Last year is over. We’re better than people think. Ignore all the naysayers who just spread negativity.
The Twins exhorted each other, in a players-only pregame meeting Monday, to start 2017 as if 2016 and its 103 losses never existed. No telling if the message sunk in, but the Opening Day results couldn’t have been more different from 2016, or 2015, or the six season openers before that. The Twins got a blast from Miguel Sano, a bunt from Max Kepler and a beauty from Ervin Santana, and broke their eight-year losing streak in season openers with a 7-1 victory over Kansas City at Target Field.
“The optimism we have in this room is real,” second baseman Brian Dozier said after the Twins improved to 1-0 on the season for the first time since 2008, when Livan Hernandez beat the Angels 3-2 at the Metrodome. “It’s not, ‘Let’s go see if we’re good.’ We really believe we are.”
Give Dozier this, there’s no evidence to the contrary at the moment. The Twins got timely hitting, strong starting pitching and shutdown relieving, not to mention the most passively aggressive inning — three bases-loaded walks — in years.
“We’ve been on a mission since spring training to come out and play a little better to start the season,” said manager Paul Molitor, whose two previous seasons in the Twins dugout produced starts of 1-6 and 0-9. “It’s one game, but it couldn’t have been drawn up much better.”
Santana gets much of the credit for that. The 34-year-old righthander pitched as if he were waltzing through another Grapefruit League game, limiting Kansas City to only two hits and two walks over seven mostly uneventful innings. One slip-up — a two-seam fastball over the heart of the plate that Mike Moustakas launched into the right-field seats in the fourth inning — cost Santana a run, but it wasn’t until the seventh inning that another Royals player even reached second base.
But with the score tied and Lorenzo Cain on base, Santana struck out Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Brandon Moss in order — oddly, his only three strikeouts of the day — in his final inning of work, giving his teammates a chance against a weakened Royals bullpen.
“Kind of a momentum-changer,” Molitor said of the critical outs, with the final two strikeouts coming after Cain stole second. “He gets off the field and we get him some runs.”
The Twins put together their biggest Opening Day inning since 1999, actually, even though the inning’s biggest hit traveled only about 45 feet, or about 10 percent as far as Miguel Sano’s fourth-inning, first-pitch rocket off Danny Duffy traveled into the second deck in left.
After Jorge Polanco led off the seventh with a single off reliever Matt Strahm, Kepler was instructed to bunt, but his first effort rolled foul. Molitor kept the signal on, though.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if [the count] got to 3-1, but I was bunting all the way through until he got it down,” Molitor said.
Kepler made an adjustment on the second one. “[Strahm] was throwing me away. [Third baseman] Moustakas was way in, so I was trying to pull it over to the right side,” Kepler said. “I wanted to execute that bunt.”
He did, and it was so good, slowly rolling to the right side of the pitcher’s mound, that Kepler was able to beat Strahm’s throw (though it took a replay challenge to establish it). When Eddie Rosario then sacrificed Polanco and Kepler up one base, the Royals relief corps melted down.
Dozier was intentionally walked, and Strahm then walked Robbie Grossman on four pitches, forcing in the go-ahead run. Travis Wood later walked Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano, too, adding to the lead, and Jason Castro singled home a pair of runs. Polanco capped the rally with an RBI single, and the Twins’ first victory of 2017 was nearly secure.
Just like the Twins players envisioned before the game.
Mauer spoke up in the private session, players said, and Dozier did, too. Matt Belisle, who wasn’t even here last season, fired up his teammates with his thoughts, and Chris Gimenez described how the Indians came together last year.
“Within this clubhouse, we’ve got a group of guys with the right mentality. We’re all pulling for each other,” Dozier said. “We’re going to avoid the negativity, ignore what you guys write, and show people we’ve got what it takes to win.”
So far, so good.