KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There were four extra passengers on the Twins’ chartered flight to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, a quartet of non-team employees seated in the first couple of rows behind the first-class seats. They were there again when the Twins flew to Missouri on Thursday night, too, and they even rode the team bus from the ballpark to the Pittsburgh airport, and from the Kansas City airport to the Twins’ hotel.
And though they know a lot about baseball, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said he has resisted the urge to engage the visitors in any conversations on the plane.
“I’d probably prefer to just let them put their headphones on and relax for a couple of hours. Veg out and drink a Pepsi or something,” Baldelli said of John Tumpane, C.B. Bucknor, Jose Navas and St. Paul native Jeff Nelson — the four-man umpiring crew that has followed the Twins like groupies all week.
As part of Major League Baseball’s effort to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections as much as possible, the league has broken the traditionally strict separation between players and the men who officiate on the field. Umpires are tested for the coronavirus every other day, just like the players, and MLB has commandeered seats on team planes to help them minimize or avoid commercial air travel.
“We’re glad that they can jump on with us and get around the country safely,” Baldelli said.
Nelson, a Bethel graduate who also worked Twins intrasquad games during summer camp and then flew with the team to Chicago, told Twins officials it’s the first time in his 22-year MLB career that he has even stayed in the same hotel as a team, much less traveled with them. Maybe, Baldelli speculated, it will foster better understanding between teams and umpires.
“You realize they’re just people and they’re pretty normal, just like all of us. It’s been absolutely fine,” Baldelli said. “We knew this was going to [happen]. Obviously, everyone always thinks about unusual or weird situations with umpires following a tough game or something like that. I’m not concerned about that one bit.”
The umpires aren’t the only thing that’s going to look familiar to the Twins over the next couple of weeks. Friday they began a stretch of schedule that goes: Royals-Brewers-Royals-Brewers-Royals. That’s all 10 games of the season series with Kansas City in a 16-game stretch, plus all six scheduled interleague games with Milwaukee.
Baldelli said he has given some thought to what that overfamiliarity with two opponents will mean by the time the segment ends with three more games here Aug. 21-23. But he’s not inclined to make big changes to, say, the rotation or his bullpen usage to keep the Royals from getting too comfortable.
“It is unusual that you have a schedule that looks like this, [but] I can’t say we’re planning to do anything purposefully to avoid showing players to these two teams,” Baldelli said. “Whoever is lined up to pitch and is healthy and is feeling good, we’ll just use those guys and feel really good about it. I would say we’ll probably avoid making changes just for the sake of switching up looks.”
That said, Miguel Sano doesn’t expect to see the same Royals relievers game after game, he said.
“I’m sure their pitchers are going to mix it up for us hitters. We’re not necessarily going to see the same reliever every day and every single game,” Sano said. “They study us, we study them, and we’re preparing for that team specifically.”
Sano has reason to look forward to these two weeks. He has a career average of .310 and an OPS of 1.024 in 11 games against the Brewers, and his 16 career homers against the Royals are the most he’s hit against any opponent. He also has 16 against the White Sox, but his 54 RBIs in 56 career games and .269 batting average are the best against any AL Central foe.
“Kauffman is a special place. This is where I made my major league debut” in 2015, Sano said. “I like to play here, I feel comfortable. Big gaps in the outfield.”
Hill not yet ready
Baldelli ruled out using Rich Hill on this road trip, preferring to wait until the team returns to Target Field next weekend. Hill hasn’t pitched since shutting out the Cardinals over five innings in his Twins debut on July 29, after waking up with shoulder soreness the next day. (Then again, it could be worse: The Cardinals haven’t played a game since that day, either.)
“We’ll learn a lot while we’re in Milwaukee about exactly where he’s going to be,” Baldelli said. “He’s going to need to throw at least a substantial bullpen session before we would see him out on the mound. He’s going to have to lengthen out that throwing program again, throw a bullpen and then we can assess.”
Luis Arraez returned to the Twins lineup Saturday after missing two games because of a sore right knee. The second baseman was 1-for-19 in his past six games before sitting out.