Does it sting, Phil Hughes was asked after the Twins’ 3-1 loss to the Royals on Monday, to be victimized by a former teammate that way?
“Uh … who?” Hughes said, puzzled, as he reviewed the game in his mind.
Kendrys Morales, remember? “Oh,” Hughes said. “Oh, yeah.”
The Morales Era, brief as it was, is easy to forget. With General Manager Terry Ryan proclaiming, “Why not us?” it began, by coincidence, exactly one year ago Monday when he signed a free-agent contract with the Twins, the team’s failed attempt at turbocharging their lineup for a pennant race that never happened.
The Cuban slugger marked the anniversary by providing for the Royals what he never could in Minnesota: Game-changing, baseball-crushing power. His second-inning home run off Hughes landed in Target Field’s upper deck in right-center field, more than 430 feet from home plate, and provided Kansas City’s stellar pitching staff with all the cushion it would need.
“The big boy over there — we’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He took advantage of a 3-1 count, and that was the biggest hit of the game.”
The loss dropped the Twins into a tie with Kansas City for first place in the AL Central, but if this is a pennant race — and it is at the moment, albeit a wink-wink, watered-down, 100-games-to-go version — the Twins might not want to play the Royals’ brand of baseball, because Kansas City is really good at it. Close games, airtight defense, get a lead and protect it like the last beer in the fridge — game one of this supposed showdown series showcased all the attributes that the Royals rode to Game 7 of last year’s World Series.
It started with Jason Vargas, a lefthanded junkballer who turned in his best start of the season. Vargas lasted six innings, gave up five hits and didn’t give up a run, nor even a convincing threat. The Twins’ hardest-hit ball off Vargas might have been the one from Aaron Hicks that pegged the pitcher in his left thigh, doubling him over on the mound for 45 seconds. Then he got up and continued to mow down the Twins.
“Sometimes when he has the changeup and curveball going, changing speeds like he did today, hitting his spots, he’s tough to get good wood on,” said Torii Hunter, whose 6-4-3 double play ended the Twins’ best threat against the lefthander, when they loaded the bases with one out in the third inning. “He kept us off balance. We couldn’t put the barrel on the ball, kept hitting it off the end.”
The ease with which Vargas was setting down the Twins got so pronounced, Molitor called an impromptu dugout meeting before the fifth inning, reminding his huddled players that the J.V. they were facing was Jason Vargas, not Justin Verlander. “I tried to get them to understand he wasn’t throwing the ball by anybody, and our aggressiveness was causing a lot of our outs,” the manager said. “I just had to make sure we understood what our plan should be and try to make a little bit of an adjustment.”
It didn’t work; the Twins’ lone run came on Eddie Rosario’s solo home run off reliever Ryan Madson in the seventh, before the game was turned over to the automatic Wade Davis and Greg Holland, who had little trouble dispatching the Twins.
Hughes was almost as good, but made a big mistake in the second inning when facing Morales, who hit just one homer in 39 games as the Twins spiraled down in the standings a year ago. The Twins pulled the plug in July, dumping him in a trade, but the Cuban slugger has been reborn in Kansas City, smacking an AL-leading 18 doubles along with seven homers so far this season.
So when Hughes fell behind Morales 3-1, with Eric Hosmer on first base and no outs, he made a mistake in laying a 91-mph fastball belt-high on the outside corner. It landed, appropriately enough, under an advertisement billboard for Arm & Hammer, about 430 feet away, and the Royals had all the lead they would need. The Twins, after all, have scored a total of only five runs over their past three games.
“There wasn’t a lot of excitement,” Molitor shrugged. “Not for us.”