Mitch Garver hit a pair of home runs that drove in four runs before a sellout crowd on Saturday night at Target Field. The first was a typical blast by Garver that carried out to left-center. The second was a game-changing three-runner that was his first of the season to straightaway right field.
This gave the Twins a 5-3 victory, and one that was required in this three-game series with pursuing Cleveland. Two would have been great, but one was vital to keep a level of comfort in the AL Central lead: Twins by 5½ with 19 left on the schedule.
There was a chance for that second victory Sunday, even with the Twins facing Mike Clevinger, the second coming of Mark (the Bird) Fidrych and 9-0 in his previous 12 starts entering the series finale.
Mark Fidrych? Never heard of him? That’s your problem. Look him up.
Clevinger cruised three innings, with only a walk to walking man LaMonte Wade Jr., and then Garver led off the fourth with a home run into the bullpen.
Later, the Twins kicked up a fuss in the seventh and Clevinger departed with a 5-1 lead, runners on second and third and one out. Reliever Nick Wittgren gave up a single and a run, then struck out pinch hitter C.J. Cron.
Hope was not lost. Garver was next, and more homer heroics would have put the Twins in position for another improbable victory in 24 weeks filled with them. Alas, no joy in Twinsville, for the Mighty Mitch struck out on a 2-2 fastball, and the Indians made it two of three with a 5-2 win.
Garver’s home run was his 29th and the first in three starts as a designated hitter. The previous 28 came as a catcher. No. 27 set a franchise record for home runs in a season when catching.
Garver was starting his 63rd game as a catcher and playing in his 71st. He has hit those record-busting 28 home runs in 288 plate appearances and 254 at-bats.
The record broken belonged to Earl Battey, the Twins’ original and outstanding catcher. He was a four-time All-Star from 1961 through 1966, in an era when managers did not spend much time discussing “rest and recovery.”
Tony Oliva broke into the Twins lineup in 1964. Sunday, he was providing analysis on the team’s Spanish broadcast. He was grabbed for a minute to repeat the praise offered for over a half-century by Battey’s teammates, still living or now deceased.
“Earl was our leader,” Oliva said. “If there was a problem in the clubhouse, he took care of it. And he came to the ballpark to catch every day — sometimes, both games of a doubleheader.
“For younger players, he was what it’s called … a mentor? He was a mentor.”
Battey set the Twins’ home run record as a catcher with 26 in 1963. He started 142 games at catcher and caught in four other games. As a catcher, he had 584 plate appearances and 502 at-bats.
Manager Rocco Baldelli has instituted a two-catcher system with the 2019 Twins: Garver and Jason Castro, sharing baseball’s most difficult and wearing position. Garver has started at catcher in 63 games, Castro in 65, and on Sunday, Willians Astudillo started his 15th.
It was mentioned to Baldelli after Sunday’s game that Battey started 142 games at catcher when setting the home run record busted by Garver.
Baldelli stared and then said: “Unbelievable. To play that many games at that position, in the equipment they had then … unbelievable.”
Battey played when teams had “everyday” catchers, and they were expected to take the beating and keep on ticking. I’ve watched Battey and every Twins catching situation that has followed, and here’s an opinion:
This position has never been handled better than it has been by Baldelli and his staff. Most every day, Garver has looked fresh and strong, and so has Castro, coming off a season when he had knee surgery and played only 19 games.
Garver has 28 home runs as a catcher, Castro 12 and Astudillo one, and those 41 home runs from the position are the most in AL history.
Observers are regularly stating, “Just think of what Garver’s numbers might be if he was playing 70 percent of the time,” but there is also this question to be asked:
“Would that hitting stroke have stayed as precise and powerful if he had caught 90 games rather than 63 with three weeks left in the season?”
Baldelli said: “That’s something none of us can answer. What we do know is our production and performance has been outstanding. Catching has been a tremendous strength for us.”