If you’re not a Minnesota Twins fan you could be forgiven for not knowing who Anthony Swarzak is. Before Saturday night, the 25-year-old Swarzak had thrown just 66 innings in the majors (59 in 2009, seven so far this season). He notched a 6.41 ERA during that span thanks mostly to serving up nearly two homers per nine innings. Swarzak’s good-but-not-great stuff wasn’t something a pitcher should leave over the middle of the plate. But in his brief big league career, that’s just where his pitches would too often come in.
There was a time when Swarzak was considered one of the Twins’ top prospects -- he was a second-round pick in 2004, and made Baseball America’s Top 100 (at No. 100) in 2006. But in between then and now came a 4.55 ERA in Double-A (188 innings), a 4.32 ERA in Triple-A (268 2/3 innings, including a 6.21 ERA in 22 starts in 2010), and a few injuries. One could argue that the Twins did a disservice to Swarzak by sending him back to the minors for all of 2010 after sticking with him for only 12 starts in 2009. But given the tight pennant races the Twins were in in both of those seasons, it’s hard for me to fault the decision, and he’s done little in the minor leagues to make them regret it.
Then came Saturday night, when Swarzak was called upon to fill in for the sore-shouldered Francisco Liriano, their starter who threw a no-hitter earlier this month. All Swarzak did was nearly duplicate Liriano’s feat -- except that, frankly, he did it better. His no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels lasted until the eighth inning, when Peter Bourjos' one-out double finally broke it up. While Swarzak had only four strikeouts, he was hitting his spots perfectly -- giving up only two walks, painting the corners, and inducing weak grounders and popups. It was very likely the best pitching performance the Twins have gotten all year, including Liriano’s no-no.
So it seems particularly fitting given the Twins’ season-long futility that Swarzak’s performance won’t have a “W” next to it in the box score. The considerably more prestigious Jered Weaver matched Swarzak pitch for pitch, but Weaver threw a shutout ninth to ruin the symmetry. Through eight innings both pitchers had each permitted exactly three baserunners and thrown exactly 105 pitches, and exactly 68 for strikes. Weaver continued his season-long dominance by finishing the ninth and lowering his 2011 ERA to 2.10.
Twins pitching has on the whole been dreadful. Entering Saturday, the team’s 4.87 ERA (legitimized by a 4.50 FIP) was easily the worst in the majors, and while much of that is thanks to a disastrously bad bullpen, the starters’ 4.51 ERA was second-worst to only the Kansas City Royals in the American League. Even when they do get a strong pitching performance, baseball’s worst offense still stands between the Twins and victory. The team came in batting just .235/.297/.339, comparable only to the Mariners and Padres -- both teams play in tougher hitting parks than the Twins. Minnesota got an eight-inning one-hitter from a spot starter making his fourth 2011 appearance and still didn’t manage to get him the one run to earn him a win. This feat says more about the team’s season to date than any words I could possibly write.
That tidy narrative was broken in the 10th inning, when the Twins finally managed to score. They had the decency to do it without a walk or extra-base hit, though, scratching across the game’s lone run on four consecutive singles. In those four at-bats, they more than doubled the combined hit output by both teams for the game. If these Twins are to win a game, winning it 1-0, on a dominant performance from a starter just up from Triple-A, and on four consecutive singles in the 10th is approximately the way we would expect it to happen.
On a larger level, Saturday’s game was kind of a microcosm of the entire 2011 baseball season so far. The weather was chillier than usual for this time of year. Both teams, missing star hitters (Kendrys Morales for the Angels, Joe Mauer for the Twins) and with others struggling mightily, had a terrible time scoring runs. Pitching dominated, but did so with accuracy and defense much more than with power. This is precisely what’s been happening throughout the league; the AL’s ERA (3.85, entering Saturday) is down a half-run from where it ended in 2008 (4.35). If you’d like to describe the 2011 season with a box score rather than with words, this game may be the one to use.
For Swarzak, it was the greatest game he’s ever pitched, and it might not get him anything more than a trip back to the bullpen or the minor leagues once Liriano comes back. For one night, though, he was really, really good. And if it wasn’t just that one night -- if he can keep working the corners with the kind of precision he showed on Saturday night -- they can’t keep him out of the rotation for long.
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