Phil Miller covered three seasons of Twins baseball, but that was at a different ballpark for a different newspaper. Now Miller returns to the baseball beat after joining the Star Tribune as the Gopher football writer in 2010, and he won't miss the dingy dome for a minute. In addition to the Twins and Gophers, Miller covered the Utah Jazz and the NBA for six years at The Salt Lake Tribune.
A trio of leftovers after a letdown of a night for Trevor May:
CATCHER CAN HIT: Both of them came after the Royals already had a lead, but Erik Kratz hit a pair of home runs Monday, one off Andrew Swarzak and one off Ryan Pressly. The first one, a seventh-inning line drive, amazed bench coach Terry Steinback. "I tip my hat to him. [It was a] broken bat," Steinbach said. "I don't think I've ever seen that in my career." It was a pinch-hit home run; Kratz was replacing Salvador Perez, who tweaked his right knee while running the bases. The injury to KC's all-star catcher was the story of the night for the Royals, but it appears he'll be OK; the removal was mostly precautionary. Kratz wasn't done, though, launching a towering home run in the ninth inning. The backup catcher has a Twins' tie, too, sort of: He was traded to the Royals, along with ex-Twin Liam Hendriks, by the Blue Jays a few weeks ago for another ex-Twin, infielder Danny Valencia.
HOME RUN HITTERS: Maybe it was the language barrier, but Oswaldo Arcia seemed to think I was serious when I asked him if he was aiming for the flag pole in right field. No, he said, just hit it out there anywhere. OK, but it was still an impressive shot, clanging off the pole and ricocheting to the left. Trevor Plouffe hit a long one, too, in the ninth inning, a three-run shot that closed the gap to 6-4 and briefly offered Twins fans some hope. But Royals manager Ned Yost responded by calling on closer Greg Holland, and he only needed seven pitches to finish off the Twins. The Twins have now hit 19 home runs in August, and 12 in the past eight games. They haven't hit more than 22 home runs in any month this season, and they have 13 games left to pass that mark.
A PAIR OF ROOKIES? Saturday's doubleheader figures to feature an odd juxtaposition in the Twins' pitching staff, if Yohan Pino is recalled from Rochester as the 26th man. If the Twins stay on rotation, Pino would pitch one game, and the pitcher who took his job will pitch the other. Pino pitched seven shutout innings Monday against Syracuse, while May was working his way through the Royals' lineup, giving up three runs in the fifth inning. The Twins are committed to the 24-year-old righthander and helping him develop into a major-league winner, but it would nevertheless be awkward if Pino outpitches May on Saturday.
It's sunny and clear at Target Field, perfect baseball weather. If only it would stay that way.
But forecasts make it clear that rain is coming, perhaps before first pitch, which means it could be a long night at the ballpark. Tonight is the Royals' final visit to Minneapolis, so both teams will want to wait as long as possible if it means getting the game in. The Royals would rather arrive in Denver later than scheduled tonight, in other words, than be forced to sacrifice a September off day to fly back and play a makeup game.
The Twins' normal early batting practice, optional for most players, was made mandatory today, because earlier radar models suggested regular batting practice could be washed out, too. It wasn't, so the Twins cut the later session short by about 45 minutes, leaving the field empty when it's usually teeming with activity. The Royals will soon begin taking their round of BP.
An off-and-on night would be bad news for Trevor May, too, since he needs to demonstrate that he can pitch at this level, that his nerves won't prevent him from throwing his fastball where he wants it. A 12.46 ERA in two appearances makes tonight's start important if May wants to finish the season with the Twins.
He'll be opposed by left-hander Jason Vargas, a control pitcher with a 3.27 ERA who threw a three-hitter against the A's in his last start. Vargas will face a Twins' lineup with Kennys Vargas, no relation, in the cleanup spot, making tonight the first Vargas vs. Vargas matchup in major-league history.
Here are the lineups for, cross your fingers, tonight's 7:10 p.m. start:
HOUSTON -- The Twins' seven-day road trip (which somehow feels like double that) ends this afternoon with a fairly interesting pitching matchup between young players trying to establish themselves as consistent winners. Brett Oberholtzer, now 25, was a real find for Houston last season, putting up a 2.76 ERA in 13 games (10 starts) as a midseason callup.
This year started much rougher for the lefthander; he was 0-6 one week into May and lost his job. But the lefty has bounced back well, and the Astros have won his last five starts, all of them quality starts, including back-to-back wins over Oakland. He has a 2.91 ERA in those games, and has allowed more than three earned runs just once in his last nine outings.
On the other side is 26-year-old Kyle Gibson, whose up-and-down fortunes are well known to Twins fans. His control problems were fatal in last Friday's loss in Oakland, turning into five earned runs, but he's had eight starts where he didn't allow a run. He's making his first start ever in Minute Maid Park, while Olberholtzer is making his first start ever against the Twins.
Here are the lineups for today's getaway game:
Four extra notes from under the (blissfully) air-conditioned roof:
SILVER LINING: It was a little odd to hear Trevor May describe an outing in which he gave up three runs in 2 1/3 innings in hopeful, positive terms, but that just tells you how much he wants to put Saturday's debut behind him. And maybe he accomplished that much. Certainly that was the hope of manager Ron Gardenhire, who didn't want his rookie pitcher to just stew over that first outing for 10 days. Giving him a relief appearance was a terrific idea; too bad May didn't dazzle. Still, he definitely found the positives in it. His confidence? "It's definitely up, because I know the things I need to do -- establish the [strike] zone early -- are all things I know how to do," May said. "I need to throw all my pitches for strikes. I know that I can do it. It hasn't shown in the last five innings, but it showed in the first 95."
NO MISTAKE, BUT AN ERROR: Speaking of May's outing, he was charged with only two earned runs, but that's just some scoring-rules silliness. When Marwin Gonzalez singled off May in the sixth inning, Danny Santana fielded the ball and threw it to the plate in hopes of getting Jake Marisnick trying to score. He would have, too, but the throw, straight on line and there ahead of the runner, skidded on the dirt and got past Kurt Suzuki. Gonzalez moved up to second base while the Twins chased the ball, so an error was charged to Santana, who did nothing but make a great throw. When Gonzalez eventually scored on Jose Altuve's single to center -- this time, Santana cut down the runner, getting Altuve at second -- his run was ruled unearned. Which is correct, but not right.
NO-HITTER FROM AFAR: One more note about May: His outing Tuesday came one day after he pitched a no-hitter. Sort of. May was the starting pitcher on July 24, when he pitched three hitless innings against Durham. The game was halted by rain, however, and when it resumed Monday in Durham, N.C., Logan Darnell -- who was on the Twins when it began -- pitched the final six innings and completed the no-hitter. Darnell, Alex Meyer and several other teammates texted May with the news as soon as the game ended. "I came in here after batting practice, and my phone had all these 'No-hitter!' 'We did it!' text messages," May said. "They said they wished I had been there so I could have been piled on, too. They all went out there and tackled him. It's pretty cool, it's something I've never been part of. But Logan definitely did most of the work."
WHOSE TURN, AGAIN? The Twins won't make any moves until they get back to Minneapolis, but their current plan is for Ricky Nolasco to pitch on Friday, followed by Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone and May. The current "official" probables list Pino as Monday's starter, but that's just because Nolasco will throw in the bullpen at Target Field on Wednesday, and there's no reason to activate him until he does. So don't be confused if the Twins' website lists a different order. Of course, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson could decide to keep Pino, too.
HOUSTON -- Yohan Pino makes his 10th career start for the Twins tonight in Miniute Maid Park, and it's an awkward one. If everything goes according to plan, it seems, tonight is also his final one for awhile.
Ricky Nolasco will throw a bullpen session at Target Field on Wednesday, and if he reports no problems, he'll probably start Friday's series opener against the Royals. That means one current member of the rotation has to go, and, well, it looks like Pino is the most logical candidate. A no-hitter tonight, or a complete-game shutout could change that, I suppose, but the Twins are committed to giving Trevor May a few starts to show what he can do, the other four spots are spoken for, and at 30 years old, Pino isn't considered a longterm solution.
I asked Ron Gardenhire if he would consider using six starting pitchers while it all sorts itself out. "I won't say there's no chance," he said, "but there's no chance. Not right this second, no."
He's obviously in a strange spot, too; it's probably not easy to send a guy to the mound knowing that he'll have to be optioned back to Class AAA Rochester soon. And Pino has had some good outings. Two runs over seven innings in his debut was a high point, and he does have three quality starts among his nine so far. If May doesn't bounce back in his next start or two from his disastrous debut in Oakland, Pino might be a handy backup plan. And it wouldn't surprise me at all if Pino is the "26th man" the Twins are allowed to activate for the doubleheader against Detroit coming up on Aug. 23.
But the likely pitching rotation against KC this weekend (not the Twins' "official" rotation, which won't include Nolasco until he's cleared to return tomorrow) is Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone and May. Subject to change, of course.
Oswaldo Arcia returns to action tonight after missing three games with a sore lower back. "He came in today and said he's fine, great," Gardenhire said. "He really hasn't done a lot of defensive work, but he comes in saying he's fine, I want him in the outfield."
It's 95 degrees outside, the roof is closed, and here are tonight's lineups:
Without a dome here in Houston, we'd be in the fourth inning right now, after waiting out a long delay for a loud thunderstorm that sent thunder rumbling through the dome for a couple of innings. Instead, you get to read four late-night notes from the Twins' 4-2 victory:
EIGHT YEARS LATER: Longtime Twins fans remember the game of June 22, 2006, the day Francisco Liriano outdueled Roger Clemens and the defending National League champions 4-2 in Minute Maid Park and lifted the Twins above .500 for good that season. But here's an oddity about that game: Joe Mauer, who was batting .375 at the time en route to his first batting title, has not played under Houston's dome since. Until Monday, anyway, when he certainly didn't look like a guy who had not seen major-league pitching in almost six weeks. With thunder and lightning creating a distraction, Mauer drew a walk in his first plate appearance, then doubled off the top of the wall in left field his next time up, missing a home run by a couple of feet. "Here, I thought it had a chance. In some other parks, that's an out," he said. He flew to center field, then smashed a line drive that first baseman Jon Singleton speared and turned into a double play. And in the ninth, he took a fastball the opposite way for a game-winning hit. "He made a really nice catch at first base, too," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Welcome back, Joe."
A VOID IN THE CLUBHOUSE: Brian Dozier said Josh Willingham "is my best friend, basically," and his attitude sort of summed up the feeling in the Twins' clubhouse after the game. The Twins were happy with the win, but Willingham was one of the most popular teammates in Minnesota's clubhouse, and more than one player made it clear how much he will be missed. But all acknowledged, too, that the transaction makes sense; Willingham's contract runs out in October, he's 35, and the Twins got a decent back-end-starter pitching prospect for him in righthander Jason Adam. Still, Gardenhire said, "it was not fun. I'm happy for him. I'm excited for him to go get into a pennant race -- he hasn't had been able to enjoy that. But it was a tough moment in the clubhouse."
GREEN LIGHT: Gardenhire wasn't overlooking Jordan Schafer's stolen base in the ninth inning, too, his fifth without being caught this year -- and against a catcher, in Jason Castro, who had already thrown out Danny Santana in the game. Schafer walked in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game, and everybody knew he would take off for second. Didn't matter. Schafer is now 20-for-22 on the season. "He's unbelievable. He can fly. When he gets on base, it's not if he's going to run, it's when," Gardenhire said. "He has a green light unless I give him a red light, and I haven't given him one yet."
STAY OUT OF TROUBLE: Figured all along that today's story would be Tommy Milone. Those plans were changed by Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer, but Milone was still impressive in his Twins debut. He gave up eight hits and three walks -- "I don't usually walk three guys," Milone said, "but I was a little amped up out there tonight." -- but worked out of trouble each time. His mistakes were home runs, by Jose Altuve and Chris Carter, but both were solo blasts. He was helped by a great double play started by Brian Dozier's amazingly quick flip to shortstop Eduardo Escobar in the second inning, ending a bases-loaded situation with no runs. "I felt like that was a shift right there. It could easily turn into a bad inning, and to come out with nothing, it was a momentum shift," Milone said. Using his 88-mph fastball and a variety of breaking balls, Milone also struck out five batters, two of them looking. Gardenhire said he was impressed. "I don't think he located as well as he normally does, but he changed speeds really well," Gardenhire said. "I like him."
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