The Twins missed out on an opportunity to put Cleveland to bed Sunday, but last weekend’s series was a good one for the Twins.
Coming into the series, there was legitimate concern about the Indians’ rise in the AL Central standings. They’d shaved six games off Minnesota’s lead, and had a chance to make things really interesting with a series win or sweep. Instead, the Twins fought back late to win an exciting first game of the series, and handled them again in Game Two thanks to Max Kepler’s continued dominance of Trevor Bauer.
On Sunday, the Twins again had a late-inning comeback—tying the score at three in the seventh—but missed a great chance to take the lead when Jorge Polanco and Nelson Cruz struck out with the bases loaded. Trevor May gave up a home run in the bottom half of the inning on an 0-2 hanger to Carlos Santana, and the Twins settled for two of three.
Make no mistake, the Twins did exactly what they needed to do over the weekend. Any reasonable Twins fan or member of the organization would have gladly taken 2 of 3 going into the series, and they got it done, thanks to the bats and the bullpen. Cleveland is still visible in the rear view mirror, but the Twins haven’t let them get within real striking distance yet.
And yet, if we’re being greedy, yesterday’s game was also a real missed opportunity. A sweep of Cleveland would have essentially eliminated them, in my view. They’d have been 8.5 back with two weeks to the trade deadline, and suffered a demoralizing home sweep to the team they’re chasing. A full sell-off would have probably been inevitable.
They may still do that, but the Twins left the door open just a crack. Cleveland’s the three-time defending Central champs and fighting for their season, and the emotion their pitchers showed after big strikeouts throughout the weekend demonstrated just how much this series meant to them. They at least temporarily saved their season by grabbing Game 3, but it’s going to be an uphill climb just to convince ownership not to sell, let alone surpass the Twins.
Cleveland will be aided by an extremely easy schedule leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, while Minnesota faces one of their toughest stretches. Over their next fourteen games, Cleveland plays Detroit (4), Kansas City (3), at Toronto (3) and at Kansas City (4). The combined record of those four teams is 96-180 (.347). Meanwhile, the Twins face the Mets (2), A’s (4), and Yankees (3) at home, then play the White Sox in Chicago (4). Combined record: 196-171 (.534).
It wouldn’t be surprising if Cleveland makes up a few games over the next two weeks, which will make their decision to buy or sell even more difficult. Minnesota, meanwhile, needs to simply stay the course and get through this stretch without any long losing streaks, which they’ve been unbelievably good at this year. If they find themselves at least a couple of games up at the deadline, they’ll be in great shape, because their schedule softens significantly in August and September, while Cleveland’s gets much more difficult.
Overall, a very encouraging start to the second half for the Twins.
Jonathan Schoop struck out in a couple of big spots Sunday. After a blistering start to the season, Schoop’s struggled quite a bit over the last month and a half. Since June 1, he’s slashing .246/.277/.395 (.672 OPS) with 34 strikeouts and three walks in 119 plate appearances. In “close and late” situations, he’s hitting .150/.244/.175 with one extra base hit on the season.
Schoop is a plus defender, in my view. He lacks range (less important with the abundance of shifting), but is sure-handed and has a cannon. His arm is a major upgrade over Brian Dozier, and it’s helped complete a number of close double plays that may not have been completed last year.
If he continues to struggle this much at the plate, though, it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’ll start losing playing time to Luis Arraez once the Twins get fully healthy. Arraez, who started in place of Schoop at second base on Friday, has been a revelation for Minnesota. On the year, he’s slashing .385/.444/.510 with more walks than strikeouts. Those numbers have been aided by an unsustainably high .402 BABIP, but Arraez is a legit hitter (i.e. this isn’t 2014 Danny Santana, who put up a great rookie year thanks to a .405 BABIP, and has mostly struggled since). Arraez is a career .324 hitter in the minor leagues, and has never finished a season below .300. His understanding of the strike zone is particularly impressive for a 22-year-old who hadn’t played above Double-A prior to this season.
Arraez also offers defensive flexibility, which has allowed him to share the field with Schoop while Eddie Rosario, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez and Byron Buxton all served time on the IL recently. When Rosario and Cron come back, though, the Twins will have some tough decisions to make.
Arraez is too valuable to send down, but other than Jake Cave, he’s the only position player who is a realistic candidate for a demotion. Miguel Sano’s hit enough to keep a roster spot, and Ehire Adrianza is out of options. These things have a tendency to work themselves out on their own, but at some point the Twins will likely have to get a bit creative in an effort to keep him on the active roster. Either way, Arraez needs to play, and until he stops hitting he’s earned the right to get at-bats over Schoop.
Byron Buxton made a spectacular diving catch Saturday, but like several of his tremendous catches over the years, it came with a cost. Buxton banged his head hard against the ground, and left the game at the end of the inning. The Twins have been vague about his status, but there are signs it could be a head injury.
Buxton was told not to accompany the team to the park Sunday, and sleep in instead. He reportedly arrived at the stadium during Sunday’s game and went through testing with team doctors. When Ehire Adrianza reached base to start the ninth in a one-run game, Buxton would have been an obvious choice to pinch-run, and the fact that he wasn’t called upon means he almost surely wasn’t available.
In 2014, Buxton suffered a concussion in the minor leagues, and has dealt with migraines throughout his career. He’s also suffered injuries from colliding with the wall, including in the 2017 Wild Card Game against the Yankees, when he had to leave the game after reportedly suffering a cracked rib.
Buxton’s a tremendously hard worker, has a great attitude, and is emerging into a team leader. When healthy, he’s also been incredibly valuable to this year’s team, accumulating 2.7 bWAR, third highest on the club.
Anytime a head injury is a possibility, the most important concern should be the player’s general well-being, and the Twins made the right decision to pull him from the game. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Corey Koskie and many others had their careers derailed by concussions that had long-lasting effects, and if Buxton did suffer a head injury, the Twins will certainly be ultra-conservative before bringing him back. We should learn more on Tuesday, when Eddie Rosario could be activated. If Buxton doesn’t go on the IL by Tuesday, it’s likely a good sign for the Twins and their emerging superstar.
The Twins will almost certainly add a bullpen arm or two before the deadline, but the current crop of relievers has performed quite well recently. In the Cleveland series, they allowed just two earned runs in 12 innings of work. Trevor May gave up a costly home run in the seventh inning Sunday, but he’s been much better of late, and Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey, Ryne Harper and Mike Morin have all earned high-leverage innings.
It’s an encouraging sign for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, who’ve watched a number of pieces they counted on at the beginning of the season (Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger, Fernando Romero, Adalberto Mejia) struggle.
Still, it’d be highly surprising if they didn’t add at least one high-impact arm at the deadline to pair with Taylor Rogers. Rogers has been spectacular this season, but a second arm of his caliber might be needed for the Twins to make a deep run in October.