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Wetmore’s 5 Thoughts: What-If Game, It’s Different But Somehow Still The Same

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins were outscored in a series of three games by a combined score of 23-7, and nobody is arguing after the fact that Minnesota deserved a series victory. For the season they put together, you might argue, the club deserved better than a sweep and an MLB record 13 consecutive postseason losses to the Yankees. But even their rookie manager had to call it like he saw it after Monday’s finale.

“Well, to be very blunt about it, they probably pitched a little better than us. They probably swung the bats a little better than us and defended better than us,” Rocco Baldelli said.

“We’re not going to run away from what just happened and say anything else. … I’d bet on our guys if we got the chance to play it all over again — that’s not how it works. You’ve got one opportunity to play the games and the Yankees went out there, and they played very well,” Baldelli said.

For winning 101 games in his year with the Twins, it seems Baldelli will get some talk as an A.L. Manager of the Year candidate. But the lingering feeling among Twins fans Monday is more likely to be one of disappointment for the way the season ended at the hands of the Yankees. Again.

This column presents 5 thoughts on the What-If Game

1. What if Didi Gregorius didn’t turn into a superhero when he faces the Twins? 

That one would close the gap, at least. The talk about Gregorius down the stretch was how he had scuffled of late and would need to turn on the jets as the Yankees rolled into the postseason.

Launch sequence: activated.

Gregorius tacked on 2 RBI singles to drive his unbelievable total to 30 runs driven in across his past 13 games against the Twins. No, really. The same guy that effectively ended Game 2 with a Grand Slam. He scored on the bases-clearing double that put Game 1 out of reach — from 7-4 to 10-4 in the 7th inning. The same guy that went 1-for-3 with a walk and 3 RBIs in the Wild Card in 2017 that knocked the Twins out of the postseason; the Twins took an early 3-0 lead and had knocked out Luis Severino from the game, but Gregorius answered right back with a 3-run shot to tie the score.

In his career the Yankees shortstop is hitting .345/.387/.655 against the Twins and .418/.451/.761 at Target Field. And from late-July, when the Twins hosted the Yankees in that epic series at Target Field, through the end of the season? Gregorius hit .199/.248/.408 against everybody else.

2. What if the Yankees hadn’t dazzled in the field in Game 3?

New York played cleanly in the field and made some highlight-reel plays Monday. Minnesota did not. Although I’m sure there are more, here are a few that stand out:

*The Yankees played a strong infield pull shift for lefty Eddie Rosario with two runners on base and two outs in the inning. He pulled a ball hard into right field, and first baseman DJ LeMahieu made a reach for it going to his right. When he came up empty he scampered back to the base. Standing in short right field was the shifted second baseman, Gleyber Torres, who made a great field and throw to a recovering LeMahieu at first base to end the inning.

*Aaron Judge is 6-foot-7 and he’s probably the only right fielder in the world that could have made the play on Miguel Sanó’s one-out liner in the 6th inning. If the line drive would have landed for the double that it looked like it would be off the bat, Luis Arraez would have scored from second base and put a run on the board for the Twins (2-0 at that point). Instead, Judge caught the liner and then parked under Marwin Gonzalez’s deep fly ball that fell just short of the limestone overhang in right field, and the inning was over.

*The Twins put the first two hitters on base in the 9th inning against Aroldis Chapman. Jorge Polanco hit a line drive up the middle. Didi Gregorius was there to make a full-extension diving catch to prevent a run from scoring and help halt any thought of a rally.

3. What if Rocco Baldelli and Co. handled their bullpen differently in New York?

We’ve spent a collective too many hours harping on this one, so I’ll be brief.

I don’t disagree with the decision to start Randy Dobnak, even if it didn’t go according to plan. I think there would have been an open debate about which pitcher, José Berríos or Jake Odorizzi, should start Game 1, and the Twins picked Berríos.

Given his recent success this season, I don’t think we’ll argue about the choice to bring in Zack Littell as the first reliever out of the bullpen in the 5th inning in Yankee Stadium. I think that I would have played it differently, but having never been a manager in the big leagues, I don’t actually know if I would have.

I don’t mind pulling starters, in general, because the goal in October is to get outs in the most effective way possible.

I say all that to set the stage.

The two things that left room for second-guessing, in my opinion, were choices made in Game 1.

The Twins were behind 5-4 in the bottom of the 6th inning and Baldelli went with rookie reliever Cody Stashak, and asked him to face Gio Urshella, LeMahieu and Judge. I don’t understand the logic because that seems like an awfully high-leverage situation, and there were three Twins relievers that I would rate as higher on the “Trust Tree” for those moments: Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo and Trevor May. (Tyler Duffey, too, but he had already pitched.) Stashak gave up two big home runs and suddenly it was a 3-run game.

A 3-run lead is not insurmountable, but to my surprise the Twins didn’t use one of their highest-leverage relievers in hopes of keeping the score close. What was the point of preserving those bullets? Instead they went with Kyle Gibson and he loaded the bases and then unloaded them and at the end of his inning of work it was 10-4 Yankees.

How could the series have been different if the Twins went for the kill in Game 1, rather than hanging onto those rested and trusted relievers as the scoreboard tilted in favor of New York?

4. What if Byron Buxton never got hurt?

It’s not the first time that the question has been asked. And I do realize that the Yankees weren’t playing with their full-strength group, and haven’t for much of the year. I’m just ever-curious about Buxton and how he might change an inning here or there, and ultimately maybe a game or a series.

Here’s some of what I wrote on Buxton when his season was finished because of labrum surgery:

In the 87 games that he played this season, Buxton hit .262/.314/.513 with 10 home runs, good for a career-best .340 Weighted On-Base Average. He cut down on strikeouts, connected with pitches more routinely, and made authoritative contact at a better clip than we’d seen in the past. He led the league in doubles for a stretch before he got hurt. He was once again at the top of the list of best centerfielders in all of baseball, and as it turns out, his blessing there was also his curse.

Buxton crashed into walls and banged his face on the grass in the name of turning would-be base hits into outs at a better rate than just about everybody. Add that amazing range to his strong and accurate throwing arm, and you couldn’t really ask for anything more from the supremely qualified centerfielder.

Other than, of course, staying on the field.

“I thought he was a dangerous offensive player for us. Part of that is his legs, because once he gets on base … he finds a way to make things happen and score runs,” Baldelli said. “He can do things other people obviously can’t do. But I thought he had a good approach, I thought he hit balls hard and impacted the ball well. He had a good offensive year.

“Buck was for the early part of the year, close to halfway through the year, he was one of the best players in baseball. You can spin it any way you want and look at the numbers any way you want. There are very few players in baseball that were more valuable than him to that point,” Baldelli said.

Still, this is Buxton’s fifth season since he debuted in 2015. He’s only had one season in which he batted more than 350 times in a year.

Wetmore: It’s too bad but Twins are left with the same tired question on Byron Buxton

5. What if Michael Pineda didn’t get suspended 60 games for taking a diuretic? 

Or, hey, because you can’t control these things: What if the Twins knew about it 3 months earlier and decided to act on it at the July 31 trade deadline?

Berríos, Odorizzi and Dobnak each acquitted themselves well toward the end of the season. It’s remarkable what Tyler Duffey did from August 1 until the end of the year. The bullpen as a whole grew in confidence and ability, and the trusted arms in that unit by season’s end were on a remarkable run that will get overlooked far too often.

As the calendar turned to October, though, many Twins fans felt that the team was one or two pitchers short of making it a heavyweight fight with the Yankees. Who knows if the results would have been different, but inarguably the Twins would have been in a better position with a little more pitching. Some was available before the trade deadline. And then some was available at the trade deadline, even if some of those arms were tagged with outrageous prices.

The point was that the Twins could have used some more help pitching. They’ll acquire some this winter, I have no doubt. But that’s of little consolation the night that a 101-win Minnesota Twins team bowed out in 3 games to the New York Yankees. Who else?

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