Monday, April 11, 2005

First Impressions

A look at what might be the most talented team in the minor league system and just where the heck is Glen Perkins anyway?

First impressions can be lasting, and if that's the case, the 2005 Miracle squad made a very good first impression on the home town crowd in a pair of games on Saturday and Sunday.

Glen Perkins was to start on Saturday, however he as a bruised wrist and was given the night off. He will be re-evaluated before his scheduled start on Thursday. So when I walked into the park and saw Josh Gray's name on the line up, I sort of groaned internally.

Gray was a starter for the first part of 2004, won his first pair of games, and then fell apart. I mean, I tried sticking up for him. "Oh, it's the fielding," or "Oh, he was getting a lot of bad bounces," or....finally I just threw my hands up in disgust and said "Okay. You're right. He can't pitch."

So he got moved to the bullpen. "It's not a demotion," he tells me. "It's a ...change." He was determined to make the best of it. Unfortunately he just seemed to get into more trouble. Finally I noted the lack of playing time.

"They're using me as a left-handed specialist," he tells me. "They want to be able to say that I got out every left-handed batter I faced." I looked skeptical. I am generally skeptical of specialists as a whole. "Hey," he says. "It's a living." Rather unfortunately, he failed even at that.

However, he's lefty and you know...the Twins love their lefties.

So he shows up this year for spring training and he looked like he's filled out some frame wise. He had a good spring training and while he wasn't scheduled to be a starter, they decided to give him a shot.

He did make the most of it, allowing two runs in two innings on four hits and fanning two. So okay...maybe he can pitch.

Actually most of the returnees played pretty well. Ron Perodin seemed more solid in the outfield with four or five put outs on the night. Very nice. Dog's got game. Felix Molina turned in a credible performance at second, with the exception of one stealing attempt that I will cover in a bit more detail in just a bit.

The new players were delightful as well. So, let's start with the batting order...

Denard Span: This kid is simply magnificent when he takes off. He laid down a bunt on Sunday that left the Red's catcher eating grass. While he's stuck in a system that's heavy in the outfield, his speed is going to set him apart. His only mistake on the evening was an attempt to make a sliding save on a fly. He didn't quite slide far enough. However he was close enough to limit the runner to only one base. He did make rather spectacular catch later, that sort of made up for that one little mistake.

Matt Tolbert: I didn't know too much about him coming into this game. I still really don't know too much about him, save that he was .308 with Elizabethton last season and was drafted in June in the 16th round by the Twins. Played NCAA for the University of Mississippi. I might of thought he was not experienced enough for this level of play, but he's been proving otherwise.

My only problem with him so far was a boneheaded play in Sunday's game. A Reds runner is headed to second and Brock Peterson fires from first toward Jesus Merchan who'd moved in from short to cover the base. Matt Tolbert comes running in to try and intercept, misses the ball, and the runner is safe on second. Teamwork guys, teamwork. Let Jesus have the play when he's on it. That should have been an easy out. I think maybe he's trying to hard to impress.

Matt Moses: He can swing a bat. Defensively, I was a little ambivalent towards him on Saturday. He moves around a lot. More than I thought was maybe necessary. But then I though, you know, Coach Milt (Cuyler) is always telling (Travis) Kalin to bounce around out there a bit in Gulf Coast League so maybe all the movement is a good thing. But I wasn't really comfortable with him. It wasn't anything I could put a finger on, it's not like he didn't make any plays he should of.

I think in part, the problem was with the first boneheaded play. Felix Molina is on second, and Moses is on first with one out. Molina runs at the pitch, but he's not fast enough as Miguel Perez fires to third. Mark Schramek shows Mo the ball and smiles. Mo turns around and heads back to second but Schramek fires to second. Now Luis Bolivar has the ball and shows it Mo, who is caught in between, Mo starts to back up and Boliver comes off the plate -- at which point Moses starts running.

Timing here guys -- timing. As the song goes "Timing is a thing, it's true." If they'd both gone at the same time, Perez would not have known where to throw to and that moment of confusion would have cost them. And Mo, knowing he is going to get tagged out one way or the other, doesn't start to run to third, which I think is what Moses was counting on. Instead he lets himself get tagged out right in front of second plate. And as Moses is sliding in, Boliver gleefully turns around and sweeps the ball across Moses' back for the third out to retire the side.

Now, I'm not sure who was not paying attention. I'm sure Mo was not looking at was Moses was doing, he was watching the ball, but I would have thought that Moses would have made sure that Mo was going to play pickle for a little longer before allowing himself to be tagged out. I'd have waited for the throw to third and then ran, because even if the guy threw back to second, he'd have to chose between a dodging Mo and a sliding Moses. But that's just me. Bleacher coach. What the heck do I know?

So okay. That was Saturday and I kept saying. It was both their faults. Right?

Sunday saw boneheaded play #2 early on. One of the Reds hits a little tapper to the infield, and Harben comes off the mound to play it while Moses comes rushing in from third. Maybe Harben didn't yell "I got it, I got it, I got it" like he's supposed to. Maybe he did, and Moses didn't hear him. In any case, Harben got the ball but ended up getting tangled up with Moses, got the throw off late and the runner was safe on first. Even if Harben didn't say "I got it, I got it, I got it", Moses should have seen that he was at top of that play and backed off. Should have been an easy out.

So you just sort of shake your head and keep believing... Harben did have some words for Moses after that play. I will not repeat them here.

And then finally, Moses fields a ball at third and tries to throw to first but he must have been focusing on a kid in the stands, as he way overthrew Peterson. To Peterson's credit, he tried to leap up and catch it, but he would have had to be superman to even come close. I think it went into the stands somewhere around the eight or ninth row. Take two boys, take two.

So this gives Molina one bonehead, Tolbert one bonehead and Moses three boneheads, making him the early runner for the Bonehead of the Year award.

Moses pays some very good attention when he's at the plate. He needs to stop bouncing around at third and pay more attention to what's going on around him.

Brock Peterson: I love you Mr. Peterson! Finally -- we've got a solid first baseman! One who actually seems to know what he's doing out there!

So 1-for-5 on Saturday and 1-for-4 on Sunday with a RBI on each day. All he needs to do is solidify his batting and he'd be perfect! Augh! Meanwhile, I'm instructed to go ask him about the skunk story from his Elizabethton days. This should be interesting.

Kyle Phillips: Okay, I'm gushing. I admit it. This kid is just so good with his pitching staff! And yes, I've been gushing about him since his brief stint during the 2003 playoffs but consider... Tristan Crawford is struggling on the plate and Phillips stops before he throws back to show him where he wants to try to put the pitch next time. Just a quick one or two fingers out and a wave at area, nothing overly obvious, but Crawford gets the idea.

When Joey Votto finally homers off Crawford, Phillips walks calmly up to the mound. He asks what kind of pitch at was. Crawford shows him the fingering. Phillips says good, don't throw that again. Then walks back to the plate. He manages to nurse Crawford through three innings with three runs on three hits (including the yarder) and get three strikes out of him on top of that.

Good kid. I'm very fond of Kyle Geiger too, but when Josh Hill was struggling on Sunday, he did nothing to help him get through it. It was up to us bleacher coaches to try to muddle him through until he found his stuff.

Additionally there was a high pop up behind the plate Saturday night. Phillips is on it and Matt Moses comes flying in from third and Phillips' mask and hat comes off and suddenly, he's down on his knees in the dirt and we're sure they're both gonna miss it and then suddenly, Phillips is on his belly and somehow, miraculously, he got it!

I don't think Phillips defense has ever been in question. His problem last season was in hitting the ball in a pitchers' league. If he can perform well at plate this year, and continue his strong play behind it, he should go pretty far in this organization.

Scott Whitrock: Ah...long have I waited for Whitrock on this team. He's been playing right field and while he was not been really tested out there on either day, he played as expected. highlight reel yet. Put sometimes, you like the guys that quietly get their jobs done.

The most notable thing about "Red" was on Sunday when he tried to bowl Bolivar over on his way to second. He lost his helmet and Bolivar's spike caught him on the side of the head, right above his right eye. He was down in the dirt for several minutes but made if off the field under his own power. He came out of the dugout later with a bit of knot forming there. He'll be day-to-day and is being held out tonight at least, with utility-infielder Ben Pattee replacing him in right.

J.R. "Sam" Taylor: This is another kid I've been waiting for a long time to make his Miracle debute. He served as designated hitter on Saturday as it seems like Tolbert is hogging playing time at short or 2nd. But the that's what the organization wants so...I will wait patiently for Sam to finally take the field.

He hit 2-for-3 and was caught stealing, but he did make a fair attempt at getting from second to third. How was he to know the ball was going to be hit straight to Schramek?

I've already mentioned Tristan Crawford's performace. I wasn't thrilled, but I think he will improve. Chris Schutt was a little shakey to start as well, but some strong fielding, and bit of coaxing from Phillips got him through.

I have to note that, as far as I was concerned, Saturday's win was a gift from the Reds. The game was tied at the bottom of the ninth, so we went into overtime. Schutt kept the Reds off the board.

The Miracle were more aggressive. With two runners on and no outs against Tyler Pelland, there is a long discussion and then Matt Moses is intentionally walked to load the bases. I knew that was coming sometime that night, but...even with one out it would have been iffy to walk him. In a sudden death situation with no outs and the clean up hitter up to bat (and granted, Peterson was 0-for-4 at that point) it was insanity. Obviously, it didn't work as Peterson put it cleanly by Hector Tiburcio at short to bring in the winning run.

Ah....clutch hitting! What a wonderful invention! Someone should have thought of that sooner!

As for Sunday, Moses was pulled near the end of the game and Omar Burgos finished up for us, with no highlights or low-lights.

Jesus Merchan played at short and hit into the "Ribby" fest in the sixth, bring in four runs on a double. Way to go 'Zuse!

Kyle Geiger was the catcher for the day and Adam Harben was good, but not dominating. I expected better from him. He had three runs, 2 earned, in five innings while fanning three. Julio DePaula came on to get him out of the fifth inning, as he started struggling in the fourth. I'll be interested in seeing if throwing to Phillips makes a difference in his performance.

I REALLY liked DePaula. Very solid performance, only one hit - no runs - in 2.1 innings. I would like to think his solid play on the mound sparked the boys for their big sixth inning but um...

In all honesty, "Mighty" Joe Powers stuggled mightily. We really liked him though. The Reds could have left him in longer. Aaron kept telling me to stop singing "Ding dong, the pitch is dead..." because he wasn't a wicked pitch, we liked him. Yeah, well, six runs, 3 earned on 2 hits while walking five in 1.2 innings. Heck yeah, we liked him! But I think that sixth inning took an hour just by itself to play.

The last of the pitchers was Josh Hill, who threw well in Spring Training, but got off to a shakey start against the Reds. He did finally settle down and get his work done, but the early going was tough. I think Phillips would have nursed him through the early going with a "Put it here, Shaggy", but Geiger hasn't learned these little tricks yet.

Also Geiger failed to throw out two stealing attempts. Weak, buddy. Weak. (That makes him 3-and-0 on the season for stolden bases. Gotta work on that.)

In any case, this put the Miracle off to a very good start -- the only team in the organization that was yet undefeated as of Sunday night. This next week will be the real test though as the Miracle take on the Tampa Yankees, Dunedin Blue Jays and Clearwater Threshers!

· Extended Spring Training starts on Thurday, April 14th and runs through Saturday June 11th. I was thinking great! I can see the guys on Sunday but no...that conflicts with a Miracle game. But maybe I can get a roster. However, Sunday the 24th, the Miracle are in Clearwater so I'll get to watch the GCL boys.

Somedays though, I'm more tempted to go watch Spring Instructional. But I'll cover those reason in a rant tomorrow.

Wednesday I will have a review of the minors after their first week of play and who's hot (David Winfree!) and who's not.

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