For 10 games now, Ron Gardenhire has come to the ballpark and written down the same four names atop his lineup card — Santana, Dozier, Mauer, Vargas. It’s a habit he hasn’t gotten hooked on for a long time.
“It’s nice to have guys that you can just write in there every day, that you can depend on,” the Twins manager said about the late-season stability. “It lets guys kind of settle in and know where they will be, and that helps them prepare. ... For young guys, it takes some of the pressure off.”
Maybe so. Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas, locked in lately to their lineup spots, don’t seem to be feeling any pressure.
Vargas walloped three hits Thursday, including a home run and a double, both to the opposite field, off one of the AL’s best pitchers, and the Twins salvaged a series finale once more, beating Corey Kluber and Cleveland 4-1 at Target Field.
Santana had a couple of hits, too, and Trevor Plouffe drove in Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia with a double into the corner, making Phil Hughes the Twins’ first 14-game winner since 2010.
The Twins might be trudging along in last place, but they are using the time to find out about their young players, and this extended stint of locked-in lineups has had the positive effect Gardenhire was looking for. Not since July 2011 — when Ben Revere, Alexi Casilla, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer were atop the lineup for 16 consecutive days — has he been able to stick to a quartet up top for so long, and Santana and Vargas have clearly benefited.
“I’m really comfortable,” said Vargas, who has played every day since joining the team on Aug. 1. “I just try to look for my pitch, and try to hit earlier than two strikes, or try to get a better pitch.”
Thursday, after all, was Vargas’ seventh multi-hit game in his first three weeks in the majors, and this one might have been the 24-year-old Puerto Rican’s most impressive yet. Kluber had won six games in a row, had allowed more than two runs only once since June 10, and had not surrendered a home run since July 11. So Vargas was understandably victimized in his first at-bat, striking out on a 93-mph high fastball.
Gardenhire noticed that the 270-pound DH was smiling as he came back to the dugout. “He’s calm. It doesn’t look like anything affects him,” the manager said. “Maybe a little bit bigger smile when he hits a homer.”
He got that chance in the fourth inning, after seeing Kluber’s mix of pitches. He took a ball, then connected on a sinking fastball, lofting it into the left field seats, his first opposite-field homer of his big-league career. Was he trying to go the other way? “I try to go to the middle,” he said. “The ball goes wherever it goes.”
That’s how the best hitters do it, said Gardenhire. “He’s just trying to put the barrel on the ball, not hit it this way or that way. His whole goal is to put the barrel on it, [and] whether it’s to left, right, center, it doesn’t matter. If you watch [Tigers two-time MVP Miguel] Cabrera, that’s what he does. He doesn’t care where it goes. And this kid has that kind of strength.”
It’s repeatable, too. With one out in the sixth inning, Vargas got another hittable pitch from Kluber, and pummeled it to the warning track in center field. It bounced into the bullpen for a ground-rule double, and after an Arcia walk, Vargas scored on Plouffe’s hard grounder into the corner.
Is he surprised that he’s hitting .316 after three weeks, that he has four homers already, that he looks like a guy who could be cemented into that cleanup spot for a long time to come?
“No,” he said sheepishly. “Because I always play like that — minor leagues, big leagues, nothing changes. I still play like I know I can play and try to win games.”