The role of Major T.J. “King’’ Kong in Dr. Strangelove was the zenith of Slim Pickens’ magnificent acting career, although only by a small margin over “Taggart’’ in Blazing Saddles.
And whenever truly puzzled by a sports happening, I can’t help but recall Taggart riding up on the crew of nitwits working for him and shouting: “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a’ goin’ on here?’’
I’ve been recalling Taggart a great deal this month while following the Twins, as they have combined surprising pitching with shocking power for the best record in the major leagues and the best 52-game start in franchise history: 36-16, 20 games over .500, and 10 games ahead of the gasping pack of followers in the AL Central.
The weakness of the Central could be offered as an explanation for the flying start of the Juniper Jolters, except the three-game weekend sweep of the White Sox left the Twins with 14 of their 52 games played vs. the division, and with 62 left among the 110 games that remain.
This is a bit premature, obviously, but at this point it’s remindful in competitiveness of 1995 when the AL Central was played to a conclusion for the first time (with a schedule shortened to 144 games by the work stoppage lingering from 1994):
Cleveland, 100-44, __; Kansas City, 70-74, 30 GB; White Sox, 68-96, 32 GB; Milwaukee, 65-79, 35 GB; Twins, 56-88, 44 GB.
Detroit was in the East then, although the Tigers would have fit right in with the hapless pursuit of the Indians, since they were 60-84 that season.
On Sunday, on the one beautiful weather day per week permitted in 2019 in the Twin Cities, several sports writers were trying to solve the Taggart question – what’s going on?
It was mid-game, another win seemed likely, and the answer among press box wags (as opposed to tabloid WAGs) seemed to be there was no answer on how this had come together so remarkably in the opening two months of a season with modest expectations.
And then it came, in a bulky blur, a clear vision of the source for all of this – much like that trickle of water at Itasca is the source for the mighty Mississippi:
The lead was still 4-0 in the bottom of seventh, when Willians Astudillo, getting the Sunday duty at third in place of Miguel Sano, led off with a single to center. Jason Castro followed by slapping a single into left-center, with the ball being retrieved by the White Sox’ ballyhooed rookie, Eloy Jimenez.
Scouting report: Jimenez has high-end skills, other than his throwing.
As Astudillo rumbled toward second, few in the sellout audience of over 39,000 anticipated what was to come. Wondrous Willie gave it his best imitation of the Chris Paul hesitation as he hit second, and then he was off toward third.
Jimenez paused a tick and his throw was less than a bullet. Yet, the ball might have been there for third baseman Yoan Moncada to make a tag if Astudillo had come directly at the base.
The helmet was lost and the hair was flying as Willians went belly-first to his right, then used his right hand to keep contact with the bag as Moncada followed him with a potential tag. By the end, Astudillo was on his backside and retaining a hold on the bag with two thick fingers.
The cheer that built for this latest Astudillo base-running adventure was as loud as for either of the three-run home runs struck on Sunday by the Twins – Eddie Rosario’s screamer to right and Max Kepler’s blast into the juniper plants in center.
Willians added to the fun by getting caught in a rundown between third and home after a Byron Buxton smash failed to get past Moncada, and cast aside his helmet in the process.
“We know that people come to the game hoping to see home runs, and to see Willians take the extra base,’’ manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Baldelli still was in Tampa last Sept. 12, when Astudillo’s base-running turned him into a folk hero here in Minnesota, and as a character of the game, nationally.
It was that night when Astudillo scored from first on Kepler’s double in the seventh inning to give the Twins a 2-0 lead over the Yankees at Target Field. The flying hair, the earnest grimace and the puffing of facial cheeks as he rumbled between second and third and then home …
Many have run faster in a baseball uniform, but none has run harder.
And the image of the determined Astudillo on the fly became a social media sensation that lives today.
It also was the night that everything changed for the Twins. They completed a series victory over the Yankees and were 12-6 from the moment of Astudillo’s romp to the end of the season. They scored 104 runs in those 18 games and were a plus-33 in run differential.
Add it up: Since Astudillo’s first fantastic base-running adventure through Sunday’s, the Twins were 48-22 with a run differential of 144.
OK, there have been a few changes – Baldelli, most of the coaching staff and key parts of the roster -- but I’m saying this started when Willians scored from first on Kepler’s double.
“Really? That’s when it turned around for us?’’ said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ CEO for baseball, when the theory was offered to him after Sunday’s victory.
Yup. I don’t have another answer for the Taggart question on the 2019 Twins, so I’m going with this one: Willians Magic, as seen when he takes off hell-bent from first base, the turtle who thinks he’s a hare.