DETROIT – The Twins have been carried from the depths of the American League to the fringe of a pennant race this year by a stabilized pitching staff and an improved hitting attack. Turns out, there’s one more area that needs renovation.
The Twins defense suffered a nervous breakdown Sunday, with bobbles, overruns, and miscalculations setting the stage for a dropped fly ball in the bottom of the ninth that gift-wrapped a Father’s Day gift: a 4-3 Tigers victory made doubly disappointing by the sense that Detroit didn’t earn it. After all, Detroit’s first run scored because Oswaldo Arcia never saw Victor Martinez’s high fly ball in the bright sunshine, and the Tigers’ last run scored because Arcia couldn’t hold on to Martinez’s warning-track smash.
And in between? “Mistakes happen,” said starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who had to endure plenty of them. “You’ve got to keep going and move on to the next play and keep trying to grind. … Because everybody is trying as hard as they can.”
True, but so are the Tigers, “so it’s kind of tough against a lineup like this,” Nolasco said. “Give them a couple extra outs, and that’s what’s going to happen.”
Most discouraging, aside from the fall to three games below .500 once more, is that so much went right for the Twins. Detroit put runners in scoring position in seven of the nine innings but never broke the game open with a big hit. Nolasco and three relievers held the Tigers to 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position, constantly working out of trouble to keep the game close enough that one satisfying rally, after five innings of one-hit frustration against Tigers starter Rick Porcello, put the Twins ahead. Heck, Joe Mauer even sparked the sixth-inning uprising with a one-out double, a positive sign during his interminable slump.
With two outs, Josh Willingham doubled Mauer home, Kendrys Morales brought Willingham home with a single up the middle, and Morales himself scored from second when Detroit’s defense let down for a change. When Kurt Suzuki lined a single to left, the burly designated hitter was easily beaten to the plate by a throw from left fielder J.D. Martinez, but the ball short-hopped catcher Alex Avila and bounced away.
“When I coached third base for Tom Kelly, he said if I ever stop somebody [who was] at second base, he’d kill me. And I think he really would have,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “So we just send everybody. You get two-out base hits, you’re sending them most of the time. We were lucky, if you want to call it that, and we scored.”
That 3-2 lead didn’t last, though. Nolasco walked the next hitter he faced, gave up a single, and then after a strikeout of Austin Jackson, made a mistake pitch to Nick Castellanos that dented the left field wall. “I made a good pitch to start off Castellanos, and the only one I left up to him the whole game,” ended up as a double.
Even then, the Twins didn’t buckle. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Jared Burton came in and induced back-to-back pop-ups, ending the threat.
“It’s tough. Once you get a lead like that, you’re looking for a shutdown inning, and we didn’t get it,” Gardenhire said. “But the bullpen came in and did a fantastic job.”
If only the same could be said for the defense. Willingham let a double carom past him into a triple in left; Eduardo Escobar, playing third base, kicked a ground ball; Mauer misjudged a foul pop-up and let it fall. And with Torii Hunter on first in the ninth, Arcia made the biggest mistake of the day. Victor Martinez belted a Casey Fien pitch and stood and watched it, apparently believing he had hit it out. But it came down 365 feet away, on the warning track in right-center.
Arcia got there, got his glove up — and let the ball bounce out of it. “I thought the ball was going to be farther back. I tried to get back to the wall, but I messed up,” Arcia said through interpreter Bobby Cuellar, the bullpen coach. “I missed the ball.”
Hunter moved to third and scored easily on J.D. Martinez’s sacrifice fly to center, an unearned run punctuating a disappointing day.
Missed fly ball, missed chances. On Sunday, they were the same.