Playoff Pulse: Control freaks

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  • Rick Knapp
    American baseball player and coach

Walks are unacceptable. That is the first tenet of pitching for the Minnesota Twins. They are not frowned upon, not discouraged, not tisk-tisked. They are unacceptable, and punishable by heavy decibels to the ear drum.

Rick Knapp's voice, when raised, is a rather unpleasant mess of cacophony with which nearly every Twins pitcher is familiar. He is the team's minor-league pitching coordinator, and for the past dozen years, he has been the man most responsible for the Twins' allergy to walks. In case pitchers do not understand, Knapp is there with a swift kick to the base on balls.

And so it is that the Twins are peerless when it comes to control, continuing the trend this season. None of their starting pitchers – Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano, all homegrown, none older than 26 – has more than 31 walks. And the first four rank in the top 10 at throwing strikes among all major-league starters, a figure that registers nearly as incredible as the Twins batting .315 with runners in scoring position this season, and one equally important as they jostle with Chicago for supremacy in the American League Central.

"If you buy into it and trust it and believe it, it'll work for you," Knapp said. "No question about it. You can latch on to different philosophies, but I can guarantee that if you throw the ball over the plate, you're going to be successful. If velocity is third or fourth on the list for elements of success for a pitcher, you'll be way better off.

"And if you're walking more guys than the recommended daily allowance, you will hear from me."

Walks, Knapp figures, are baseball's bon-bons, seemingly innocuous but teeming with fat. The Twins have held such a philosophy for nearly two decades, and it has manifested itself from Brad Radke, one of the great control pitchers of this era, to the otherwise decidedly average Carlos Silva, who three years ago put up the mother of all walk numbers: nine in 188 1/3 innings.

This group may be Minnesota's finest yet, not only because it emerged so quickly but because it has helped offset the loss of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Silva – combined price tag: $275 million – and reinvigorated a Twins team destined for rebuilding.

All have exhibited phenomenal control throughout their careers, from amateur to minor leagues to the majors. In three years at Winthrop, Slowey walked 41 batters. Blackburn, a 29th-round steal out of junior college in 2001, hasn't walked more than 37 in a professional season. Baker didn't reach the 30-walk mark at Oklahoma State and was equally adept in the minors. Perkins is the wild thing, relatively, his 50-walk season in 2006 earning some special attention from Knapp. He's calmed down to 31 in 124 innings this season. Liriano, the staff asterisk, throws a hard fastball and slider, and before he underwent Tommy John surgery, even he was a voracious strike thrower.

Knowing that helps simplify the chicken-and-egg debate: The Twins do target pitchers in the amateur draft that command the plate well. At the same time, their continued insistence on not walking batters from Knapp does carry the property of a power tool.

"He just drills it into our brain," Blackburn said. "Walks are not a good thing. So now it's kind of a challenge not to walk anybody, and it's frustrating when you do."

Blackburn, along with Perkins a rookie, has been the rotation's unlikeliest success. He gives up a disproportionate amount of hits (180 in 157 1/3 innings) and yet has maintained a 3.78 earned-run average because, in part, of only 28 walks.

"Control begets control, and command begets command," said Slowey, who, with 17 walks in 127 2/3 innings – and 11 of 21 starts with no walks – is positioning himself as the heir to Radke, if not Greg Maddux. "We feel like it's contagious. When Nick goes out there and doesn't walk anybody, I think, 'Well, I don't need to walk anybody, either.' "

Radke, who retired two years ago, is somewhat of a patron saint to the pitchers. Every spring, Knapp would bring all of his young pitchers to a practice field and simply watch Radke throw a 20-minute bullpen session. He could hit a Petri dish with his fastball and threw it to every spot in the strike zone – inside and outside, up and down. Watching Radke in the bullpen was like watching a surgeon.

The Twins also forced pitchers to watch infield practice. If the team was preaching strike-throwing, by proxy it was encouraging hitters to make contact. And for that to be a successful endeavor, fielding is imperative.

"Throughout our organization, our people stress fundamentals and good defense," said Bill Smith, the Twins' first-year general manager. "This isn't a new phenomenon. Over the last 20 years, we have had to turn over some rosters. We've had some very good players leave. So the system has to stay the same. The key is to have the minor-league and scouting departments contribute players who can step in and replace them."

And that starts with Knapp. He works with major-league pitching coach Rick Anderson to mold the pitchers into major-league ready. The scare tactics work. Knapp simply tells the truth: If a pitcher doesn't throw the ball over the plate, the major-league team won't be interested. The time in big-league camp will be shorter. The light will dim.

So throw the damn ball over the damn plate.

Every night, when Knapp receives reports on how the Twins' affiliates fared, his eyes gravitate toward two numbers: walks and first-pitch strikes. With those two numbers, he can usually figure out how the pitcher fared.

Over the past few years, it's been quite well.

"More times than not, you're not going to out-talent your competition," Knapp said. "We're not going to get the real big fastball or the real big breaking ball or real big changeup. We've had it in Santana, but we're basically not going to.

"I can't say that's where the premise (of not walking batters) came from, but the bottom line is, you look at our starters at the major-league level, and the separator is their ability to throw the ball over the plate."

And that makes Knapp proud. He's graduated pitcher after pitcher from the Twins minor-league system, and it's incredible that another major-league team hasn't handed Knapp its broken pitching staff and told him to have at it. Maybe they think it's too difficult to teach pitchers not to walk guys, just as it's tough for players to learn to take walks.

Either way, the philosophy sticks with the Twins, from the five pitchers in their rotation to Santana and Silva and even Matt Garza, the 24-year-old they traded to the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason for outfielder Delmon Young. Knapp's fingerprints are all over baseball, and even though the phone calls to the major leaguers have ceased, they can still hear that voice.

"Unacceptable," Slowey said.

"That's something I'll never forget."

Three up

Some trade acquisitions: CC Sabathia continued his phenomenal run with another sterling start Sunday (which lowered his ERA during 10 games with Milwaukee to 1.59), Rich Harden was even better (dropping his ERA with the Cubs to 1.47 and upping his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 70-to-14 – over 49 innings), Mark Teixeira feasted on Minnesota pitching (8-for-14 with three home runs) and Jason Bay continued to help Boston forget about Manny Ramirez (with a 9-for-26 week with three homers).

Carlos Marmol: The infield single by Willie Harris on Sunday was only the 32nd hit of the year allowed by Marmol in 71 innings. If that sounds staggering, it is: Marmol's 4.06 hits per nine innings ranks second all-time for pitchers with at least 70 innings, trailing only Eric Gagne's 4.04 in his record-setting – and steroid-filled – 2003 season. Before allowing a run Thursday to Cincinnati, Marmol hadn't given up one since the All-Star break, and he may be the Cubs' greatest weapon of all.

Milwaukee: No longer does a struggling Prince Fielder doom the Brewers. They're too good, especially with Manny Parra, Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan pitching well last week. And with a short trip this week preceding a long home stand, Milwaukee's got a friendly schedule. Not so much that catching the Cubs is a reality, but enough that another September like last season's would resonate twice as painful.

Three down

Other trade acquisitions: Manny Ramirez is cooling down (no RBIs in his last six games), Ken Griffey Jr. has struggled since joining Chicago (he hit his first home run this week), Jon Rauch is having trouble getting outs (six runs in his last five outings) for Arizona and Pudge Rodriguez is a singles hitter who wouldn't know a walk (one in 15 games with the Yankees) if it poked him from behind.

Los Angeles Angels: They salvaged a potentially disastrous week by winning the final two of a four-game series against Minnesota. Still, the Angels – indestructible, it seemed – got bullied by Tampa Bay before looking awfully vulnerable against the Twins. Sure, they were on the road, and Francisco Rodriguez notched his 50th save, and Teixeira is blazing. Not even Mike Scioscia will sugarcoat it, though: The Angels need Jon Garland and Joe Saunders to pitch better, no matter how big their lead in the West.

New York Mets bullpen: Fish in a barrel, etc. It's just that after another implosion on Sunday, and the news that Billy Wagner's gone for another three weeks – at least – things look grim for the Mets, and it's not like they can take, say, John Maine and pitch him in the late innings. Now the bone spur in his shoulder is threatening to shut him down for the season.

Numbers Crunching

Bits and pieces from the gurus at Inside Edge …

Speaking of the Mets, perhaps it's not only their bullpen's fault that they've tanked a number of games in the late innings. Their offense went hitless in the final three innings Sunday, continuing a trend that it has perpetuated throughout the season.

After the sixth inning ,the Mets are batting .240 (23rd in baseball), have a .317 on-base percentage (22nd) and a .348 slugging percentage (27th).

Note: The Mets' bullpen, actually, ranks better than league average in the above three numbers.

Rays pitchers, on the other hand, are peerless when it comes to white-knuckle situations. They've held opponents to a .715 on-base-plus-slugging with runners on base, more than 50 points better than league average. In particular, reliever Grant Balfour – and his fastball – has puzzled hitters. He's holding opponents to a .131 batting average with runners on, and in such situations he throws his fastball 91 percent of the time.

Something scouts surely have caught on to: Arizona can't hit right-handers with good breaking pitches. Against right-handed curveballs and sliders, the Diamondbacks are hitting .188, last in the NL. And even though he's a left-hander, Adam Dunn won't help the situation. He's 5-for-53 (.094), a number so bad it's barely offset by Stephen Drew's .324 average.

Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week

Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe

Nothing like a late-summer swoon to rile the masses in Boston. Josh Beckett is hurt. So is Mike Lowell. People are starting to follow Bartolo Colon's rehab. The sky is falling. The sky is falling! Cafardo's got the details:

Your starting shortstop, third baseman, right fielder and No. 1 pitcher are out with injuries. One of your young starters was so bad he had to be demoted to Double-A. You lost to a division rival, 11-0, yesterday as your other top hurler, Jon Lester, was pummeled and lasted 2 1/3 innings. Your wild-card lead is teetering.

How are you feeling right about now?

If the Red Sox were my team I'd feel a sudden attack of agita.

Matchup of the Week

New York Mets at Philadelphia, Tuesday and Wednesday

About this time last year, the Mets began the yo-yo that precluded their meltdown. They lost seven of nine, came back to win nine of 10 and then died with a 6-13 record down the stretch. They're in a similar position this year, albeit without nearly the lead on the Phillies, who have struggled themselves. Though Florida lingers in the background, this is a two-team race, and they meet only five more times this season. Which makes the pitching duels that much more important and intriguing: Pedro Martinez vs. Jamie Moyer, in the Geritol Open, and Johan Santana vs. Kyle Kendrick, a potentially one-sided affair.

Playoff odds report

A great week and friendly schedule has vaulted the Twins into the playoffs in more than three-quarters of AccuScore's 10,000 simulations that it runs each week for the Playoff Pulse. While the Angels remain stone locks and the Rays move closer to that status, pitching problems dropped Boston's chances more than 20 percent from last week.

Milwaukee's grip on the wild card seems insurmountable, with nearly all of its 84 percent coming from that likelihood, as the Cubs have a stranglehold on the NL Central. Arizona's big week and Los Angeles' continued swoon sent their chances in opposite directions, and even with the Mets' bullpen issues, they're two-thirds favorites.

Last week's percentages are in parentheses:

American League

Los Angeles Angels 100 percent (100 percent)
Tampa Bay Rays 95.2 percent (89.9 percent)
Minnesota Twins 77.8 percent (57.3 percent)
Boston Red Sox* 59.2 percent (79.1 percent)
Chicago White Sox 55.6 percent (65.3 percent)
New York Yankees 6.1 percent (3.0 percent)
Toronto Blue Jays 4.1 percent (3.4 percent)

National League Chicago Cubs 98.7 percent (98.3 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers* 84.0 percent (69.5 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks 70.9 percent (51.5 percent)
New York Mets 66.9 percent (60.2 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies 31.4 percent (24.2 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers 29.4 percent (49.3 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals 10.3 percent (24.6 percent)
Florida Marlins 7.0 percent (20.4 percent)
* – Wild card leader

Last word

"Vin Scully talks too much." – Los Angeles second baseman Jeff Kent on the Dodgers' Hall of Fame broadcaster, who was too classy to point out that Kent, in fact, is the one who talks too much.