The Week Ahead: Twins move into new home

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target-field-100407.jpgFor the first time since 1981, the Minnesota Twins will be playing a regular season home game outdoors when they host the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

The special occasion is the opening of Target Field, a sparkling new venue that opens its doors just nine years after folks were seriously considering contracting the Twins. Not a bad turnaround for a franchise that until recently was considered small market. (Don’t tell anyone, but the Twins’ payroll is at more than $97 million this season – that’s 10th in the league and just ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

And while not everyone is thinking happy thoughts about the new ballpark (yes the Twins will have to keep winning for attendance to hold. Sheesh, can’t they enjoy the moment?)  it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of a good team playing in a nice stadium. I’m sure you Rays fans out there salivate at the idea.

The real question, though, is whether or not the Twins can build a home-field edge similar to that of the Metrodome, where fly balls routinely became invisible against the Teflon roof, and a hitter’s concentration would turn to mush under the frenzied roar of the Twins faithful.

From listening to those who should know, this is no small thing. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, termed the “Metrodome mystique” as “half the battle.”

And former Twins center fielder Torii Hunter had even more to say:

“If we lost a ball [in the roof], we knew how to pick it up,” said the Angels’ Torii Hunter, who played a decade in the Metrodome.

Hunter laughed at the long-held suspicion that the Twins would turn on an air conditioner late in the game, with the home team at bat, the better to carry balls over the fence.

“We knew, when they opened the doors, all the pressure went out to right-center field, so we would swing for right-center field,” he said. “They thought it was an air conditioner. But the doors were let open in the seventh inning to let everybody leave.”

The changing air pressure never seemed to have any effect on Joe Nathan, but who knows, maybe they shut the doors in the top half of the ninth inning. What fan would want to leave at that point anyway?

Of course there will be no issues with air conditioning or air pressure at Target Field, only good, old-fashioned weather issues. But if you’re thinking the Twins will gain an edge playing outside in the Minnesota cold, remember these wise words of Joe Mauer: “We’ve got to play in it, too.”

Besides, it’s not going to matter, at least not on Monday. They’re expecting a high of 74. Our own Aaron Gleeman will be there covering the festivities. Follow him here, and on Twitter.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Red Sox at Twins, April 12, 14-15:
In addition to opening Target Field, these happen to be two pretty darn good baseball teams mixing it up this week. We get Jon Lester vs. Carl Pavano, John Lackey vs. Kevin Slowey, and Tim Wakefield vs. Francisco Liriano.

Athletics at Mariners, April 12-14: Oakland enters the week with a 1 1/2-game lead atop the AL West. Seattle is tied with the Angels at the bottom. What’s next? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria?

Giants at Dodgers, April 16-18: When former New York teams move to California, they take their rivalry with them, and this is nothing if not a crazy, intense rivalry. Plus, you have this.

Mets at Cardinals, April 16-18: Always fun when you get a big city team playing against the game’s best player. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a likely Chris Carpenter-Johan Santana matchup on Saturday.

Rays at Red Sox, April 16-19: Big week for Boston, as after the trip to Minnesota they come home for four games against the Rays. Wonder if the Tampa Bay players will complain about the stadium.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 4:10 p.m. ET: Red Sox at Twins (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.: Astros at Cardinals (ESPN2)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Indians (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Giants at Dodgers (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Mets at Cardinals (FOX)
Sunday, 1:35 p.m.: Rays at Red Sox (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Mets at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Check local listings

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Dodgers top Giants, clinch fifth straight NL West title

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The Dodgers are NL West champions for the fifth time in a row. They clinched with a 4-2 win over the Giants on Friday night, taking their first and only lead on a mammoth record-breaking home run from Cody Bellinger in the third inning.

Rich Hill turned in another quality start, going six innings with five hits, a run and nine strikeouts to keep the Giants at bay. He tacked on an RBI hit of his own, too, lashing a double to left field for his first extra-base hit since 2007.

The Giants, meanwhile, deployed Jeff Samardzija and his 4.42 ERA for 4 1/3 innings. Samardzija was on the hook for the Dodgers’ four-run spread in the third and took his 15th loss of the season. Pablo Sandoval came through with a solo home run in the ninth, but the rest of San Francisco’s offense wasn’t so lucky against Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side to clinch the game — and the division.

After Friday’s showstopper, the Dodgers are just two wins away from their first 100-win season since 1974. If they win the remaining eight games of the season, they’ll beat out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers for the most wins in franchise history.

Watch: Cody Bellinger breaks NL rookie home run record

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Cody Bellinger helped the Dodgers to their first lead on Friday night, going deep for his 39th home run of the season and setting a new National League rookie home run record in the process. With two on and two out in the third inning, the Dodgers’ slugger launched a 2-1 pitch from the Giants’ Jeff Samardzija, skimming the right field fence to give the team a three-run cushion:

The three-run bomb was Bellinger’s sixth of the season. In what is undoubtedly a Rookie of the Year award-worthy campaign, he’s logged 21 solo shots, 11 two-run blasts and a single grand slam. His historic home run topped former NL rookie leaders Frank Robinson and Wally Berger, at 38 homers apiece.

The Dodgers need to stay on top of the Giants to clinch the NL West or, barring that, have the Marlins pull off a win over the Diamondbacks. They currently lead the Giants 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Marlins, meanwhile, are staying just ahead of the D-backs with a 9-7 lead in the top of the sixth.