CHICAGO – Torii Hunter considers Chris Sale the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball, a tough guy with the most unhittable mix of power and finesse.
So why do the Twins treat him like batting practice?
“I don’t know how we hit Sale, no idea at all,” Hunter said after the Twins took a wrecking ball to his Cy Young case once more Sunday, battering the White Sox ace for nine hits — eight of them with two outs — and six runs en route to a 7-0 victory at U.S. Cellular Field. “For us to get runs off him, I think that’s a testament to how this team doesn’t give up. They fight.”
Hunter embodied that philosophy himself with a first-inning home run, a line shot into the left-center seats that came only after the Twins veteran fouled off seven pitches in an epic 10-pitch at-bat. The homer, No. 350 of Hunter’s career, gave the Twins a 4-0 lead and Kyle Gibson all the runs he would need.
It also helped the Twins come home with a 5-4 record on a three-city road trip that included two first-place teams, and hold on to their one-game deficit behind Texas while gaining a game on Los Angeles, who were one back of the Twins, in the race for the final AL wild-card spot.
“I’m cool with that. We won the last two series,” Hunter said. “You have to be pretty happy with that. Now we’re going home and we play well there, so we’ll have to keep the fight going.”
Too bad Sale won’t be there, because the Twins’ mastery of the fourth-time All-Star is bizarrely consistent. They have faced the lefthander six times this season, and in the past five have scored at least four runs. Sale, who leads the American League in strikeouts, is having a brilliant season — against everyone but the Twins. He owns a 2.74 ERA this season against the rest of baseball, but it’s 7.36 against Minnesota.
“I don’t have anything to explain why our guys are — I won’t say comfortable, but they feel like they’ve got a chance against him,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “Sometimes he’ll try to overpower you, sometimes he’ll finesse you, but it seems like we’ve got a bead on his pitches. … I’m sure he can’t explain it, either.”
The Twins scored four runs in the first inning, stringing three singles ahead of Hunter’s home run. Two innings later, after two quick outs, Sale gave up four consecutive singles, with Hunter and Eddie Rosario driving in runs. That made the score 6-0 and meant that, though the Twins account for 17.5 percent of Sale’s innings this season, they have scored 39 percent of the runs he had allowed.
“There’s no tipping [pitches]. Sometimes it’s just a mentality,” Hunter said. “Some teams have certain pitcher’s numbers, and I think the Twins have his this year.”
And the White Sox definitely don’t have Gibson’s. The righthander mowed through Chicago’s lineup with ease, never allowing more than one hit in an inning until his final batter in the eighth.
Just as the Twins have dominated Sale, Gibson has dominated the White Sox. He’s started four times against Chicago this year, and has posted a 1.21 ERA.
“I don’t think too much about it, really. Any team can get you,” Gibson said. “It’s all about going out and having the right plan and executing it. … You have to realize there’s guys in that lineup that can hurt you. You’re not going to just cruise through it.”
If he says so. Only once did Chicago put a runner on third base against Gibson, and that runner, Micah Johnson, was erased by Trevor Plouffe, who threw him out at the plate on a ground ball.
Now the Twins come home for 10 games, starting Monday against Detroit, and they’re feeling more than ever that the postseason is within reach.
“We’re confident. We know we’re still chasing [Texas], so you try to go out there each day and compete,” Molitor said. “We’re fairly confident we have enough offense to score, our starting pitchers are giving us a chance. Things are looking good right now.”