The Minnesota Twins’ bench in Game 1 against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves was Miguel Sano, Mitch Garver, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop. Garver is hitting .277/.362/.617 with 20 home runs this year. Cron (.266/.322/.502, 19 HRs) is coming off a 30-homer season. Schoop (.254/.301/.456, 16 HR) was an All-Star two years ago.
And then there’s Sano, who is hitting .282/.378/.564 in the past two weeks after an extended slump.
His pinch-hit, walk-off home run on Monday was an exclamation point at the end of what has essentially been a development period in the majors. Instead of being sent to Triple-A, he worked on improving his hand placement and other aspects of his swing while facing major league pitching. It’s a way for a player Sano’s age, 26, to improve more rapidly than if he had been sent to the minors because he is seeing a caliber of pitching that cannot be replicated at Triple-A.
The array of options Rocco Baldelli had at his disposal in that situation emphasizes another important point, however. As we learned around the All-Star Break, the Minnesota Twins are more a sum of their parts rather than a team carried by a few stars.
Byron Buxton has certainly had a breakout year at the plate, but has also been frequently injured. Sano had the aforementioned slump. Jose Berrios has become the team’s de facto ace, but the rotation has held its own because Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez and Michael Pineda have been reliable and made the majority of the starts for this team. Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario have played well all year long, but Minnesota hasn’t had to bank on their offensive production alone.
Not only has the Twins’ depth mitigated injuries to star players like Buxton, but guys like Ehire Adrianza are having career years. To say hitting is contagious is a bit simplistic, but a rattled pitcher will allow a caravan of hitters on base, and being part of an explosive offense like the Bomba Squad benefits everyone — including the guys at the bottom of the lineup. Therefore productive hitters like Sano, Garver, Cron and Schoop can be out of the lineup against a quality team from the senior circuit and provide a late-inning threat while getting rest for most of the game.
And the Twins have already had pinch-hitters deliver in big moments.
Eddie Rosario’s pinch-hit, three-run bomb off the first pitch he saw from Yusmeiro Petit propelled Minnesota to a 6-3 win over the Oakland A’s in a critical series against a potential AL Wild Card team.
Luis Arraez pinch-hit for Schoop after he went down 0-2 against New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz and coaxed 11 pitches and a walk from the erratic flamethrower. Minnesota ultimately lost the game on a Nelson Cruz pop-up, but Arraez’s at-bat would be impressive for a 10-year veteran, let alone a 22-year-old rookie looking to break into the league.
And then Sano’s rocket off Chris Martin, which hit off of the facing of Catch above the center field wall was such a no-doubter that outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. started walking off the field while it was still in flight.
“There’s certainly in some ways a maturity factor, just preparing late in the game,” said Baldelli when asked about players pinch-hitting. “You’re not starting in the game, but you had the mindset to be ready to come in and perform.
“To go and prepare in the cage, or wherever it is you’re going to prepare, get your body ready. Get loose, get your swing ready, just be in a good mindset.”
The batting cages in Target Field are steps away from the dugout, so pinch-hitters can start to warm up in the latter innings and remain in the cages longer than they would in other parks.
“In Chicago it’s outside. By the air conditioners,” said Baldelli, describing Guarantee Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. “And when it’s 20 degrees outside, you’ve gotta walk through the entire clubhouse and multiple hallways and the outside.
“The guys love it.”
The Twins have taken advantage of their situation at home, and have leveraged their depth and the proximity of the cages to the dugout in order to maximize their roster. By giving a good hitter the day off, knowing he is capable of pinch-hitting later in the game, they are providing them the best opportunity to deliver in the clutch.