Sunday Twins: A look inside the play at the plate

Posted: April 11, 2010, 5:25 p.m. CT

By Patrick Donnelly

Final score: White Sox 5, Twins 4
Winning pitcher: Mark Buehrle (2-0) 8 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 114 pitches

Losing pitcher: Nick Blackburn (1-1) 7.2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 3 HR, 98 pitches

The hero: Andruw Jones — The former All-Star center fielder is trying to resurrect his career with the White Sox, and on Sunday he gave his new team a decent reason to keep plugging him in there. With two on and two out in the eighth inning of a 4-4 tie, the Twins replaced Blackburn with lefty Jose Mijares, and Ozzie Guillen countered by pinch-hitting Jones for Mark Kotsay. Mijares got ahead in the count but couldn’t put the veteran away, and Jones eventually delivered a base hit to left that scored Carlos Quentin with the tie-breaking run.

The zero: Scott Ullger — It’s a classic second-guess, no question about it, and surely nobody feels worse about how the game ended than Ullger. But in sending J.J. Hardy home on Jim Thome’s double, the Twins’ third-base coach ensured that he’ll be mentioned on every sports highlight show around the country tonight. And that’s something no third-base coach wants.

It was over when … cutoff man Mark Teahen’s throw arrived at home plate about three seconds before Hardy did. Thome — pinch-hitting for Brendan Harris against former teammate Bobby Jenks with two out in the ninth and the Twins down 5-4 — slashed a double to the left-field gap. Juan Pierre fielded the ball cleanly off the wall and hit Teahen with an accurate throw in short left field. Hardy was just rounding third when Teahen caught Pierre’s throw, and he was out by 40 feet when Teahen’s relay hit catcher A.J. Pierzynski in the chest.

But let’s take a closer look before we nominate Ullger for the Baseball Hall of Shame. Sure, Hardy was out by a mile. But you have to consider all the factors that went into Ullger’s decision.

1. Hardy — How well does he run the bases? It’s hard to be certain, given that he’s only played a handful of games in a Twins uniform.

2. Pierre — The Whiteys’ left fielder has one of the worst arms in the American League. He made the smart play by sacrificing strength for accuracy and made a fine throw to Teahen. But who’s to say he wouldn’t fly it over the cutoff man’s head, or skip it at his feet?

3. Quentin — He scored the go-ahead run a half-inning earlier on a similar play. Delmon Young’s throw from left field went through to the plate and appeared to have a chance to beat Quentin, but it skipped off the runner’s leg just before Joe Mauer was set to grab it and apply the tag. That’s always a possibility, and it was fresh in Ullger’s mind. But finally, perhaps the most important factor …

4. Nick Punto — If Ullger puts up the stop sign for Hardy, you’ve got Jenks against Punto with the ballgame on the line. The Twins’ only pinch-hitting options at that point were Alexi Casilla and Drew Butera, so it likely would’ve fallen on Punto’s shoulders to get the tying run home. (Yes, Casilla is 2-for-4 in his career against Jenks, while Punto is 1-for-4, but sending the young utility player up to pinch-hit for the veteran utility player just isn’t the Twins way. Casilla more likely would have been used to pinch-run for Thome at second.)

So, when you factor in Hardy’s relative newness to the Twins, Pierre’s unreliable arm, the chances of one of the two throws skipping away or hitting the runner, and the chances of Punto delivering a hit to tie the game, Ullger’s decision to send Hardy home makes a bit more sense. But it still won’t keep him out of the highlights tonight.

Up next: Hmm … oh yeah, maybe you’ve heard — the Twins (5-2) open Target Field on Monday. Right-hander Carl Pavano gets the honor of throwing the first pitch, while the Boston Red Sox (3-3), having won three straight games, counter with lefty Jon Lester.

Live coverage from Target Field begins at 8 a.m. on FOX Sports North — click here for a breakdown of our broadcast schedule for Opening Day. Get all the details on the Twins-Red Sox matchup from Alex Halsted in Know the Enemy.

Follow Patrick Donnelly on Twitter @fsnorthdonnelly