CLEVELAND – If you’re heading to Target Field for Opening Day on Monday, it’s probably not necessary to buy a program. You know most of these guys already.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll see the Twins team that everyone was expecting.
Minnesota completed its first week of the 2014 season Sunday with a 10-7 victory over the Indians, a game that illustrated the upside-down persona that this team owns so far.
The batting order, widely projected as meek and unimposing, is relentless and opportunistic, as Cleveland ace Justin Masterson learned by giving up six runs in just 3 ⅔ innings. And who didn’t expect Chris Colabello to lead the American League in RBI, right? The starting pitching shows only faint signs of the Twins’ $84 million investment, with Ricky Nolasco’s ERA standing at 9.00 after “just a terrible day in general” at Progressive Field. And the reliable, shutdown bullpen has only shown up part of the time; Anthony Swarzak was torched for five hits among the nine hitters he face (though he was awarded the victory anyway), while four other relievers kept the Indians in check.
Best of all, the Twins stand at 3-3 before they ever play a home game.
“It’s good. We definitely played in bad [weather] conditions, but the guys did a good job of battling,” Nolasco said. “If we clean some things up, we’ll get on a roll.”
Maybe so. They’ll come home having scored 38 runs this season, more than any other AL team. Colabello drove in four of them Sunday, one on a fourth-inning single, and three more when he doubled deep to left-center with the bases loaded in the sixth.
“He’s settling in just fine,” manager Ron Gardenhire of his unexpected cleanup hitter. “He’s been doing it for us all week.”
He’s not the only one. Kurt Suzuki got the Twins on the board in the second inning with an RBI single, and the new catcher is now batting .429. Trevor Plouffe collected his seventh RBI with a third-inning single. Joe Mauer quietly had three hits, and while Brian Dozier didn’t have a hit, he walked three times, stole two bases and scored three runs.
“A lot of people were saying we were going to struggle just because of spring training,” Nolasco said. “But that just goes to show you what spring training’s about.”
True, but even Gardenhire, who gained his 1,001st victory Sunday, admits he was worried, considering they scored one or fewer runs six times in the final 10 days of training camp.
“I was worried about the way we swung the bats in Florida, yeah,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve always said don’t put too much stock in that, guys are getting ready for a season. But you would like to think the last week of spring training guys are starting to get into a groove, and we didn’t have too much of that. So I was not panicked — but panicked.”
No reason yet to panic about the starting rotation, beefed up with multiyear contracts for Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey. But only fifth starter Kyle Gibson earned a victory this week. Nolasco’s start was particularly rocky Sunday, especially after the Twins chased Masterson with five earned runs over 3 ⅔ innings.
He allowed a two-run homer to Yan Gomes in the second and in the fourth appeared to get out of a jam with a double-play grounder. But Mike Aviles barely beat the relay to first, an out that would have ended the inning, and Nolasco fell apart: walk, walk, bases-clearing double to Jason Kipnis, and another walk.
“I thought I was doing a good job battling for a while, but it just kind of got away from me there,” Nolasco said. “Big-league hitters will punish you when you put guys on.”
Overall, Gardenhire is pleased with how his team looks. Now he can’t wait to see them at home.
“We’ve got guys with track records. [Josh] Willingham, he was hurt the whole year , we know he’s going to do [good] things. Dozier’s a better player now, [Aaron] Hicks is going to be a better player. Suzuki is a contact guy, Plouffe’s going to have a better year. We know [Josmil] Pinto can come off the bench and hit,” Gardenhire said. “We know we’ve got some pretty good things going here.”