Stop me if this sounds familiar: The Minnesota Twins are facing an American League Central opponent on the road following an extra-innings affair with key players missing.
This time they’re playing the Chicago White Sox, not the Kansas City Royals, and it’s following an 18-inning loss, not a 17-inning win, but the same issues have presented themselves. Byron Buxton and Marwin Gonzalez are still hurt, and now Eddie Rosario and cult hero Willians Astudillo have joined him on the injured list. The rest of the players are feeling it from playing 18. Innings, that is, not a round of golf.
“Well, luckily, it’s not all new for our guys because they’ve done it already and have figured out ways to come back just fine,” said Rocco Baldelli. “It’s not an injury discussion. It’s more of just, this is a long year.”
Baseball seems to be have a rubber-band effect on the Twins. After years of losing with a couple 80-plus win seasons sprinkled in, Minnesota seems tethered to their past records, with the baseball demons reaching up from the depths to occasionally drag down their best players — and make the rest of them play through games long enough that they require a tee time.
How rare is it to play 35 innings in two games that close together? It’s only happened twice, according to Jayson Stark of The Athletic.
The #Twins! Only other teams in the last 40 years to play a 17-inning game & a longer game within 10 days of each other:
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) June 28, 2019
“I’ve heard that,” Baldelli said in reaction. “We don’t want to make the next stat. We don’t want to be the next tweet in that line of tweets.”
There are some oddities that have surfaced as a result of the long games. Willians Astudillo ended up in the outfield again, and Kyle Gibson made his first relief appearance in 175 major league outings.
And an opportunity has been created for Lewis Thorpe and LaMonte Wade Jr., who have received call-ups.
Thorpe, 23, is from Melbourne, Australia and played in the Australian Baseball League at age 16 before entering the Twins minor league system. He has a 5.71 ERA in Triple A this year, but has stuff that could play in the bullpen, where he’d be the only lefty other than Taylor Rogers.
“We’re going to use him potentially out of the bullpen right now but he can do different things,” said Baldelli. “I could see him getting in there and pitching today or pitching tomorrow and getting out there pretty soon and being a big contributor for us this series at the very least.”
Wade, 25, is a ninth rounder out of the University of Maryland who is known as an on-base machine. He has .393 on-base percentage at Triple A this year and a .391 OBP average across all levels since being drafted in 2015.
“Just getting on base anyway I can,” he said on Thursday when asked about his game.
“Trying to hit the gaps a little more, trying to hit it over the fence a little more. But if it doesn’t happen, I’ll take my walks, I’ll take my singles here and there. Just trying to do whatever I can to get on base and be productive.”
The Twins aren’t looking for excuses, but these are pretty unique circumstances. Even in a year when they have a commanding lead of the AL Central and have a deep lineup, they still are being challenged — only in ways nobody expected.
Berrios gives the bullpen a rest
Normally when Jose Berrios goes into the 8th inning and only gives up three earned runs, the Twins win the game. But two errors turned into three additional runs in the 6-4 loss on Friday.
Still Berrios’ effort, which ended with a two-run Eloy Jimenez home run that was the difference in the game, allowed the bullpen to recover. Mike Morin got Minnesota out of the 8th without giving up a hit.
“I kept the game close into the eighth inning and gave us a lot of chances to try to win,” he said after the game.
“It always hurts when we lose for me and everybody here. But I need to take to some good points for me, a positive thing. I threw a quality start and the bullpen rested a little bit tonight.”
He said the game sped up for him in the 5th inning, when he gave up four hits, and once again had trouble with Brian McCann.
James McCann's weird history vs. Jose Berrios:
First 5 at-bats: 5-5, 2 HRs, 2 doubles
Next 6 at-bats: 0-6
Tonight: 400-foot 2-run HR.
McCann is the only MLB hitter to homer off Berrios 3 times. White Sox lead, 2-0.
— Phil Miller (@MillerStrib) June 29, 2019
“I joked with him and said ‘He’s my dad’ because from Detroit he’s always killed me,” said Berrios. “But, I remember the thing a player told me — ‘You can’t beat him.’ Forget it because you’re not always going to play him every day.”
Baldelli said he might have left him in to pitch the 8th, even if the bullpen had been at full strength. But certainly on a night like tonight, they needed everything they could get from him.
Smalley on Sano
Miguel, who is adjusting his swing on the fly in the majors and has a rash of strikeouts to go with his power, hit two home runs against Chicago on Friday.
Here’s Smalley after the first home run:
WAY better swing mechanics by Sano on that HR. Hand action much closer to what they’re trying to get him to do. Baby steps. He’s trying to make a big change in mechanics at the big league level, but that was encouraging.
— Roy Smalley (@roysmalley5) June 29, 2019
And the second:
97mph out over the plate…then 400 feet to right center. You can’t do that without your swing being on a good plane. More progress…
— Roy Smalley (@roysmalley5) June 29, 2019
“I’ve been working really hard with Rudy and James,” Sano said after the game, referring to hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez.
“We work with my hands to get on top of the ball. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few days, and then there’s a day where I get two homers and four RBIs.”
With Gonzalez out and the lineup suddenly depleted with injuries, the Twins are allowing him to adjust to major league hitting rather than send him to Triple A.
Like with Berrios, Sano’s performance on Friday is encouraging, even in a losing effort. The strikeouts remain a concern, however, and he could be in jeopardy of being optioned if he doesn’t reduce and players start coming off the injured list.
Wade debuts with brother in stands
Wade is known for getting on-base, and he did so the hard way in his first at-bat, reaching after getting hit by Chicago starter Ross Detwiler.
“I mean, everybody asks how it felt when I got hit by the pitch, and I honestly didn’t feel anything,” he said. “So much adrenaline, excitement to get on first base.”
His brother, Jamal, also went to the University of Maryland and is a pitcher in the Seattle Mariners organization. He’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and was allowed to attend the game.
“We’re definitely competitive, especially in table tennis. Anything we do, honestly,” he said in describing their relationship. “I always come out on top.”
He said he was able to see his father before the game, and was nervous until Berrios threw the first pitch. But settled in after that.
He lined out in the 5th inning, and was pinch-hit for by Nelson Cruz in the 7th inning.
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