CHICAGO – Paul Molitor isn’t sure where Torii Hunter’s first-inning at-bat against Chris Sale might rank by the time this season is over. But it’s one he will remember for a long time.
“I think it’s going to stand up there, whether it’s alone [at the top] or [in the] top five,” Molitor said after the Twins’ 7-0 victory over the White Sox. “Given where we are, who we were facing, trying to get a winning road trip — that was huge. Falling behind, fouling off those pitches … .”
And then lacing a 96-miles-per-hour fastball into the seats. Hunter’s three-run homer staked the Twins to a 4-0 lead and gave his teammates, Molitor said, yet another example of how to succeed at pennant-race baseball.
“Everything he does, he’s showing young guys. He’s out there, [before a] day game, he takes his swings, then goes out in the outfield and runs sprints. He knows what he has to do to get ready.” Molitor said of the 40-year-old outfielder. “To grind out an at-bat like that, at the beginning of the game against an All-Star-caliber pitcher, you just hope people are paying attention.”
Actually, Hunter said, he wasn’t trying to hit a home run; Sale is too good for that. He fouled off the first five pitches Sale threw, three of them sliders, mostly playing defense. “I was not expecting sliders. He throws 97, so I’m looking for a fastball and trying to make the adjustment on a slider,” Hunter said. “I was able to foul some good pitches off that he came at me with.”
Finally, Sale missed with a couple of pitches, including a wild pitch, then began flooding the strike zone with fastballs. After two more were fouled off, Sale’s 10th pitch buzzed a little too far inside, and Hunter was ready. “I stayed short, just tried to get a base hit, and hit it out of the park,” he said. “I don’t know how. I still don’t know how, but thank you.”
It was the 350th home run of Hunter’s career and his first since his ninth-inning, go-ahead shot at Cleveland on Aug. 7. It was also his 211th homer with the Twins, tying him with Bob Allison for fifth all-time.
It also was the first time he has seen nine pitches before hitting a home run. “I usually like to jump on the first pitch,” he joked. “I don’t like to wait 10 pitches.”
Two innings later, Hunter lined a two-out single to center, helping the Twins add to their lead and knock Sale out of the game.
Hunter has come out of his six-week slump at just the right time, Molitor said; Sunday was his fourth multi-hit game in his past six starts.
“A lot of people looked at that segment of the season where things turned on him, but he’s fought through it,” Molitor said. “I’m going to try to find ways to get him in there. I like how he approaches it, I like his experience. He responded today and had the biggest at-bats of the game.”
Shane Robinson was not with the team this weekend. He returned to Boston, where his 10-month-old daughter, Harper, remains hospitalized after being born with a condition in which her esophagus was not properly connected to her stomach.
Molitor said he encouraged Robinson to go join his family. The outfielder, who left the team via the family emergency list twice earlier this year, hopes to return to the Twins Monday.