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Twins Start Just What the ‘Doctor’ Ordered

May 27, 2015 - (0) comments

 

With all the international scouting done by the Twins, perhaps the organization has found a voodoo man who is boosting the franchise’s fortunes.

That might be a far-out attempt to explain the club’s surprising performance so far this season.  But here’s the point:  This team is unexpectedly winning games, so why not throw out the voodoo theory?

The franchise that lost 90-plus games for four consecutive seasons has put a team on the field in 2015 with minimal resemblance to those clubs.  Yes, it’s still early in the season but who doesn’t like what we see?

The Twins are 27-18 compared with a 24-25 record a year ago.  Minnesota is a competitive 11-12 on the road, and the 16-6 home record is the second best in the American League.  After a 1-6 start this season, the Twins are 26-12.

Past Twins teams were often way behind by the middle innings.  This year’s model sometimes holds a big lead before the fifth inning.  Impressive, too, are the club’s eight comeback wins.

Manager Paul Molitor and his coaching staff don’t have a roster glittering with talent.  First baseman Joe Mauer and starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco, two of the club’s best paid players, have been mediocre.  The roster includes other recognizable names to baseball fans across the country but also has a number of “Who’s he?” guys.

Molitor and staff have maximized their personnel, showing a will and ability to develop players.  They have emphasized fundamentals and instilled confidence in both pitchers and position players.  Game after game the Twins are a good bet not to beat themselves while demonstrating efficiency, versatility and adaptability.

The Twins rank 12th among MLB teams in hits but are ninth in runs scored.  The team has been efficient in close games including last night’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox.  And when Minnesota takes a lead into the ninth inning, closer Glen Perkins has more saves, 17, than anyone in the majors.  That’s efficiency, too.

Molitor’s roster has guys who can play multiple positions.  Eduardo Escobar is the poster boy for versatility, able to play left field and three infield positions.  Trevor Plouffe, the third baseman, can also play first and used to be the team’s shorstop.  Eduardo Nunez plays in both the infield and outfield.  Catcher Chris Herrmann is able to sub in the outfield.  The list doesn’t end there and all that versatility helps Molitor deal with injuries.  It also helps the manager with hitting and fielding strategies while creating competition for playing time.

The 2015 team had to adjust even before the season started.  Pitcher Ervin Santana, the club’s prize free agent signing during the offseason, was given an 80 game suspension back in March for steroid use.  That loss was supposed to wreck the starting pitching but it hasn’t.

Other pitchers, including a previously stumbling Trevor May, have stepped up in Santana’s absence.  The starting rotation has been so deep the Twins dispatched left-hander Tommy Milone to the minors where for the last couple of weeks he’s been the International League Pitcher of the Week.  His record at Triple A Rochester is 4-0 with a 0.28 ERA.

The starters and relievers have responded to new pitching coach Neil Allen.  He has them throwing strikes, mixing up their pitches and working with confidence.  Allen was stuck in the minors employed by the Rays organization but the Twins made a smart move when they hired him before this season.

Power hitters Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia were expected to help the lead offense but they haven’t.  The Twins adapted, finding power from Plouffe, second baseman Brian Dozier and 39-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter.

Those guys might hit a home run to win a game, or the club may find another way to make a big play.  Molitor’s high baseball IQ is often on display.  Opposing clubs can be surprised when the Twins pick the right moment to steal a base, or a relief pitcher summoned from the bullpen makes his first throw to first base trying to pick off a runner.

This Twins team appears different in so many ways from its recent predecessors.  It looks just like what the (voodoo) doctor ordered.

Worth Noting

Richard Pitino

Richard Pitino

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino completed his recruiting class with an announcement yesterday about Davonte Fitzgerald, a transfer from Texas A&M.  A 6-foot-7, 209-pound forward who played two seasons with the Aggies, Fitzgerald will sit out next season and have two years of eligibility starting in 2016.  The former Rivals.com three-star prep averaged 12.6 minutes per game in two seasons with the Aggies.  He averaged 5.3 points and 1.9 rebounds.

Another member of the seven-man recruiting class who won’t play next season is Edina native Reggie Lynch, a transfer from Illinois State.  Feshmen Kevin Dorsey, Ahmad Gilbert, Jarvis Johnson, Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy will be eligible to play in 2015-2016.

Earlier this spring Pitino’s blog on Gophersports.com predicted a top-25 recruiting class.  The May 19 Rivals.com ranking of the top 30 classes nationally doesn’t include the Gophers but does have five Big Ten teams with Ohio State No. 6, Illinois No. 17, Michigan State No. 24, Indiana No. 27 and Purdue No. 28.

A Minnesota Wild spokesperson reported via e-mail “we are renewing and adding new season-ticket holders in record numbers.”  The NHL club’s TV ratings were over 40 percent higher this season than last. The Wells Fargo Wild Road Tour at the end of June will have three different caravans travelling in Minnesota and Iowa.

John Hughes, the popular and well-connected local magician, told Sports Headliners earlier this spring he plans to play basketball in the National Senior Games here in Minnesota this summer.  “The Amazing Hondo’s” birthday was Sunday.  He is a 1970 graduate of Cretin-Derham High School.

Looks like there is something else certain in life besides death and taxes.  For the eighth year in a row St. Thomas won both the men’s and women’s championships in the MIAC All-Sports Competition. This is the 29th overall All-Sports title for the UST men and 24th for the women.

Duck and Buck Commander of the TV show Duck Dynasty are providing autographed duck calls along with autographed baseballs from Willie, Phil, Si and Jase Robertson to be used as prizes for Northwoods League Fantasy Baseball.

 

Dutcher Understands Rick Pitino Role

May 25, 2015 - (0) comments

 

Rick Pitino has used the media to defend his son Richard Pitino this year.  After the Gophers stumbled to a disappointing 6-12 Big Ten record and no post-season play, the legendary Louisville coach pointed out his son Richard—only in his second year of rebuilding at Minnesota—had no all-conference players to work with.  Then earlier this month the elder Pitino disclosed his son seriously considered the Alabama coaching vacancy but wasn’t interested because he hadn’t established himself as head coach of the Gophers.

Richard Pitino

Richard Pitino

Rick was “proud” of Richard for demonstrating humility and perspective in making the decision, according to a May 8 Amelia Rayno story in the Star Tribune quoting from Pitino’s interview on “The Jim Rome Show” two days earlier.

Gophers fans have been surprised to find two Pitinos speaking for the Minnesota men’s basketball program.  Jim Dutcher offered interpretation and opinion on the subject.  Dutcher is a qualified source since he is a former Gophers head coach, follows the program closely and also has a son in major college basketball coaching.

Brian Dutcher has been Steve Fisher’s top assistant at San Diego State for years.  The two have built a ho-hum program into one of the best on the West Coast, and as of late the Aztecs have a superior resume to Minnesota’s.  Fisher is already past retirement age and Brian has been labeled “head coach in waiting.”

Gophers fans had read the rumors Richard Pitino’s name was on the candidate list for the Alabama job.  When Dutcher later read Rick Pitino’s comments about the Alabama situation and why his son decided to remain at Minnesota, his reaction was “here’s daddy just trying to make something good come out of this.”

To Dutcher it’s obvious Pitino is making statements to protect his son.  Dutcher believes that’s also what happened back in March when Rick made it clear Minnesota’s talent isn’t what it needs to be and Richard isn’t responsible for inheriting a bare cupboard.  “Richard can’t say that but his dad can, so you gotta read through it and say this is what Richard thinks,” Dutcher said.

While it might bother Gophers fans that Rick, 62, is speaking for Richard, 32, Dutcher sees a protective parent at work using his platform as one of college basketball’s most prominent coaches.  Dutcher, though, isn’t interested in going public with statements about Brian and his career.

“It’s not a role that I would play in Brian’s thing,” Dutcher said.  “I get asked all the time why isn’t he the head coach?  I say because it’s Steve’s job, and I don’t take it any further than that.

“Do you want your son to do well?  Absolutely.  Are you defensive about any criticism he may get?  Absolutely.  How you handle that. …I guess to each his own.  I try not to be critical (the Pitinos).  I just see it as a dad trying to be defensive in the defense of his son.”

While some may see Rick Pitino’s actions as meddlesome, Dutcher doesn’t.  “That’s what fathers do,” Dutcher said.

It wouldn’t be surprising if there are more supportive comments coming from the older Pitino about his son.  “When it’s parents speaking in defense of their children I give them a lot of leeway,” Dutcher said.

Worth Noting

Dutcher picks Maryland to win the Big Ten title next season.  He added that Michigan, with injured star Caris LeVert returning for 2015-2016, will be a contender.

At 32, you wonder if conditioning and many years of basketball toil didn’t drive Janel McCarville’s surprise announcement to not play this season for the Lynx.  McCarville played four seasons for the Gophers, then in the WNBA including the last two seasons for the Lynx where she was a major contributor as the team’s starting center.

Devan Dubnyk

Devan Dubnyk

Devan Dubnyk, who is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, reportedly earned $800,000 during 2014-2015 but perhaps could get a $1.8 million salary next season as part of a new three-year deal with the Wild, a hockey source told Sports Headliners.  If the 29-year-old goalie had played a key role in taking the Wild to the Stanley Cup finals this spring he might have commanded $3 million next season.

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said on the NFL Draft telecast April 30 the tackling of Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes was sometimes a “liability.”  Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Sports Headliners his first round draft choice has “made some pretty good tackles on (video) tape.”

Vikings fans will have to decide if there are tackling issues with Waynes.  “The biggest thing with our corners in this (defensive) scheme is to be able to cover,” Spielman said.

Former Gophers wide receiver Isaac Fruechte only caught 18 passes (one touchdown reception) in Minnesota’s ground-focused offense last season but the Vikings added him to their roster for now.  “He just came in and did a good job during our rookie minicamp,” Spielman said.  “You could see the size (6-3) and the speed.  He caught the ball well.  We felt that coming out of that camp that it was worth giving him an opportunity.”

Former Vikings running back Dave Osborn speaks to the “Breakfast with Leroy” group on Saturday, June 13, at the Bloomington Knights of Columbus, 1114 American Blvd West.  A breakfast buffet precedes Osborn’s remarks, with more information available by contacting Pat Rickert at 612-861-3981.  Group attendees are mostly athletes from the Minneapolis public schools in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, many of whom went on to college and professional careers.

Minnesota native Tom Lehman couldn’t hold an early lead last week in the 76th Senior PGA Championship in French Lick, Indiana.  Lehman finished seven over for the tournament while champion Colin Montgomerie was minus eight after final play yesterday.  Don Berry, the Edinburgh USA head pro, also played in French Lick but didn’t make the cut.

Both Berry and Lehman are former winners of the annual Tapemark Charity Pro-Am in West St. Paul.  This year’s Tapemark for men will be played June 12, 13 and 14 at Southview Country Club.  Berry, eight times the tournament champion including last year, is expected to participate again.

Doug Mientkiewicz, manager of the Twins Double A Chattanooga farm team, said on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle program yesterday German native Max Kepler is “night and day” the most improved player on the roster.  Kepler, who leads the team in hitting with a .345 average, can play all three outfield positions and first base.

Mientkiewicz also talked about center fielder Byron Buxton’s extraordinary speed, describing him as special when sprinting from third base to home plate.

When asked to identify a player most ready to help the Twins, Mientkiewicz said relief pitcher Zack Jones.  He is 3-1 with a 1.72 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 15.2 innings.

 

Wolves Lottery Plans Change Already

May 18, 2015 - 1 Comment

 

Turns out Becky Taylor won’t be representing the Timberwolves at tomorrow night’s NBA Draft Lottery in New York.

Wolves owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners the NBA informed him family members no longer will be able to represent teams at the nationally televised lottery.  Taylor said the league has received complaints about family members participating in the past and decided to change the policy as to who can represent teams.  He didn’t offer specific details describing the complaints other than to say the league has told him someone “prominent” has to represent franchises.

Awhile ago Taylor’s wife Becky had accepted an invitation from Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders to represent the club.  Everything was set early last week when Taylor told Sports Headliners (see May 13 column) that Becky would be the franchise’s lottery person on the ESPN telecast.  “I will represent the team now,” Taylor said.

Glen Taylor

Glen Taylor

Typically NBA teams are represented at the lottery by front office members or others directly affiliated with franchises but in the past some children of owners have participated.

The Wolves are one of 14 teams who are in the lottery that determines the order of selections for those franchises in the June 25 NBA Draft.  Because the Wolves had the league’s worst record in 2014-2015, they have 250 chances at winning the lottery, while the clubs closest to them are the Knicks, 199 chances; Sixers, 156; and Lakers, 119.  The Wolves have a 25 percent likelihood of winning the lottery and securing the No. 1 draft choice.

Lottery policy guarantees Minnesota will draft no lower than fourth in the first round because the Timberwolves had the worst record in the league.  The Wolves also have two second round selections in the June 25 draft.

Will Taylor bring a lucky charm to the lottery tomorrow night? “I will just show up and have a smile on my face, and however it goes, it goes,” he said with a laugh.

Minneapolis-St. Paul basketball fans will follow the draft not only because of the Wolves but also to learn the fate of Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn, two Minnesota natives who were high school players only a year ago.  Jones, the former Apple Valley point guard, has known Saunders for years.  The Wolves, though, are stocked with young point guards in Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, and it’s unlikely Jones will land here.

Jeff Goodman, the ESPN analyst, spoke about Jones last Thursday during the NBA Draft Combine.  He expressed doubt Jones could start for a playoff team but might be a “backup point guard for 10 to 12 years.”

Vaughn, who played at Robbinsdale Cooper before finishing his prep career in Las Vegas, is more likely to be drafted by the Wolves.  The team needs shooters and has two second round draft choices.  Vaughn, a shooting guard, was the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, and he is projected as a second rounder in next month’s draft.  He averaged 17.8 points per game to lead UNLV in scoring last season.

As for the Wolves first round draft choice, it’s likely to be a center if the lottery leaves the club with either the No. 1 or No. 2 selection.  Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, both centers, are generally considered the draft’s top prospects.  The Wolves have a need at the center position because veteran Nikola Pekovic struggles with injuries while Gorgui Dieng, a third year player next season, isn’t a consistent low block scoring threat.

 

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