One game does not make a baseball season, but it sure makes a difference.
All winter long, all spring long, the propaganda was strong, the mold was supposedly cast. The Twins, it appeared, would rely on speed, defense and pitching while picking their offensive spots.
“Vice versa,” Billy Gardner said. “We played lousy.” And he was talking about Tuesday night, when his club decided to rely on power and very little else.
Before the largest baseball audience in Minnesota history, 52,279, the Twins started their American League season by letting the Seattle Mariners slip through their hands 11-7.
It was not an ideal first impression. Instead, it was an opening misfire with a collection of almosts.
Gary Gaetti, the rookie third baseman, almost hit three home runs. He had to settle for two.
Dave Engle, the right fielder, almost executed a shoe-top catch. He had to settle for a home run and the memory of two botched plays.
“It really took away from my evening,” he said of his fielding.
Mickey Hatcher, the left fielder, almost held on to a bloop single that ultimately led to three Seattle runs and the margin of defeat. He had to settle for a laceration near his left eye.
Sure, the Twins fought back from being on the short end of a 4-1 score in the fourth inning. Sure they charged back from a 10-4 disadvantage to make things interesting by the end of the eighth inning.
But the Mariners, whom the Twins need to beat to establish some credibility in the AL West, scrambled better, accosting Twins starter and loser Pete Redfern for five runs in five innings and then assaulting the team’s top middle-inning reliever, Bobby Castillo, for five more runs in just a two-inning span.
Meanwhile, the Mariners were getting 7 ⅔ innings and 10 strikeouts from their lefthanded starter and winner, Floyd Bannister and a nifty save from Mike Stanton. Bannister, a free agent at season’s end and desired by every team with a hefty checkbook, suggested his performance was inconsistent last night. The Twins could have claimed the same.
Redfern pointed to a two-run, third-inning single by Mariners second baseman Julio Cruz, off a down-the-middle fastball, as the dastardly mistake he would have preferred to avoid.
Gardner pointed to the Jim Maler bases-loaded single in the seventh inning, just out of Hatcher’s reach, as the difference. Maler, the Mariners’ rookie first baseman, collected five RBI.
But there were four plays in the outfield that altered the final result and that negated Gaetti’s four-hit, four-RBI, two-homer performance, Engle was there for two of them.
The first came after Cruz was on first base after driving home those two runs in the third, Manny Castillo ripped a sinking line drive toward right field and Engle. And he was ready to catch the ball. He didn’t.
“It just doesn’t look like we’ll be able to dive on that stuff,” Engle said, meaning the Metrodome’s coarse Superturf surface. “Normally, on a play like that I’ll slide. But as soon as I hit the ground I stuck and stopped. On grass, I’m sliding and I get that ball easy.”
The ball eluded him. Cruz scored. It was 3-1 and the one was Engle’s first-inning homer.
Three innings later, Engle and rookie center fielder Jim Eisenreich failed to communicate on a bloop single by Mariner Joe Simpson. Engle wanted the ball. Eisenreich didn’t hear him and the two bumped each other. The ball was loose, runners advanced to second and third and Maler, up next, hit a sacrifice fly. It was 4-1.
Though not for long. Gaetti hit a three-run homer to deep left field in the bottom of the fourth, two innings after failing in his attempt to get, he says, the first inside-the-park homer of his career. This was the fourth outfield play of the night that hurt the Twins. Mariners center fielder Joe Simpson made it.
When he rounded third, “I felt my legs feeling like lead,” said the 23-year-old third baseman “with the 35-year-old legs.” As he chugged toward Mariners catcher Jim Essian he decided to slide headfirst.
“Actually it was more like a fall than a slide.” Essian tagged his left hand. “Less than six inches. Less than the length of my fingers,” said Gaetti.
Hatcher understood. Three innings later, the Mariners bases were loaded. The score was 7-4 and Maler lofted a dying plopper behind shortstop Roy Smalley and in front of Hatcher.
“I had it. I had it in my glove,” Hatcher said. “But my glove stuck to the turf. It didn’t slide.”
He said it was like a Velcro effect.
“Maybe I’ll put Vaseline on my glove the next time. But my glove hit the turf and I thought I broke my wrist.”
Three runs scored.
What remained was another Gaetti homer, and a two-run single by Kent Hrbek, following an Engel walk and a Smalley double.
What remained was Gaetti saying, “I think anybody that comes in here is going to be a power team. If you bloop the ball it bounces 20 feet and it’s a double.” Or you can hit home runs.
That wasn’t the way the Twins were supposed to win games this year. They were supposed to go with the pitching and the defense. They didn’t last night and they lost.