Twins outfielder Torii Hunter was in an eight-pitch encounter Wednesday with Red Sox righthander Rick Porcello, who was throwing his entire arsenal at him.
The bases were loaded in the third inning, and Hunter kept telling himself that someone was getting knocked in.
“I just had to make contact,” Hunter said. “Once I got two strikes, I knew I just had to battle Porcello.”
On the eighth pitch, Porcello threw a sinking fastball that rode in on Hunter’s hands. Hunter swung and sent a 100-foot floater that landed just inside the first-base foul line and rolled into the outfield. Two runs came in to tie the score.
“That Georgia Peach, right on the line,” Hunter said. “It was a beauty.”
That at-bat reflected the Twins offense this season. Not flashy, often short on power, but effective.
Their 212 runs scored entered Thursday ranking eighth in Major League Baseball, fueled by a .299 batting average with runners in scoring position that was third-best in the majors. They are batting .286 with two outs and runners in scoring position, fifth-best. For a team many expected to finish last in the division, offensive efficiency is one reason why the Twins woke up Friday tied for first place in the AL Central.
“That runs in cycles,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “Some years you’re awfully good at it. Some years you are horrible at it and there’s no explanation. Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes it isn’t. But when you do that, it makes wins come frequently.”
Many of their other offensive numbers are unimpressive. Their team on-base percentage is .311 — 20th in the majors.
Slugging percentage? It’s .389 — 17th in the majors.
Power? They have hit 37 home runs — 24th in the majors.
Middle of order producing
Getting things done with runners on base makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Joe Mauer leads the regulars with a .413 average with runners in scoring position, followed by Trevor Plouffe (.350), Hunter (.341) and Kurt Suzuki (.273).
Hunter usually bats second with Mauer third and Plouffe fourth, which helps explain why the Twins have had a number of big innings, especially early in games. And Suzuki has hit fifth 14 times. When the heart of the order is thriving in run-scoring situations, an offense is going to sail.
“If you look up and down, some of the stats won’t jump out at you,” Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky said. “You look at some batting averages and some guys seem to get hits in big times and big situations and they have better at-bats. We have to battle, we have to compete. We can’t waste at-bats, especially with two outs with runners in scoring position. We need to buckle down and get good at that.”
Brunansky isn’t asking for home runs. The Twins aren’t that type of team anyway. He has preached to stay calm in big situations and just make contact.
“Keep with the same simple approach and understand that it’s the pitcher who is in trouble, not us,” he said. “Once we slow it down, we’ve got a chance.”
Brunansky works with Twins hitters to figure out what they have to do to get a hit — any hit — with runners on base. And the players have bought in.
“Bruno is down there all the time talking about that,” Hunter said. “He’s always saying, ‘Grind at the plate with runners in scoring positon, make sure you make contact.’
“That’s what you see, you see guys concentrate more. They don’t try to go deep.”
Second baseman Brian Dozier pointed out that the lineup isn’t full of young hitters trying to come up with a plan anymore. Mauer is a former batting champion. Suzuki showed last year he can get clutch hits. Hunter’s bat remains quick at age 39. Plouffe has raised his game over the past couple of seasons.
Dozier has had quality at-bats, especially with runners on base.
“There are some mature hitters now,” he said. “You have some young guys turning the page and some veterans in the lineup doing it year in and year out. The older you get, the more experience you get, you start zoning up pitches and know what the pitcher is trying to do to you and you start eliminating pitches. And you get pitches to hit.”
Looking at manager Paul Molitor’s lineup each day can lead to head-scratching over where the runs will come from. Yet, it’s no mystery to a Twins team that has feasted on pitchers when they have been on the ropes.
“When it’s flowing and other guys are doing it, there is no pressure on one guy to carry the load,” Molitor said. “I think we have distributed it very well.”
However they are doing it, it’s made them one of the surprise teams in baseball.
“I guess that would be a big piece to any success we’re having,” Ryan said of the clutch hitting. “We seem to be picking each other up.”