KANSAS CITY, MO. – Baseball isn’t basketball, where a team can force-feed its offense through its best player in the decisive moments. No, the Twins had to settle for Joe Mauer at the plate in the ninth inning Tuesday.
Instead of, say, Eduardo Escobar.
The utility infielder, who now leads the Twins in batting average, slugging percentage and RBI, collected three hits and crushed his first career home run, but he was standing on second base as Mauer, trying to bat amid a driving rainstorm with the bases loaded, swung and missed a Greg Holland changeup, ending the Twins’ second consecutive loss to the Royals, 7-4 in Kauffman Stadium.
“It’s tough enough to face a major-league closer; then you add in that stuff — the rain, the mud — it’s not easy,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, whose team fell behind 5-1 in the first inning and, despite doubling its season-long home run output in only five innings, never quite closed the gap. “But I’ll take that guy at the plate in that situation every time.”
OK, but Escobar looks like a pretty good second choice right now. Picked up from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, the (generously) 5-10 middle infielder is nobody’s idea of a power hitter, and certainly Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie never suspected as much. But after driving in a run with a single up the middle in the second inning, Escobar worked the count to 3-2 in the fifth, then waited for a fastball.
“I got the fastball, and I put a good swing on it,” he said through interpreter Wilkin Ramirez. “I never hit [a home run] in the big leagues. I never knew it was going that far.”
Escobar, batting lefthanded, slugged the ball nearly 400 feet, into the back of the seating area in left-center, the first home run of his 65-game major-league career. “That was impressive,” Gardenhire said. “He can swing the bat, but I don’t think any of us knew he could hit it that far [to the] opposite field. That was a pretty good swing.”
Only thing wrong with it: The bases were empty, just as they were when Mauer wrapped a Guthrie fastball just inside the left-field foul pole in the first inning, and when Josh Willingham sailed another fastball into the Royals bullpen in the third. The Twins hit as many home runs in five innings as they had in the season’s first seven games, but still trailed by three runs.
That’s because starter Mike Pelfrey’s sinker was staying too high to too many hitters. The former Met, coming off elbow-ligament replacement surgery less than a year ago, gave up hits to the first five batters he faced, gave up six runs in only two innings, and was done after throwing only 62 pitches.
“I was terrible tonight. The frustrating thing is, I had a lot better stuff today than I did [in his debut last Thursday], but I didn’t execute as well,” said Pelfrey (1-1), who beat the Tigers at Target Field last week. “The sinker was a little up, a little flat, and I left a couple over the middle. Like I said, they kicked my butt. I’ll take the blame for this — 6-2 after two [innings] is crap.”
Yet the Twins nearly climbed back. Anthony Swarzak allowed one run in four innings, Ryan Pressly pitched two scoreless frames, and the Twins loaded the bases in the ninth before the rally died in the steady rain.
More rain is in the forecast Wednesday, so the Royals might avoid having to face the Twins’ hottest hitter for awhile. Escobar is hitting .545 on the season now, he’s slugging .909, and his five RBI are tied for the team lead. And he’s second on the team in homers, too, ahead of a few notable power hitters.
“I’m happy about [the] home run,” Escobar said shyly, “but I don’t think it’s going to be long before [Justin] Morneau has more than me.”