KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nobody has persevered through more ups and downs in his Twins career these past couple of seasons, has endured benchings and demotions and loss of opportunity yet battled back to be a valued contributor, than Eduardo Escobar.
Well, unless it's Tommy Milone.
"He trusts in what he does," manager Paul Molitor said of the lefthander. "He hasn't been that way the whole year."
No, but that pair of baseball Rodney Dangerfields has escaped the minor leagues, has forced Molitor to put them on the field, and on Monday they combined to carry the Twins past the runaway Royals. Escobar provided the runs, Milone handled run prevention, and the Twins held their ground in the wild-card chase by handing the reigning AL champions a 6-2 loss at packed Kauffman Stadium.
Escobar, who for two straight seasons has stepped in as the Twins starting shortstop when the incumbent faltered, went 3-for-3 with a double, knocked in three runs and scored another, raising his batting average to .458 (11-for-24) in September. But it was his walk that impressed Molitor most, a sign that Escobar is learning better on-base skills.
"One thing he's improved upon as of late is his patience, trying to keep the ball in the zone a little bit better," Molitor said. "When you're pressing, trying to find your way in the lineup a little more frequently, you get a little overaggressive at times."
Making pitchers throw more strikes, though, results in better pitches to hit.
Escobar got one from Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura in the sixth, and he used it to break a 1-1 tie with a sharp single that scored Torii Hunter. Then, with the Twins needing insurance runs in the seventh, he waited out four breaking pitches from reliever Joba Chamberlain, finally getting a fastball and popping a floater down the left-field line that speedy outfielder Paulo Orlando couldn't reach despite a sliding effort. That hit scored Trevor Plouffe and Hunter and improved Escobar's batting average when playing shortstop — as opposed to his occasional ventures to third base or left field — to .331.
"It's been a challenging year for him, I'm sure, trying to find his niche," Molitor said of the 26-year-old Venezuelan. "You go with people that are getting the job done. Right now, I'm getting steady defense, I'm getting good at-bats, [and] he's had a bit of a power surge. He fits in very nicely."
So does Milone, himself a minor reclamation project after being sent to the minor leagues in each of his two seasons since being acquired from Oakland in a trade last July. The lefthander with the variety of breaking balls and a fastball that never reaches 90 mph gave up a run in the first inning, then settled into a repetitive pattern of one ground ball out after another, 10 in all. He retired 14 of 15 hitters at one point, allowing the Twins to get to Ventura.
All that while trying to figure out plate umpire Pat Hoberg's strike zone, a bit higher than the lowball pitcher Milone is used to.
"He had to work tonight," Molitor said. "For a guy who keeps the ball down, he had to work a little bit extra hard for strikes, but he made the adjustment he had to."
That's what Milone has done since returning from the disabled list in mid-August; he's posted a 2.93 ERA now that he's back.
"I think the two-week stint on the DL kind of gave me a little bit of a refresher," Milone said. "I feel pretty strong."
Milone tired in the seventh, allowing a second run, and a third was wiped out by a Rosario-to-Plouffe-to-Suzuki relay that cut down Mike Moustakas at the plate. Trevor May, one day after blowing Tyler Duffey's win in Houston, pitched the eighth, and though he too had to throw a lot of pitches, May returned to his shutdown form. Kevin Jepsen finished off the Royals in the ninth, as rain began to fall.
"It's encouraging," Molitor said of the successful start to the three-game series. "It's a good win to beat Kansas City."