Manager Rocco Baldelli was attempting to put together a lineup that would have a chance against Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger on Sunday. He went with Mitch Garver as the designated hitter and Willians Astudillo as the catcher.
“Clevinger is death against righthanded hitters, but we looked at Willians as someone who would get the bat on the ball,” Baldelli said. “He almost always does that.”
Garver managed a home run against Clevinger, and Astudillo looped a double to right field, although it wasn’t enough to avoid a 5-2 loss against Clevinger, the American League’s hottest starting pitcher.
A year ago, the Twins entered September with a 63-71 record. They were 14 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central, and even further behind in the wild-card race.
Throw in the fact the Vikings were starting the season rating high among NFC Super Bowl contenders, and there wasn’t much to attract attention to the Twins.
Thursday is the one-year anniversary of when that changed. Twins-Yankees, Sept. 12, bottom of seventh, Astudillo breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI single, then rumbles home from first base on Max Kepler’s double.
The determined, hair-flying, cheek-puffing and successful dash became baseball’s video highlight of September, and of the Twins’ season, and made Astudillo — La Tortuga, as in “The Turtle” — an instant Minnesota folk hero.
What was forgotten in the humor was that Astudillo had gone from a unique to an accomplished hitter in his mid-20s. He was always the hitter that didn’t strike out or walk, who put the ball in play early in the count.
Astudillo caught the Twins’ attention despite a late arrival (visa problem) in spring training of 2018. He batted .276 with 12 home runs in Class AAA Rochester. He played in 30 games for the Twins and batted .355. He went home and played 61 games for Caribes in the Venezuelan Winter League, batting .325 with 10 home runs and 46 RBI.
And then he played more games in the Venezuelan playoffs.
The man lives to swing the bat. He will play most anywhere on a diamond, anywhere that he’s wanted, to get his hacks.
“I love playing,” he said. “I play 100 percent. Wherever there’s an opportunity.”
Astudillo was a victim of the Twins’ addiction to 13 pitchers when he was optioned to Rochester on June 7, where he batted .526 with 20 hits, three home runs and 11 RBI in nine games.
He came back to the Twins on June 19 and went on the injured list because of an oblique injury a week later. His next game for the Twins was when the rosters were expanded on Sept. 1.
The Twins’ rash of injuries has made him more of a valuable presence than a humorous one this September, although there was the recent play where he attacked a baseball to keep it foul while playing third base that obtained GIF status.
Assuming the Twins hold their position at the top of the AL Central to season’s end, a healthy Astudillo will be among the 13 position players Baldelli figures to have on a postseason roster.
Obviously, the Turtle’s hopeful that will occupy him well into October, but once the baseball ends here, the swings are going to much harder to come by than in prior winters. He started playing for Caribes, near his hometown of Barcelona on Venezuela’s northeastern coast, in the winter of 2014-15, and has been the team’s hitting star the past two winters.
Now, Major League Baseball has decided to follow the Trump administration’s edicts on the economic boycott and not allow its players to play in Venezuela’s winter league, which dates to 1945.
This edict bars all signed players and also native Venezuelans such as Astudillo from playing there this winter.
What will Astudillo do without his Caribes obligations?
“I’m going to work out, take care of my body, get ready for next season,” he said.
Is he going home when the Twins’ season ends? Astudillo nodded and said:
“The entire situation is sad. The problems we’re having are unfortunate. But it’s my country and, yes, I’m going home.”
The Twins long have had a strong Venezuelan influence. Currently, the Twins have 37 active players, with seven from Venezuela and four from the Dominican Republic.
The Venezuelan Winter League is supposed to start play Oct. 18, with the regular season running through Dec. 31.
“I don’t think it is 100 percent that we can’t play this winter,” Astudillo said. “There is still a chance it can be fixed. I am hoping. I love playing there.”
Or anywhere. Just give Willians a chance to hack and he’s a happy Turtle.