About the cruelest thing you can do to a baseball team coming off a 17-inning game against the defending champion Boston Red Sox is to send them to a place where it’s 90 degrees and humid without a handful of their best players for a four-game series that includes two day games. But here the Minnesota Twins are in Kansas City with Byron Buxton, Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza on the injured list, and some good ol’ heartland heat in the forecast.
“Those games just do create challenges, because physically, it’s a difficult thing to put your body through as a player,” said manager Rocco Baldelli, referring to the 17-inning game. “And we’re not just saying these guys went out there and played 17 innings. A lot of these guys played five, six, 10 games in a row going into that 17-inning game, and then some of them continued to play after.
“There’s no break. There’s not a lot of time to recover.”
The Twins haven’t had an off day since Monday, June 10 — the day before they beat the Seattle Mariners 6-5 at Target Field. Since then Buxton (wrist), Gonzalez (hamstring) and Adrianza (abdomen) have been placed on the injured list, and Blake Parker was placed on the family medical emergency list on Wednesday.
Buxton, Gonzalez and Adrianza have all been impact players this year. Buxton has found a rhythm at the plate (.266/.324/.527 with 21 doubles and nine home runs) and continues to play stellar defense in center field. Gonzalez has been Miguel Sano’s backup at third, as well as the team’s fourth outfielder, and has hit .303/.363/.503 since May 1 after a slow start in April. Adrianza, who previously was a light-hitting utility infielder (.242/.303/.355), has been a force offensively this season (.271/.370/.402) while primarily backing up third and short.
Parker, 34, was a steadying force in the bullpen early in the season, but opposing hitters are batting .303/.361/.758 against him in June, and his ERA has ballooned to 10.29 this month. Still, the bullpen is now one pitcher short after being emptied out in Tuesday’s marathon game against Boston. Parker was placed on emergency leave on Wednesday, and has to remain on the list for three to seven days.
The injuries to Buxton, Gonzalez and Adrianza have created opportunities for Jake Cave, Willians Astudillo and Luis Arraez, however.
All three players have played well in Triple-A. Arraez, 22, hit .393/.500/.571 in 12 games during his first stint in the majors. Cave, 26, hit .269/.316/.481 as a rookie last year, and while he is below the Mendoza Line this season, he has a .926 OPS at Triple-A and might be a fourth outfielder on other major league rosters. Astudillo became a cult favorite last season with his ability to play every position, unwillingness to strikeout or walk and his desire to show that chubby people can run too.
Baldelli has alternated between Cave and Max Kepler at center field in order to replace Buxton.
“Playing center field probably takes its toll on peoples’ bodies maybe in a different way than some of the other outfield spots,” said Baldelli. “When you have Buck who can physically handle it very well, that’s what he does. He goes out there to play center field. There’s no issue with putting him out there every single day.
“But for guys that aren’t used to being out there every single day, I think it makes sense to chop it up a little bit.”
Arraez and Astudillo mitigate some of versatility that his lost by Gonzalez and Adrianza, and have shown they are capable with the bat. Arraez owns an .810 OPS in Double- and Triple-A this year, and Astudillo hit immediately after being sent down to Triple-A — he had a 1.288 OPS in nine games before being recalled.
The duo combined for two critical double-plays in Sean Poppen’s major league debut on Wednesday. Poppen, a 19th round pick out of Harvard in 2016, was asked to pitch the final four innings in a 9-4 loss to the Red Sox. He gave up three runs, and walked four, but saw two double-plays turned behind him when he walked the first batter he faced in two separate innings and struck out two.
Jake Odorizzi followed up Gibson’s 4.1 inning outing with a four-inning start of his own. Kohl Stewart, the No. 4 overall pick in 2013 who was recalled when Poppen was sent down on Thursday, was asked to eat innings after Odorizzi’s short start. Unlike with the Triple-A lineup, which is full of major league ready hitters, Rochester’s bullpen is less deep, meaning starters like Poppen and Stewart may be called into relief roles in the majors.
“What Poppen and Stewart have done the last two nights for us, you can’t really measure it,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to help us tomorrow and it’s going to help us going forward the whole week.”
Baldelli has tried to cultivate cohesion, even with all the injuries. Buxton, for example, traveled with the team, even though he isn’t expected to play on the road trip.
“There’s an added benefit to have them with us,” said Baldelli.
“I think it’s good for the team and good for their teammates and good for the players to stay involved in everything that’s going on. I think leaving guys behind is something that I would hesitate to do unless there’s a reason to do it.”
He also understands that some of these players, like Arraez or Astudillo, may play well but end up going down even though they’re playing well, and that can be taxing for those players. They often have to take connecting flights to get to wherever the Twins are playing because the Triple-A team is in Rochester, N.Y. and plays in similar-sized cities and they’re constantly shuffling between different locker rooms, and playing with different teammates.
“[The 25-man roster rules] make it difficult for guys, because guys 100 percent look to performance as to being the only reason why they will be here in the big leagues or not be here in the big leagues,” said Baldelli, “when sometimes there are other things that you have to factor in, like the question of do you have options?
“And guys understand this, and we will sometimes even talk to guys about the realities of the situation. I know it’s challenging, it doesn’t make it any easier for those guys, and I don’t blame guys for being frustrated when decisions are made because of things like that.”
Garver grounded to third in his first two at-bats, and each time he was slow to return to the dugout due to an ankle issue, likely a result of catching all 17 innings against Boston. Astudillo moved from third base to catcher to replace him in the seventh inning. Sano, who was getting the day off after striking out five times against Boston, took over at third. Garver and Sano may need rest in order to be productive at the plate again. Astudillo is doing what he needs to in order to stay in the majors.
“There have been a lot of games,” said Baldelli. “It is what it is.”
The Twins next day off is Monday following two day games in the Kansas City heat.
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