The day began with Byron Buxton uttering the word “hamate,” creating panic, and ended with Max Kepler taking a pitch off his shin, creating pandemonium.
With Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jason Castro and Robbie Grossman out of the lineup because of injuries, the Twins scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the White Sox 5-4 Thursday at Target Field, their fourth consecutive victory.
The winning run scored when Kepler took a pitch to the leg with the bases loaded, making him the first Twin since current manager Paul Molitor to produce a walkoff limp.
“I don’t remember that,” Molitor said. “I don’t even know if we had free gum in the dugouts back then.”
As August ends, the physically battered, emotionally buoyant Twins have a better record after 133 games than did the 1987 Twins, who won a World Series.
Should these Twins be compared to the champs? Logically, no, but what does logic have to do with anything this season? A team that lost 103 games last year has used 50 players, 35 pitchers, 16 starting pitchers, 16 rookies and 12 players making their major league debut, yet is passing the ’87 team like a shark passing Michael Phelps, closing in on the Yankees for the first wild-card spot.
Perhaps most important, a franchise that has felt cursed since Kirby Puckett woke up blind in 1996 had reason to feel lucky. Buxton said his hamate hurt. Hamate injuries end seasons. Turns out his hand is bruised but not broken, and his hamate is not involved.
“I was scared,” Buxton said. “It’s sore. But when I found out it wasn’t broken, I said, ‘Tape me up and let’s go.’ I don’t want to miss any of this.”
Who would? This is top-step-of-the-dugout baseball, and the Twins are winning even without Sano, heretofore their best player, and they are winning with Bartolo Colon, who is 44 but doesn’t pitch like he’s a day over 50.
Baseball is not obligated to make sense, so even an obviously silly comparison to 1987 is worth exploring.
What might have been forgotten in the mists of time is that the ’87 team really wasn’t all that dominant until it started playing games in the Metrodome in October. That team won 85 regular-season games to win a weak division. The 2017 Twins are on pace to win 85.3 games.
After 133 games in 1987, the Twins were 69-64. The current Twins are 70-63.
The ’87 Twins relied on a powerful lineup and two standout starting pitchers, Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven. The rest of their rotation featured Les Straker (4.37 ERA), Mike Smithson (5.94) and Joe Niekro (6.26).
The 2017 Twins don’t have excellent position players in their primes such as Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky, but the rise of Eddie Rosario, Buxton and Jorge Polanco would give them, along with Sano, one of the best young lineups in the game.
The most notable difference between the teams is that in ’87 the Twins featured a dominant closer in Jeff Reardon and the current team traded away its All-Star closer. But Brandon Kintzler is hardly dominating as a setup man in Washington.
When Reardon was in town for the 30th anniversary celebration of the ’87 title, he said, “When I got traded over, I watched us take batting practice and told my wife, ‘If we pitch at all, we’re going to be dangerous.’ ”
You could say the same about the 2017 edition. The Twins enter September with afterburners activated and an Autobahn of a schedule ahead.
The Angels made a strong move toward a wild-card spot by trading for the Tigers’ Justin Upton on Thursday. One Twins official noted, “That means we don’t have to face him in seven of the last 10 games of the season.”
The Twins aren’t just scoreboard-watching, they’re schedule-dissecting.
They should be. Buxton’s hamate is fine, and so is the view from the top step of the dugout these days.