The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 6, 2009

Brain cramps

The Twins did very little right on Tuesday. They got shut out by a starting pitcher who ought to be in Double A; they looked like the 1962 Mets in the field; their starter didn't pitch effectively even given the lousy play behind him. They lost by the forfeit score, and which is appropriate, as they were not mentally present for the game.

As i write this on Wednesday morning, there are indications that the decision makers are near their breaking point with Alexi Casilla. It figured to take a lot to do that; as I told an e-mail correspondent Tuesday — in a message composed while the Twins were self-destructing — the Twins have something of an emotional commitment to Casilla. He's supposed to be a multi-year solution to second base.

But he seems to have reverted to his 2007 form.

Casilla was handed the second base job in midseason that year upon the trade of Luis Castillo, and spent the rest of the season handing it back. Every day seemed a new adventure in, to put it bluntly, stupid play. And it seemed that every time his focus wandered, it showed. If he was on base and forgot how many outs there were, it would bite him. If he missed the signal to cover second on this pitch, that's when the steal attempt would come.

Last season seemed better, although I had the feeling that the brain cramps were still there to some extent — it's just that in 2008, if he was supposed to cover on a steal and didn't, the batter would foul off the pitch. No damage. This year, the mistakes show.

I do not underestimate the amount of concentration, of focus, of determined observation it takes to play major league baseball well. The minutia of defensive positioning — off speed pitch coming, shift to play the batter to pull, but don't do it so quickly or obviously that it tips the batter off — is matched by the hitter's rapid-fire attempts to discern what the pitcher and defense have in store for him. We say they're playing ball, but they are working ball, and as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, Ninety percent of this game is half mental.

And that's the part on which Casilla is running aground. The casual fan may not know that Gerald Laird is an aggressive baserunner; he's a catcher, after all. But Laird, according to the baserunning stats compiled by Baseball Info Systems, went first to third twice as often in 2008 as Carlos Gomez. Middle infielders have to know such things, have to know that Laird isn't certain to hold at third on a double.

That run didn't beat the Twins on Tuesday. But Casilla's failure to know the possibilities is part and parcel of what remains his greatest problem as a major league player. Which is a status he may soon no longer have.

e-mail Edward Thoma