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: Sunday’s Minneapolis StarTribune had a feature story about the struggles of Minnesota’s pro teams (with the exception of the WNBA Lynx) to reach the playoffs. The consensus was that the Timberwolves would be the first of the Big Four (Twins, Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves) to reach the playoffs. Do you agree?
-Dorr: I haven’t read the story yet so I don’t know on what they based their projections. The Twins’ pitching problems lead one to think they won’t make it for awhile, the Wild can’t score goals and the Vikings, unless there is a remarkable improvement this year, don’t seem ready to make it either. The Wolves? They need more than they have right now to make it but maybe they have the best shot. I’m wondering how long the StarTribune writer thinks it will be for the Wolves to make it. Is it next season?
-Marxhausen: The Timberwolves are the easiest case to make for the next Minnesota team besides the Lynx to make it to the playoffs. The Vikings made some correct moves this off-season, acquiring many new rookies to fill in spots where they needed talent. Besides that, the Vikings still are counting on Christian Ponder to lead them against a tough North Division with the likes of the Lions, Packers and Bears. I do not see playoffs for the Vikings any time soon. The Wild has a very high probability for making the playoffs with the direction it was heading last season. The Wild were on top of the league for two months before toppling down the leader board and out of sight of the playoffs. The talent is there, but the team needs to figure out how to make it last all season. The Twins compiled 99 losses last season and are hurting this season as well. The Timberwolves had a promising change in pace last season when Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love together were bringing the team out of the woodwork and into playoff contention before Rubio’s season-ending injury dimmed any hope for the playoffs.
-Larson: The Twins and Vikings are at least two more seasons away from reaching the playoffs. That leaves the Timberwolves and Wild. Each needs to only place in the top eight in its respective division to be playoff bound. That means a .500 record, or maybe even below .500 mark, can garner a playoff spot. I’ll side with the experts and go with the Timberwolves.
•Question: Fox Sports North Twins analyst Bert Blyleven has trimmed his broadcast schedule significantly this season. Have you missed Blyleven when he’s not on?
-Dorr: Although I appreciated watching him pitch, and his earlier years as part of the broadcast team, no. Roy Smalley does a good job and doesn’t talk as much as Blyleven, and certainly not as much as Tom Kelly when he filled in. But what a great pitcher – that curve was second to none and he and Camilo Pascual, before Blyleven got there, had curves better than almost anyone.
-Marxhausen: If anybody has talked to me about Blyleven, they know my stance on his announcing style. When I’m watching a Twins game, there will be a point in the game where I grow weary of what’s being said and I will put on music while I read my stats on gamecast on my laptop. I don’t miss Blyleven when he takes time off and I feel it’s refreshing to have some different voices commenting on Twins games throughout the season.
-Larson: I miss Bert when he’s gone – until he’s back. Then, I miss the guys who took his place.
•Question: Third baseman Trevor Plouffe has been the big story for the Twins of late. A year ago Danny Valencia was being projected as the team’s third baseman of the future but now he’s struggling at Class AAA Rochester. Do you see a better future for Plouffe?
-Dorr: It’s too early to tell. I’ve had discussions all spring with someone who knows a lot of baseball about whether or not Plouffe should be playing more than he was. I thought he should be, simply because the team was going nowhere and it was time to find out if he could play. No one could have foreseen the kind of production he has had the past few weeks, of course, but it has sure been fun to watch. I was there Friday night when he blasted a liner into the seats and then hit one into the second deck. He had seven homers in seven games and there are many, many baseball stars who have never done that. So it was quite an accomplishment. I’m not ready to say he is a future star but he reportedly has his head on straighter than Valencia did.
-Marxhausen: If there is anything for certain, it is that the Twins will not have a permanent spot at any position for any player. Valencia was not a good contact hitter, but when he did make contact, he projected more power than his appearance would indicate. He made a strong case last year to be the starter at third this season, but that is the beauty of competition at each position. That competition fuels these players to be better than their counterparts so that they get the starting spot and the playing time. Plouffe was given another shot to prove that he deserves the third base job and he is taking full advantage of that with his hot bat. Since May 16, Plouffe has hit .315 with 13 home runs and 21 RBIs in 22 games. His actions are speaking more loudly than words.
-Larson: Manager Ron Gardenhire was running out of options at third base and tried Plouffe there. So far, that move has worked. Plouffe, despite his recent surge, is batting just .243. As a fielder, he has limited range, especially to his right when guarding the bag. That said, if he becomes a .270 hitter, with 20-plus home runs and 70-80 runs-batted-in and maintains that next season, he could have a lengthy career as the team’s third baseman.
•Question: The Twins defeated Milwaukee 5-4 in 15 innings Sunday at Target Field, with Denard Span driving in the winning run. After Span reached first base and the game was over there was a wild scene as players mobbed Span and celebrated the win. Was the scene a bit over the top for a team that’s 13 games under .500 and in the cellar of its division?
-Dorr: I think so but then you can make the case that it was needed for a team that has been so bad. I also don’t like the post-game shaving cream (or whipped cream) being plastered in someone’s face while being interviewed. It seems a bit much. What I really didn’t like Sunday was Ben Revere not being given the steal sign when he was on first in extra innings, or Trevor Plouffe (not a base stealer) being thrown out while trying to steal in extra innings. And why didn’t the manager have Denard Span bunt when there was a runner on first with no outs late in a tie game? For that matter, on Friday night, the Twins had just scored two runs with four straight hits against a good Milwaukee pitcher, had no outs and Gardenhire had Span sacrifice. Why? Revere grounded out weakly, Mauer was walked on purpose and Josh Willingham struck out to end what was a promising inning. But maybe we worry too much about little things. The pitchers are last in the league in ERA, have given up the most hits and have the fewest strikeouts. And the offense is 10th (among 14) in average, 12th in runs, 13th in homers and 13th in stolen bases. Maybe the talent isn’t there.
-Marxhausen: Not everyone gets the opportunity to play on a winning team all the time. It is hard to get excited about anything with the Twins right now, with their record and how they started the season, but the little victories are something to rejoice about. Dueling it out for 15 innings is a battle that is not seen in baseball very frequently. After an emotional roller coaster of a game, I am sure the Twins could not contain their excitement when Span reached first. With not much going for the Twins right now, the little victories mean that much more.
-Larson: A high school team 13 games under .500 and in last place wouldn’t have embarrassed itself with that kind of display. How about a celebration like Sunday’s when it actually means something? The victory was nice but does a major league team really need six more innings to come up with a run in the bottom half of the inning? This team apparently does.
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