The Twins had put together their longest winning streak of the season — six games before Thursday’s 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay — using a combination of good hitting and great relief pitching.
Part of the surprising turnaround has been catcher Kurt Suzuki, who was an automatic out earlier this season. Suzuki has come alive and hit .375 during the streak. He was an All-Star last year, hitting .288 with 61 RBI, 34 doubles and 37 runs scored, and the Twins rewarded him with a two-year, $12 million deal. But this season he has struggled, tallying only 13 doubles and 41 RBI. But he has played great lately and had five RBI and three runs scored during the streak. He went 2-for-4 with two doubles Thursday and has raised his season average from .232 to .242 over the past seven games.
During the streak, the Twins offense hit .288 (68-for-236) with eight home runs, 15 doubles, one triple, 40 RBI and 42 runs scored, an average of 7.0 runs per game. Consider that before the streak, the Twins were hitting .247 over the first 120 games of the season and averaging only 4.2 runs per game.
Another standout has been Eduardo Escobar, who had been the team’s best hitter during the streak, with a .381 average, three home runs, six RBI and seven runs scored. He homered again Thursday, went 2-for-4 and raised his season average from .243 to .256.
Several other players stood out during the streak. Byron Buxton hit .300 with two doubles, two RBI and four runs scored. Joe Mauer hit .320 with a .393 on-base percentage, with three doubles, one RBI and five runs scored. Miguel Sano has hit .280 with a .720 slugging percentage, with three homers, two doubles, eight RBI and eight runs scored.
The pitching staff posted a 3.16 ERA with 44 strikeouts over 57 innings in the six victories, but the team had to use 28 pitchers because the starters have accounted for only 31⅓ of those innings.
Tyler Duffey’s outing on Aug. 20, when he went 7⅔ innings and allowed only two runs on 10 hits with eight strikeouts in beating the Orioles 15-2, was the only quality start posted during the streak. No other starter made it out of the sixth inning. The relievers, on the other hand, have saved the day. Over the six games they threw 25⅔ innings and allowed only three runs on 12 hits with 22 strikeouts — good for a 1.07 ERA — and recorded five of the Twins’ six victories.
After the Twins lost three in a row to the Yankees last week, it looked as if their season might be over, but some great hitting and clutch relief pitching have completely turned the team around and put them in a position to stay in the playoff race.
Challenge for Sherels
Marcus Sherels, who signed with the Vikings as a rookie free agent in 2010 after playing with the Gophers, was not expected to make the team. But he has been the Vikings’ punt returner and occasional cornerback and kick returner for the past four years.
Still, every preseason there appears to be a challenger who is trying to take his roster spot, and this year it’s rookie Stefon Diggs.
But every year, Sherels seems to add new dimensions to his game and manages to make the squad.
In the preseason this year, Sherels has fielded three punts with an average return of 14.3 yards, and he’s returned two kickoffs for 81 yards, the most on the team. Diggs has six punt returns for a 25.0 yard average, including a 62-yard return.
Special teams coach Mike Priefer said it isn’t only Sherels’ returns that impress the coaches, but also his work as a “gunner” and being the first tackler down the field on kickoff and punt teams. Priefer looks for Sherels to continue what he has been doing during his career.
“I think the longer he’s done it, the more experience he has,” Priefer said. “We always tell our gunners to have a plan, don’t just go out there and wing it because that doesn’t work in the NFL. Marcus has a plan and he does a great job with his speed releases, and he does a great job with what we call our counter releases.
“When you have a plan, you study tape, you know what type of opponent you’re going against and you execute that plan like [Sherels] does, it really helps him be successful. He’s gotten better every year that I’ve been here.”
Does Priefer believe Sherels’ work as a returner has helped him to understand how to defend on special teams?
“Maybe at the point of attack, based on what the gunner might be thinking at the point of attack, but I don’t think he’s thinking about that when he’s returning the football,” Priefer said. “He’s improved on kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return since I’ve been here.”
Zimmer on Barr
For the Vikings defense to show big improvement over last year, the team needs second-year linebacker Anthony Barr to be healthy after he got injured in the Carolina game and missed the final four games of the season. Barr saw his first preseason action against Oakland on Saturday, and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked how the former UCLA star performed.
“He did all right for the first time out,” Zimmer said. “He didn’t do anything really spectacular. I think he has to get back into the game tempo a little more. There were a couple times when he didn’t flash like he normally flashes, but it’s his first time [back in a game]. Physically, I think he is fine. [He was just missing] the extra burst that you need to have during games.”
U line continuity
With the season opener against TCU only six days away, Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was asked if any position concerns him.
“Oh, I think probably getting the continuity of the offensive line, which is always the hardest thing to do early in camp,” he said. “I feel good about the depth at defensive backs, linebackers, we’ve had a couple defensive linemen banged up, [but we’re] going to have them back. So right now I really feel fairly good about our depth, I worry about some of our twos. They have to get a lot better over the next week, but that is our job.”
• In the long history of Vikings-Cowboys games in Dallas, where the Vikings play their fourth preseason game Saturday night, Minnesota is 7-6 overall but hasn’t won a regular-season or playoff game at Dallas since 2000. Overall in the series, the Cowboys have a 15-14 edge.
• The Gophers athletic department had plans to honor Dick Moseley, who was an assistant football coach under Cal Stoll from 1972-78 and until recently had been coaching since 1955. But Mosely, one of the best assistants in Gophers history, died Monday at age 82.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org