DETROIT – The Twins flew home Sunday an unhappy team. What they hoped would be a triumphant tour of the AL Central instead reduced them to wild-card hopefuls, third in their division and seeded seventh under the new playoff structure.
“We’re definitely upset about it, for sure, as a team, as a clubhouse,” catcher Alex Avila said after watching the Tigers team his father built pull off a three-game sweep. “It tells you right there the ups and downs of how this season has gone.”
Indeed, a team that won 10 of its first 12 games and appeared headed to a runaway repeat as division champion has now lost five games in a row for the first time in Rocco Baldelli’s tenure.
Had it happened 35 games into a 162-game schedule, it’s likely few would have noticed. But in a 60-game season, that’s more than 58% of the games played. That increases the urgency to kick-start the offense and turn things around immensely.
Then again, Avila said, he has been struck by how the rhythm of the season has felt normal, that it’s clear that teams are slumping and getting hot as if it’s a six-month trek.
“As a team, we have to understand, ‘Hey, we had a bad week.’ We had been playing well up until this point, and put ourselves in a position to be able to absorb a stretch like this,” the 12-year veteran said. “As long as we do that, I think everyone has the confidence we’ll play well going into this last month and be right there in the mix to be one of the eight [playoff] teams.”
The Twins have hit 48 home runs this season, a pace that would deliver 222 during a normal season — far below their record-setting 307 of 2019. Injuries to Josh Donaldson, Mitch Garver and Byron Buxton are part of it, but for a team that scores nearly half its runs on homers, that precipitous drop is having a huge effect on the offense.
What to do about it? Face fewer good pitchers, theorizes Nelson Cruz. But he wants to see more focus at the plate, too.
“We faced good pitchers in Cleveland [and] here. [But] it seems like we’re trying to do too much instead of trust your talent and let it happen,” said Cruz, whose four home runs on the 10-day trip were nearly half of the team’s total of nine. “We need to show a little more intensity every at-bat, every pitch. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to do it. Just showed up a little more with any situations that come up.”
The Twins have played 10 games since Garver strained an intercostal muscle in his rib cage, and Avila and Ryan Jeffers have each started five of them. Both have also made late-inning appearances when the starter was lifted for a pinch hitter.
That’s going to be the pattern at catcher for as long as Garver is on the injured list, Baldelli said, even though Avila is a veteran who bats lefthanded, and Jeffers is a rookie who might be the team’s future starter and who bats from the right side.
“It’s really come down to some of the matchups offensively. And also, we’re trying to keep these guys fresh, too,” said Baldelli, who before the season had anticipated playing Garver roughly twice as often as Avila. “It’s probably going to be split up relatively evenly.”
Gardy on Gardy
This update on how Twins reserves are faring at their St. Paul camp is brought to you by Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire: “Their camp is going good, as good as it can go during this pandemic. They’re just trying to make it a little different each day. Live [batting practice], maybe some drills, depending on the people they have. It can be a challenge to stay focused.”
Gardenhire, of course, is the father of the Twins’ Class AAA manager, Toby Gardenhire, one of the staff members in charge at CHS Field. He was supposed to be managing at Rochester this season, one step below the majors.
“He says he does a lot of driving players over to Target Field, back and forth,” Ron Gardenhire said. “He enjoys it. He’s still getting to do baseball, which is great because a lot of people aren’t this year.”
• One day after leaving a game because of a sore ankle, Eddie Rosario was out of the lineup. But he pinch hit in the ninth inning, and Baldelli said Rosario’s day off was as much about giving him a breather as dealing with the soreness.
• Monday is the 60th and final game that Michael Pineda must sit out for failing a drug test last August. The righthander will rejoin the team Tuesday, and start that night against the White Sox.
• The deadline for making trades is Monday as well. All deals must be reported to the commissioner’s office by 3 p.m. CDT, though Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey last week downplayed the possibility of pulling off anything but a minor deal.