Not all games are created equal, and Wednesday’s 4-3, 13-inning Twins victory over the Pirates is one of those 50-50 games that feels particularly good to win. The Twins gave up a lead late … but they battled through extra innings and came away with a win that them at 23-17 after 40 games — roughly the quarter-pole in the MLB season. Tom Kelly’s old benchmark for knowing what you had in a team was 40 games. What the Twins have might not hold up for 162, but for now they are on pace for more than 90 wins instead of 90 losses and are 22-11 (two wins in every three games) since that dreadful 1-6 start).
There have been encouraging signs throughout this first 1/4 of the season, and there were particularly encouraging signs Wednesday. Starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who had been shaky in two of his three previous starts and had the potential to start going that direction more regularly, stopped the bleeding with six effective innings. It wasn’t a masterpiece, and he got the benefit of a line drive right at Brian Dozier in the sixth (which Dozier deftly turned into a double play), but that number of innings with one run allowed (and no walks to go with five K’s) is a performance any team would take.
J.R. Graham kept getting outs, so Paul Molitor rolled with him for three huge innings. Graham responded with his best performance of the season, giving the bullpen a big lift and showing glimpses of why the Twins are invested in the Rule 5 pick.
Torii Hunter continued to impress, cracking a three-run double in the first that stood as the only offense for Minnesota until the 13th.
But it was what happened in the 13th that was most encouraging of all — Joe Mauer’s first home run of the season, which proved to be the decisive run in the victory.
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Mauer’s RBI total coming into the game looked nice (he has 24 after the homer and is on pace for close to 100 this season), but much of that has been a function of a sizzling .419 batting average with runners in scoring position (as opposed to .207 with nobody on base). While it’s great for the Twins that he’s been getting clutch hits early this season, that kind of pace is not sustainable. And when those crazy three-run singles (like he had Tuesday) turn into two-out singles with nobody on, his RBI total will flatten out unless he starts driving the ball more.
His robust RBI total has obscured, in some ways, a lack of driving the ball. His OPS stands at .722 — lower than last year (.732) and lower than the “bilateral leg weakness” season of 2011 (.729). Mauer’s .381 slugging percentage is 21st among 26 qualified first basemen in the majors. Almost all of his fly balls have gone to left field, where getting extra-base hits (particularly homers) can be more challenging.
So when Mauer turned on a pitch from a lefty and smashed it to right field, it bucked many trends. He produced a run with nobody on base. He hit a long fly to right. And he hit a homer, period.
Mauer doesn’t have to do that every day to be effective, but seeing him turn on one and drive it … well, that stands as the most encouraging thing for the Twins on a night and quarter-season full of them.