Paul Molitor reached the one-third mark of his first season as Twins manager on Friday night against Milwaukee at Target Field. He was coming off what could have stood as the most questionable move of his first two months on the job, and even that turned into an 8-4 victory for the Twins in Boston on Thursday.
The Twins were tied 4-4 into the ninth. Brian Dozier and Torii Hunter reached to open the inning. With the count 1-1, Molitor gave the bunt sign to Joe Mauer, a tact Mauer had not tried since 2012.
Mauer plopped a horrendous bunt a foot from the plate. Boston catcher Blake Swihart had the ball in his possession before Mauer was able to leave home plate. Dozier was dead at third base, and Mauer would have been doubled at first, but Swihart’s throw was low and went through Pablo Sandoval’s thick calves.
Dozier scored, and three more runs followed, and the gift-wrapped victory kept the Twins in first place in the American League Central.
The Twins talked in the visitors clubhouse at Fenway of the bunt putting pressure on the opposing “defense.” The Red Sox are feeble in that department, but the bunt was not about that at all.
Molitor’s decision to order the bunt was based on Mauer’s renewed penchant for grounding into double plays. The manager said as much in his postgame session with the media.
Mauer was pulling some pitches and hitting the ball reasonably hard through the early weeks of the season. Lately, he’s been hitting the ball as softly as in 2014 — easy-to-catch loopers to left, bouncers to the right side.
The Twins were making up a rainout in Fenway with a split doubleheader Wednesday. Molitor used Mauer as a pinch hitter in the afternoon game and he grounded into his 10th double play of the season.
Now here were the Twins on Thursday with a chance to escape with an unlikely victory — they played miserably to trail 4-0 early on — and Molitor did not want to blow that by watching another routine bouncer to second off Mauer’s bat.
He gave the bunt sign, and the Red Sox screwed up the easy play, and the Twins came back to Minneapolis at 32-21.
I hate the sacrifice bunt intended to move a runner from second to third with the fervor of Earl Weaver. And if Swihart, a rookie, had not panicked and had made a chest-high throw to Sandoval, the return throw to first would have had Mauer by 5 feet and Molitor would face his first serious second-guessing.
That said, the bunt was more evidence about what has impressed me the most about Molitor so far:
His decisions are based on winning “this” game. He’s not worried about hurting a star player’s feelings, or getting everyone in his bullpen a preferred level of work, or pushing a trusted reliever a tad over the line, if those things increase the chance of the winning the ballgame that is front of him.
It’s hard to say how much of a contrast this is to Ron Gardenhire’s approach, since the starting pitching was such a mess during the losing seasons of 2011-14 that it was more about survival than a philosophy.
I’m fairly certain of this:
Whether out of seeing it as an insult to a three-time batting champion, or a belief that this was where a guy making $23 million was supposed to deliver, Gardy would not have asked Mauer to bunt.
All Molitor could see was the way Mauer had been swinging the bat lately and the possibility of a 4-6-3 double play. The manager figured that getting Dozier to third for Trevor Plouffe (also in a skid) gave him a better chance to win this game.
We saw this philosophy from Molitor when he had Glen Perkins get four outs for saves on May 7 and 26. We saw it on May 13 and again Thursday when Perkins finished victories with non-save leads of four runs.
We saw this on May 25, when the Twins took a 7-2 lead into the ninth vs. Boston. He had some extra-rested relievers, but Molitor didn’t mess around: He went to the much-worked, trusted Blaine Boyer to put a quick end to the Red Sox.
Win today. We’ll take care of the fallout tomorrow.
That’s what I’ve seen from a 58-year-old rookie manager.