The mismatch that occurred in the first two games of the American League Division Series in New York exposed so many Twins flaws that it left this impression of manager Rocco Baldelli and his coaching staff:
They did better work than had been imagined in getting all that was available from this ever-changing roster.
The 2019 Twins finished 101-61, the second-highest win total in 59 seasons, as Rocco’s crew was building a viable bullpen; surviving with fielding that went from mediocre to a liability after the loss in early August of Byron Buxton, a difference-maker in center field; and moving forward to a Central division title even after Michael Pineda’s suspension for a masking agent left them woefully short of starters.
All teams deal with injuries, none more so than the Yankees, as they won 103 games.
Max Kepler, Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Arraez all came back from injuries to join Baldelli’s preferred lineup for this series. Giancarlo Stanton and Edwin Encarnacion finally made Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s lineup complete for Game 1.
The result were mismatches, 10-4 and 8-2 for the Yankees.
Twins followers were taking to Twitter to question Baldelli’s pitching decisions — bullpen in Game 1, and rookie Randy Dobnak starting over Jake Odorizzi in Game 2.
My reaction in the TV den was different: “This ballclub won 101 games? Yay, Rocco and cohorts.”
Baldelli was hired last Oct. 25 at age 37. Derek Shelton remained as bench coach and James Rowson and Rudy Hernandez as hitting coaches. Four other coaches were new, including pitching coach Wes Johnson directly from the University of Arkansas.
Outreach and ideas for improvement started immediately. Baldelli went to the Dominican Republic to visit Miguel Sano, after the big man’s wasted 2018 season. Mitch Garver was given a plan to improve his catching. Tyler Duffey received a visit in Houston from Johnson with a plan to get off the MSP/Rochester, N.Y., shuttle and become a quality reliever.
The hitters were encouraged to enter the launch angle era, with longtime launcher Nelson Cruz joining as the leader of this new attack.
Twins communications director Dustin Morse watched some Twins bashing in exhibitions and said one afternoon: “This team is going to score 800 runs.” And then they bashed some more and Morse said to Derek Falvey, the baseball CEO, “We might score 900 runs.”
Falvey said, “Relax.”
And then the Twins scored 939 runs, with 307 home runs.
Sano might be Example A that talent is slow to be written off in RoccoBall.
The crew on the national telecast of Yankees-Twins told us regularly that Miguel weighed “320 pounds,” when he was sent to Fort Myers for conditioning last season. We weren’t unkind in the Twin Cities, offering “around 300” as Sano’s heft.
Baldelli went to the Dominican Republic to deliver in person the message that the Twins had big hopes for him. Then, in January, Sano had the accident that tore a gash near an Achilles’ tendon and showed up unable to participate in spring training.
Rocco and the Twins could have fumed about Sano being indirect about the rip in his heel and not coming to Fort Myers earlier to have it treated. Instead, the coaches encouraged him to stay in the better shape (around 280) that he was featuring.
The big-league staff waited for Miguel’s return in mid-May, waited through long stretches of helpless flailing, and eventually the Twins regained a slugger: 34 home runs, 55 extra-base hits and 79 RBI in 380 at-bats.
There was some pure Baldelli subtlety on display late in Saturday’s loss in New York. The Twins were down 8-1 in the bottom of the eighth, Sergio Romo had entered to get two outs and then Rocco came to the mound to signal for Zack Littell.
One night earlier, Littell had entered with a 3-3 tie in the fifth, walked a hitter on four pitches and then hit the next batter. The inexperienced reliever was hooked, those two runs scored, and Littell took what became the 10-4 loss.
The switch from Romo to Littell on Saturday seemed needless from a distance. In the bullpen and the clubhouse, it was 100% Rocco.
“Absolutely,” reliever Trevor May said. “Rocco wanted to get Zack back out there, feeling he would throw the ball well and be ready to go for the rest of the series. Sergio Romo wanted Zack in there, too.
“If the series ended without Zack having another chance to pitch, Sergio didn’t want him carrying that [Friday] around all winter.”
Littell retired the extra-dangerous Gleyber Torres on three pitches.
RoccoBall right there: defined plans for improvement and encouragement.
These qualities don’t appear to be enough to stop this Yankees lineup, but they assisted greatly in winning 101 games.