CHICAGO – Torii Hunter was told he might be pinch hit for occasionally, and he responded Friday with two hits and the tying RBI. He was told he might be substituted for in the outfield, and he responded by throwing two White Sox baserunners out from right field. He was told he might be pinch run for, and he responded by …
Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
Hunter, finally emerging from a six-week slump, was thrown out trying to steal but otherwise had an encouraging resurgence Friday in support of another veteran experiencing a late-season bounce-back, righthander Ervin Santana. With Trevor Plouffe supplying a pair of go-ahead home runs, Santana pitching seven strong but not flawless innings and Hunter doing a little of everything, the Twins took the opener of a three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field, 6-2 over the White Sox.
“Torii had a good all-around game,” manager Paul Molitor said. “Maybe two of the better throws he’s made for the season.”
Certainly two of the most enjoyable, the nine-time Gold Glove outfielder said.
“It’s been a while since somebody tested [my arm], so it was a lot of fun that they were testing it today, and I was able to let loose and throw,” Hunter said after his first two-assist game in a Twins uniform in 13 years and one day. “I don’t remember the last time I had [baserunning] attempts to even do that. That was a lot of fun.”
Not so fun for Mike Olt, who was nabbed while trying to stretch a single into a double in the third inning. And especially not for Avisail Garcia, who seemed certain to score from second on Rob Brantley’s fourth-inning single.
“Brantley hit the ball hard, so it was hit more down the line. I had to get it at an angle and shift my body back to square to the plate,” Hunter said. “He was just touching third when I grabbed the ball, it was hit so hard.”
The Twins kept pace with Texas, 4-0 winners over Oakland, and remained one game back in the race for the final AL wild-card spot. But it took a while.
“I just, honestly speaking, didn’t have a really good feeling early,” Molitor said. “Squandered opportunities.”
The Twins left the bases loaded in the first inning, and they left seven men on base by the time they trailed 2-1 in the sixth following Adam Eaton’s two-run homer. But that’s when Hunter came through again, following Eddie Rosario’s single by driving an inside fastball to the wall in right-center for a tying double.
It was Hunter’s third multi-hit game in the past four; he’s hitting .412 in that stretch, encouraging enough for him to declare his worrisome hitting slump over.
Molitor, who last week told Hunter he would occasionally be substituted for down the stretch of this pennant drive, seemed to agree, too.
“That was a nice answer. His at-bats have been looking a lot better. I think he’s feeling a lot more comfortable swinging the bat,” Molitor said. “He’s probably more aware than [hitting coach Tom] Brunansky or myself the nuances on his swing, how he needs to make adjustments. I’m not sure where that pitch was, but to stay inside and be able to drive it to the gap, that’s what you want your big hitter to do.”
Plouffe was the biggest hitter on this night, though. He had not hit a home run since Aug. 17, a 20-game drought that was his longest of the season and one of the longest of his career. He broke that skid (and his .188 slump since that last homer) by clubbing a 2-1 slider from White Sox starter Erik Johnson in the fourth inning.
Four innings later, Plouffe broke an even longer streak — 454 games without hitting a pair of home runs in the same game — and this one, a 98-mph fastball from reliever Nate Jones that landed in nearly the same spot — put the Twins ahead for good.
“I think I got a little assist from Mother Nature. But a day like today, we’ll take it,” said Plouffe, who added an RBI single in a three-run ninth inning. “You never turn any of those down, no matter how you hit them. … We’re trying to win here, that’s all that really matters.”