Twins insider La Velle E. Neal III
CHICAGO – Jorge Polanco’s suspension has ended and he’s returning to the Twins. And news that he could be in the lineup on Monday against the Brewers was met with predictable excitement.
“Everybody loves Polanco,” Eduardo Escobar said. “He’s a good kid. The most important thing is that he’s coming back and he is ready.”
Polanco will debut this week after serving an 80-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He was 6-for-13 with a triple in four games for Class AAA Rochester, convincing a team that’s desperate for offensive punch that he’s ready.
His quality at-bats and production at the plate last season helped the Twins reach the wild-card round of the postseason — and could provide a boost for the sputtering offense.
“He’s another one of those guys who helps everyone in the lineup by how he takes good at-bats over the course of a season,” manager Paul Molitor said.
But it can’t go unrecognized that his suspension was the first sign that this just might not be the Twins’ season.
The Twins looked ready to be a threat in the AL Central during spring training, especially when they added righthander Jake Odorizzi, first baseman Logan Morrison and righthander Lance Lynn — all capable veterans — after camp opened to add depth to the roster.
Then, on March 18, it was learned that Polanco would miss nearly half the season following a positive test for stanozolol. Escobar stepped in at short and was responding with an All-Star-worthy first half until a Rick Porcello fastball to his elbow sent him on a 2-for-34 tailspin before going 2-for-6 on Sunday.
The next troubling sign was when Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano landed on the disabled list during a two-week span starting in mid-April. The cornerstones of the Twins’ revival have not been the same since. After Buxton became sidelined by migraines, he broke his left big toe fouling a ball off it during a minor league rehab game. Sano recovered from a left hamstring strain but was so poor at the plate afterward, he currently is having what essentially is a second spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
Righthander Ervin Santana was expected to return from finger surgery in late April or early May, but he had setbacks, one rehab assignment called off and is just starting to ramp up another one — as the Twins look at his fastballs, now hitting 89-90 miles per hour, and hope the velocity ticks up.
Those four players combined for 14.5 of the Twins’ 36.6 WAR last season.
Good teams overcome injuries — but not these Twins at the moment.
Two more troubling signs popped up early in the season. The most significant was losing 12 one-run games over the first two months. The Twins earned those losses through poor clutch hitting, baserunning mistakes, defensive miscues and basically unclean baseball.
“Things are never perfect,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We have had people step up. But we still haven’t tapped into our full potential, but any means, this year.”
Sunday’s 11-10 loss to the Cubs, which dropped the Twins to 4-14 in one-run games, was the latest example. They battled back from 8-1 to make it interesting by the ninth inning. But when a team falls short, you look at the little things that went wrong.
Lynn, during his 1 ⅔-inning cameo appearance, didn’t rush over to cover first base on Ian Happ’s grounder in the second inning, costing the Twins an out in what became an eight-run inning.
“The arithmetic says that was an extra five runs because of that particular play,” Molitor said.
“That was on me right there,” Lynn said.
Molitor also thought the Twins had a chance to throw Willson Contreras out as he legged out a triple but missed a relay.
Enough with the misses. That allows opponents to escape with victories — the Twins’ eight walkoff losses are another signal of deep-rooted issues that are foiling their season.
Instead of taking the next step after losing to the Yankees in the wild-card round last October, they near the halfway point of the season 10 games under .500, nine games behind Cleveland in the AL Central, horrible in one-run games, baffled at times on the basepaths and looking nothing like the team they were a year ago.
By the time they get Polanco, Buxton, Sano and Santana back in the lineup, fans will be focusing on football season.
“I think it’s a combination at times of how we’ve played, how we’ve hit at times, how we’ve played defense at times, how we’ve run the bases and how we’ve pitched,” Molitor said. “All areas at times have been OK and at others they’ve cost us games.
“Approaching the halfway point. We talked briefly [Saturday] about how much season we’ve got left and you’ve got to create a vision of where you want this thing to go and you can’t let your guard down.”
La Velle E. Neal III covers the Twins for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org