TORONTO – As caps fluttered down from the packed, raucous Rogers Centre stands, littering the infield, the outfield and Josh Donaldson’s path back to the dugout after completing a baseball hat trick, Paul Molitor’s mind flashed back to happier days.
No, not to when he had a healthy, experienced or effective bullpen at his disposal. That’s a little much to ask these days.
“I’ve seen it before here,” the Blue Jays 1993 World Series hero and Twins manager said of Sunday’s truly Canadian moment, when fans paid tribute to Donaldson’s three home runs by honoring hockey tradition — with their hats. “I had a Joe Carter memory flash, when he hit three in a game here.”
This time it was Donaldson’s turn, and Molitor didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. The 2015 American League MVP clobbered three pitches off three pitchers, including a two-run line drive that turned yet another Twins lead into a deficit, and yet another loss. The Twins fell 9-6 to Toronto, making some miserable history along the way.
It was the Twins’ 10th consecutive loss, only the ninth time in the franchise’s 56 seasons that a skid has reached double digits. It marked the sixth consecutive game they have given up eight or more runs, a franchise record, and just one short of tying the MLB mark. And it was the Twins’ seventh consecutive loss at Toronto, where line drives somehow carry into the stands.
How hard are the Blue Jays smacking balls around their retractable-roofed playground? In an extreme bit of optimism, or perhaps a brief illustration of his inexperience, Twins reliever Pat Light pointed upward at the ball when Donaldson smacked a fastball toward center field, a pitcher’s way of helping his defense track the moving object.
“It really wasn’t a bad pitch,” Light said. “I’ll tell you, they don’t hit that ball out in Triple-A.”
And that, really, was the story of Sunday’s loss. Kyle Gibson was in control for a while, giving up two runs through five innings as the Twins built a 5-2 lead. But he faded by the sixth, surrendering a first-pitch Troy Tulowitzki homer, a Kevin Pillar double and a Devon Travis RBI single that finally knocked Gibson out, the fifth time in six August starts that the hook came before six innings were though.
Molitor needed his bullpen to protect what was then a 5-4 lead, but his options — due to injuries and overuse — were limited. It was too early to go to closer Brandon Kintzler, he decided, so he went with the best-rested pitchers he could find. Unfortunately, none of them had faced a situation like this one before.
“Inexperience [against] experience, us being the first and them being the latter, is the big difference,” Molitor said. “We were calling on some people to try to get some big outs, and there’s not a lot of experience for us.”
Specifically, he chose Light, who debuted with the Twins five days earlier; J.T. Chargois, in his third week of MLB ball; and Alex Wimmers, a big-leaguer since Friday. Together, they had a combined 15⅔ innings of experience to draw upon.
They were game — “That’s where I want to be,” Light said. “I was excited coming in there” — but overmatched.
Light actually rescued Gibson by getting Josh Thole to hit into a double play to end the sixth, but then he was left to face the top of Toronto’s ferocious lineup in the seventh. Jose Bautista singled, and then Donaldson drove Light’s 95-mph fastball onto the batter’s eye in straightaway center.
“The pitch was up, and I thought he got underneath it,” Light said. “He got underneath it about 410 feet.”
Light was ultimately charged with three runs, Chargois one, and Wimmers had the honor of serving up Donaldson’s 33rd homer of the year and third of the day.
“Guys are being asked to do things … well, it’s their first time around,” Molitor said. “That’s just kind of where we are right now.”
It’s not a good place.