Morneau news finally encouraging

Justin Morneau

Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, left, suffered a concussion on this play in Toronto. Associated Press photo

Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau – out since a concussion suffered in early July – appears to be making some progress in his recovery.

Morneau took batting practice and field ground balls with his teammates Thursday at Target Field prior to the Twins’ game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

It’s one step in the recovery for Morneau, but an encouraging step nonetheless. At the very least, you hope this guy can go back to living a normal, healthy life as quickly as possible.

Morneau ruled himself out for the American League Division Series, but he said he hopes to be ready to go by the American League Championship Series if the Twins are able to advance to it for the first time since 2002.

It’s hard to say what kind of an impact Morneau could have on this team, considering he hasn’t faced any live hitting in three months and there’s no opportunity for a rehab assignment. But if he’s ready to go, rusty or not, there’s no question he could help.

At the very least, Morneau would be a big upgrade over Jose Morales or Alexi Casilla or whoever else the Twins plan to use as pinch-hitters in the postseason.

Many managerial mainstays walking away

How’s that for a tongue-twisting headline?

I was watching a little bit of the Toronto Blue Jays-New York Yankees game on TV on Wednesday night, and the Blue Jays were honoring longtime manager Cito Gaston. I hadn’t realized it until then that Gaston will be managing the final game of his career against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday at Target Field. Gaston had announced prior to this season that 2010 would be his last.

Cito Gaston

Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was honored Wednesday night in his final home game. He announced he's retiring after this season. The Jays finish the year with a four-game series at Target Field against the Twins. Associated Press photo

Gaston joins a number of other veteran skippers walking away from the game this season. Let’s look at some of the big names heading for retirement.

  • Cito Gaston. Let’s start with Gaston. He’s had two different stints running the Blue Jays, first from 1989-97, then again from 2008 until this season. Gaston led the Blue Jays to AL East titles in three of his first four years and back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. He’s had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde tenure, because since 1994 his teams have never finished higher than third, and only once have the Jays finished higher than fourth. How can that be? Could be that he simply inherited some really talented players in the early 1990s. Or it might speak more to the economics of the game and Toronto’s inability to field a winner when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox became perennial playoff teams. Either way, not too many managers can say they’ve successfully defended a championship in Major League Baseball. Gaston is one that can.
  • Bobby Cox. Like Gaston, Cox had two different stints as manager of the team he’s become synonymous with. In addition to his 26 years as Atlanta Braves skipper (1978-81, 1990-2010), he also managed the Blue Jays for four seasons (1982-85). All told, Cox led the Braves to 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005, plus led the Blue Jays to a division crown in 1985. Despite all of Atlanta’s success, he managed just one World Series title, as the Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series. Cox ranks fourth all-time in managerial wins, trailing only Connie Mack, John McGraw and Tony La Russa.
  • Lou Piniella. Piniella walked away in midseason from the Chicago Cubs in what has been a frustrating season for the Bleacher Bums at Wrigley Field. Piniella managed 23 seasons in the big leagues for five different clubs from 1986-2010 (Yankees, Reds, Mariners, Devil Rays, Cubs). Among the five he spent most of his time in Seattle, helping the Mariners to a thrilling postseason berth in 1995, plus a 116-46 record in 2001. The highlight of his career was in 1990 with the Reds, when he guided Cincinnati to a National League pennant and a shocking four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics in the World Series. When you looked at those two teams on paper, it’s still hard to believe that Series ended the way it did.
  • Joe Torre. There’s no reason to think Torre is done for good, but who knows? Torre announced earlier this month that he won’t be returning to his post as Los Angeles Dodgers manager after this season, giving way for Don Mattingly to take over. Torre is in his 30th season as a big league manager and is fifth all-time in wins. He had forgettable runs with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. But he was at the helm when the Yankees snapped their nearly two-decade drought without a World Series title, leading NY to championships in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Couple of surprises among NFL’s unbeatens

Just three weeks into the NFL season, and only three undefeated teams remain.

Charlie Batch

Looks who's back. It's Charlie Batch, leading the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. Associated Press photo

All three could be considered surprises, but for different reasons. Figured I’d examine the 3-0 NFL teams.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers: Initially, it’s hard to say the Steelers are a surprise, considering this is one of the NFL’s elite franchises. But with Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the first four games of the season, the Steelers have been winning with Dennis Dixon and now Charlie Batch behind center. Only seven NFL teams have outscored the Steelers this season. Their defense has been stellar as always, yielding a league-low 33 points so far.
  • Kansas City Chiefs: Explosive athletes, a strong running game and a steady defense have helped make for a good recipe for a lot of NFL teams, no matter how bad the passing game looks. That’s what the Chiefs have going for them this year. I thought they would be a pretty good team this year, but there’s no doubt they’ve been better than I expected. I really enjoy watching this team play. Jamaal Charles (7 yards per carry), Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas can break off a big run or kick return at any time. And the 38 points the Chiefs have allowed is second-fewest (tied with your Minnesota Vikings) in the NFL, behind only the aforementioned Steelers.
  • Chicago Bears: Having grown up as a Bears fan, I watch this team quite a bit. It’s stunning to see a team that’s biggest deficiency last season was the offensive line do nothing this past offseason to improve the unit, then jump out to a 3-0 start. The line has struggled again this season at times, but did well in pass protection in the second half Monday night against Green Bay. Matt Forte (2.8 yards per carry) has struggled running the ball, and my guess is that continues. But if Jay Cutler plays as well as he has so far – notably in the Dallas game – it might not matter too much. And Julius Peppers dominated the Detroit and Green Bay wins. The Bears did, however, get pretty lucky in Week 1 against Detroit with the Calvin Johnson “in the process” call.

September slump shouldn’t concern Twins fans

Fans of the Minnesota Twins will have to excuse me for not being too worked up over the team’s losing streak, which reached four games after Minnesota failed to hold an early lead en route to losing 10-8 to Kansas City on Tuesday.

Fans can be quick-triggered, so after the Minnesota Vikings’ win Sunday, it’s easy to shift gears from Vikings panic mode to Twins panic mode.

But I think what the Twins are going through is pretty normal. Barring a huge collapse, they’ve had a pretty good grip on home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Since clinching a playoff spot last week, they’ve essentially been playing for two reasons: Getting an extra home game in the ALCS, and not getting injured.

Ballplayers are paid to play 162 games, but two of the team’s best hitters – Joe Mauer and Jim Thome – haven’t played during the slump.

I think for the Twins, it’s more important to enter the playoffs with a set rotation and a healthy lineup than it is to get home-field advantage in the ALCS when the Twins aren’t even guaranteed a spot in it. If Mauer or Thome misses time in the ALDS, it won’t matter what position they’re in with the ALCS. They need those two sluggers healthy.

As far as momentum, there’s an interesting comment on the latest blog post from Howard Sinker at the Star Tribune. I didn’t see the story the person who left this comment is referring to, but I’ll let you take a look at it:

Interesting tidbit in ESPN The Mag this week. They had a piece on the complete nonsense of “momentum” heading into the playoffs. Popular thinking has most fans believing it to be very important. Reality shows that only 2 of 20 teams that were 8-2 or better in the last ten games advanced to the WS. Contrarily, there were more WS participants that finished 3-7 or worse. Health and good fortune mean much more than how a team finishes the regular season.

Also, baseball fans, don’t forget to check out PBS at 7 tonight for the first in the two-part “Tenth Inning” of Ken Burns‘ “Baseball” documentary. The initial nine innings, which came out in 1994, were outstanding. Can’t wait to see what Burns has done with the years 1993-2009.

Reviewing the Week 3 NFL picks:

  •  Not as good this week. Got the Chiefs and Bengals right, but missed on the Saints, Giants and Redskins. I shouldn’t be putting faith in the G-Men right now. Record for the season in my picks against the spread is 8-7.

The greatest home run ever, and weekly NFL picks

Bing Crosby‘s legacy will leave a lasting impact in the world of baseball.

Maz

Soon the world will see more of the 1960 World Series than just Bill Mazeroski's home run trot. Associated Press photo

It was reported Friday that Crosby – a famous actor and singer who passed away in 1977 – left behind a complete copy of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. The Pirates famously won the game on a Bill Mazeroski homer in the bottom of the ninth inning at Forbes Field.

Footage of Mazeroski’s homer has been shown frequently in the last 50 years, but no copy of the entire NBC broadcast was known to exist until it was found in Crosby’s wine cellar.

Crosby was a former part-owner of the Pirates.

MLB Network will reportedly air the footage sometime during the offseason.

And for the Week 3 NFL picks (6-4 record through first two weeks):

  • Saints by 4 1/2 vs. Falcons. Saints
  • Giants by 3 1/2 vs. Titans. Giants
  • Bengals by 3 1/2 vs. Panthers. Bengals
  • 49ers by 1 at Chiefs. Chiefs
  • Redskins by 3 1/2 at Rams. Redskins

MLB playoff expansion a bad idea

I can understand why Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig wants to explore expansion, but in my opinion it’s a bad idea.

Bud Selig

MLB commissioner Bud Selig isn't afraid to upset the purists. Associated Press photo

Selig said Friday he’s not afraid of upsetting the purists by developing a new system to allow more teams to reach the postseason.

Here’s one quote from Selig:

 “We have less teams than any other sport. Eight teams make the playoffs. One wild card in each league. We certainly haven’t abused anything.”

To me, that’s what makes baseball – and the National Football League, for that matter – better than the other leagues. I think WAY too many teams in the NBA and NHL make the postseason. Why should a team with a losing record be allowed to make the playoffs? Systems like that cheapen the regular season.

And for a league that was so concerned about having its World Series played all the way into November, how much longer would an extra round of playoffs make the season?

I’ve heard that one proposal is adding one wild card team to each league, then the two wild-card teams would play a one-game playoff for the right to face the No. 1 seed in each league. But for a marathon sport, I don’t like the idea of encouraging one-game playoffs. They’re great theater, but they should be played only when absolutely necessary.

And do we really need to have the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the playoffs every year?

Gardy admits obvious, doubts Morneau will return this season

Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday what most already assumed. He doubts first baseman Justin Morneau – out since suffering a concussion July 7 - will return this season.

I’ve had a bad feeling about Morneau’s condition for some time, simply considering his history as a multiple concussion sufferer. I blogged a couple of weeks after the injury asking people what they thought the Twins’ fortunes would be if Morneau was done for the season, something at the time I had no reason to be sure of, but something I thought was a possibility.

Last year, when Morneau’s back kept him out for the final month of the season, I thought the Twins would get swept by the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. They were too overmatched.

The difference between this year and last year is a productive Delmon Young and a healthy Jim Thome, plus the fact that Danny Valencia is ions better than Matt Tolbert (the Twins’ starting third baseman in the playoffs last year).

Morneau was off to an MVP start to the season. And while the Twins could sure use him in a playoff series, it’s not nearly the devastating blow as it was a year ago. This year’s team sports a far more balanced lineup.

So even without Morneau, I think the Twins are going to be a tough team to deal with in the playoffs.

Unable to set their playoff rotation last year after an incredible come-from-behind run to the division title, the Twins sent an inexperienced Brian Duensing to the mound for Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium, less than 24 hours after winning Game 163 against Detroit at the Metrodome.

This year, that same Duensing has got another year under his belt. He’s a little more experienced, and he’s just the third starter on a team that’s ridden Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano as a solid 1-2 punch in the rotation.

B Team gets it done as Twins catch Yankees

One night after clinching a postseason berth, the Minnesota Twins find themselves tied with the New York Yankees for best record in the American League.

The Yankees dropped a 7-2 decision to Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. During the afternoon, the Twins – featuring a lineup barely recognizable to a bandwagon fan – defeated the Cleveland Indians 5-1.

Twins got some big hits in the sixth inning from guys fighting for spots on the postseason roster. Alexi Casilla, Jose Morales, Matt Tolbert and Ben Revere helped the Twins score five runs between the sixth and seventh innings to give Nick Blackburn enough run support for a victory.

Blackburn appears to have solidified the No. 4 spot in the playoff rotation.

As far as the pursuit for home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, the Twins are tied with the Yankees. Both are 1 1/2 in front of Tampa Bay. The Rays and Yankees wrap up a four-game series Thursday, so a Rays win would put the Twins on top with the best record in the majors.

Looking ahead, the Twins and Rays appear to have easier paths the rest of the season. But there’s always the dreaded “team that’s got nothing to play for” to deal with.

  • Twins remaining schedule: 3 at Detroit, 3 at Kansas City, 4 vs. Toronto
  • Rays remaining schedule (beyond Thursday): 3 vs. Seattle, 3 vs. Baltimore, 4 at Kansas City
  • Yankees remaining schedule (beyond Thursday): 3 vs. Boston, 3 at Toronto, 3 at Boston

Twins can clinch as early as tonight

Danny Valencia

Minnesota Twins third baseman Danny Valencia has homered in three of his last four games. Associated Press photo

It’s currently the early morning hours of Tuesday, so as early as tonight the Minnesota Twins can clinch the AL Central division.

The Chicago White Sox lost a late game to Oakland on the West Coast on Monday, hours after the Twins defeated the Cleveland Indians at Target Field. So the party could be on, should that scenario repeat itself Tuesday.

Cincinnati and Texas both have the next lowest magic numbers at 6, so it’s safe to say the Twins will be the first team celebrating a postseason berth. And that has a good possibility of happening at Target Field sometime in the next two days before Thursday’s off day for both the White Sox and A’s.

Big news on Monday was word that Twins catcher Joe Mauer might need an MRI on Tuesday for his injured knee. Initially, it was reported that Mauer was day-to-day. Twins fans should be on pins and needles waiting for word that MRI.

Also, as seen on the Fox Sports Net North telecast, Jim Thome is the subject of a cover story for Sports Illustrated this week. I’m not sure when that hits store shelves and magazine racks. My guess is sometime Wednesday or Thursday or Friday. So I really don’t know.

If you were a loyal listener to “Sports Talk,” Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski told us last week that he was doing a story on Thome. So we know Posnanski wrote it, so no doubt it will be good.

Sorting through a Twins playoff roster

The Minnesota Twins may have lost Sunday, but the Chicago White Sox also fell in extra innings. The Twins’ magic number shrunk to 4 in the process, which means they will probably clinch the AL Central division title before the weekend. And they’ll likely be the first team to clinch a playoff spot this year (the Texas Rangers have the next lowest magic number at 6).

So it looks pretty good – barring an epic collapse that fans in the area would talk about for generations – that the Twins are going to the postseason for a second straight year.

The difference this time around is that the Twins don’t have to fight and claw their way back the way they did last season, when they forced and won a one-game playoff after rallying from three games behind Detroit with four games to play.

This time, the Twins can plan ahead. They can rest players. They can set their rotation the way they want to. In the last decade, many of the Twins playoff teams haven’t had that opportunity.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has said that he would like to go with 11 pitchers and 14 position players on a playoff roster this year. So here’s my best guess on how that will work out.

Position players

  • Catchers: Joe Mauer and Drew Butera
  • Infielders: Michael Cuddyer, Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla
  • Outfielders: Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Jason Repko, Ben Revere
  • Designated hitter: Jim Thome

Pitchers

  • Starters: Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Kevin Slowey
  • Relievers: Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch, Nick Blackburn

There were some tough decisions. First off, in the link above, the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse wrote that there are hints that Blackburn will be the No. 4 guy in the playoff rotation.

Blackburn has pitched great in the second half, posting a 3.35 ERA in eight appearances (six starts). But that season ERA of 6.99 on the road scares me, especially since Blackburn’s start would likely be on the road.

Slowey has pitched worse on the road this season too (3.67 ERA at home, 4.91 on the road). Not as much of a disparity as with Blackburn. And Slowey has been on a similar role since the All-Star break, going 5-1 with a 3.38 ERA, allowing just 52 hits in 56 innings with a 47-to-10 K/BB ratio. He gets the nod in my make-believe playoff rotation.

The last couple of position players were tough to guess. I figured with all of the injuries to the Twins middle infielders that they might go with both Punto and Casilla, but I could see a guy like Jose Morales getting the nod too as a pinch-hitter/third catcher.

I think Revere makes it too. Gardenhire likened his potential impact to that of 1991 pinch-runner extraordinaire Jarvis Brown – I hope Revere’s ceiling is higher than Brown’s was – and this is a team that could use pinch-runners. Lot of power, but also a lot of slow-footed players.

Here’s a few Monday lunch-time links: