HOUSTON – Joe Mauer sat in the dirt and motioned toward the umpire with his right arm after being tagged out Friday, a gesture that, for him, amounted to an Earl Weaver tantrum. But his subtle show of emotion did no good.
In fact, almost nothing did much good for the Twins on Friday.
Mauer was out at the plate after a review of the controversial call, the Astros bashed Mike Pelfrey even harder than they did a week earlier, and the Twins lost the opener of a critical nine-game road trip 8-0.
And while being denied the game’s first run may have had little effect on a game that turned into a blowout, it set a can-do-no-right tone that Astros breaking-ball specialist Collin McHugh capitalized on to hand Minnesota its second straight loss. Colby Rasmus launched an upper-deck home run, Hank Conger smashed a grand slam, and the Twins missed a chance to gain on Texas in the wild card race.
“I told [umpire Jim Reynolds] I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Mauer said of the first-inning collision at home plate. “I thought it was going to be overturned.”
Mauer hit a two-out double, and Miguel Sano served a single into center field. Mauer didn’t hesitate around third, but a strong throw from Carlos Gomez clearly beat him to the plate, albeit not by much, and Mauer was tagged by Conger as he slid home.
“[Mauer] tells you he didn’t have a lane, so we went ahead and made the challenge,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “It looked to me like it was a fairly close call.”
But Mauer protested that he had not been giving a clear lane for sliding home. Under the new rule adopted before the 2014 season, catchers are not allowed to block the plate before they receive the ball, so Molitor challenged the call, which was reviewed — and upheld — by umpires in New York.
“That’s what I told Mollie — as I was rounding third, he was already straddling the line. As the ball came in, he reset his feet, but he was in the same spot,” Mauer said. “It’s kind of tough on both sides. The rule is there to try to protect the players. Neither one of us got hurt, so that’s probably the best thing, but it would have been nice to get the run there.”
Instead, the Twins were left to contend with McHugh, who used his curveball and sinking fastball, none of which reach 90 mph, to earn his 15th win.
Not that it would have mattered much. Pelfrey owned a 2.28 ERA on June 7, fifth best in the AL, but after giving up seven runs in four innings to the Astros, five days after allowing four run in 3⅔ innings, his ERA has nearly doubled, to 4.17.
He hadn’t allowed a home run in his past seven starts, a stretch spanning 42⅔ innings, but Rasmus ended that. Then, after three consecutive singles in the fourth — and after striking out Rasmus and Luis Valbuena to put himself on the brink of escaping the jam — Pelfrey fell behind Conger 2-0.
“I was determined to throw a fastball for a strike there,” Pelfrey said. “And he hit it out to left.”
It was only the second grand slam Pelfrey has served up in his 10-year career, both of them to catchers; Miami’s John Buck hit the other back in 2011. But it was a sign, Molitor said, that Pelfrey doesn’t have much confidence in his breaking pitches.
“He needs to be able to command his off-speed pitches a little better to get them off his fastball,” Molitor said.