By Gordy Jones
Many Twins fans and so-called baseball experts are saying that they are satisfied with a one-game-over-.500 record on May 1. I’m not — and I don’t think the players are, either. But they can’t change the past, only the future. And that’s what I think they have their minds set on.
You might remember that I told you at the beginning of the season that the only outcome Brian Dozier would consider a success this year is a championship season. I’ve seen them play up close (and many of them for many years), and I know they have the talent to achieve much more than they’ve shown so far.
One example is Miguel Sano’s recent surge at the plate. He had been struggling at the plate since the beginning of last season, but everyone knew he could hit; he has proven that at spring training and in the minors. Major League pitchers are quite clever, and word travels fast if a batter has a swing flaw or if there is a certain pitch he can’t hit. Last year, Miguel had trouble hitting a curve ball, and at the same time was a bit out of shape. I think the excitement of the big leagues got to him. The ill-fated experiment in right field didn’t help his focus, either. When Miguel reported to camp this year, he looked trim for a big guy, and could be seen working hard every day. With Trevor Plouffe gone, I think the security of knowing he’d be at third every day helped his concentration. He is light on his feet for a giant, and has made some terrific plays at third. He has worked hard taking extra batting practice, trying to become a better hitter, and it has recently paid off. Instead of squirming when he’s at bat, it is now fun to watch him hit, especially when there are baserunners.
Byron Buxton is another Twin who has found recent success at the plate. I have a friendly working relationship with him, but I have not been able to get an interview with him lately. To Byron’s credit, though, the reason has been the extra work he has been putting in. One day, he was watching films of himself batting, and another day he elected to take some extra batting practice. He explained it to me in an apologetic manner both times – and he’s a very nice guy, so I took no offense. I am just happy he is beginning to hit. He has always been a gem defensively. When he wasn’t hitting, he was still a key player — he saved his pitching staff a lot of earned runs in the field. He will soon be one of the game’s best center fielders, if he isn’t already.
Many fans overlook Joe Mauer’s defense at first base. He is such a gifted athlete, he makes the difficult plays look easy. He has mastered the over-the-shoulder catch that Kent Hrbek was famous for. But Joe is so smooth that it doesn’t look to be as difficult a catch as it was for Hrbek. Hrbek carried a few extra pounds, and he really had to hustle to make the same catch that Joe just strides for. Joe can grab a line shot or a hot ground ball in one motion, without moving any other part of his body, just the glove arm in one swift sweep.
At the plate, his reaction time might be a fraction of a second slower than years ago, and through good scouting, other teams know exactly where to play him. I would love to see him make a few adjustments to his stance (not his beautiful swing), and send a few more balls to right field. He has been doing a little of that lately; in fact, he hit one up the right-field line, driving in the two go-ahead runs last week against Kansas City, to win the game.
I’m sick of fans blaming Joe for the Twins’ woes of the last several years. They blame it on Joe’s big contract. But I’ve heard Twins owner Jim Pohlad say that has nothing to do with whom the Twins sign or don’t sign. Fans say that is why we never sign a big-money pitcher, but to be honest, there haven’t been many great pitchers available in the last few years that have had an interest in Minnesota. The Twins knew what they were doing when they gave Joe a long-term deal – they’re not dummies. And it would only be logical to assume you’d get strong numbers in a player’s early years, and then to have them decline in his later years. People forget that Joe has had a marvelous career, which continues. He is a six-time All-Star, three-time American League batting champ, five-time Silver Slugger (best offensive catcher), and three-time Gold Glove winner. He is a big-time anonymous philanthropist, a wonderful family man, a great human being. Kent Hrbek retired when he was Joe’s age. I’ve come close to a few barroom brawls arguing these points, just trying to make idiots speak respectfully. I try to be nonbiased, but it is hard to once you know Joe.
Max Kepler is a future star. He will be the first to admit that he is susceptible to mental errors, but he is young, and is learning fast. He is a good fielder, and can hit the long-ball. He’s a keeper.
Eddie Rosario is fast and complements the speed of Buxton in center. Between the two, a lot of real estate gets covered.
I’ve already mentioned Sano and Mauer’s improvement in the infield, but our middle is very tight as well. Everyone knows of Dozier’s talent, but Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco can play some big “D,” and can hit in the clutch, as well.
Twins’ catchers Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez can both call good games, and they both can frame a pitch while providing good defense.
Twins’ relief pitching has been nearly the best in the majors, and half of the starting pitching has been great. Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes need to improve, while Ervin Santana has been sensational with a 0.77 ERA and four wins. If the Twins had not had their game postponed in Kansas City due to rain, he would’ve had a chance to win five in April.
But the best ERA on the team belongs to Twins’ catcher Chris Gimenez, who pitched April 23 to Andrew Romine of the Tigers to end the game. His ERA is 0.00. Now if the rest of the staff can step up their game just a little…I can smell playoffs!