By the end of Friday night’s game, the Twins’ wild-card lead matched exactly the number of hits they collected off Seattle starter Taijuan Walker: one.
But that’s more than the number of established, day-in-day-out shortstops on their roster at the moment.
After becoming thoroughly disoriented by Walker’s mix of curveballs, changeups and 97-miles-per-hour fastballs, enough to endure six 1-2-3 innings, flail at 11 strikeouts and meekly absorb their fifth loss in six games, 6-1 to the Mariners, the Twins broke some bad news to shortstops Danny Santana and Jorge Polanco: You’re headed to Class AAA Rochester and Class AA Chattanooga, respectively.
The demotions weren’t a surprise; Polanco, for all his promise, is barely 22 and still conquering a habit of misplays in the field, while Santana, last year’s breakout star, has been abysmal at the plate this season, batting just .218 with a .242 on-base percentage. But they reinforced the fact that the Twins, for almost a decade now, cannot find a long-term solution to one of the game’s most critical positions.
“It hasn’t been a good situation,” manager Paul Molitor said.
Molitor will meet with holdover middle infielders Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez on Saturday and “we’ll try to talk it out to give them an idea of how we’ll go forward,” Molitor said. “I don’t really have a set guy. I think they both can contribute.”
Probably so, but with the Twins trying to hang on in their first pennant race in five years, a job that got more difficult when both Baltimore and Toronto moved one game back by winning on Friday, the lack of a reliable shortstop has become a glaring weakness. Twins shortstops — Santana, who started 64 games, Escobar (21), Nunez (14) and Polanco (three) — have combined for a .286 on-base percentage, better than only Cleveland, Baltimore and Chicago in the AL.
“I’ve been leery of the fact that by rotating as much as I have, it puts a lot pressure on the guys to feel like they have to perform to get an opportunity to play again,” Molitor said. “It doesn’t work very well.”
It’s a longstanding problem; if Santana leads the Twins in starts at short this season, it will mark the ninth consecutive season that a different player has done so, and only Pedro Florimon in 2013 has started more than 100 games at the position since 2007, when Jason Bartlett was at the position.
Whoever fills the job, at least he won’t have to face Walker again this season. The 22-year-old righthander did his best King Felix imitation Friday, needing only 101 pitches to become the first pitcher since Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez in 2013 to limit the Twins to one hit.
“I think a lot of [the Twins] were sitting fastball early,” Walker said after recording his first win since July 1, another one-hit performance — although that one was over only six innings. “So if I can mix the curveball in early, and show I’m throwing it for strikes, it’s hard to figure it out for the rest of the game.”
Apparently so, because Walker made only one mistake all night, a changeup to Miguel Sano in the fourth inning. It landed in the first row of the left-field seats, preventing Walker from becoming the fourth Mariner to pitch a no-hitter.
“The first at-bat [a first-inning strikeout], he threw me change out and away” for the whiff, Sano said. “The second at-bat, he threw me fastball inside. And then I say, ‘He’s probably coming change inside, be ready for that pitch.’ ”
He was, and the Twins had their one and only run, not nearly enough support for Tommy Milone, who gave up a career-high 11 hits, including his sixth home run allowed in his past three starts.