The Seattle Mariners will make an unscheduled stop at Target Field on Monday night, delaying their return home from a Toronto-Detroit road trip by a day to complete some unfinished business. The game was supposed to be played April 8, but temperatures in Minneapolis never reached the 30s that day, and who wants to play baseball in that?
Wait. Brian Dozier does.
“Just bundle up, that’s all I’ve got to say,” the Twins second baseman said. “It’s hard to play your best in that weather, no doubt, but it’s the same for both teams. And this is our job. We’re still alive and playing baseball, so that ain’t bad.”
Dozier’s Zen in the face of April’s windchill, remarkable for a Mississippi native, is instructive for his professional home state, too. If there was a lesson learned during the wintry first month of the 2018 season, it’s this: Get used to it, Minnesota. Baseball on ice is just part of life in the Bold North, and there are no easy ways to change it. In fact, it may get worse before it gets better.
“This April was by far the harshest April we’ve had since moving to Target Field,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “I hope Minnesotans realize it wasn’t just here. Major League Baseball had more winter-weather disruptions this year than at any time in the history of our game.”
It gets worse. The Twins haven’t seen their preliminary 2019 schedule yet, but they know what it will almost certainly say: Next year Minnesota will play its first-ever outdoor home games in March. The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled across downtown for April 6-8, and hotel availability dictates that the Twins must be on the road that weekend. Since the MLB season opens March 28, the Twins’ choices are to play in Target Field before the basketball players arrive, or spend two weeks on the road before coming home.
“It’s my expectation that we’ll open at home, but people need to remember — the Gophers played at Target Field in March [in a ballpark test-run against Louisiana Tech in 2010], and temperatures were in the mid-50s,” St. Peter said. “It’s not ideal, but we’ll hope that Mother Nature cooperates.”
The MLB season, beginning this year, opens four days earlier than its traditional first-Monday-in-April start, because the players, in the latest collective bargaining agreement, succeeded in moving Opening Day ahead by four days to create more days off during the season. Some of those off days — Monday against the Mariners, say — will be consumed by makeup games, something southern teams won’t experience as often. “Once you get through April, though, you’re glad to have more breaks,” Dozier said.
The Twins took a respite from Minnesota’s long winter by playing two home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico — but one the Twins aren’t interested in making an annual ritual. Wait, wouldn’t moving two or three games each April to Hawaii, or Mexico, or Cuba, or Puerto Rico make sense for a team playing on frozen turf?
“Not really. Not to me,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “I wouldn’t want to give up home games. There are enough climates north enough that will always be a problem. It was just an extreme year this year.”
St. Peter echoed the same thoughts — the Twins are eager to take part in growing the game internationally, and April is ideal, given the weather. But it should be a special occasion, not a schedule gimmick, he said. For one thing, the Twins make money on Target Field games, even when the crowd is miniaturized by cold weather. And it’s not fair to fans to constantly move games, he said, and not fair to the team to take on a competitive disadvantage.
“I loved going to Puerto Rico, it was great fun,” Dozier said. “It’s tough giving up home games, though. They’re big for us.”
April games, good weather or bad, are the poorest-drawing games on a schedule, since kids are still in school. So teams in domes or warmer climates balk when their schedules are loaded with April home games, meaning Twins players should get used to wearing stocking caps and long underwear in April.
There is one adjustment the Twins — players, manager, president — would like to see: Play division foes in April, at least where weather is a concern. The Twins had to postpone three straight games this year for a mid-April blizzard; if they hadn’t been playing the White Sox, who come back two more times, St. Peter said, they would have had to move the games to a dome or warmer climate, “and we don’t ever want to do that to our fans.”
That’s an adjustment that can be made, Dozier said. “Make the schedule flexible by playing division opponents, so [postponements] aren’t such a big deal,” he said. “You can’t fix the weather, but we can be smarter about how we deal with it.”
The Twins have gotten quite a boost by calling up rookie righthander Fernando Romero, who didn’t allow a run in his first two career starts. But other AL Central teams may soon try to get a similar upgrade. Here are a few new faces to watch for:
Indians: With plans to defend their division title and a weak farm system, Cleveland has no impact rookie on the horizon. But they signed veteran outfielder Melky Cabrera in April, and he is at Class AAA Columbus now, fine-tuning his swing. If Cabrera, 33, has anything left, he can help an offense that entered Saturday hitting only .242.
Royals: Righthander Jason Adams struck out 17 in 11 dominant minor league innings, so the Overland Park, Kan., native was called up last week to buttress a bad bullpen. Recall the name? The Royals traded him to the Twins for Josh Willingham in 2014, but Adam developed elbow trouble. Tommy John surgery revived his arm, and career.
Tigers: Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz vouches for the plate discipline of outfielder Christin Stewart, a 24-year-old outfielder who hits monstrous home runs and is batting over .300 in Triple-A. If Detroit can move veteran Leonys Martin, Stewart could be in line for an early promotion.
White Sox: They’re bound to stop giving starts to 30-somethings James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez and Hector Santiago soon. When they do, prized pitching prospect Michael Kopech, famed for his 103-mph fastball, figures to give the last-place Sox a chance to cheer for strikeouts: Kopech averages 11.5 per nine innings.
If Fernando Romero, who starts Sunday against the Angels, can pitch six scoreless innings, he will eclipse Andrew Albers as the Twins rookie who preserved a 0.00 ERA the longest.
Scoreless Innings to Begin Career, Twins Starters
17⅓: Andrew Albers, 2013
11⅔: Fernando Romero, 2018
11: Anthony Swarzak, 2009
8: Eric Milton, 1998
In his sixth big-league season, Kyle Gibson has suddenly become a strikeout pitcher, doubling his strikeout output even with no increase in workload. His first seven starts:
2018: 38⅔ IP, 44 K, 12 SR*, 10.23 K/9
2017: 31⅓ IP, 21 K, 10 SR, 6.03 K/9
2016: 38⅔ IP, 22 K, 9 SR, 5.12 K/9
2015: 43⅓ IP, 17 K, 8 SR, 3.53 K/9
2014: 38 IP, 17 K, 6 SR, 4.03 K/9
2013: 36⅓ IP, 20 K, 8 SR, 4.95 K/9
*-SR is swing rate, or percentage of pitches that are swung at and missed.