Twins

Two Bench-Clearing Incidents and a Walk-Off Grand Slam Cap Unusual First Half for Twins

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

“How is it you’ve come to arrive here?”

  • James Pietragallo, “Crime in Sports” podcast

In trying to come up with the best way to describe the events of Sunday’s first-half finale, I keep coming back to this line. It’s from a wildly popular podcast that Pietragallo and Jimmie Whisman — both stand-up comics from the Phoenix area — release each week.

In it, they describe the acts of athletes who’ve engaged in criminal behavior — recent baseball players profiled include Jose Canseco, Toe Nash, Elijah Dukes and Steve Howe — and this phrase comes into play when the athlete’s life comes to a hectic frenzy.

BOX

At that point, a mostly fictional character appears out of thin air and poses the question to the subject of that week’s episode. When that character vaporizes, the subject is no less confused than when the whole episode started.

There were no fewer than eight instances where this could have applied on Sunday afternoon at Target Field:

  • When Brian Dozier rolled a grounder to third for an infield single, and streaked all the way to third base when C.J. Cron’s throw went into left-field foul territory to allow the tying run to score.
  • When Dozier danced off third base with the Rays in the shift, forcing reliever Diego Castillo to balk him home with the go-ahead run.
  • When the benches cleared after a 101 mph sinker from Castillo — the next pitch! —  went to the backstop in the seventh inning with Eduardo Escobar at the plate.
  • Literally, one pitch later when Escobar took an 88 mph cutter for strike three, and the benches — and bullpens (!) — cleared again.
  • When Jesus Sucre — who was at the forefront of the skirmish(es) — doubled home two runs for the Rays to take a 6-5 lead in the eighth.
  • When the Twins re-took the lead on an Eddie Rosario single to center, with Jake Cave thrown out at home on a play that still doesn’t make any sense.
  • When the Rays forced extra innings with a Joey Wendle single to center in the top of the ninth.
  • When the Tampa Bay Rays intentionally loaded the bases for Dozier with one out in the 10th, and he proceeded to hit a game-winning grand slam to give the Minnesota Twins an 11-7 win and a 44-50 record heading into the All-Star break.

We aren’t even talking about when Rosario hit himself with his own bat flip, either.

*whew*

Here’s what we saw from our vantage point:

Win probability table


Source: FanGraphs

What the hell happened in the seventh inning?

So there’s a lot at play here, with multiple layers of things going on that in some ways are related and in other ways….not.

First, let’s just get the facts out of the way before we get to what individual players saw from their spots on the field.

The whole fracas more or less started when Dozier was at third base in the seventh inning. With two outs and an 0-2 count, the Rays were in a lefty shift defensively, and Dozier danced down the line with nobody to hold him on base.

A lot of times, a runner at third will toy with a lefty pitcher, who has the runner behind their back and is unable to necessarily hold them as effectively. It’s the antithesis of the pickoff move at first base for them, basically. Anyway, Dozier’s dancing off the bag was taking part right in front of Castillo, and for whatever reason, it led to the righty balking when he was just one strike away from getting out of the inning.

Dozier continued his dance home, with the Twins leading for the first time all day, 5-4.

Jul 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier (2) celebrates his run in the seventh inning against Tampa Bay Rays at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

On the next pitch, Castillo threw a fastball down and in, but not particularly close to hitting Escobar.

(image credit: MLB.com Gameday)

There’s at least somewhat compelling evidence to support both sides of the story. Why would Castillo want to hit Escobar with an 0-2 pitch? Now with that said, the bases were empty, and it was not only Castillo’s fastest pitch of the day — 101.1 mph according to Gameday — but the fastest thrown by any pitcher in the game by more than 2.0 mph.

Now here’s where it gets weird.

Jul 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) talks to the Minnesota Twins players in the seventh inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

While the telecast is busy re-hashing the logistics of the balk, things are getting testy on the field. A Twins player — later identified as reliever Ryan Pressly — starts chirping that Castillo was trying to hit Escobar. Rays manager Kevin Cash doesn’t take kindly to it, and not so kindly tells Pressly to stop spreading such lies:

As that’s going on, Sucre stands up out of his crouch as the jawing reaches a fevered pitch. Daniel Robertson starts making some noise from the area near shortstop — he can clearly be seen saying “Get in the box!” to Escobar before making a gesture with his right hand — and before long, the benches and bullpens empty.

Here’s my Zapruder footage:

As the melee dispersed — and it appears that both sides are warned by home plate umpire Ryan Additon — the Target Field music director humorously played “Let It Go!” from Disney’s Frozen.

Spoiler alert: They did not.

After pumping three straight fastballs to start the at-bat, Castillo froze Escobar with a nasty cutter for a called third strike to end the inning, but apparently not the dispute.

Escobar flung his bat and helmet in frustration, and started to walk out to his position at third base. Then things heated up again.

Zapruder, part II:

It’s at this point that the TV broadcast cuts to commercial, and when it returns, both sides are still on the field — with the group sort of drifting toward third base — as Escobar is yet again at the forefront.

This goes on for quite some time before Twins players take their places defensively. At this point, Paul Molitor is shown discussing something with the umpires that isn’t totally clear at first. Slowly but surely, it becomes evident that they’ve ejected Escobar from the game, and Molitor pleads his case to no avail, with Ehire Adrianza coming in to take over at third base.

Jul 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carlos Gomez (27) talks to Minnesota Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar (5) in the seventh inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

At that point, a frustrated Escobar slinks to the first-base dugout to a loud chorus of cheers for him and jeers for the umpires who made the decision.

So what was Escobar upset about?

“I wasn’t upset with the pitcher,” Escobar said. “I never said anything to the pitcher or the dugout. I got upset and frustrated with Robertson, the third baseman.

“I was getting ready to get in the box and hit and (Robertson) started opening his arm and yelling at me. I didn’t know why he was yelling at me.

“I was not upset with their team, the dugout, the manager, the umpires or the pitcher. The previous pitch before everything happened, it was kind of close to me. I wasn’t upset about that either. Robertson just started opening his arm and yelling stuff at me, which I couldn’t hear very well. That’s why I got frustrated.”

When Escobar struck out, he said Robertson kept going at him.

“When I struck out, I slammed the bat and the helmet,” he said. “(I was) frustrated with myself. Walked away. When I was walking toward third base he started signaling and opening his arm again when he was going into his dugout. I’m very respectful with everybody around the league. I don’t fight with anybody. I don’t have any issues. I felt that was disrespectful.”

Escobar finished by saying he was surprised and frustrated to be thrown out, because he didn’t do anything to merit being thrown out.

Cash said the balk was a good call, and that he thinks there might have been a misunderstanding about the pitch that led to Escobar stepping out of the box on 1-2.

“It was a balk,” Cash said. “Whatever it was, the runner at third kind of took off, flinched and Diego flinched himself. They got the call right. After that, I think there was a misunderstanding in the fact that Diego was throwing at somebody. He wasn’t, and then it escalated from there. I think cooler heads prevailed. The situation calmed down and we got back to playing probably one of the more entertaining games of the season for fans.”

Cash said he wasn’t sure if the Twins thought Castillo was throwing at Escobar.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “There was a lot of yelling. Either way, he wasn’t throwing at him. If the pitch came close, OK. It’s teammates defending their own teammate. I can appreciate that.”

Cash said it did not have to do with Dozier scoring, however. “No, none whatsoever. He’s a pro.

“I think it got escalated because they seemed to be yelling at Diego,” Cash continued, in this case seeming to be referring to Pressly in this instance. “We’re going to defend our pitcher. They’re going to defend their hitter. Saying that, (I’ve) got the utmost respect for Paul Molitor, his staff and those players. They played a really good series against us, got big hit after big hit. I don’t think it will be; this series wasn’t defined on that. It was defined by a lot of good baseball and a lot of offense.”

Sucre confirmed it was Pressly doing the talking, and he didn’t like it.

“[Pressly] was talking bad to Castillo,” he said. “Like, ‘Hey, you’re trying to throw at him on purpose.’ Escobar was telling me like, ‘Hey, Chill, take it easy. Escobar told D-Rob like, ‘Hey, man!’ with bad words and all that stuff. I’m trying to tell Eduardo to chill. When [Castillo] struck him out, I didn’t see what happened. I just ran out.

“(Pressly) was the one that started it. He was like, ‘Hey, he’s trying to hit him.’ I was like, ‘Hey, calm down man. Shut up.’”

Here’s where Sucre seems to contradict himself a bit, however. He said the Rays did not take exception to Dozier on third base, but when asked if it bothered them that it happened two days in a row — a Twins runner hanging way off the base with the Rays in the shift — Sucre answered affirmatively, “Yeah, yeah.”

Jul 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jesus Sucre (45) stands in front of Minnesota Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar (5) in the seventh inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Molitor didn’t really think the Rays had a leg to stand on, considering they were in the shift and willingly leaving Dozier to his own devices at third base.

“That’s part of the risk you take in getting the people where you think you’re going to get an out, if the ball’s put in play,” Molitor said. “When you give a good baserunner like Dozier or Rosie an opportunity, it can cause a guy to flinch. He’s done it a couple times.”

When notified that some of the Rays seemed to take umbrage with Dozier’s antics pre-balk, Molitor did not flinch. “Yeah, well, they don’t really have a case,” he deadpanned.

Furthermore, he couldn’t really understand why they’d be mad at how he reacted to the balk — a point that wasn’t certain one way or the other at the time.

“I don’t know why they would be,” Molitor said about the Rays having disdain for Dozier’s emotion. “(It was) an emotion, a big run. He did something that caused the other team to flinch, and he took advantage.”

Robertson said he thought Escobar was staring down Castillo, and he wanted him to get back in the box. He did, however, defuse the situation by speaking right to Escobar in terms he could understand.

“I wanna start off first and foremost by saying Escobar is a good dude, man,” Robertson said. “We talk all the time at third base. The guy likes Fogo de Chao, I like Fogo de Chao. So I wanna start off by saying that.”

Robertson also alluded to the fact that he thought Escobar might have been hot under the collar about Ryan Yarbrough hitting him with a pitch in the previous plate appearance.

Escobar fouled the 1-1 cutter off the front of his knee, and needed a few moments to walk it off before getting into the box for the 1-2 pitch. The next pitch is a second straight 88 mph cutter, but this time it catches Escobar in the left thigh, maybe 8-12 inches away from where he’d fouled the ball off.

That signaled the end of the day for Yarbrough, but not before Escobar gave him this look on his way back to his feet:

(image credit: MLB.tv)

Interpret that how you will, but Robertson certainly remembered it an inning later.

“Just from what I saw, after he fouled that ball off his knee, (it) probably didn’t feel good,” Robertson said. “Yarbrough came inside, and I don’t know how bad it got him. But (he was) hit by the pitch and after he got hit, he kind of looked at Yarbrough, put his bat down, looked back up at him again as he was walking to first. Just kind of looking at him.

“Obviously, nobody’s trying to hit anybody; I get hit all the time. If that was the case, I’d be staring at a lot of pitchers. When Castillo went down and low on his ankles, he stared at him again.”

So that’s where it gets kind of strange. Keep in mind that Escobar said he couldn’t hear Robertson very well.

“He probably couldn’t hear what I was saying and stuff,” Robertson said. “Just hand gestures, you could take it anyway. I was just trying to say, ‘Get in the box and hit, man. Nobody is trying to hit you. Let’s go.’”

So basically, it was two guys who couldn’t hear each other arguing about what had just transpired, which was kicked off by a player on the bench accusing a pitcher of throwing at a hitter — a hitter who didn’t think he was being thrown at.

Or in other words:

Pressly might have summed it up best: “I don’t really know what all was going on there. I just think there was a lot of testosterone flowing with a bunch of guys who just want to go home for the break.”

Remember four hours ago when Fernando Romero was pitching?

Lost in the shuffle was that Romero was a bit uneven in his return to the Twins rotation. He lasted 4 1/3 innings, allowing four earned runs on 10 hits with just one strikeout before Molitor had to go to the bullpen. 

Romero’s velocity was right around where it has been all season long — 95-96 mph on average — and he did get four of his seven swinging strikes on the changeup (17.4 percent whiff rate), but when the Rays put the bat on the ball, they did so with success.

Romero threw first-pitch strikes to just 12 of the 23 batters he faced, and finished the start with a season ERA of 4.69. After the game, he was sent back to Triple-A Rochester.

What that likely means — in addition to the fact that Romero will not be eligible to take a turn the first time through the rotation on the next road trip — is that Ervin Santana may be close to returning.

Santana threw 86 pitches, and allowed two home runs — though they were to Billy McKinney and a rehabbing Gary Sanchez, so two elite talents — but otherwise pitched fairly well in his rehab start for Triple-A Rochester.

Molitor said nothing was set in stone — or pencil, or ink — regarding if Santana will make another start with Rochester before returning, but at the very least, it won’t be Romero taking that turn out of the gate in the second half.

The Rays were out of pitchers — no, seriously

Tampa Bay churned through nine pitchers — including Ryne Stanek as the “opener” as it were — and by the end, it was only rookie Jamie Schultz down in the bullpen when the game ended.

And he was not available to pitch:

Everyone was ready for that game to be over on Sunday, but you’d be lying if you said at least a little part of you wasn’t committed to seeing Carlos Gomez pitch.

Jake Cave was at the forefront of it all

Pretty much everything Cave did came after the nonsense in the seventh. In the eighth, Jorge Polanco led off the inning with a walk against Castillo. Max Kepler followed with a walk as well, and Cash went to Hunter Wood.

Wood got Robbie Grossman on a sac bunt back to the mound, and then issued an intentional walk to Cave to load the bases with one out.

Then Cash went to bring in Sergio Romo, leaving Wood with a terrific stat line for the day:

  • One-third of an inning
  • One pitch (one strike)
  • One intentional walk

Given what we came to know about them running out of pitchers late in the game, this usage is all the more interesting.

Nevertheless, Romo struck Mitch Garver out swinging with his seventh pitch of the at-bat, then walked Joe Mauer on four straight pitches to force home the game-tying run, knotting the game (again!) at 6-6.

Cave moved to second on the Mauer walk, and streaked home when Rosario poked the third pitch he saw into center for an RBI single. Kepler scored easily, but Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier came up with a throw to the plate, and Cave was called out by Additon to end the inning.

The Twins checked out the replay, and opted to challenge the ruling. And while the video seemed to suggest to the home crowd that Cave was safe:

(image credit: MLB.tv)

…..apparently the folks in New York City saw differently, and the call on the field stood.

“Ah, well, it was just one of those calls where you see the replay, the timing of his foot going out, whether you want to connect it to when the ball hit his glove,” Molitor said. “I thought it was something that was a little bit premature as far as the rule was concerned.

“I went out there, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to stick around when I did because that’s not something a manager is supposed to have the option to do, but that one really surprised me, given the video and just how everything went, one way or the other.”

Cave came back into focus in the top of the 10th, when Alan Busenitz worked into trouble before wriggling out of it. With runners on first and second, two out and uber-rookie Jake Bauers at the plate, Busenitz threw a center-cut 1-0 fastball that the young hitter drove into the left-center gap. Cave — who was shaded to the other side of second base — managed to chase it down just before the warning track in front of the 411 sign in left-center.

It was a terrific play to take away extra bases, and almost certainly two runs for the Rays.

Then, Cave led off the bottom of the 10th by stroking the third pitch he saw from Matt Andriese — an 87 mph changeup — into the right-field corner for a double. Four batters later, Dozier put a changeup into the other corner of the stadium, a fence scraper to the flower pots in left to send the Target Field faithful into an uproarious frenzy.

The hero of the day had nothing but glowing reviews of Cave, instead of talking about what he had done to win the game but rather lifting up the red-hot rookie who has filled in more than capably for Byron Buxton.

“Cave has been delivering in all facets of the game,” Dozier said. “He’s been swinging the bat tremendously well. I told him, I know we were all celebrating after the grand slam, that it was ‘All because of you.’ He started it. Great at-bat. He’s played really good defense. He chased down a ball that could very easily have been two runs. I’ve been impressed with what he’s been able to do.”

Fernando Rodney pitched in the fifth inning (!)

In the moment, it felt like a brilliant, if unconventional bit of strategy. With the game — and possibly the season hanging in the balance — Molitor went to get one Fernando and bring another one in.

Games can’t be won in the fifth inning, but they certainly can be lost. This unconventional usage of Rodney felt like Molitor trying to keep his team in the game — at the time, the Twins trailed 4-1 with one out, runners on second and third and Carlos Gomez coming to the plate — by using one of his best relievers to limit the damage at the time.

Rodney won a nine-pitch battle with Gomez, screwing him into the ground with an 82 mph changeup to finish the at-bat, and then got Mallex Smith to ground out to first to end the threat.

Then, Rodney left. Not just the game, but the state, as Molitor revealed afterward.

“To be honest with you it wasn’t about being overly strategic,” Molitor said. “It wasn’t something that we really talked about before the game, but he needs to be in Miami for an immigration hearing tomorrow morning. He had a flight that he had to catch and all that kind of stuff. We had postponed it a couple of times, trying to get it a time that was more feasible, but it turned out tomorrow was the only day and so (we) got him in the game a little earlier.

“It worked out pretty well because he got a couple of really big outs.”

Rodney had to depart the stadium a little after 3:00 p.m. — Molitor shared this with the media at about 5:30 during postgame — but it turns out everything went well:

Up was down, left was right with the Twins bullpen

Rodney was the first reliever out of the chute. Trevor Hildenberger — who has been the team’s most dependable reliever all season, sans Rodney — was entrusted with a lead in the eighth and the ninth and gave it up both times.

Busenitz, who has been incredible in Rochester but fairly shaky in the big leagues, got the “win” despite issuing three walks in 1 and 1/3 innings, including needing Cave to track down that deep drive off the bat of Bauers in the top of the 10th inning.

It was maybe enough to be one of the zaniest things in a normal game, but this might not even be top 10 for this wild one.

Andriese threw Dozier three straight changeups, and he was ready for them

Dozier knew the book on Andriese when he stepped to the plate.

“(He) throws about 65 percent changeups, so I knew he was coming with it,” Dozier said. “Every pitch I sat on it. To be honest I didn’t think it was going to be a homer. Hit it off the end a little bit. But it was out there far enough for one to score, and that’s all that matters.”

Humorously enough, Dozier’s first foul ball nearly decapitated Cave at third base.

“Yeah, I know it, right?” Dozier said when confronted with the fact that he nearly ended Cave before ending the game. “Like I said, I got out in front of the changeup I was sitting on. But a couple pitches later….”

After answering that question, he smiled and winked.

Notes

  • The time of game was four hours, 38 minutes — the third-longest for the Twins this season. The top-two games — five hours, 13 minutes (April 18) and four hours, 51 minutes (June 28) — went 16 and 13 innings, respectively. The Twins have won each of their top-four longest games this season.
  • The win capped a 9-2 homestand for the Twins, who are 29-22 at Target Field this season.
  • The Twins picked up their 44th win with the victory. Last season, their 44th win came on July 6.
  • Dozier’s home run was his fourth career walk-off long ball and sixth walk-off hit.
  • The grand slam was the first walk-off one for the Twins since Joe Crede did so on May 13, 2009 against Detroit.
  • Escobar’s ejection was the first of his career.
  • Grossman is hitting .395/.452/.579 in July.

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