FORT MYERS, FLA. – There was a seven-team hog pile for the final wild-card spot in the American League after the games of July 31, 2017. The Twins were fourth in that mess at 50-53, and 4½ games behind a Kansas City club (55-49) that had emerged as the favorite to finish fifth.
The Twins traded starter Jamie Garcia on July 30, six days and one winning start after acquiring him, and then traded closer Brandon Kintzler on the July 31 deadline.
The Twins were in San Diego the next day and manager Paul Molitor was listening to his musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. He heard the words, “No retreat, baby, no surrender,” and when he arrived at the ballpark, he wrote that on a board in the clubhouse:
“No Retreat. No Surrender.”
Brian Dozier, the veteran second baseman, expressed his dismay to the contingent of sportswriters traveling with the Twins, stating the front office should have been adding help for a wild-card push rather than subtracting Garcia and Kintzler.
And that has become the legend: The Twins were agitated by the lack of support from new baseball boss Derek Falvey and were carried by that emotion to an improbable wild-card berth.
I was having a conversation with Gene Glynn, the Twins’ third base and infield coach, based on shortstop Jorge Polanco this week at Hammond Stadium. And he offered another theory as to what happened with the 2017 Twins after the trading deadline passed.
“Have you taken a good look at what those four guys did the last two months?” Glynn said.
“Polanco. Rosario. Buxton. Escobar. You couldn’t have traded for four players and improved your club as much as those guys improved us the last two months.”
This was mentioned to Molitor later in the manager’s office: the secret of the playoff push being the improved and outstanding play from Polanco, Rosario, Buxton and Escobar, as opposed to a team driven by agitation after being left for dead at the trading deadline by its baseball decisionmakers.
Molitor smiled and said: “I don’t think Jorge, Eddie, Byron and Esky are the kind of guys to be driven by being upset at the front office. I do think when a couple of guys start hitting, other talented players have a tendency to feed off that.
“And when you get a half-dozen guys swinging well, that’s when teams go on a hot streak. It’s always been that way.”
The Twins were shut out 3-0 on three hits in San Diego on Aug. 1. They went 20-9 for the rest of the August, followed that with a workmanlike 15-14 from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1. They won the second wild card at 85-77 and by five games over Tampa Bay, Kansas City and the L.A. Angels.
And here’s what they received after the trading deadline from the four players that Glynn, the baseball man from Waseca, Minn., cites as providing more improvement than could have been found through multiple trades:
• Polanco turned 24 at midseason. He went through a miserable July — a 4-for-51 collapse that dropped his average to .213 and had him benched for eight of 10 games going into August. He returned to the lineup on Aug. 2, and in 55 starts he batted .316 (65-for-234), with 10 home runs among 27 extra-base hits and 42 RBI.
• Rosario was 24 throughout the season. He started 56 games after the trading deadline, and batted .292 with 16 home runs and 44 RBI — the highest Twins total in those two months.
• Buxton played the season at age 23. He missed the last two weeks of July because of an injury. His season average was .218, and the strikeouts were horrific. He dumped the idea of that ridiculous leg kick and returned to the lineup on Aug. 1. In 56 games, he batted .298 with 11 home runs among 23 extra-base hits and 35 RBI. He was 13-for-13 on stolen bases and covered as much ground in center field as has ever been witnessed by occupants of this planet.
• Escobar was 28 and still the extra guy, playing often but not every day until Miguel Sano left the lineup in the middle of August. Over the last two months, Escobar produced 11 home runs and 38 RBI and maintained third base as a position of strength for the Twins.
The one guy who might have been inspired by agitation was Dozier, and he also was outstanding over the last two months, batting .314 with 17 home runs and 41 RBI.
“Doz is an All-Star player, and when he gets hot, watch out,” Glynn said.
“But those four guys — Polanco, Rosario, Buxton, Escobar — and the way they played. That was better than any trade.”