SEATTLE – Like a lot of teams, the Twins have placed their faith in defensive shifts, never more so than this season. Sometimes, faith gets tested. Sometimes at really inopportune times.
Fernando Romero, while spinning his latest symphony of broken bats Friday, induced an inning-ending grounder to second base from Mitch Haniger — but the inning didn’t end. The position was vacant, the ball bounded through the opening and Guillermo Heredia raced home from second base with the winning run in Seattle’s 2-1 victory over the Twins at Safeco Field.
“That’s just the way the game is,” said catcher Mitch Garver, who helped Romero limit Seattle to a mere five hits — five well-timed, precisely placed hits, all singles — yet lose anyway. “I trust our staff and I trust our advance scouting to put us in position to where we can make those plays.”
Kyle Seager, in fact, twice hit balls exactly where the Twins had shifted their defense, “and that’s awesome to do that to such a great hitter,” Garver said. But, he conceded, “it’s Haniger’s, and another hit by [Ryon] Healy, that you remember.”
Haniger’s not-so-harmless shift-beater in the sixth inning was almost a match for the four-bouncer by Nelson Cruz in the first, the other softly hit ball that wound up costing Romero a run, and ultimately the game, his first loss as a major leaguer. It was also a carbon copy of the Twins’ previous road game, when Romero’s efforts went to waste in a duel against another star pitcher. That time it was Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim, this time James Paxton, the Mariners’ lefthanded ace.
“Obviously his stuff is dominant. He has an electric arm,” Garver said of Romero, the rookie who has given up only six earned runs in five career starts, yet somehow has been part of more losses than wins. “His fastball was moving quite a bit. We were able to pitch inside to most of the righties very well.”
Just not as well as Paxton, who delighted the hundreds of his Canadian countrymen in “The Maple Grove” — the left-field bleachers — rowdily cheering him on.
“He was on cruise control all night,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He throws hard enough for guys to feel they’ve to cheat on the fastball. Then the cutter and slider disappear.”
Paxton, who survived a bald eagle attack to hold the Twins to two runs on Opening Day at Target Field, was even better in his predator-free home ballpark. With those clever Canadians waving “Eh” (not K) signs for every strikeout opportunity, Paxton finished off 11 Twins on strikes, 10 of them in a 13-batter stretch from innings 3-7, and he didn’t walk a batter. Paxton gave up a single to the first batter he faced, and the next-to-last, and made only one mistake all night: A 1-0 cutter to Max Kepler that wound up 10 rows deep in the right field seats.
That home run is a remarkable event — but becoming less so with each Kepler at-bat against a lefthander. The 25-year-old, until this season arguably a liability with lefthanders on the mound, has made a priority of turning that weakness into a strength this season.
Kepler had hit four home runs off lefties in his career before this season; he now has four this year alone, more in fact than the three he’s hit against righthanders. And Kepler punctuated his point with a seventh-inning single off Paxton, too.
But the Twins, who have been held to three runs or fewer six times in 11 games, could do nothing else, even with Miguel Sano back in the lineup for the first time in a month. Except on Kepler’s homer, they never got a runner past first base.