The Twins were in the midst of a furious comeback in what was billed at the time as the most important game of the season.
Down four runs entering the eighth inning against Cleveland on Aug. 8, the Twins trimmed the deficit to 6-5 with two outs, a runner on second and Luis Arraez coming to bat.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona brought in Brad Hand from the bullpen, setting up a lefty-vs.-lefty matchup between his All-Star closer and the rookie Arraez.
Francona called for an intentional walk, wanting Hand to face veteran Marwin Gonzalez instead. The move work: Gonzalez flew out to end the rally in Cleveland’s 7-5 victory.
Francona’s explanation afterward revealed deep admiration and respect for Arraez from one of the most respected managers in baseball.
“I wouldn’t do it, but I told [pitching coach Carl Willis] I’d probably take $100 and go to Vegas and put it on Arraez winning a batting title somewhere down the road,” Francona told reporters. “That’s what he looks like to me. He just looks the part of a guy who is going to hit .330. He stands up there like Rod Carew. A little bit of Tony Gwynn. [Arraez’s] ability to make contact made me nervous.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Rod Carew? Tony Gwynn?
“That’s nice [to hear],” Carew said by phone from his California home this week, “because we spent a lot of time together.”
The Hall of Famer Carew had several conversations with Arraez about hitting during spring training, and they also worked together in the batting cage. Carew was impressed the 22-year-old sought advice from both Carew and Tony Oliva.
“He wanted to learn,” Carew said. “I told him the best way to be consistent is to use the whole field. Not just try to pull everything and to stay back as much as he can and use his hands.”
Arraez has put those suggestions into practice. His instant success as a big-league hitter has been a revelation in a season of surprise developments for the Twins.
Injuries opened the door for Arraez to get his shot, but he kicked the door off its hinges with a refined hitting approach that has put him in select company.
His batting average (.341) and on-base percentage (.408) would rank in the top five in the majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Kirby Puckett, Oliva and Carew are the only players in Twins history to record more hits in their first 55 games than Arraez, who now has 72 hits in 61 games.
Arraez owns an MLB-low strikeout rate of only 7.1%, and he specializes in hitting line drives in an era of players obsessed with launch angle.
“He’s figured out to take his particular brand of genius — and I think it’s genius — and make it work,” said Roy Smalley, former Twins shortstop and current FSN analyst.
Making pitchers uncomfortable
Arraez’s father taught him to hit growing up in Venezuela by tying a baseball to a string and hanging it from a mango tree in their backyard. That’s where he developed his swing and quick hands.
“My discipline at home plate, I learned that by myself,” Arraez said. “But it’s been a lot of practice in the making.”
Twins officials marvel at Arraez’s ability to get “barrel to ball” regardless of pitch or location. He always seems to make solid contact, and he doesn’t often swing and miss. He makes hitting look effortless.
“His ability to find the barrel and also foul off difficult pitches is exceptional,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We talked about him early on being a throwback player you might have seen in the ’70s and ’80s going out there and hitting .320 and is one of the well-known guys in the game. He’s a good major league hitter.
“He has skills that almost no other major leaguer has. Everybody has their strengths. Every player has their weaknesses. But Luis’ strengths are very unique, and I think it also forces pitchers into uncomfortable spots where they have to pitch to a guy who is not pleasant to pitch to.”
Short swings, flying hands
Arraez wasn’t viewed as a can’t-miss prospect after being signed for $40,000 in 2013. In fact, he left the Twins academy in Venezuela after a three-month stay because he said the team didn’t want to sign him. Scout Jose Leon showed up at his house a few days later with a signing bonus.
Overshadowed by other top prospects in the organization entering this season, Arraez now looks like a fixture at second base and a hitter who fits nicely at the top of the lineup in the future.
His signature moment came in July when he replaced Jonathan Schoop during his at-bat with an 0-2 count against Mets closer Edwin Diaz and his 99-miles-per-hour fastball. Arraez fouled off four pitches while working the count until he drew a walk.
“He’s not taking very long swings,” Carew said. “He’s not trying to muscle up the ball with the big-body swings. He has a little take back and lets his hands fly through the hitting zone. That’s why he gets the barrel to the ball all the time.”
‘The Tony Gwynn of Venezuela’
That swing is nothing new to Twins starter Martin Perez, a fellow Venezuelan who first saw Arraez as a 14-year-old. Arraez has stayed at Perez’s apartment since being called up. Perez drives him everywhere (stadium, airport, dinners) and serves as a veteran mentor.
“He’s like my son,” Perez said. “I was mad when he made that error [Monday vs. the White Sox]. Don’t do that again.”
Perez calls Arraez “the Tony Gwynn of Venezuela” because “he has a special ability to hit the ball.” Perez occasionally has told Arraez that the carpool to the stadium will leave later than usual, which doesn’t go over well.
“He’s like, ‘I’ve got to go early, I’ve got to do my stuff,’ ” Perez said. “That’s what I like to hear.”
Carew likes not only Arraez’s hitting mechanics but his demeanor, a mixture of excitement and confidence.
Arraez is demonstrative in the batter’s box. He shuffles his feet as if releasing nervous energy and shakes his head at close pitches he lets pass. But he always appears in control of the moment.
“That’s the way Tony [Oliva] and I hit when we were up there,” Carew said. “We never panicked because we knew that we were good.”
Does he see that in Arraez, too?
“Very much,” Carew said.