Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Houston Astros was nondescript in a lot of ways for the Minnesota Twins, but there were a few smaller things that stood out. First of all, Brian Dozier had an absolutely terrific night, not only reaching all five times he came to the plate, but also making a terrific defensive play in the ninth by ranging to his right and somehow flipping the ball to Eduardo Escobar at second base for a force out.

But it’s not always obvious plays that lead to runs scored or saved, but can quickly earn a player trust or respect from his manager. Dozier is very clearly already one of those players, but that doesn’t mean he won’t take opportunities he sees to give his team a better chance to score or win.

In the eighth inning with the Twins up 3-1, Dozier took a two-out walk to move Mitch Garver to second base. With a shift on, the sizzling Joe Mauer looped a Joe Smith pitch into left field for a single, plating Garver. Instead of cruising into second base, Dozier saw third base unoccupied, and ran step for step next to Carlos Correa, who was scurrying over to cover the base. That left no opportunity for Evan Gattis to cut Dozier down at third base, and gave the Twins a prime chance to pad their lead with Miguel Sano looming on deck and Fernando Rodney warming in the bullpen.

The run didn’t come across as Sano fanned for the third time on the night, but in a game predicated on solid process leading to results over time — something there’s plenty of in a 162-game schedule — Dozier’s effort drew the praise of his manager.

“Doz has great vision,” Molitor said. “I think that’s part of his baserunning skill is that he makes good choices. There’s not a lot of times where he sees 90 feet and doesn’t take advantage of it. He understands risk/reward, and by seeing the field there and how they rotated in the cutoff position gave him a chance to take third.”

Another player who draw Molitor’s positive attention was Ryan LaMarre, the rarely-used outfielder who was a non-roster invitee to spring training, the last to make the team and mostly sees action when one of the corner guys needs a rest or against a tough lefty. That can make staying sharp — both at the plate and mentally — difficult, and maybe that came to roost in his two plate appearances which both ended in strikeouts against former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. It can also make a player possibly try too hard to provide value when he gets out there.

But again, sometimes it’s the less obvious things which allow a player to also provide value, and LaMarre showed that in the second inning. The Twins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning against a wobbly Keuchel, but Jake Odorizzi was similarly iffy in the early going, as his command of the zone was reminiscent of Lance Lynn the night before.

Odorizzi walked Josh Reddick to open the inning, then got a pair of fly balls from Marwin Gonzalez and Brian McCann before walking No. 8 hitter J.D. Davis. Still, Odorizzi was ostensibly in good position with No. 9 hitter Jake Marisnick coming to the plate ahead of the avalanche atop the order that starts with George Springer. Instead, Odorizzi fell behind Marisnick 3-0, then painted the corner with a fastball before the Astros center fielder ripped a single into the left-field corner on a 91 mph, center-cut fastball.

LaMarre, one of the precious few players who bats right-handed but throws lefty, ranged to his right to cut the ball off quickly. Instead of trying for the low probability play at third base, LaMarre whirled around and fired the ball to second, not only keeping Marisnick out of scoring position, but preventing a double on what was quietly a really, really nice play. Marisnick is plenty swift afoot, averaging 28.5 feet per second on Statcast’s sprint speed metrics from the 2017 season.

“Those are big parts of the game — little things we hope to do well over the course of the year,” Molitor said of both plays. “You’re not always going to be perfect.

“Your instincts sometimes on those balls in the corner might be to try cut down that lead runner, but to keep the force in order was the right play,” Molitor added about the LaMarre play.

For a point of reference, that’s a little slower than the speedy Zack Granite (28.9) and a bit faster than Jorge Polanco (28.4). For a play that didn’t result in an out and didn’t eventually lead to any more runs scoring, it was still extremely impressive.

There was a little buzz on the prospect side of Twitter following Kohl Stewart’s first start of the year for Double-A Chattanooga. Stewart was notably left unprotected from the Twins 40-man roster this offseason, and eligible for the Rule 5 draft with the only caveat that he’d have needed to be kept on the acquiring team’s 25-man roster all season.

Stewart is still somewhat well-regarded among prospect types, as he presently sits at No. 18 on MLB.com’s top-30 Twins list, ahead of guys like Mitch Garver, Zack Granite, Ben Rortvedt and 2017 draft pick Landon Leach.

Stewart has just one start above Double-A on his resume, and was roughed up with the Lookouts last year to the tune of a 4.09 ERA with 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings against 5.3 walks. That comes out to a 1.52 WHIP, with really the only redeeming quality about his season being that he kept the ball in the park (four homers in 77 innings) thanks largely to a groundball rate of 46.9 percent.

The talk with Stewart was that he had the stuff and velocity to succeed, but just had been unable to put it all together while also missing time due to tendinitis in his left knee on multiple occasions.

Stewart’s first start in 2018 was a pleasant deviation from the norm, as the 23-year-old righty tossed five innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts and no walks. In 75 pitches, Stewart had eight swinging strikes and induced six grounders on the 10 balls in play he allowed.

That’s the correct path to success for Stewart, who could easily find himself back on the prospect map with a string of starts like this. It would be foolish to just look at the numbers of a single start — or even a short string of starts, for that matter — and assume he’s fixed, but we did enlist the help of a scouting contact who saw the start to give us some intel.

Chris Blessing of Baseball HQ regularly scouts the Southern League and as a result has seen a fair amount of Stewart, who has spent time in each of the last three seasons with Chattanooga spanning 174 innings and 33 starts. While stats from one game can be deceiving, a change in approach or execution might be easy to derive value from in that small of a sampling.

“It was the best I’ve seen him,” Blessing told Zone Coverage. “(He was) actually putting away hitters instead of nibbling his way into trouble.”

Blessing was actually kind enough to furnish Zone Coverage with a full report from Stewart’s night:

“Kohl Stewart had his best outing since 2016, primarily staying within himself and not over-managing two-strike counts. Getting to two strikes has never been an issue for Stewart. He has struggled putting away hitters the past two seasons in Double-A, mostly due to nibbling with his fastball and lacking control of his secondaries.

“Stewart’s success Monday night is a product of consistency within his delivery. His upper and lower half were in sync, which helped him maintain command throughout. He was more across the body with his motion than I remembered in the past. This helped create added deception against RHHs. Sitting 90-93 mph, he did a good job keeping his 2-seam FB in the lower half of the zone. When he missed with it, it was to the arm-side. Stewart found success often with a slurvy 77-78 breaking ball and threw the occasional changeup to keep LH hitters off his FB.

Birmingham is a very weak offensive team with Eloy Jimenez on the shelf. In a lineup with a lot of swing and miss potential, Stewart took charge. I don’t know if he racks up the strikeouts against another team in five innings. However, some of those strikeouts undoubtedly would be traded for groundballs. As for projection, I believe he can have success as a middle reliever.”

Notes

  • Here are some early numbers for Twins starting pitchers and their rankings: 8.6 K/9 (16th), 0.6 HR/9 allowed (third), .238 BABIP against (second), 2.74 ERA (fourth).
  • Here’s how Twins relievers look so far this season: 9.1 K/9 (14th), 43.9 percent groundball rate (11th), 3.69 ERA (15th).
  • Only the Phillies (25.7 percent) and the Orioles (27.1 percent) are striking out more frequently at the plate than the Twins (25.6 percent).
  • Despite all the strikeouts, the Twins are hitting a respectable .238/.311/.421 as a team — good for a 107 wRC+ that ties them with the Oakland A’s as the No. 12 offense in the game.
  • Keep an eye on Adalberto Mejia, who tossed only two innings on Tuesday night for the Rochester Red Wings in his season debut. He didn’t leave the game due to injury or anything, but it’s possible he could be a candidate to make the first start needed from the No. 5 role for the Twins on Friday — weather permitting, of course. As of right now, Mother Nature is listed as the No. 5 starter on the team’s depth chart, and any sort of weather hiccup over the weekend would open the potential that the team doesn’t need a fifth starter until April 24 in the Bronx — five days after the team returns from Puerto Rico. The Twins have days off on both sides of the quick two-game set against the Indians in San Juan on April 17-18.
  • With Mejia ducking out early on Tuesday night, Twins prospect Fernando Romero made his Rochester debut in relief with five solid innings. Romero allowed two unearned runs on five hits with three strikeouts and a pair of walks before handing the game over to Alan Busenitz, who took the loss in a 3-2 game played in a tidy 2:31 at Frontier Field in Rochester. Piggybacking Romero with Mejia would keep Romero on schedule to make a start when Mejia’s turn comes up again over the weekend.

Listen to Brandon on Midwest Swing & Locked On Twins

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