly unassailable. Check out the win probability graph at the box score on Fangraphs -- see how even though the Twins had a three-run rally in the eighth, their win probability didn't crack 10%? That's the power of a five-run lead.
Five runs won't win every game for the A's, because not every team is the Twins1 and not every field is Target and not every month is April, but with this pitching staff, both starting and relieving, it sure seems likely to get a lot of good results.
Box & notes:
A lineup note: Coco Crisp got his first day off, shifting David DeJesus to center and giving Ryan Sweeney his first start. Also, Kurt Suzuki sat for the first time, and Landon Powell made the most of it with a single, double, and walk, though he was also doubled off second on a line drive to right by Daric Barton.
There was quite a bit of base-running activity in this one, with David DeJesus being caught stealing, Josh Willingham being picked off, and Kevin Kouzmanoff (!) swiping a bag. Two runs scored on sac flies as well, one of them contested, and Ryan Sweeney aggressively took second base on a ball in the dirt early in the game even though the ball did not bounce very far away from Mauer. He basically did the old Little League "if it hits the dirt, you go" move and the ball got far enough away from Mauer that he didn't have a play. Also, Landon Powell was doubled off second on a liner to right about which there should've been no doubt. It's not as if Jason Kubel is Ryan Sweeney out there and made some great catch -- the line drive off of Barton's bat was more or less right at the burly right-fielder.
David DeJesus's speed was tested in the fifth by Jason Kubel, who hit a ball to deep center. Unfortunately, DeJesus failed the test and could not quite reach the ball before it bounced on the warning track and over the fence. Coco Crisp surely muttered to himself that he'd have caught it.
By my count, Daric Barton hit the ball hard four of his five times up, though he ended up with just one single to show for it.
Barton also made a textbook play on a run-down in the sixth, catching Justin Morneau going too far past first on his single when Ryan Sweeney hit Barton as the cutoff man of his throw to the plate. Morneau was hung up and Barton, rather than acting too quickly, glanced toward third base to see what Jason Kubel was up to while running straight at Morneau. This froze Morneau and he ended up only trying to dodge Barton's tag at the last second rather than commit to running one direction or another, forcing Barton to make a throw. This obviously made Barton's job easier, but still, how many times have you seen unnecessary throws in rundowns like that, and how many times have those throws gone astray or allowed a runner to advance? Textbook.
The best part about Josh Willingham's homer is that he was down 0-2 before taking two change-ups low and fouling off a fastball before getting a fastball on the inner half of the plate that was simply too much in his wheelhouse.
Hideki Matsui's monster homer and sharp single up the middle earn him Offensive Player of the Game honors,2 though had Willingham not been picked off in the ninth with Matsui at the plate, an out by Matsui would have brought Landon Powell into the wRAA lead and possibly given him the award, though Powell's awful base-running in the fifth, mentioned above, might have dinged him enough to take him out of the running.3
Ryan Sweeney remains the prototype of the ballplayer who sells jeans, but he actually has some talent, too, as he flashed his strong arm and line-drive stroke in this game. If only that line-drive stroke actually hit line drives with any regularity.
Kevin Kouzmanoff's at-bat in the 4th, from my notes: "slider low and away swing 01; slider? change? low and outside corner pulled on the ground to short; he kouzed him"
If Landon Powell's going to hit like this in every game, he should start more often. His double was absolutely ripped, and would've been a homer in a couple of ballparks, as it hit at the base of the wall.
Cliff Pennington continues to struggle, though his strong arm on defense is still a lot of fun to watch. Laser show indeed!
Brandon McCarthy had another nice game, throwing a ton of strikes, keeping the ball down (12 grounders), and not seeing a run cross the plate while he was on the mound (both runs he allowed were inherited and permitted to score by Jerry Blevins). Five strikeouts in 29 batters isn't anything Stephen Strasburg would get excited about, but it's adequate, especially in front of Oakland's defense. (I feel like I'm repeating this for every A's pitcher, but that doesn't make it any less true.)
My notes indicate about five hard-hit balls, two of which were on the ground, which is the best place for hard-hit balls to be. Many of the hits McCarthy allowed were of the soft variety as he kept his pitches around the knees and on the corners, particularly the outside corner.
Any time you not only allow both of your inherited runners to score, but you allow an additional run on top of that, you haven't had a great game. Sorry, Jerry Blevins.
Brian Fuentes looked quite good, though at least one of his strikes was of the accidental variety -- he missed his spot outside but caught the inside corner with a fastball against Danny Valencia, just a pitch before another inside fastball (this one intentional, it appeared) was popped to Daric Barton to end the game.
Ron Gardenhire actually went with the all-offense lineup in this one, with Jason Kubel in right, Michael Cuddyer at second (a position he has played with some frequency in the past, but he's still under 50 games there in his career), and Jim Thome DHing. Cuddyer did give David DeJesus a hit on a sharply hit ball in the ninth that a real second baseman might have played, but otherwise, the Kubel-Cuddyer defensive alignment did not appear to hurt the Twins. ↩
Standings: (2) Barton; (2) Crisp; (2) Ellis; (2) Willingham; (1) Matsui ↩
Get it? Ha! ↩