Miller: Sox passed ball kills Twins?

Posted: April 14, 2010, 7:40 p.m. CT

By Phil Miller

MINNEAPOLIS — You don’t often see a game decided by a passed ball, but the Twins had to feel like their 6-3 loss may have come down to one on Wednesday. Weird thing is, the passed ball was committed by the Red Sox.

The Twins trailed 3-2 in the seventh inning when Nick Punto punched an infield hit and Denard Span walked (one of four walks on the day for him; more on that later). After Orlando Hudson made the second out, Mauer came to the plate for what looked like the day’s most pivotal at-bat. Certainly the crowd felt it — fans rose to their feet and made a lot of noise for the three-time batting champ, who came into the game batting .423.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona summoned left-hander Hideki Okajima to face Mauer, who was 1-for-4 lifetime against him. But Okajima’s second pitch, a fastball that sailed outside, glanced off Victor Martinez’s glove and bounced to the backstop. Punto and Span moved up a base — but with first now open, Francona responded by ordering Okajima to put Mauer on and pitch to Justin Morneau instead.

Mauer said all the right things after the game — “Mornie’s a great hitter and he comes up big for us in those type of situations,” Mauer said — and he’s right, Morneau isn’t a bad option. But the moment had been a big one, and Mauer is swinging so well, I would have put his chances of delivering the game-tying (at least) hit at better than 50-50.

The crowd was much quieter, and the tension had oddly subsided a little bit with Morneau at the plate. He took a ball, then swung at a fastball and popped it up in front of the plate, with third baseman Adrian Beltre racing over for an inning-ending basket catch. The Red Sox scored three runs in the eighth, and the game was lost.

Was that passed ball the difference? You’d never get it out of a good teammate like Joe Mauer. But he didn’t deny he liked his chances. After repeating that “I’d take that again” in that situation, Mauer paused, then added: “But I’d definitely like to hit, too.”

OK, so the Twins are 1-1 at home, with Francisco Liriano vs. Tim Wakefield — who’d guess that the knuckleballer isn’t the guy with the shaky control in this matchup? — to break the tie tomorrow. First, here are a few more tidbits from the second game in Target Field history:

— If the Mauer and Morneau sequence was the pivotal moment, Dustin Pedroia had the most memorable at-bat, and it wasn’t the one where he homered to break a 2-2 tie. And here’s what I’ll remember from it: Holy cow, Pat Neshek looks sharp so far. The side-armed right-hander threw 36 pitches, 25 of them for strikes, and nobody came close to hitting the ball hard. He flew through his two innings, collected three grounds outs and two strikeouts, and would have been perfect but for ump Mark Wegner’s tight strike zone; Mike Cameron walked after falling behind 0-and-2, and MLB’s pitch tracker shows ball four in the strike zone. “I thought I had him three different times,” Neshek said.

But back to Pedroia, another former MVP who is probably as big a pest to the Twins as Mauer is to the Red Sox. His seventh-inning at-bat was an amazing game of cat-and-mouse, probably a decent strategy against a pitcher with such an unorthodox delivery. Neshek got two quick strikes, but Pedroia dug in. He began fouling off pitches, extending the at-bat by getting his bat on sinkers, sliders, straight fastballs, everything Neshek could think of.

“Oh my God, I couldn’t get rid of him. That was a battle,” Neshek said. “I made some good pitches with sliders that usually would get a good whiff. It was pretty incredible. I was shaking my head.”

Finally, Neshek decided to try something that he swears he had not resorted to since his days pitching for Butler University: He threw a changeup to a right-handed batter.

“I gave up. I was like, ‘Geez, here, hit it,’ ” Neshek said. “I don’t want to give up a home run, but just make contact already.”

Pedroia was so thrown off by Neshek going against the book, he was caught completely off guard. He swung weakly, and tipped the ball into Mauer’s glove for a strikeout.

“I was amazed,” Neshek said. “He reminds me of Placido Polanco — he’s just one of the toughest guys to strike out. It turned out to be a good pitch.”

Neshek’s made a lot of them this spring, though. That was his fourth appearance of the season, and he’s allowed only two hits and a walk. After missing nearly two seasons for elbow surgery, he’s happy to be throwing at all — but even Neshek sounds surprised by how abruptly his pitches are breaking.

“It was sinking a lot. The slider was going good and the fastball was sinking,” Neshek said. “I’m getting good sink on everything, and I’m keeping it low. If I do that, I’m in pretty good shape.”

— By far the event that will be talked about most from today’s game is the light rain that began falling in the third inning and never let up completely. Fans actually cheered when the drops first fell, and a few chanted, “Outdoor baseball! Outdoor baseball!”

The game was never stopped, though the grounds crew crouched around the tarp at one point, waiting for a signal from the umpires. There were several weather-related pauses, however, for players to clean the mud from their cleats and the grounds crew to spread drying agent on the mound.

“It was pretty ugly on the field,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But we have to get used to it.”

Easier for some players than others. Michael Cuddyer thought the game would be stopped in the fourth inning, and was hoping it would be. “If there’s one thing I hate more than cold weather, it’s rain,” Cuddyer said. “I can’t stand playing in the rain. You’ve got drops dripping from the cap, and the mound and the (batter’s) box are a mess.”

Cuddyer homered into the left-field bleachers leading off the eighth inning, an unfortunate bit of timing. Had he hit his blast in his previous (sixth-inning) at-bat or his next (ninth-inning) at-bat, it would have tied the game and changed everything. Instead, it merely closed a four-run lead to three. “Too bad,” he said. “But you can’t control when you hit ’em.”

— Jesse Crain had another one of those he’s-amazing-he’s-awful outings that seem to have defined his career. He came into a one-run game in the eighth inning, and gave up a single to Kevin Youkilis. But then he struck out David Ortiz on a genius little curveball that had Big Papi way off-balance. Next batter, Adrian Beltre, lines a double into the left-field corner, and he intentionally walks J.D. Drew to load the bases. A clutch fastball on the hands jammed Mike Cameron, retiring him on a popup to left that kept the runners from moving.

But with an escape from the jam now within reach, and facing ninth-place hitter Jeremy Hermida, Crain fell behind 2-1 and grooved a mediocre fastball across the plate. Hermida lined it to left-center, out of reach of Denard Span’s dive. “As I ran, I thought, ‘I’m going to have to dive for this ball,” Span said. “I was just hoping somehow I had a rocket up my butt.”

No such luck. And no luck for Crain, who watched all three runners score, effectively ending a tight game.

— I watched Alex Burnett throw away his “I was there” certificate from opening day in the clubhouse, shortly after being informed he’s being sent to Rochester. Gardenhire said he likes the kid, but needs left-hander Ron Mahay in the bullpen because Jose Mijares has been ineffective. Brian Duensing has been used as a short man, but the Twins want him to get longer outings, so Mahay is coming to shore up the short relief corps. And Burnett will get far more innings in Triple-A.

— Finally, it was almost the play of the day: When Victor Martinez lined a bullet to right in the ninth inning, Michael Cuddyer knew instantly he had a shot at a baseball rarity, throwing out a runner at first. He charged and threw, and Martinez, who to his credit ran hard all the way, just beat the throw. In fact, his stumbling slide into the bag probably made the play even closer.

“I thought I had a chance, and Mornie was there for the throw,” Cuddyer said. “I almost got Frank Thomas that way in the ’06 playoffs.”

He still plans to get one, though. He’s even picked out the victim.

“Be sure you’re here for the Cleveland series,” Cuddyer said with a grin. “I guarantee I’ll get (Mike) Redmond.”

Follow Phil Miller on Twitter @fsnorthmiller