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The Twins Beat

La Velle E. Neal III and Phil Miller report on the Twins from wherever they make news

Preposterous Game 4 finish makes a winner of ex-Twin John Curtiss

    ARLINGTON, Texas — After delivering what probably ranks as the biggest hit in Tampa Bay Rays history, a soft bottom-of-the-ninth liner into center field that set off one of the craziest finishes ever in a World Series game, Brett Phillips marveled at the series of events that brought him to this moment. And he offered some advice.

    “Keep dreaming big,” Phillips said after his first hit in a calendar month delivered Tampa Bay’s 8-7 victory and tied the World Series at two wins apiece. “These opportunities, they’re closer than you think. They can come about.”

    Even if sometimes they defy logic, sanity and plausibility. Phillips, on the Rays’ roster for his baserunning speed and outfield defense, was suddenly thrust into the game’s most pivotal at-bat mostly by mistake. He had served as a pinch-runner one inning earlier, but when the Rays suddenly put two runners on base in the ninth against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Rays manager Kevin Cash, who had used 21 players in the game, had no options but to send up the career .202 hitter.

    After his first pitch just missed, Jansen got a called strike on the inside corner, then one on the outside corner, leaving the Dodgers just one strike away from a 3-1 lead in the Series. But the next pitch, a 92-mph cutter, was belt-high in the strike zone, and Phillips looped it just out of second baseman Kiké Hernández’s reach and into center field.

    Kevin Kiermeier scored easily from second base to tie the game, and Randy Arozarena was waved home when the ball popped out of Chris Taylor’s glove in center field. But Arozarena slipped halfway to the plate, fell to the ground, and quickly scrambled to his feet, hoping to retreat back to third base. Instead, catcher Will Smith lost his grip on the ball as he spun around to tag Arozarena. The baserunner sprawled onto home plate, and Tampa Bay had earned the most unlikely postseason victory in years.

    Fall down, get up, keep moving, and somehow turn it all into a win. Arozarena’s madcap trip around the bases somehow matched the route the Rays took to victory in a game that featured three lead changes in the last four innings.

    “That’s a storybook baseball game if I’ve ever seen one,” said Brandon Lowe, one of four Rays who homered, one apiece in the fourth through seventh innings, to keep the game close.

    “I had to get out of the [celebratory] dog pile because I was this close to passing out,” Phillips exclaimed. “It was just pure excitement and pure joy. Nobody here will ever forget it.”

    But it’s also possible that almost nobody will recall who the winning pitcher of that dramatic game was. John Curtiss will, though.

    The former Twins draftee and longtime farmhand, who appeared in 17 career games with Minnesota before being dealt away for a minor league infielder who has yet to rise above low-A ball, was a bit of a last resort himself on Saturday, since Rays manager Kevin Cash used his foursome of high-leverage relievers in a fruitless attempt to keep the Dodgers offense from rallying, time after time.

    Los Angeles, which collected at least one hit in every inning and scored at least one run in six of the nine, had just retaken the lead, 7-6, against Bemidji native Nick Anderson in the eighth when Cash turned to Curtiss, who had made brief appearances in the Dodgers’ two previous wins.

   The righthander, who grew up in a Dallas suburb about 15 miles from Globe Life Field, allowed a harmless single to Justin Turner, but ended the eighth inning by inducing a ground ball by Max Muncy. Told he had the ninth, too, Curtiss needed only nine pitches to retire the Dodgers, setting up the Rays’ bottom-of-the-ninth miracle.

    “Just looking back at how many people played such a big role. Even John Curtiss right there, to navigate and keep it right there, within striking distance,” Cash said. “We needed something to go our way, and tonight it did.”

    Curtiss’ outing, after Anderson’s tense and messy appearance, was indicative of the Rays’ anything-for-the-team approach, Cash said.

    “Everybody was in. We had gone though the bullpen, pretty much. But that’s how we’re built,” Cash said. “Everybody recognizes that whatever role they’re given, they’re asked to do, they’re going to go step up and do the very best they can.”

    When Phillips poked that pitch into the outfield, it handed statistical credit for the win to Curtiss, making him the first former Twin to collect a World Series victory since J.C. Romero, who earned the win in the Phillies’ Series-clinching Game 5 in 2008. That game is known for the lone World Series home run hit by Rocco Baldelli, and also for delivering the second championship in Phillies history.

     It also prevented Anderson, the winning pitcher in Game 2, from becoming the first Minnesota-born pitcher charged with a World Series defeat since Jack Morris lost Game 5 with the Blue Jays in 1992.

   “Baseball works in mysterious ways,” Kiermeier said. “We’re all feeling pretty good about ourselves right now."

Graterol lives up to Twins' World Series dreams -- for the Dodgers

    ARLINGTON, Texas — It actually happened on Friday, and it was just as overwhelming as Twins fans had fantasized about. Brusdar Graterol, possessor of perhaps the strongest arm that has ever thrown a pitch for Minnesota, took the mound in the World Series and proceeded to scorch batters with triple-digit heat.

    And if Minnesotans had known only nine months ago that they would be reading that sentence today, just imagine the thrill they would have felt.

    Turns out, though, that Graterol is a Dodger, the Twins are watching on TV, and even the Venezuelan righthander, still only 22, is surprised that his cap says LA and not TC.

    “Yeah, it was very unexpected at the time,” Graterol said of the Feb. 10 trade that shipped the Twins’ most prized pitching prospect to the West Coast. “I got to my new club and I said, just start working. Do the things I need to do to better myself.”

    The Twins have no regrets, no second thoughts. By coincidence, Graterol’s World Series debut came on the same day that Kenta Maeda, the starter they received in return for Graterol, was named Twins Pitcher of the Year. Maeda threw three times as many innings than Graterol this season, and had a better ERA.

    But it’s not likely the Dodgers have any misgivings about the trade, either, not when Graterol pitches like he did on Friday, in the eighth inning of Los Angeles’ 6-2 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 3.

    Graterol, who had already appeared in six games this postseason, jogged in from the Globe Life Field bullpen for the eighth inning, ready to face the bottom three hitters in the Rays’ lineup. It didn’t take long — Graterol retired the side on seven pitches, getting a pair of routine ground balls from shortstop Willy Adames and pinch-hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo, with a fllyout from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in between.

    Those pitches? Fastballs. Fast fastballs. Six of his seven pitches were clocked above 100 mph, starting with a 100.7-mph sinker to Adames, and topping out at 102.0 mph on the first pitch to Tsutsugo. The only exception was the pitch that Kiermaier hit, a 90-mph “off-speed” slider.

    “I don’t know what hitters are supposed to do with that,” admired Austin Barnes, Graterol’s catcher.

    The speed is nothing new, of course, though it was to the Twins. Graterol, who appeared in 10 games for Minnesota last September after six dominating seasons as a starting pitcher in the Twins’ system, broke a decade-long drought between 100-mph pitches for the major-league team. Since StatCast technology was installed in MLB parks in 2008, only journeyman reliever Juan Morillo had eclipsed 100, with three fastballs in 2009, for the Twins until Graterol arrived.

    Now there have been 16 such pitches by a Twin, 12 by Graterol last September — including the fastest pitch ever recorded by a Twin, a 101.9-mph fastball that Cleveland outfielder Greg Allen fouled off last Sept. 14 — and one on Sept. 2, 2020, by Jorge Alcala, a natural successor to Graterol in the Twins’ bullpen.

    For all his velocity, Graterol hasn’t become the strikeout artist the Dodgers envisioned; many of his outings have been like Friday’s, effective for producing weak contact, but not swing-and-misses.

    Not that he minds. “I feel very great, very comfortable,” Graterol said. “If I get three outs, I’m good. Ground ball, fly ball, something like that, or a strikeout? I feel great.”

    Dodgers manager Dave Roberts theorized earlier this season that the sinking action Graterol produces with his fastball is part of the reason, that Graterol doesn’t throw to the top of the strike zone, where hitters more frequently swing and miss, because of it.

    “It’s a sinker, it’s not a four-seamer at the top of the zone. Guys want to end that at-bat sooner than later, for fear of the velocity,” Roberts said. “When you put him in that sinker ball category, that right there is going to eliminate strikeouts.”

    Efficiency has its appeal, too. Graterol didn’t record a strikeout Friday, but the inning was over in less than five minutes.

    Graterol, who signed with the Twins for a $150,000 bonus three days after his 16th birthday in 2014, was much the same during the regular season: His strikeout rate was nearly cut in half, from more than a strikeout per inning with the Twins, to just 13 whiffs in 23 1/3 innings in the Dodgers’ bullpen, the lowest strikeout rate on the Dodgers’ staff.

    He walked only three batters, though, and allowed just 18 hits, giving him a minuscule 0.900 WHIP. Those numbers are why Graterol is considered a likely successor, someday, to longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who relieved Graterol for the ninth.

    Until that day comes, though, Graterol said he’s more than happy serving as Jansen’s apprentice. And why not? It may pay off with a World Series ring next week.

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