DETROIT – As the Twins’ charter flight from Chicago bounced through a spring squall on Monday, Brian Dozier couldn’t resist. After a particularly hairy jolt of turbulence, the second baseman loudly piped up: “Boys, if we go down, we go down the best team in the league.”
The Twins’ flight eventually landed safely in Detroit. But the same can’t be said for their status as the AL Central’s undisputed first-week front-runner.
Lefthander Matt Boyd didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning Tuesday, the Tigers’ bullpen didn’t allow a run until the ninth and catcher James McCann punished a rare mistake pitch from starter Hector Santiago, earning the Tigers a 2-1 victory at Comerica Park. The loss, the Twins’ eighth in a row in this ballpark in April, dropped Minnesota to 5-2 in the AL Central, tying them with the Tigers atop the division.
“We just didn’t have a lot of opportunities. [Boyd] shut us down pretty well,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We battled, but we just didn’t have a lot of good swings.”
That’s surely true, again, for Byron Buxton, who came charging out of spring training vowing 2017 would be a breakout year, but who has appeared broken since. Buxton looked at a high curveball from Boyd for strike three in the third inning, took a thigh-high fastball for a third strike in the fifth and was called out on another fastball around the knees from Justin Wilson in the eighth.
“When you’re pressing, you kind of lose a little bit of discernment in terms of what the [strike] zone might actually be,” Molitor said. “He’s falling behind a lot, which makes it uphill a little more. [On] the fastballs, he was trying to protect against off-speed [pitches] and he got locked up a little bit.”
Tuesday’s trio of whiffs brings the third-year outfielder’s total to a major league-leading 17 strikeouts in only 30 plate appearances. Buxton has a single, a double and a walk thus far, bringing his batting average to a deflating .069.
“I feel for him. I know he’s very prideful. He’s trying to figure out a way to help us, not just with his glove but with his offense,” Molitor said. “Each day he comes in here, he’s trying to find the right attitude to take into a new day and a new game. The game, it can beat you up a little bit. You’ve just got to find a way to keep working and try to find something to build on.”
Dozier has an idea, and he swears no animals will be harmed in the eradication of Buxton’s slump. Referring to the voodoo-worshipping character in “Major League,” Dozier said, “We might Jobu something, bring something in, do something. We’ll figure something out. We’ll get him going.”
Trouble is, “there’s no miracle cure, no miracle words,” Molitor said. “He’s going to just have to find his way through it the best he can.”
Dozier and Molitor said they both have pulled Buxton aside in the past few days to reassure him. “We ain’t 5-2 if he ain’t on that field, I can tell you that,” Dozier said. “It’s a process. You’ve got to trust the process. We’ve all gone through it.”
The Twins certainly have gone through frustrating losses in Detroit before; Tuesday’s loss dropped them to 4-16 against the Tigers over the past two seasons. This one hurt more, because Santiago was so good again. After allowing only one run over five innings last week against the Royals, the lefthander was angularly better on Tuesday. He faced 13 hitters, one more than the minimum, through four innings. But he hit Justin Upon on the left knee to open the fifth inning, then grooved the first-pitch fastball that McCann punished, knocking it onto the roof of the Tigers’ bullpen.
“Three bad pitches,” Santiago said. “I did everything I wanted [Tuesday].”
The Twins finally broke through in the ninth, with Miguel Sano hitting a one-out double. Jason Castro followed with a run-scoring hit, but right fielder Mikie Mahtook raced over to cut it off and hold Castro to a single. Joe Mauer singled him to second, but the rally died on an Eddie Rosario fly ball and a Max Kepler pop-up.
“We just couldn’t get that last hit,” Molitor said.