Both teams felt a decidedly spring-training vibe at Target Field on Sunday, but for different reasons. The Royals played like a team trying to fine-tune themselves for the long stretch of baseball ahead. The Twins played like a team that knew, on this day anyway, that winning and losing wasn't really the point.
No wonder, then, that Kansas City piled up five quick runs, got all the starters two or three at-bats, and walked away with a regular season-ending 6-1 victory at Target Field.
"It was kind of a light mood today, considering everything that transpired here Friday and Saturday," when the Twins were eliminated from postseason contention, Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "It was a fun day. Good to see those kids running around, and have a chance to wish everyone well as we part ways."
There were plenty of highlights for the Twins, despite absorbing their third consecutive loss to finish the season at 83-79. Rookie outfielder Max Kepler lined a Johnny Cueto pitch into right field in the third inning to collect his first major league hit. Danny Santana drove in his first run since before the All-Star break with a fourth-inning single. And though he was rocked for five runs, four hits and three walks while retiring only eight batters, Ricky Nolasco took a step forward simply by starting a game for the first time since May 31.
And Torii Hunter, the Twins' clubhouse leader, got a chance to say thank you to Minnesota and his teammates, a curtain call that felt a lot more like "Thanks for the memories" than "See you next year."
"Next year, we're going to win the World Series," Hunter promised the announced 24,108 at Target Field in a short, impromptu speech just before first pitch. With his teammates gathered behind him as he stood with a microphone at home plate, Hunter paid tribute to the fans, congratulated the Royals on their division title, and thanked the Twins for a memorable season. "I love all you guys," the 40-year-old said, though he insists he hasn't decided whether he will be back in 2016.
"It's not implying anything, it's not saying I'm going to be back or I'm going to retire," Hunter said. "It's a just-in-case kind of feeling."
Just in case, Hunter also took the Twins lineup card, which didn't include his name or that of most of the Twins' regulars, to home plate for the umpires meeting shortly before first pitch.
It didn't take long for the game itself to become almost an afterthought to the Twins, who head into the winter as winners, for the season if not on Sunday, for the first time since they last won the ALCentral in 2010. But Molitor said that while he is proud of his team's progress and its ability to hang around a pennant race, he is not kidding himself about how much further it has to go.
"Eighty-three wins, it's a step up, but if it wasn't for the second [wild-card] spot, our story line might be a little different," Molitor pointed out after the Twins finished three games behind Houston for that postseason berth. "I try to be realistic — you see the upper-echelon clubs, the amount they're winning, we have a ways to go. We've moved in that direction, but you have to set your sights high."
You know, like the Royals. The Central champions open the AL Division Series at home Thursday, so they fielded their regular lineup, complete with deadline acquisition Cueto on the mound, in preparation. In the second inning, they struck for three runs off Nolasco, with back-to-back doubles by Alex Gordon and Alex Rios driving them home.
In the third, Salvador Perez blasted Nolasco's final pitch of the season, a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, off the facing of the upper deck, 422 feet away, to make it 5-0 and trigger a round of Grapefruit League-like liberal substitutions. That home run inflated Nolasco's ERA to 6.75 for the season, asecond disastrous year from the Twins' second-most expensive free-agent signing ever. Still, Molitor said, the day was positive for Nolasco, no matter the result.
"We got a chance to give Ricky a start here before he goes home," Molitor said, "kind of a reward for all the work he put in trying to come back from surgery earlier in the year."
The Twins scored once, touching Cueto for two hits in the fourth inning, with Santana's single driving home Eduardo Nunez. And when the game was over, they finished packing their belongings; made the rounds with hugs and handshakes; and headed for the exit.