MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Torii Hunter took the microphone to address Minnesota Twins fans before the first pitch.
He carried the lineup card to the umpires at home plate.
Then he came out of the dugout during a break between innings late in the game and waved to the crowd.
This sure felt like a goodbye, but Hunter wasn’t ready to make up his mind about whether to retire at age 40 or play another year.
Salvador Perez hit a two-run home run off Ricky Nolasco, Johnny Cueto pitched five decent innings and the Kansas City Royals secured home-field advantage throughout the postseason by beating the Minnesota Twins 6-1 on Sunday to finish on a five-game winning streak.
Cueto (11-13) allowed one run on six hits and four walks, striking out the last two batters to leave the bases loaded in the fourth after giving up an RBI single to Danny Santana.
The defending AL champion Royals (95-67) posted their best regular-season record since the 1980 team went 97-65. The Twins (83-79) finished 12 games behind them in the AL Central division, an obvious starting point for 2016 goals.
“We think we had the team to not only make the playoffs but make a push in the playoffs,” third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “I don’t think there were a lot of teams out there that wanted to face us. So we’ll take that into next year.”
Max Kepler got his first major league hit, and for that Hunter deserved some credit. Manager Paul Molitor gave him the opportunity to play, but Hunter declined as the Twins fielded a spring training-style lineup.
“I didn’t want to get out there and get an at-bat and then they walk me off the field with a standing ovation. That’s selfish. I wanted to get something for him,” Hunter said, referring to the rookie who played right field in his place.
Hunter hit .240 with 22 home runs and 81 RBIs, proving he can still produce in addition to the valuable leadership, wisdom and energy he provided in his return to his original team. But with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks, the Twins have three young outfielders with plenty of upside who need to play regularly. Hunter hinted that he’d rather not return as a bench player.
“It’s a lot of fun being a part of those guys, and hopefully they apply it to their lives and to their game and make themselves better,” said Hunter, who made his debut with the Twins in 1997 and became a regular in 1999.
Hunter said he’d gauge his feelings, physical and emotional, over the coming months, solicit input from his family, and spend time in prayer while trying to figure out what to do. Either way, he’ll be a free agent, so the Twins would have to offer him a contract. They probably wouldn’t have to be persuaded, though.
“We all saw the value,” Molitor said. “I think there’s ability left to contribute and a lot of it’s going to fall on his shoulders and which direction he wants to go. We’ll just have to see how that transpires.”
Plouffe was one of many position players who not only recognized Hunter’s veteran presence, enjoying the post-victory dance parties he spearheaded, but also the share of clutch hits he contributed.
“He does all that stuff off the field, but he honestly can still play the game at a high level as well,” Plouffe said.
SEATS FOR SALE
Despite their first winning record in five years, the Twins had another attendance dip, the product of an eroded season-ticket base. They drew 2,220,054 fans, an average of 27,408 per game. Last year’s average was 27,785.
ROUGH ONE FOR RICKY
Nolasco (5-2) started for the Twins for the first time since May 31 after a right ankle injury sidelined him for the summer, but he lasted only 2 2-3 innings to finish with a career-worst 6.75 ERA, though the injury limited him to 37 1-3 innings.
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