Garvin Alston stood behind Kyle Gibson, who was seated at the large table in the Twins’ clubhouse, eyeing his remaining tiles. Alston is the Twins’ pitching coach, but coaching is prohibited here, and it was making him anxious.
“I really need these guys to win this,” Alston said, gesturing toward Gibson and his partner, Zach Duke.
Alas, Miguel Sano laid his final tile, a four-one, moments later, and began shouting in triumph. Sano and Jake Odorizzi remained undefeated, a surprise to everyone but Sano and Odorizzi, in the Great Minnesota Twins dominos tournament.
Card games have long been the accepted time-killer in major league clubhouses, and Joe Nathan used to captain a daily obsession with cribbage in the Twins’ Metrodome quarters. Lew Ford and Jeff Cirillo passed the time playing chess, and many clubhouses have arcade games for players’ use.
But dominoes, a deceptively simple game that dates to ancient China, has become the passion of the Twins’ clubhouse this season, one that frequently draws crowds of teammates to watch the action and critique the play.
“It’s really good. Some guys don’t like cards, but everybody can play dominoes,” said Eduardo Escobar, whose occasional games with assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez caught his teammates’ attention, and whose boasts about his ability triggered several challenges. “Sometimes you have time before games, between games, and it makes you relax.”
It doesn’t seem relaxing when the gamesmanship starts, and the volume rises. The Twins’ clubhouse, particularly on road trips, is filled with boisterous laughter and friendly taunts.
“Everything with Sano is louder,” needles Escobar. Replies Sano, “Esky likes to talk.”
The dominoes craze began on the Twins’ long plane ride to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in April. Soon most of the team became involved, the format evolved into partners, and earlier this month, a tournament was undertaken. Playing a game or two before and after batting practice, the Twins are about halfway through it, with 10 two-man teams — 16 players, coaches Alston, Hernandez and Eddie Guardado, and bullpen catcher Nate Dammann — playing a round-robin against each other in order to determine seeding for a bracket.
At stake is … well, they’d rather not say.
“But pride and bragging rights are the biggest thing anyway,” Brian Dozier said.
Nearly everyone claims a lifelong interest in the games.
“In the Latin countries, we play a lot of dominoes,” Escobar said. “Venezuela, we played and played. The Dominican guys are really good. And [Puerto Rican Eddie] Rosario, he played a lot.”
So did Dozier.
“I grew up playing pool a lot, going to a pool hall,” he said. “And there would be all these old men in the corner playing dominoes. That’s how I learned, by watching that and playing them sometimes.”
For Alston, there was a lot more at stake.
“I got involved in dominoes when I was in high school. I don’t know if I should say this, but I was playing for my lunch money,” he said. “I was afraid to jump in, I just watched at first. But my dad taught me the game and I tried it one time. And next thing I know, I was playing for dollar bills. That’ll make you better real quick.”
Then again, standings leader Odorizzi just learned the game a few weeks ago.
“Odorizzi understands how to lead, understands how to get ahead of his partner’s plays,” Alston said. “He’s pretty good.”
The Twins see inclusiveness as the best part of the game, Dozier said.
“It’s great for bringing the entire team together,” he said. “We didn’t want to be a sit-at-your-locker-staring-at-your-phone-all-the-time kind of team. So this is a blast.”
Who is best at it is the topic of much debate, of course, because these are intensely competitive athletes.
“Si, still the best,” Sano said, for instance, moments after beating Gibson/Duke. “I could tell you my secret, but you might tell somebody.”
Escobar insists he knows the secret — focus, concentration, teamwork, just like baseball — but teammates are skeptical.
“Esky keeps saying it’s him, but he’s not,” Dozier joked. “This tournament will decide it. Unless we have another one.”
The Twins added Oregon State outfielder Trevor Larnach in last week’s draft, while the rest of the AL Central teams addressed their own needs. Here’s a look:
Indians: Once the Indians, picking at No. 29, chose Canadian high schooler Noah Naylor, the debate began over whether he’s a catcher. For now, the Indians will keep him there, though his defensive skills need work. His status as an elite bat — the best hitter on the Canadian Junior National team — might move him to third base.
Royals: With a beleaguered pitching staff and a relatively thin farm system, the Royals’ plan was clear: They drafted nine college pitchers in the first 10 rounds. KC was delighted when Florida righthander Brady Singer was available at No. 18. With a fastball that can hit 96 mph and a high-80s slider, Singer figures to rise quickly.
Tigers: The only other time Detroit had the overall No. 1 pick, in 1997, the Tigers chose a college righthander, Matt Anderson, who never became a star. So the Tigers know well the risks. But Casey Mize’s command of four pitches, producing 151 strikeouts and only 12 walks at Auburn, convinced them he’s a far better bet.
White Sox: Though just 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, many scouts rated Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal the top hitter and perhaps top overall prospect in the draft. It’s an odd fit, given that the Sox have young talents Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada in the infield, but Chicago couldn’t turn him down at fourth overall.
Twenty-three pitchers have thrown 100 mph at Target Field — it’s happened 159 times (through Thursday), but no Twin has ever done it. Who has thrown the most ultra-heaters?
100-mph pitches at Target Field
29 — Aroldis Chapman
18 — Mauricio Cabrera
15 — Kelvin Herrera
14 — Bruce Rondon
12 — Frankie Montas
10 — Dellin Betances
Almost as rare as a 100-mph pitch? A batted ball traveling 110 mph. There have been 186 such blasts in Target Field’s nine seasons, hit by 86 different batters, and the leaders are much more familiar to Twins fans.
110-mph exit velocity leaders at Target Field
28 — Miguel Sano
14 — Max Kepler
13 — Kennys Vargas
6 — Nelson Cruz
6 — Jose Bautista
4 — Josh Donaldson, George Springer, Justin Upton, Edwin Encarnacion
Baseball reporters Phil Miller and La Velle E. Neal III alternate weeks writing the MLB Insider.