There’s just something about Opening Day.
The hot dogs smell fresher. The freshly cut grass floods our senses, immediately reminding us of the scent we’d forgotten for all those winter months.
Around the ballpark, it’s people wishing each other “Happy New Year!” and catching up after a handful of months away.
But after all the pomp, circumstance and fireworks, there’s still a ballgame to play.
Nobody’s totally sure what to expect from Rocco Baldelli‘s Minnesota Twins this season, but if Thursday was any indication — look out.
Jose Berrios dazzled, the new guys carried the weight offensively and the team played flawless defense on the way to a 2-0 win over the defending division-champion Cleveland Indians at Target Field on a crisp, yet comfortable Thursday afternoon.
Here’s what I saw:
The turning point
This one isn’t too terribly difficult to figure out. The Twins broke through for their two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Nelson Cruz opened the inning with his first hit as a Twin — a single through the right side of the infield after falling behind 0-2 — and C.J. Cron followed with a one-out, broken-bat single to center.
The Indians brought the outfield in a bit to try cut off Cruz at the plate, but Marwin Gonzalez — who broke up Corey Kluber‘s perfect game bid in the fifth inning with a walk — flipped a ball over shortstop Eric Stamets‘ head. Center fielder Leonys Martin was unable to cut the ball off, and it rolled all the way to the wall, allowing Cruz and Cron to score easily to give the Twins their ultimate margin of victory, 2-0.
For those scoring at home, it was three brand-new Minnesota Twins teaming up for the game-winning runs, and it had to be especially satisfying for Gonzalez, who had hit just .115/.179/.115 (3 for 26) in Grapefruit League action.
…but did Marwin call his shot — even just a little bit?
Knowing that Gonzalez had a particularly tough spring, I paid close attention to how he handled his reps in batting practice prior to Thursday’s game.
Gonzalez requested that Tommy Watkins hit the outside corner to help him work on getting the extension to cover more of the plate.
How’s this for paying immediate dividends?
Berrios was absolutely terrific
Certainly, it goes without saying that when a pitcher goes 7.2 shutout innings with just two hits, 10 strikeouts and a walk that they were on that day, but Berrios was simply untouchable all afternoon.
Berrios threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 26 batters he faced and rang up 18 swinging strikes on his 96 pitches — an 18.8 percent swinging-strike rate well above the roughly 10 percent league average.
His fastball was crisp, his curve had dual-plane movement and his changeup disappeared. According to Brooks Baseball, Berrios touched 95 mph with his two-seam fastball and 96 with his four-seamer, and 10 of his 18 swinging strikes came on the curve. Three more came on the change and four-seamer and the other two were on the two-seamer.
It’s just one game, but Berrios had ace/Cy Young-type stuff.
Kluber was dealing as well
The Twins offense played into this a bit, as Kluber scarcely broke a sweat early on. Discipline was hardly the order of the day — for instance, Max Kepler saw just four pitches in his first three plate appearances — as Kluber racked up the following pitch counts, inning-by-inning: 7-6-9-8-11-15-23.
It’s not necessarily criminal to attack pitches early in the zone against a pitcher the caliber of Kluber, but the execution will always be questioned when it doesn’t lead to hits, runs or even baserunners until the fifth inning. Choosing not to go deep into counts with someone like Kluber is a perfectly acceptable strategy, but someone as smart as him will also see that and change up his sequencing.
In this case, Kluber started the first five batters he faced with sinkers. Starting with Gonzalez, he threw a changeup, curve, sinker, curve, sinker, changeup, sinker, changeup, sinker, sinker, curve, sinker, curve, sinker, sinker, changeup, sinker, cutter, curve, cutter, sinker.
Now that’s a lot of commas and words to basically show the following point — that Kluber was very unpredictable with how he started counts the rest of the way, and the Twins didn’t crack the code until late. Even then, it took a pair of broken-bat singles and a double against an outfield defensive shift to plate the only runs of the game.
Kluber is still very, very good — and there’s no shame in winning ugly against him.
A win’s a win.
Byron Buxton was…impressive
No defensive plays really stood out for Buxton — at least not from a highlight-reel standpoint — but he hit the hardest ball of the game (113.4 mph for a double) and perhaps just as importantly worked counts in his favor, stayed disciplined even if he fell behind and did not strike out once in three plate appearances.
He clearly has a different demeanor this year, as evidenced by this video he did with KSTP sports guy Darren Wolfson after the game:
— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) March 29, 2019
This Cleveland offense looks…rough
Part of it is that it can’t get much worse, but batting Tyler Naquin third certainly doesn’t have the feel of a playoff-caliber club. Carlos Gonzalez should be ready eventually and Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis will each give the offense a stronger feel from their respective spots in the order — though clearly, not to the same level — but on Thursday it was easy to side with people who said the Indians don’t have the offense to run away with the Central.
They might not even with Lindor, Kipnis and Gonzalez. But really, it’s only been one game.
Rocco’s first managerial decision panned out quite well
With two outs in the eighth, Berrios approaching 100 pitches, Brad Miller singling into center and the potential of a pinch hitter for Stamets coming up, manager Rocco Baldelli went to the bullpen for lefty Taylor Rogers to face Greg Allen, a switch-hitter who doesn’t have particularly strong career numbers against lefties (.629 OPS) or righties (.655).
Rogers fell behind with breaking stuff, evened the count and eventually froze Allen with a 93 mph two-seam fastball at the knees to end the inning and Cleveland’s last threat.
- Thursday marked the opening of the 10th season of Twins baseball at Target Field, and the first March game in stadium history.
- The Twins announced a sellout crowd of 39,519 — the 162nd in stadium history and the ninth opener to sell out since the park opened. Only the 2014 opener was not a sellout.
- Berrios was the 11th Opening Day starter in the last 13 years for the Twins, per the game notes. The others: Johan Santana, Livan Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Vance Worley, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Jake Odorizzi.
- Rogers extended his scoreless inning streak to 27.1 — the fourth longest in Twins history. He passed Juan Berenguer (26.1) and now only trails J.C. Romero (36.0 in 2004), Joe Nathan (29.0 in 2004) and Johnny Klippstein (28.2 in 1965-66).
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