Oh, my! I mentioned last time that the Minnesota Twins, after a surprisingly good month of May, cooled down big time in June. Fans held their breath wondering how far the team would fall from the height reached in May. Now, with June behind us and July well under way, we can start breathing normally again.
The Twins lost ground in June, but remained above the .500 mark (by five games!) by month’s end. But July seems to have brought an end to the ice-cold bats. The Twins are 8-4 in July as we begin the All-Star break.
But more importantly: It’s Pluto Day!
Launched back in January of 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft is, as I write this, less than 15 hours away from zipping past the planet Pluto. (Yes, planet, damn it.) It’s been a wait of nine-and-a-half years, but that wait is finally over!
When I wrote about Pluto recently (Pluto Is Still a Planet), I mentioned how it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh back in 1930. Some of Clyde’s ashes are on the spacecraft, so Clyde is about to visit the planet he discovered. (It took us just shy of 100 years to finally visit this last solar system (honorary) planet.)
I also mentioned that the new planet was named by an eleven-year-old British girl, Venetia Burney. It’s cool that a kid named the planet; kids have a long tradition of being fascinated by space.
Born back in the 1950s, I watched us reach space for the first time. All through grade school, the entire school would file into the auditorium to watch — on a single black and white TV — the Gemini and Apollo launches. The entire nation was engaged and enthralled.
I stayed up to watch the moon landing, to watch human beings step onto the surface of an alien world for the first time. (And after having jumped the fence to briefly visit the neighbor’s yard, we chose to remain at home sending out only a few machines to explore the block.)
The moon program was back in the 1960s. After proving we were better at tech than those pesky Soviets, we settled mostly into near orbit and contented ourselves with sending out various robots. At first we just smashed them into their targets, but then we started orbiting them. Recently we’ve actually started landing them!
One thing notable about the Dawn mission is that it involves another first. We’ve never before orbited two worlds. In all other missions so far, we: smashed into the target, zipped past it, went into permanent orbit around it, or actually landed on it.
Never before have we orbited one target (Vesta) and then left orbit to go orbit (forever, in this case) another target (Ceres)!
Plus, there is this hugely mysterious white spot in one of Ceres’ craters. No one knows what it is. I have two (fanciful) theories: It’s either the remains of a crashed alien Von Neumann probe, or… it’s the actual location of the Monolith.
If you were going to hide an Easter Egg for humanity, the moon is a good choice. It certainly requires space travel to get there.
But if you really wanted to test humanity’s space exploration ability, the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt is also a really good “Here I Am!” location. No doubt it will turn out to be ice (perhaps embedded in whatever made that crater), but for the moment it’s fun to speculate!
And then there’s the matter of the construction shack on Pluto…
“I tried to envision it. A construction shack set down in a cloud of dust and gas. Engineers who may have worked for millennia to put together star and planets, to key into them certain factors that still would be at work, billions of years later.”
~~from Construction Shack, Clifford Simak, 1973
So it’s a pretty exciting year for fans of space exploration.
Speaking of space exploration, baseball! (Yeah, I’m no good at segues.)
The thing is, today is also a (slightly) notable day in the baseball world; it’s the beginning of the All-Star Game break. The baseball season is six months long — each team plays 162 games! — with only single days off scattered throughout those 180-some days.
The ASG is a four-day holiday party just slightly past the halfway point. Some players (and managers and coaches) work the game itself, but for most it’s the longest break of the season. Some even take actual vacations.
The All-Star Game is mostly just an exhibition — a chance to see some of the best players all in one game. It doesn’t affect players’ stats, but the winner of the game does determine who gets home field advantage during the World Series in the fall.
(The WS is best of seven played on a 2-3-2 schedule alternating between the teams’ ballparks. The winner of the ASG gets the first and last two played in their ballpark.)
Ironically, since the hosting venue is picked years in advance (in 2018 the Nationals will host), the game is sometimes played in the park of a team doing poorly that season. The Reds aren’t good this year. Last year it was my Twins. The Mets hosted in 2013, the Royals in 2012, and the Diamondbacks in 2011.
I’ve written about the All-Star Game before and about the Home Run Derby event the evening before that game (i.e. tonight). You can read those posts for more background. There is also a post from last year when the Twins hosted at Target Field.
So I won’t say more about the ASG other than that our closer Glen Perkins is going again and so is second baseman Brian Dozier. Perkins has been awesome this season with 28 saves in as many opportunities (making him the best closer in the AL right now and giving him a Twins franchise record).
Brian Dozier, my favorite Twin, has been excellent both in the field and at the plate (slashing .256/.328/.513 isn’t hugely impressive, but he has 19 homers, 34 walks, 50 RBI, and 67 runs).
What I did want to say something about is the Twins in 2015. They started off rough in April, but then had an astonishing “Mighty May” in which they won 20 games. June brought gloom as they went stone cold at the plate. (Oddly, pitching was pretty good.)
May made us giddy with joy and possibility. The last time they won 20 games was back in 1991 — the year they went to, and won, the World Series. So it was hard not to drink the Kool-Aid.
We kept saying, “Wait and see what happens in June,” but I’m not sure many of us actually walked that talk. So rather than being an expected return to normalcy, June was a bucket of ice water.
What was weird after four years of terrible, terrible pitching is that this year our pitching is pretty good. Very good at times. Our problem in June was a stunning inability to hit the ball usefully. Or at all, in many cases.
July has been much better! (It’s kind of weird how much difference the turning of a month seems to make, but baseball has a major psychological component, plus many baseball players are superstitious. Not just merely stitious, but super stitious!)
The season’s actual halfway mark (81 games) for the Twins came after the July 4th game. At that point, it was too early to tell much about July. The Twins had won two and lost two, maintaining the five games above .500 level they had when June closed.
Since that time they’ve gone 6-2 which includes a 6-1 home stand going into the All-Star break. That puts them 8-4 (.667) on the month, which is much better (so far) than June’s 11-17 (.392). I just hope the four-days off doesn’t interrupt their momentum.
In any event, the current facts about the Twins are:
- They have a 49-40 (.551) win-loss record.
- They’re ranked second (of 15) in the American League.
- They’re ranked sixth (of 30) in the MLB.
- They’re 31-16 (.660) at home — best in the AL (4th in MLB).
Yet none of their stats are especially mind-blowing. Hopefully that means what they’re doing is sustainable and that they’re not temporarily playing above their ability. A careful look at the stats in May strongly suggested just that and that there was reason for caution.
One thing that stood out was how badly the Twins were out-hit in the first half. At the 81-game mark, despite a winning 43-38 (.531) record and a five-run surplus, they had a -79 hit deficit!
But in July (12 games) they’re up +20 runs and +13 hits. In the last 20 games, they’re up +26 runs and +5 hits, so the uptick is recent! (In fact, in the last five games, it’s +12 and +7!)
Now everything depends on what happens after the All-Star break. If they keep the momentum they have now, it’s possible they could go the distance. Regardless, as I’ve said several times now, Twins fans are having a better season than they have in four years!
“But what do their stats look like,” you ask? Well, since you asked…