Kyle Gibson had five strong starts in a row and now he had one on Sunday that the Twins needed more than any other. The Twins were completing a homestand and then heading off on a 10-game road trip to New York (3), Detroit (4) and Cleveland (3).
The Tigers’ presence in the middle of the Eastern journey might seem comforting on the surface, but there is no such thing as a layup at this point in a baseball season.
Gene Mauch used to call a short losing streak a “snag,’’ and another loss on Sunday had the potential to turn a snag into a season-killing slump for the Twins.
One of the Twins veterans was saying recently that he was amazed by the pressure-free attitude he senses from the younger core of players, as the team competes for the last spot in the American League postseason.
The homestand started with 16 runs on Tuesday, and then walkoff home runs by Eddie Rosario on Wednesday and Byron Buxton on Thursday. The lead over the L.A. Angels for the second wild card had increased to three games.
What was hidden in those walkoffs was minimal hitting through nine innings. Then came a pair of losses to Toronto on Friday and Saturday, and again the bats were largely quiet.
The Angels had won twice vs. Texas, .the lead was down to one, and even those naïve young guys might have felt it if this team had gone limping off to New York with three straight losses and the wild-card lead down the drain.
Yup, the Twins needed another solid game from Gibson, and then he went out and threw 38 pitches and gave up four runs in the first. The first of those runs came on a mammoth home run by Josh Donaldson – a shot into the third deck that was estimated by the Twins at 476 feet, the third longest in Target Field history.
The outcome was so certain when Donaldson cranked the baseball that left fielder Rosario – rather that moving toward the fence – bent over and tied a shoe lace.
“Man, Donaldson hits a baseball so hard,’’ reliever Glen Perkins said. “The exit velocity was 113 [miles per hour]. It’s incredible to hit a baseball that hard at that angle.’’
That nuclear baseball shook up Gibson – as it would have most any pitcher. He walked four before the inning was over. The four walks equaled Gibson’s total in his previous six starts.
When the four-run first was over, half of the crowd (Blue Jays fans from Manitoba) cheered, and half of the crowd (Twins fans) gave a catcall to Gibson.
The Twins went peacefully in the first, and then Donaldson homered again, into lower left field. The estimate was 370 feet. Not often you get to see someone hit a ball 106 feet fewer than in his previous at-bat, and still have it be a home run.
Gibson had faced 11 batters, it was 5-0, and while most Minnesotans watching television on Sunday were whining about the refs robbing the Vikings, there had to be few tuned into the Twins and saying, “The real Gibby is back; I knew we couldn’t trust him.’’
And then something strange happened – although maybe it wasn’t, since Gibson’s most-recent starts in Target Field resulted in a 17-0 victory on Sept. 2, and a 16-0 victory on Sept. 12.
Joe Biagini was the Blue Jays starter. He was 3-10 with a 5.07 ERA, and he demonstrated the legitimacy of those numbers in the bottom of the second:
Rosario led off with his 25th home run. Buxton followed with his 16th home run. Before the half-inning was over, Rosario had added a single, Buxton had added an RBI double, the Blue Jays had followed Biagini with two more pitchers, and the Twins had seven runs.
The Twins added six more runs in the fifth, and this included a grand slam by Joe Mauer – a very long shot toward the plaza in right field. It was Mauer’s fourth career grand slam, and his first in Minnesota … none previously in his eight seasons in Target Field, nor in his six at the Metrodome.
We need an asterisk for that Minnesota part. He must have hit a couple playing for Cretin-Derham Hall …. right, Joe?
“Yeah, I probably bounced one (a grand slam ball) off The Nook,’’ Mauer said, referring to the famed hamburger joint across the street from Cretin’s ballyard.
Gibson allowed no hits and one walk after Donaldson’s second home run. He finished with 13 straight outs and a total of 96 pitches in six innings. Included was a Donaldson strikeout when the Jays slugger sent his bat flying as he waved at a 3-2 slider.
“Mollie asked me if I wanted to keep the baseball after getting out Donaldson,’’ said Gibson, smiling slightly. “I knew there was no chance to find the first two.’’
Manager Paul Molitor also said Gibson’s comeback to work six innings after the terrible beginning was as impressive as any of the five previous strong starts.
“It was one of the bigger wins we’ve had in the last couple of weeks,’’ Molitor said. “Gibby hung in there, waiting for double-digit run support.’’
The final was 13-7 for the Twins. They would be leaving for New York and other points East still in the lead for the second wild card ... now two games after Texas beat the Angels.
The Twins are now 78-71, and none of those 78 has been more vital than coming back from the 5-0 hole on Sunday. You can’t afford to let a snag turn into a slump with two weeks left in the schedule.