Bottom of the ninth, and the Twins need a run. Fortunately, they’ve got the heart of the order coming up, their 3-4-5 hitters — first baseman Joe Mauer, right fielder Miguel Sano and designated hitter Oswaldo Arcia — to face Red Sox closer Matt Barnes with the American League pennant on the line.
It’s October 2016, and the Twins have transformed their roster, riding the greatest wave of young talent in the franchise’s history to a way-before-expected AL Central crown. Thanks to Cy Young candidate Alex Meyer and 17-game winner Jose Berrios, Minnesota clinched its division with a week to go in the season, then got past Texas in the Division Series. Now it’s the ALCS at Target Field, the Twins’ first chance in 25 years to advance to the World Series.
Counterpoint: “Yeah, that’s not really how we think about it,” says Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel. “They all arrive at different times. We can’t set up this big wave, this grand plan to build the team around them. When they’re ready, they’re ready.”
The Twins went through a rough four-year stretch earlier this decade, the worst in franchise history. But General Manager Terry Ryan used the setbacks to his advantage, turning a string of high draft picks into the deepest pool of talent the Twins ever have amassed. Just as he and Tom Kelly did 15 years earlier, Ryan patiently waited for the talent to mature, then brought up each player and plugged him into the lineup. The transformation was gradual, but the results were impressive: Minnesota appears ready to dominate its division for years to come.
Mauer was kept as an experienced hand and a stabilizing influence in a locker room that makes his boyish face appear middle-aged. He is no longer catching, but he hasn’t lost his batting stroke, and he leads off the ninth with a signature line drive over the shortstop’s head.
That brings up Sano, and immediately Boston’s third baseman backs up two steps, mostly for his own safety. The Dominican slugger hits the hardest screamers in the business, and this time, after taking two pitches, he lines one so hard to left that Mauer can only move up one base.
Counterpoint: “I’m thinking about this year’s team, not about who’s going to be on the roster in three or four years,” says General Manager Terry Ryan. “You just can’t predict how a player will develop. I’m trying to win right now.”
Here comes Arcia, who earlier this season became the first batter ever to ricochet a baseball off Target Center, roughly a city block away. The ball traveled so high and so far, umpires couldn’t tell if it was fair or foul, so they awarded him the home run simply out of respect. This time, though, he pops the ball up — Boston’s right fielder still has to back up to catch it, but Arcia clearly considers it a popup — and Mauer holds his base.
Given the nature of Game 7, the Twins’ other starting pitchers are in the bullpen, and Kyle Gibson, the righthander whose 29th birthday approaches in another week, has begun warming up in case the Twins tie the score. Closer Michael Tonkin already has pitched the ninth, without allowing a baserunner, of course, and striking out two. Luke Bard and Trevor May, the back end of the starting rotation, are available, too, if needed.
Counterpoint: “Is it tough to be patient? No, no, no, that’s the hallmark of our organization,” Radcliff says. “I’m sure some people daydream about all these guys being in the majors, but we don’t look at it like that. They’re all on their own path. And while you don’t want to refer to the players as commodities, it’s the nature of this business that at some point a lot of guys get traded. Often, it’s for their benefit as well as ours. But you don’t say, OK, that’s our team in three years. That just doesn’t work.”
Time is called as Max Kepler, the young German who serves as the fourth outfielder — he hasn’t been able to break into a Byron Buxton-Aaron Hicks-Miguel Sano outfield, and has been involved in trade rumors as the Twins hope to stock up their bullpen — comes out to run for Mauer, just in case. Up steps Kris Bryant, the third baseman drafted with the fourth overall pick out of San Diego in June 2013, a collegiate infielder who flew up the Twins minor league system to fill a position of need. But Bryant is fooled by a breaking pitch and strikes out.
Now comes Eddie Rosario, the second baseman and quietly one of the league’s leading RBI producers, with all the talent ahead of him. The Red Sox consider walking him, with defensive ace catcher Josmil Pinto on deck and Gold Glove shortstop Danny Santana in the ninth hole. Buxton and Hicks, the top of the order, know they can’t bat this inning, and watch from the top step. But Barnes pitches to Rosario, and immediately pays for it. The Dominican second baseman smiles with his false teeth, the result of an ugly beaning incident in 2012, as he watches his pennant-winning home run sail onto Target Plaza.