Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: Outfielder Josh Willingham, acquired by the Twins in free agency last winter, is batting .289 and leads the Twins in home runs (11), doubles (18) and runs-batted-in (41). Is he worthy of All-Star Game consideration?
-Dorr: Not if participants were being selected on a best-player basis. But the rules were changed many years ago to require one player from every team to be selected and Willingham should be Minnesota’s pick unless Scott Diamond is 9-1, or something like that, by All-Star time. Sunday night one of the sports anchors in the Twin Cities picked Joe Mauer, saying Mauer would likely be hitting well over .300 by the time the game is played. I’d take Willingham because of his RBI contributions.
-Marxhausen: Is he worthy of All-Star consideration despite how terrible his host team is playing? Yes, I think Willingham deserves consideration as well as being on the All-Star team. Now to say that he starts the game is being a little farfetched. The stat that hurts his credibility besides more losses than wins is his .289 batting average. That is very respectable in any league, but to stand out for All-Star consideration and voting, you have to consistently get on base as well as have those home runs and RBIs. He is ranked 13th in the AL in home runs and sixth for RBIs, but ranked 19th on batting average. If he can start pushing his average towards .300 and keep up the home run and RBIs, there will be no question that he makes the All-Star Game.
-Larson: I like Willingham. So far, he’s been much better than I thought he would be. Does his play merit All-Star status? Not yet. But, as Luther said, he will likely be in the All-Star Game as Minnesota’s representative.
•Question: In his Minneapolis Star/Tribune column Sunday, Patrick Reusse wrote that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is happy with the lineup his team has settled into. What do you think of Gardenhire’s recent position lineup and batting order?
-Dorr: I have never been a fan of having Denard Span and Ben Revere in the lineup together and still am not. But Revere has hit well lately and, with Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer both gone, there aren’t many options, unless you put Ryan Doumit out there. (That’s what I would do if everyone else is healthy and contributing.) When I was at Sunday’s game with the Cubs a ball was hit into the right field corner and second baseman Jamey Carrroll ran about 30 yards into the outfield to take a relay throw from the weak-armed Revere. I like having Trevor Plouffe at third. Shortstop Brian Dozier is struggling, both in the field and at the plate, but Gardenhire doesn’t have many options. The team seems committed to playing Dozier, perhaps a year earlier than he should be. The offense has picked up considerably, although most of the improvement has been against teams under .500. But those games count, too, and it’s been a better product on the field, no doubt. It would be even better if Justin Morneau could raise his average about 40 or 50 points.
-Marxhausen: As long as the trickle-down effect of success works, this lineup should be productive. With speed demons Denard Span and Ben Revere batting No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, a solid hit by Joe Mauer (No. 3) or Josh Willingham (No. 4) to the outfield should score a run. If the Twins can get these players on base, then hard-swinging Justin Morneau comes to the plate at No. 5 with another shot to get an extra-base hit. After Morneau, comes switch-hitting, utility player Ryan Doumit, who has had an inconsistent season. Batting .258, he provides a good hitter at the No. 6 spot. Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dozier and Jamey Carroll finish out the lineup. If Gardenhire can stick with this lineup on a consistent basis, then I think that runs and wins will follow. Consistency is key for the Twins right now.
-Larson: With the players he has, Gardenhire’s current lineups have been his best this season. Having Plouffe at third base, with Carroll moving to second base, leaves Alexi Casilla as the odd man out in the infield but that’s a good thing. This lineup has put the Twins on a 7-3 run and that’s a huge improvement.
•Question: It must be the middle of June. The National Basketball Association playoff finals began Tuesday, pitting the Miami Heat against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Is that match-up a surprise to you? And, give us your winner and how many games the finals will last.
-Dorr: That match-up isn’t a surprise at all, although I had not seen Oklahoma City play more than a few minutes this season and that was against the Timberwolves. I went by what other people said about the Thunder having the best young talent in the league and it appears they were right. And I thought the Heat would make it to the finals, although I was rooting for the Celtics when I watched parts of the second half of their final game with the Heat. That was my most extended viewing of an NBA game this season, other than watching the Wolves, so I haven’t seen either team play much. I’ll pick the underdog, the Heat, in seven games.
-Marxhausen: If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that the finals would be Oklahoma City vs. Miami, I would have said that your odds were very good. Miami had a strong run to the finals last season and that was the Big 3’s first year together. They have a lot of talent, surrounded by good role players. Oklahoma City has an explosive young team in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These two will run a fast-paced offense and score quick points on the fly. I think it will be very enjoyable to watch even though the season was cut short and was almost ruined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) delay. I give the nod to Oklahoma City because I thought Miami looked too weak against Boston. LeBron James is going to be the only player who can save Miami. Oklahoma City is going to throw a slew of defenders around Dwayne Wade with Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden and Westbrook all having the same goal of slowing down Wade. Miami’s Chris Bosh is going to be defended by Serge Ibaka, who is leading the playoffs in blocks per game. James will have to lead the team and if history says anything, James will lose. Oklahoma City wins in seven games.
-Larson: After San Antonio swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs and took a 2-0 edge against Oklahoma City, I thought the Spurs were a team of destiny. But, Oklahoma City’s youth and talent prevailed in the West Division finals. I was not surprised that the Heat won the East Division but it was plagued by inconsistency.
Can LeBron James pull out four victories in a seven-game series? I don’t think so. It’s the Thunder and Kevin Durant in six games.
•Question: Golf’s U.S. Open is this week. You have two picks to win the tournament. Who are your choices?.
-Dorr: I must be failing at following the PGA. I didn’t even know the Open was this week. So that automatically makes suspect any choice or choices I make. I checked out a Sports Illustrated special section about the Open and the experts they asked couldn’t get close to a consensus choice. So how can anyone from the golf mecca of Mille Lacs County make a good pick? I’ll take Jason Dufner and Luke Donald, with Lee Westwood as a dark horse. And, will Phil Mickelson never win an Open? The best golf happening for me recently was Minnesotan Tom Lehman winning a major on the Champions Tour last Sunday.
-Marxhausen: As boring as I am going to sound in my predictions, I would place my bet on either Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy. Woods is coming off of a great comeback a week and a half ago, finishing out his last four holes with three birdies at the Memorial Tournament. He looked real strong building momentum and he even got to test the course going into the U.S. Open. After winning the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion in 2008, I think he is looking to repeat that glory. McIlroy has been playing terrible lately. He missed the cut at the Memorial and tied for seventh in the St. Jude meet. McIlroy plays well at courses that suit his style of play. He can smack the ball so hard and get it near the green, but if he is not protected by trees or calm winds, his ball will get too high in the air and be swayed by the wind. He won the Open in 2011 and I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeated.
-Larson: My picks are Tiger Woods and Zach Johnson – Woods for his ability to make the big, super shots and Johnson for his steadiness and ability to stay out of trouble. Everyone wants to know if Woods’ victory at the recent Memorial Tournament was a sign he’s on his way back, so TV ratings should soar if he’s still playing Saturday and Sunday. Johnson likely won’t attract as much attention but the Iowa native has eight PGA Tour victories, including the Masters in 2007.
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