MINNEAPOLIS – If the Twins want to win the American League Central, they know as well as everyone who cheers for them that the path goes through the Cleveland Indians. Step one to the quest was completed successfully Thursday, when the Twins opened the year with an impressive 2-0 home win against the reigning AL Central champions. Rookie manager Rocco Baldelli got his first win at the helm of the club.
Oh, and J.O. Berríos outdueled Indians ace and former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.
All in all, a pretty good opening day for Minnesota.
This column presents 5 thoughts from Thursday’s win.
He and Kluber took dueling perfect games one trip through the batting order, and while Berríos technically blinked first, he never gave in. By the time his day was done, he got a handshake from his manager on the mound in the 8th inning, and walked off to a loud round of appreciation from the sellout crowd at Target Field.
“I think Jose’s effort out there probably speaks for itself,” Baldelli said. “It deserved more than a handshake; I probably could have given him a little hug out there — and that probably wouldn’t have done the thing justice, either.
“I was just in appreciation of what he did out there.”
Berríos finished with 7 2/3 innings, in which he struck out 10 Indians batters and only let 3 touch base. He filled the strike zone all afternoon and piled up swings and misses, at times making Cleveland hitters look bad in the process. His fastball was 94-95 mph Thursday, and he also got whiffs with his changeup and nasty curveball. The 10 punchouts is a new Twins’ record for an opening day starter.
It was one of the best starts of his young career. And thanks to an avalanche of offensive support (2 runs on 4 hits), it earned him a win and set the Twins out of the gate on a winning foot.
Remember? I’ll bet the Baltimore Orioles do. I’m sure Brian Dozier does.
That year he was also considered Minnesota’s best starter. But in order to line him up to pitch in Puerto Rico in mid-April, the Twins gave the opening day nod to Jake Odorizzi, and held back Berríos. The timing ended up working out well for the Twins.
Just to skip to the juicy part of the story, Berríos was working on a one-hit shutout in the Charm City of Baltimore, when in the 9th inning Chance Sisco bunted to try to get on base with one out. He was successful and then Manny Machado reached on a base hit after him – Berríos and the Twins had to settle for a 3-hit complete-game shutout in the first start of his season.
Several members of the Twins took vocal exception with the very legal and very ethical play and eventually the smoke cleared and now it’s just fun to laugh about as a remember-when story.
I remembered that game not only because it was a dominant performance in his first outing of the season, just like Thursday’s gem. Indians star José Ramirez also tried to bunt his way aboard as the second batter of the game this time around. Berríos wasn’t having it. He bolted off the mound and showed off his balance and athleticism by fielding the bunted ball smoothly and throwing on to first base to record the out — on his way to 9 consecutive outs to open the game.
In 7 games in his career, Berríos has accumulated double-digit strikeouts. Thursday’s effort among the most in control I’ve seen him to date.
“I think he’s an ace in the making,” Baldelli said when asked if he’d put his young front-line starter in that exclusive company. “He has the attributes of an ace that are actually the ones you see on a day when he’s not pitching. He brings all of that to the table. … He’s a leader, that’s what he is.”
Nelson Cruz, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition in free agency, singled to lead off the 7th inning. Corey Kluber had been nearly untouchable to that point. C.J. Cron singled one batter later to inch Cruz into scoring position for the third new guy of the inning: Marwin Gonzalez.
He connected on a loud double that ran the gap in left-center, allowing his teammates to clean the bases in front of him.
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) March 28, 2019
By the time Gonzalez pumped his fists at second base in celebration, the Twins were on top with a 2-0 lead they wouldn’t dare give back. Taylor Rogers slammed the door shut with a 4-out save. On the pitching side it was the guys you’d expected to dominate after last season. On the offensive side, the lifting was done by the new guys that the Twins brought in with that very expectation.
He didn’t have to pull many strings, if we’re being honest. But the type of string pulling that won’t get noticed all the time is the puppeteer work that Baldelli does behind the scenes. He’s got a cohesive group of coaches, support staff and most importantly players that have in the early stages of his tenure responded to his style of leadership.
Eddie Rosario presented Rocco with the game ball after win No. 1. Bench coach Derek Shelton gifted him the Golden Fungo bat, a carryover from spring training tradition.
“It was really, really cool. … Believe me, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever possessed in my life,” Baldelli said afterward. “This is very special for me. This is something that I’ll hold onto forever and it means an incredible amount.”
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) March 28, 2019
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful box score from the very best kind of baseball game.
But one thing that’s been bubbling beneath the surface for more than two years now is the increase in resources given to developing players at every juncture of the organization. I can’t avoid the conclusion that the Twins have jumped well ahead of where they’d been when Falvey took over. And I can say from having covered both leaders of the baseball operations department: Terry Ryan very clearly knew that player development was crucial to winning in Minnesota; Falvey seems to have supercharged that philosophy and spent heavily to accomplish those goals.
Twins President Dave St. Peter joined our Twins show on SKOR North before Thursday’s festivities. He peeled back the curtain on that plan.
“I don’t think you’re ever done building out a baseball operations group. Because we’re always looking for that extra competitive advantage . … But I would say we’re pretty deep into it, in terms of the vision that was laid out to Jim Pohlad when Derek Falvey was hired,” St. Peter said.
“I think we feel as though we’re miles ahead of where we were in terms of our ability over time to develop Major League talent,” he said.
Berríos and Rogers were inherited. Cruz, Cron and Gonzalez were acquired. The fruits of these labors that St. Peter is referring to could appear at some point this summer. They could be years down the road. The one thing we can say for certain in late March of Falvey’s third year in charge is that the Twins have made this a point of emphasis, and they’re not just talking about it.