Joe Mauer’s concussion symptoms continue to linger. Byron Buxton still has pain in his left toe. Miguel Sano continues to hover around the Mendoza Line and was dropped to No. 7 in the lineup on Friday against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But the Twins remain only 4.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians entering the Angels series, which can be contributed in large part to Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar’s hot bats.
“I think as a manager and for people who follow our team, you know what they’ve brought to our club in terms of games we’ve had a chance to win, they’ve had their hands in it almost every time,” said manager Paul Molitor. “Escobar has been all we can ask for with the way he’s stepped up. Rosie, after a bit of a sluggish start, has really turned it on here.”
Rosario is hitting .312/.351/.568 with 14 homers — more than each of his first two seasons, total, and over half of the dingers he hit last season (27) — while displaying more plate discipline and cutting down on unforced errors on the basepaths in in the outfield.
“I’m gonna swing,” said Rosario. “I want to try to attack the pitcher, not make it easy for him, and I want to try to make good contact every time. I select a good pitch to hit.”
He hit .231/.263/.396 in the first month of the season, but had a .368/.388/.615 line in May.
“A little struggle in April from the weather and inconsistent play,” said Molitor. “But I feel like he’s going to put a good swing on the ball every time he’s up there.”
Escobar can be streaky as well. He is hitting .286/.340/.562 with 12 home runs, but did the opposite of Rosario: He hit .301/.348/.578 in the first month of the season, but then cooled off in May (.241/.305/.426).
This follows a typical pattern for him. His month-by-month batting averages last year: .235 in March/April, .197 in May, .354 in June, .254 in July, .202 in August and .263 in September.
“You can tell especially with Esco, he gets a little bit streaky at times,” said Molitor. “He had a little bit of a lull there for awhile, after a great start, but he’s turned it back on. He’s just, from a guy who wasn’t penciled in to be an everyday player, he’s been essential to our offense.”
Escobar arrived with Pedro Hernandez in the Francisco Liriano trade back in 2012. Hernandez was outrighted in October of 2013, and Escobar was considered a utility player who was a plus in the clubhouse at the time.
“I think (having fun) the most important thing in life, not just baseball,” said Escobar last month. “I think it’s really fun coming to the field and making everybody happy.”
But for a fun-loving, supposed-to-be-utility-infielder to produce a facsimile of Sano’s offense and hold down third base defensively while he’s finding himself at the plate? It’s been vital as the Twins try to keep within striking distance of Cleveland in the AL Central.
“Escobar’s offense? It’s awesome,” says Rosario. “When I only have a walk or a base hit, you need the other guy hitting behind you. He’s done a good job this year.”
The concern surrounding Mauer, Buxton and Sano continues to linger, however.
Mauer had the seventh-highest on-base percentage in the American League when his concussion symptoms surfaced following whiplash he suffered diving after a ball in Anaheim. The symptoms, which are triggered by light and visual stimuli, wax and wane but are not getting better.
“Kind of slowly as it went on,” Mauer said about the symptoms last week, when he was seen taking batting practice and fielding at first. “I’m disappointed because I was making good progress, but I don’t anticipate it being a long or lengthy deal. I was hoping it would be a little bit better today.”
Molitor says things have not gotten much better since then.
“Just kind of hasn’t changed much,” he said. “We’ve just been running him through workouts. You’ll see him out there today. Trying to get some consistency with where he’s at. We’re just going to allow that unfolds.”
As for the Buxton and Sano — the Glimmer Twins, as Sports Illustrated called them in an August 2013 article — things haven’t been great this season. ESPN’s David Schoenfield listed both of them among his 10 hyped players he feels are running out of time to become stars ($).
“Buxton has shown flashes of brilliance — September 2016 when he hit nine home runs and the second half of 2017 when he hit .300/.347/.546 — but between those flashes have been long droughts of empty results at the plate,” he wrote.
Buxton may return from injury and start to rake again. Both he and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said that the toe injury is affecting him more at the plate than it did in the field or on the basepaths. But he’s still having discipline issues that go beyond the injury.
“Buxton is on the disabled list with a broken big toe, but before the injury he was back into some bad habits at the plate, with a 39 percent chase rate,” continued Schoenfield. “He was at 32.4 percent in the second half last year — still high, but at least a figure he could still do some damage on. Buxton now has more than 1,000 big league plate appearances and owns a .285 career OBP.”
Sano was dropped from the middle of the order to No. 7 on Friday, and has struggled this year after being named an All-Star last season. He entered the Angels series hitting .202/.273/.419 on the season.
“Just been thinking about it for a while and how to help him try to get back on track,” said Molitor. “Not the first guy that’s been dropped down around here. I just thought it was the time to give him a little bit different look in the lineup.
“How much hitting in the 3-hole and 4-hole has added to the burden? I can’t really measure that. But if we can alleviate that to some degree — just try to look for something to get him going.”
“It’s easy to see why the Twins have disappointed when two of their expected cornerstone players haven’t done the job,” wrote Schoenfield. “Sano’s strikeout rate has gone from extreme to scary. He was at 35-36 percent his first three seasons, but he is now at 40 percent — and that has come with a deteriorating chase rate and thus a career-low walk rate (he was at 15.8 percent as a rookie but is at 9.2 percent this year).”
Schoenfield writes that not all is lost, but that conditioning is a concern, and a move to first base would put more pressure on his bat.
“Sano was a 2.5-WAR player a season ago in just 114 games, so he isn’t a lost cause,” he added, “but the regression in plate discipline is a big concern.”
For the Twins to contend for the AL Central, and make an impact in the playoffs, they need Mauer back and Buxton and Sano at their best. But for right now, they can stay in the race because of, in large part, what Rosario and Escobar are doing at the plate.