The play: Marwin Gonzalez takes a large risk on Billy Hamilton’s liner but comes away with a big reward

MINNEAPOLIS — One would have thought Marwin Gonzalez would have weighed the risks and rewards long before deciding to dive for the liner off the bat of Billy Hamilton.

The Royals center fielder gives Byron Buxton a run for being the fastest player in baseball — Twins manager Rocco Baldelli called Hamilton “maybe the fastest player to play baseball in the last 20 years” — and with the Twins holding a 5-4 lead and no one out in the top of the ninth inning Saturday night at Target Field, it was a major risk when Gonzalez decided he would try to rob Hamilton of a hit.

If Gonzalez guessed wrong, the ball would have been in the right field corner and Hamilton probably would have scored before center fielder Max Kepler could have gotten the ball back into the infield. So Marwin, how much thought did you give to who the hitter was before making this key catch?

“I didn’t think about it,” Gonzalez said. “If I would have (thought about it), I would have probably waited and then caught it on one hop and thrown to second. If I would have missed the ball, he was going to score. It’s a risky play. … When I dived, I knew I had a big chance to catch it and that’s the reason why I (did) that.”

The fact Gonzalez made the play helped Taylor Rogers pitch a 1-2-3 ninth inning to earn his eighth save — one off Blake Parker’s team-leading nine — and gave the Twins a 5-4 victory before a capacity crowd of 39,267 on the night the Twins retired Joe Mauer’s No. 7.

So what was manager Rocco Baldelli thinking as Gonzalez stretched out for Hamilton’s smash?

“Obviously, it’s an extraordinarily important play in the game and it takes a — I don’t know, it’s pretty gutsy,” he said. “You can say a lot of different things about it, but so if he goes after the ball and it gets by him, it’s a tough situation for us obviously. Maybe the fastest player to play baseball in the last 20 years is running around the bases and there’s not much we can do about it at that point.

“If he lets it fall in front of him, that guy being out on the base paths is not a great outcome for us either and he made a decision and he made a great play. I mean that’s a tremendous instinctual play. That is a very difficult play for a lot of different reasons. At some point, you just have to make a decision and go for it and he did and he made a great athletic play.”

Gonzalez has played nearly every position for the Twins this season, but right field remains new to him. While he did see time in right in the past, he had never started a game at that spot in his eight years in the big leagues until this year.

“I’m still learning about right field,” he said. “(On the Hamilton play), I was looking up to get a good jump and I made the play. I think it was all about the first step during that play.”

It was an interesting night for Gonzalez, who signed a two-year, $21 million contract with the Twins in February. He was charged with an error in the second inning when he failed to catch Martin Maldonado’s pop up. In the fifth inning, Gonzalez followed Mitch Garver’s single with a home run to right field (his ninth of the season) to bring the Twins within a run of the Royals. Jorge Polanco’s double later in the inning plated Ehire Adrianza to tie the score.

“I was trying to hit the ball to the middle but I got ahead in the count,” Gonzalez said of his approach on the home run off Royals starter Glenn Sparkman. “I was aggressive on that pitch and then hit it out.”

Starter Jake Odorizzi, who earned his 10th win of the season despite having his ERA go from an AL-leading 1.92 to 2.24, was thankful to see Gonzalez flash both his muscle at the plate and the leather in right field.

“I just want to say I think Marwin played a hell of a game tonight,” Odorizzi said. “The home run got us going. He made the great play on Billy Hamilton. He really kind of changed the game. If he misses that ball, it could be a whole different game. So I think today was his day.”

Rogers agreed. “I was thinking that whoever put Marwin in that position was a genius,” he said. “Because he was obviously playing in and kind of over. So yeah, that was great.”

The reason Gonzalez was in right and Kepler was in center was because Buxton sat out after suffering a bruised right wrist on Friday when he was hit by a pitch. It’s not known if Buxton will be back on Saturday, or if Gonzalez will return to right field.

With the way things are going for the Twins this season — their 47-22 record is the best in baseball and puts them 11 games ahead of Cleveland in the AL Central — odds are whatever Baldelli decides to do it will work.