DETROIT – He doesn’t yet have the famous mustache of Dennis Eckersley or Dan Quisenberry, but Trevor Hildenberger now has something more important in common with his fellow sidearmers: a major league save.
The rookie righthander was summoned to protect a 6-4 lead in the eighth inning Sunday, summoned, in fact, with a runner on base to face the very hitter who one night earlier handed the Twins a calamitous loss. And the enduring memory of Hildenberger’s three-pitch strikeout of Justin Upton to escape the jam will be the Tigers’ slugger going to one knee in a vain effort to reach a sinking 73-mph changeup — and then staying in that position for 90 seconds in disgust.
“It’s my best pitch. It’s the one I’m going to trust in tight situations. And as long as I keep it down and out of the zone, it’s a tough pitch to lift,” Hildenberger said. “Yeah, I know he has a lot of pop and he got us last night, but I’m going to go after him with my best pitch.”
Hildenberger assumed his assignment was complete as he walked off the field, but pitching coach Neil Allen asked him if he could get three more outs, and despite pitching for a third consecutive day, “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ ” The ninth took just 14 pitches, only two out of the strike zone, and Hildenberger had proved something.
“He said he felt great, so I wanted to ride with him as long as I could,” manager Paul Molitor said. “… He cleaned it up very nicely.”
Might he get more chances? The notion of a rookie sidearmer taking that role might seem unlikely, but Hildenberger has 52 minor league saves — or far more than former Twins closers Brandon Kintzler, Glen Perkins or even Joe Nathan had when they inherited the assignment.
“It’s possible. On any given day, it’s a rotating mix right now,” said Molitor, who had used Matt Belisle in the three previous save opportunities after Kintzler was traded. “I’d like to get it settled a little bit, but freshness is a quality we have to put in the equation. Obviously Hildy looks like he’s more than capable.”
The Twins hit seven home runs over the weekend in Comerica Park, but Molitor decided to try to manufacture runs a couple of times, too. So his hitters executed three sacrifice bunts Sunday (and failed at a fourth attempt), tying their season high.
Most notable among them: Byron Buxton dribbled a Matt Boyd curveball down the first base line in the second inning, and Eddie Rosario sprinted home from third to give the Twins a 2-0 lead.
“I actually thought about it on the first pitch of the at-bat,” Buxton said. “I got a slider in, and I saw the first baseman [John Hicks] back up a little bit.”
Molitor noticed, too, and had the same thought. He flashed the sign to Buxton, via third base coach Gene Glynn, and “I knew I had to get it to the perfect spot.”
He did, and finished off a rarity: It was the Twins’ first successful squeeze play since Kurt Suzuki executed the bunt in Baltimore two years ago, on Aug. 22, 2015.
• Brian Dozier clubbed the third pitch of the game into the Tigers’ bullpen, his sixth leadoff home run of the season, and 25th of his career.
• Miguel Sano also homered, golfing a low fastball in the third. “I don’t think he hit it particularly well,” Molitor said. “I don’t know if he used his knuckles, the handle or what.” It was Sano’s first homer since his left hand was injured by a pitch on Aug. 4.
• Lefthander Dietrich Enns will make his second career start on Saturday against the Diamondbacks, Molitor said, thus avoiding the first-place Indians.
• Glen Perkins threw 17 pitches for Class AA Chattanooga on Sunday, but only eight for strikes, walking two and recording one strikeout. Two runs were charged to him, and he took the loss to Birmingham. Perkins, rehabbing from shoulder surgery, is scheduled to pitch again Monday.