It might be a little hasty to call it a playoff-like atmosphere, but the vibe around Target Field on Monday night was certainly festive as the Minnesota Twins welcomed the Atlanta Braves to town for the first time since July 2016.
That vibe reached a fevered pitch as Miguel Sano blasted an 0-1 cutter from Chris Martin deep into the Minneapolis night to give the Twins a 5-3 win — their 70th of the season.
It wasn’t a perfect game by any means. Jake Cave and Jason Castro made key errors late which allowed the Braves to turn a 3-1 deficit into a tie game. Jake Odorizzi’s pitch count ran up quickly, and he gave up an opposite-field home run to Freddie Freeman to put the Braves on the board in the fifth.
But overall, there were far more positives than negatives — and it’s never bad to beat a fellow division leader.
Here’s what I saw:
1. Sano just keeps riding that trolley
There was an element of gamesmanship that went along with Sano coming up to bat in the ninth inning. After Luis Arraez hit a jam-shot over the head of Josh Donaldson at third base for a two-out single, Rocco Baldelli called Ehire Adrianza back to the dugout and sent Sano out to hit.
Then this happened:
We’ll never know for sure if Sano standing on deck might have changed how Martin would have pitched Arraez in the first place, but it was a 2-1 fastball off the plate that Arraez dumped into left that set the stage.
In reality, the stage was set perfectly for the Twins to be walk-off winners. The bench for the Twins featured power hitters in Sano, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Mitch Garver, which left Baldelli with options for how he wanted to approach the at-bat against Martin.
Oh, and as for Martin — the one thing he hasn’t done well this season is limit the long ball. In 39 games and as many innings coming into Monday night’s action, Martin had a sparkling 10.2 K/9, 0.9 BB/9 and a groundball rate of 48 percent — but a home-run rate of 1.85 per nine innings.
If the Twins were going to end it in dramatic fashion, they were going to do it against Martin — one of three relievers acquired by the Braves at the trade deadline.
Sano wanted to be that guy.
“That’s crazy because the whole game, I stayed inside working with Rudy (Hernandez) and the machine and trying to hit some breaking balls, stuff like that,” Sano said. “And I felt when the game got tied, I told Rudy, ‘If nobody does anything, I’m going to take care of it.’
“When you’ve got something in your heart and you feel it, that’s one of the biggest things. When I went out and hit, I was just thinking, one swing and come back to the dugout. It’s unbelievable.”
Oh, and for those keeping track at home — Sano has hit .276/.372/.571 with seven homers since his trolley ride in San Francisco on July 1.
And if you aren’t keeping track at home — don’t ask.
2. Odorizzi was terrific
The righty wasn’t entirely without flaws on Monday night, but he got better as the night went on, and a staggering 10 of his 15 swinging strikes on the night came on four-seam fastballs.
He was especially rude to Braves phenom outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who fanned in each of his first three plate appearances. Acuna, who moved to center to replace Ender Inciarte in the later innings, was also the one who simply trotted off as Sano’s walk-off home run soared over his head and well beyond the center-field fence.
The only real damage incurred by Odorizzi was a solo home run off the bat of Freeman, an opposite-field wall-scraper that landed just inside the flower pots in left field.
Otherwise, the only real issue for Odorizzi was pitch count. He threw 27 pitches in the first inning, 16 more in the second, 22 in the third, 13 in the fourth and 19 in the fifth — putting him at 97 pitches through five innings.
Most of the time this year, Baldelli has sent his pitchers to the showers at that number. But instead, the manager sent his righty back out for another inning, and he rewarded that faith with a 1-2-3 12-pitch inning.
With Sam Dyson on the shelf and the bullpen still a bit in flux, every out counts with this starting staff — and Odorizzi did his part.
Odorizzi was especially aware of the strength of the Atlanta lineup, and felt like he commanded his fastball better against them as the night wore on.
“I felt good, really, honestly from start to finish,” Odorizzi said. “Body-wise, the first couple innings were just frustrating of trying to execute pitches, maybe missing a few. Like I said, it’s kind of one of those lineups of you don’t really want to give in if you’re ahead, you want to make good pitches and sometimes you don’t make them it ends up backfiring a little bit.”
Odorizzi was especially complimentary of the All-Star first baseman on the other side.
“You have guys like Freddie Freeman who cover splits down away, fastballs down and in, not really any holes in his game,” Odorizzi said. “I told him after I was out of the game, ‘You need to go to a higher league.’ He’s just one of those types of players that at any point can change a game, which obviously he did. He just got enough of one and put it out today.
“That’s the type of things, as a game goes on, that wasn’t a horrible pitch but they can make bad pitches into runs really quickly. You just have to navigate and know your spots, pick your places.”
3. Two misplays (Castro-Cave) in the seventh inning proved costly
With one out and Ryne Harper pitching, Acuna reached on an infield single. He took second on a passed ball when it squirted away from Jason Castro ever-so-briefly, and then scooted home when Ozzie Albies stroked a solid single into right field.
On the Albies single, Cave played the ball aggressively in right, as it appeared he wanted to try to come up with a strong throw at home in the event that they’d have a play on Acuna. However, the ball took a wicked hop and kicked away from Cave, allowing Albies to take second in the process.
It’s not a bad aggressive mistake, but based on depth it felt like Cave had no chance to get Acuna at the plate, and playing it as aggressively as he did allowed the ball to get past him and let Albies take second. After Harper got Freeman to fly out to deep left, Josh Donaldson followed with a first-pitch single into center off Tyler Duffey to tie the game.
Good teams can overcome mistakes like this — and the Twins are, of course, a good team — but had Minnesota lost, this is likely where it would have gone awry.
4. Arraez just keeps on truckin’
The diminutive infielder seems to be siphoning off all of Schoop’s playing time, but when a 22-year-old is slashing .356/.429/.444 and taking some of the best plate appearances on the team, what choice is there?
Arraez played a part in everything the Twins did offensively on Monday night. With Braves starter Mike Soroka dealing, Arraez dumped a single into shallow left — foreshadowing? — in the bottom of the fourth to plate Nelson Cruz and Eddie Rosario with the first two runs of the game.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The Twins have famously struggled with the bases loaded this season, and Arraez’s single came with two outs after Cruz hit an infield single, Rosario singled into center and Marwin Gonzalez rolled a grounder to short that shortstop Johan Camargo couldn’t field quickly enough to get him at first.
In all, there were four two-out singles in the inning, and according to StatCast they traveled a total of 768 feet — or roughly as far as it felt Sano’s walk-off homer went.
And again, in the ninth, it was Arraez picking up the single off Martin — again with two outs — which led to the home run from Sano.
It’s not by mistake that Arraez is in the middle of all of it — he’s just that kind of player.
And for the second game in a row, that’s not something his manager misses when taking stock of the youngster’s all-around ability.
“I think he’s pretty much comfortable in every role,” Baldelli said. “No matter what you ask him to do, I think he’s pretty comfortable. He’s done it in clutch situations but he has done it in every type of situation. You’re getting the same guy regardless. I don’t think he’s affected by the pressure of being here or anything that goes along with it.
“Regardless of what game we are playing, who we are playing, when were are playing it. I think he is good to go. He’s a pretty relaxed even-keeled cool customer. He’s a ballplayer.”
Oh, and did Arraez know that Sano’s homer was gone the second he hit it?
“Of course I did,” Arraez said with a grin through team interpreter Elvis Martinez. “(I was) very excited. Just running around the bases going to home and waiting for him and celebrating.”
5. Trevor May threw the fastest pitch of his career — in a huge spot
“I’m not gonna lie and say things have been phenomenal for me lately,” May said during his postgame media session. “But there’s a lot of things we’re working on.”
And while one of those things hasn’t necessarily been velocity, May set a career-high when he hit 99.8 mph while inducing an inning-ending double-play grounder off the bat of Camargo in the eighth.
That was the first of two times that May stalked off the mound after coming up big for the Twins. May struck out Freeman on a 97 mph fastball up in the zone to end the top of the ninth — stranding potential go-ahead runner Acuna at second base.
In all, May faced seven batters in his two innings, striking out two while setting a personal velocity record and all the while keeping a very good Braves offense off the scoreboard.
Not bad for a night’s work. His manager also heaped some praise on him, too.
“Trevor May is one of the people I’m talking about when I can say he pitched us to this win,” Baldelli said. “He’s going out there and facing a tough lineup, going out there for multiple innings and, essentially going out there and – I don’t want to say overpowering – but going at them with really good stuff and executing.
“He pitched great. Without his effort, we don’t win the game.”
How is May going to celebrate hitting 100 mph on the TV gun?
“Well, I have a clip from the TV with 1-0-0,” May said playfully. “I’m going to take that to the bank. I can’t wait to get my plaque.”
6. Harper got to face the team that drafted him
At most it was a very quiet storyline in a thrilling game, but Harper got to face the team that drafted him in the 37th round back in 2011.
Harper spent six seasons in the Braves organization, three in the Mariners organization and even a full season in the minors with the Twins before breaking in as a 30-year-old rookie this season — so make no mistake, he was aware he was facing the organization where it all started.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” Harper told Zone Coverage after the game. “I mean, obviously I’d have liked better results, but it was still pretty cool to face them.”
Ultimately, Harper was charged with two earned runs in 2/3 of an inning — pushing his season ERA to 3.07.
Notes & Quotes
- Arraez has now gone 24 plate appearances between strikeouts.
- Max Kepler hit his 31st home run in the fifth inning — tying him for fifth-most through 112 team games in Twins history. Every place ahead of Kepler is held by Harmon Killebrew.
- Sano’s pinch-hit, walk-off homer was the 10th in Twins history, per the game notes, and first since Michael Cuddyer hit one off former teammate J.C. Romero against the Angels on April 19, 2006.
- Odorizzi on how Sano has been hitting since the trolley ride: “Pretty impressive. Early on he was pressing a little too much and was susceptible to that off-speed pitch. But now everything is staying through and the power is tremendous. You don’t really need to overdo things when you have that kind of power in the tank. It’s a big part of our team and there’s been multiple times where he’s ahead in the count and won games for us.”
- May on his approach against Freeman in the ninth: “Attack him. It’s one of those things, the heater is my best pitch. We’re trying to get the ball and be more up than down. He’s really strong down there; I think people know that. He’s really strong everywhere in the zone. He doesn’t chase a lot. It’s more to go for your spot and miss where it’s not going to hurt you. I think maybe the changeup reset the count a little bit after those two heaters he was trying to get the barrel on. Maybe he had something in his head where the changeup might come again, and that’s enough sometimes with the heater up. That’s kinda what being me is. Making sure that when I miss, it’s somewhere you’re not going to get hurt.”