The Astros Were A Good Reality Check For the Twins

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins had their former fifth overall pick standing on the mound late in Game 2 against the Houston Astros. He would make a web gem in center field in Game 3. A modern-day two-way player entering his prime? The 26-year-old, whose father was a three-time All-Star pitcher, still had a 0.00 ERA after his outing.

Why aren’t we making a bigger deal about this?

“It was nicely done on the mound,” said Rocco Baldelli. “I’ve seen Nick pitch before, in high school. That’s not a weird world for him. He knows what he’s doing. He was almost volunteering himself early in the year.”

We’re talking about Nick Gordon, of course. Minnesota’s utility man pitched the ninth inning of an 11-3 blowout and then filled in for Byron Buxton in center field later in the day.

Gordon has gotten lost in the mix now that the Twins have called up many of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s prospects. In one corner of the locker room is Royce Lewis, Falvey and Levine’s first-ever selection. In another corner is Jhoan Duran, the flamethrowing reliever they traded for. Kitty-corner from him is Jose Miranda, and they called up Cole Sands as their 27th man for the double-header on Thursday.

“It helps that the group has played together,” said Jayce Tingler, Minnesota’s bench coach, and the acting manager for Game 1 and half of Game 2. “The players that lost years in 2020, you had a group of guys still continue to find a way to get better and to develop without getting 500-something at-bats. I think they’ve done a really good job.”

Although MLB canceled play in the minor leagues in 2020, most of Minnesota’s prospects who are in the majors now have already experienced success in the big leagues. And until the Astros came to town, many of them were driving winning for the Twins. Then reality set in. Houston beat them 5-0, 11-3, and 5-0.

However, it was a discombobulated series for the Twins. Tingler was Minnesota’s acting manager because Baldelli was recovering from COVID. He managed four innings of Game 2 on Wednesday, then Baldelli managed the final five on Thursday. Baldelli, Luis Arraez, and Dylan Bundy were diagnosed with the coronavirus in Baltimore and had to stay in Maryland. Carlos Correa broke his hand and had to miss the series against his former team. The Twins reinstated off the IL, and he DH’d the third game.

The Astros were a reality check because they’re the kind of team the Twins need to beat if they’re going to go anywhere. Not only does Minnesota need to win its first playoff game since 2004, but go on a postseason run. Therefore, Houston is a good test early on in the season. Would the Twins have taken this series if they were at full strength? Eh. It doesn’t look like it right now.

There’s a video game trope where the developers will make a player face the final boss before they’re powered up, just to let them know how far they need to go. The Astros probably aren’t the final boss – that’s the New York Yankees – but they’re in that realm. Houston and New York are the last two teams to sweep the Twins in the playoffs. They’re good and built for long-term success. They’re what the Twins want to be.

Can the Twins get there? Sure. Falvey and Levine look like they’ve drafted and developed a wave of players who can form a winning core. Joe Ryan is making good starts. Trevor Larnach can turn on a ball. Lewis looks ready for the show. On top of that, they have a world-class shortstop in Correa, and Buxton is playing like the best player in the league when he’s healthy.

But they’ve got to prove it.

Minnesota’s schedule lightens up considerably after the Houston series. The Twins will play the Cleveland Guardians, Oakland A’s, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City, and Detroit in their next 21 games. Cleveland is stubbornly .500, but the rest of that group are losing teams.

Even a banged-up Twins team should take at least 17 of those games and put a cushion between themselves and the Chicago White Sox. FanGraphs and Vegas Insider had Minnesota hovering around .500 this season. Instead, the White Sox are 14-14, tied with Cleveland for second in the division. The Twins need to take full advantage of their hot start.

If the Yankees are the final boss, and Houston is a worthy adversary, then the White Sox are a dedicated rival. If the Twins bury Chicago early, they put themselves in position to be in the running for home-field advantage and have a better chance against the Bronx Bombers and the trash-bangers.

I get it. It’s May. It’s probably too early to be talking about the playoffs. A lot can change between now and October. But the Twins got a taste of what they’ll be going up against. They need their stars to stay healthy and their prospects to continue to develop. Fortunately, Buxton and Correa were heating up before they got hurt, and their young guys haven’t demurred under the bright lights.

The big bad boss always wins the first round. The Twins just need to be ready if they see them in October.

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