With their playoff position locked up, the Twins are using this weekend's series with the Tigers to test a few wrinkles they might utilize Tuesday in the AL wild-card game.
What if, for instance, they made Jose Berrios the first reliever behind Ervin Santana in that game, probably in Yankee Stadium? Have Ryan Pressly and Tyler Duffey put their command problems behind them enough to be trusted in the postseason? And the biggest, most surprising wild-card of all: Can Miguel Sano play?
The Twins activated their All-Star third baseman shortly before Friday night's 6-3 victory over Detroit, their sixth consecutive victory over the last-place Tigers, after watching him take an extended session of batting practice and do some running on the bases.
"We kind of decided there really is no downside. There's no place for him to go," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "He's finally at a point where some of the apprehension about the risk of playing has subsided."
Sano received a loud standing ovation from the Target Field announced crowd of 34,580 when he emerged in the seventh inning to pinch hit. He took an outside fastball from lefthander Chad Bell, then swung at an changeup, tapping it back to the pitcher. It wasn't much of a memory for his first game since Aug. 19, when he was placed on the disabled list because of a stress reaction in his left shin, but it meant a lot to Sano.
"I felt very good. Felt good in the box, saw the pitches well," Sano said. "So tomorrow I hope to be in the lineup and play the whole game."
The shin still hurts "a little bit, but not much," he said. "I'm ready. We've been working really hard. … I've got an opportunity to help my team."
Molitor loves the idea of having Sano available next week, even if it's only as a designated hitter or pinch hitter, but is far more skeptical that it's possible. But the manager willing to be convinced this weekend.
"I thought he looked fairly comfortable in the box. He just got out front on a changeup," Molitor said. "If we don't get any setbacks, there's a good chance we'll try to get him more at-bats in the DH role tomorrow."
Still, Molitor said before the game, "it's encouraging to some degree, but we have to keep perspective. August 19 — it's a long time not to face major league pitching."
What would it take to convince Molitor to devote one of his 25 roster spots in the wild-card game to Sano?
"I don't know how to quantify what I need to see. I'm going to be looking for timing and pitch recognition, some of those type of things," Molitor said. "Is it fair to do that in five at-bats, eight at-bats, whatever it is? It's going to be a tough call. There's something about having Sano available that is very appealing."
He feels the same way about having Berrios, 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA and a nasty curveball, available to relieve Santana in the late innings next week. So in the fifth inning Friday, with the Twins having built a 5-3 lead on back-to-back doubles by Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar in the first inning, and back-to-back homers by the same pair in the second, Molitor summoned the 23-year-old righthander for his first career relief appearance.
Berrios faced six hitters, threw 29 pitches and gave up two hits but no runs. He earned the victory in relief of Kyle Gibson, who fell behind 3-0 before retiring a batter and was lifted after 3⅔ innings.
"He'll probably tell you it felt fairly strange. But he settled in fairly well. It looked mostly crisp," Molitor said of Berrios. "It's rolling the dice, to some degree, when you take a young pitcher who hasn't pitched out of the pen. It's a different deal. How [Tuesday's] game unfolds, there are going to be some decisions to be made about whether I think it's the right time to bring him in or not."