CHICAGO – Opening Day is about the traditions. The red, white and blue bunting on the walls, the celebrity throwing the first pitch, the giant flag unfurled in the outfield and the introduction of the players along the foul line.
Oh, and the Twins offense fizzling.
Kurt Suzuki drove in three runs Monday in his first game with his new team, but his teammates were blanked by Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale as the Twins dropped their sixth consecutive season opener 5-3 at U.S. Cellular Field. It marked the seventh year in a row, and ninth time in a decade that the Twins mustered three runs or fewer on Opening Day, which explains the 2-8 record over that time.
“I thought we played pretty decent,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Just a couple of mistakes, and they end up in the seats.”
Alejandro De Aza put them there, connecting twice off his former Marlins teammate Ricky Nolasco. The righthander, the Twins’ $49 million free-agent investment this past offseason, gave up four runs in a messy first three innings, then settled down to retire nine of the last 11 hitters he faced. Nolasco starts the season with a 7.50 ERA, most of it due to De Aza.
“That’s what’s going to happen when you leave the ball in the middle against a good hitter,” said Nolasco, who gave up five runs on 10 hits over six innings. “I tried to throw a cutter there in the [second] inning, tried to get him to hit something foul, but it stayed middle, and he did a good job of hitting that ball.”
De Aza did, blasting the ball into a steady gale from right field and still managing to get it a dozen rows deep into the seats. Cuban important Jose Abreu scored in front of him for Chicago, and the Twins found themselves behind from the start.
They rallied, however, thanks to Suzuki, their $2.75 million investment as Joe Mauer’s successor behind the plate. And hitting in Mauer’s old spot in the order — only the second time he has batted second since 2009 — Suzuki produced just as Gardenhire had hoped. He singled twice in four at-bats, each time with runners in scoring position.
“He’s a great contact guy. [Against Sale], you’ve got to be able to put the ball in play,” Gardenhire said of putting Suzuki near the top of the lineup.
“The bottom of the lineup needs to roll over and put some people on, and we need to get them in.”
It worked a couple of times, with Aaron Hicks, the former leadoff hitter now batting eighth, knocking a single and a double to set up Suzuki. The catcher’s two-out hit to left field in the third inning brought home Oswaldo Arcia, who had walked, and Hicks to tie the score. In the eighth inning, Suzuki’s sharp grounder up the middle off reliever Ronald Belisario cashed in on Hicks’ leadoff double.
“I try not to do too much. I just try to barrel up the ball,” Suzuki said.
“You don’t have to hit a homer to drive in runs.”
It worked for De Aza, though. In the sixth, he jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Nolasco, hitting a low liner that carried into the Twins bullpen, the first White Sox player to homer twice on Opening Day since Jim Thome in 2008, and the first to do it in Chicago since Minnie Minoso in 1960.
In between, Chicago added two runs during Nolasco’s sloppiest inning, when three of the first four hitters in the third collected hits. Abreu’s single scored one to put Chicago ahead to stay. Adam Dunn then hit a popup that looked as if it would land around second base.
The gusty wind blew it far off course, however, and shortstop Pedro Florimon finally slid into foul territory in short left field to catch it.
Oddly, the Twins might have been better off if he had dropped it, because Conor Gillaspie tagged up while Florimon slid, and raced home.
“You can’t tell a fielder not to catch that ball,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Pedro made a great play. It just had a bad ending.”
That’s how the Twins felt about the whole day. After three consecutive disastrous seasons, they felt good about how they played.
It just had a bad ending. As usual.