The two-game split in Milwaukee was a continuation of the type of baseball the Twins have seemed to play nonstop since the All-Star break: intense, competitive games with late-inning swings.
Over the last month, the Twins have played seven tight games against Cleveland, an incredibly close four-game series against Oakland, and an epic three-gamer with the Yankees, which included what may have been the game of the year in the majors so far. Even the Mets, Marlins, Royals and Braves series had at least one nail-biting contest that came down to the wire. The Brewers series continued that trend.
“We’ve been playing a lot of games that have this kind of feel,” said Rocco Baldelli after Tuesday’s win. “They’re challenging, they’re emotional. They definitely drain you. We’ve played a ton of games, probably more than we should have just by chance, just like (Tuesday’s game). We’ve done it over and over again. We’ve won some of them, lost some of them. They are draining games. They’re not normal baseball games. It’s not someone gets a lead and they ride it out for seven innings and the game’s over. But that’s okay. It prepares you, and tests you, and gets you ready to play later in the season.”
A split felt like a fair outcome in Milwaukee. Fans will surely be disappointed the Twins weren’t able to close it out Wednesday, but they lost that game in the same way they won Tuesday—on an 8th inning, three-run home run against a very good reliever. Tuesday, it was Marwin Gonzalez off Josh Hader. Wednesday, it was Trent Grisham off Sergio Romo.
Although Romo and the bullpen will be blamed for Wednesday’s loss, in my view that game swung on Jorge Polanco’s error to start the bottom of the eighth. Polanco fielded a routine grounder off the bat of Ryan Braun, and threw short to C.J. Cron, who wasn’t able to dig it out. It was a strange error because Polanco threw the ball overhand, rather than the sidearm approach he’s been using effectively all year.
“The new arm stroke this year has done wonders for him,” said Baldelli after the game. “(Wednesday) was just a tough one.”
It was Polanco’s third error of the series, and all three were routine plays (the first two were dropped throws). It continued a trend in which the Twins have seen their defense let them down repeatedly in the second half, and Baldelli’s noticed.
“We’ve definitely given away too many outs, especially in the second half,” he said. “I think a lot of spots have been in crucial type (moments), towards the end of the game. We just have to make the plays. They have a great routine and work hard out there. When the game starts, I just think it’s been a tough run. But these are plays that we should make and need to make.”
Those comments are telling coming from Baldelli, because he so rarely says anything critical about his players to the media. That’s a smart approach and surely helps earn him the trust of his players, but it also means that when he does say something approaching criticism, it suggests he’s not happy with what he saw.
Jorge Polanco has been the team’s most valuable, and heavily used, player. He leads the Twins in bWAR (4.4), games, and at-bats. It’s fair to wonder whether he’s a little run down right now.
Since the all-star break (which wasn’t much of a break for Polanco, as the A.L.’s starting shortstop), he’s hitting just .242/.324/.408. That’s still decent production from a shortstop, but a far cry from the .312/.368/.514 line he took into the break. In the field, he’s committed five errors in the month of August, after committing just nine in the season’s first four months. Errors are an admittedly flawed stat, but it does suggest there’s been some defensive regression.
During the four-game Texas series, the Twins will have a unique opportunity to give Polanco the rest he might need. Nelson Cruz is on the IL until Monday, and Ehire Adrianza has been playing well in the field and at the plate. This four-game series could be the last time all year the Twins will have consistent DH at-bats available for players other than Cruz. A full day off and a couple of games at DH could go a long way to helping Polanco regain his footing and rest his legs. Rest is something the Twins have prioritized all season. They’ve given consistent days off to everyone other than Polanco and Max Kepler, neither of whom have been on the IL. While they can’t afford to sit Kepler with Buxton out, Texas will be the perfect time to do it with Polanco, and they should take advantage.
The Twins announced Michael Pineda will come off the IL and start Thursday against Texas. Jake Odorizzi will start Friday, according to Phil Miller of the Star Tribune. Saturday and Sunday’s starters haven’t yet been announced, but Devin Smeltzer will likely get one of those days. Smeltzer’s been good this year (3.66 ERA), but didn’t pitch well against Cleveland Friday (6 ER in 4.1 IP). Despite the bad start, the Twins have kept him on the active roster and haven’t used him out of the ‘pen, suggesting they want to give him another start.
If Smeltzer goes Saturday, it would allow Jose Berrios to have an additional day off. Berrios last pitched Sunday, and though he was able to get through six with only three runs allowed, his velocity was down, as it has been over his last couple of starts. Berrios typically sits 93-95 with the fastball, but in August, his fastball velocity has dipped to an average of 92.3 MPH, according to Brooks Baseball. That’s the lowest his fastball velocity has been in his big league career.
It’s possible Berrios is going through a bit of a dead-arm period, in which case it would make sense to give him time off. If he goes Sunday, he’d be pitching on six days rest. The Twins could push him back an additional day by having Martin Perez pitch Sunday on normal rest, and have Berrios start Monday against Chicago. Minnesota will need their ace at his best down the stretch, and if giving him rest now helps him be stronger in September and October, the additional time off is a small price to pay.
The Twins made a small, but interesting move Sunday. Ryan Eades was DFA’d and claimed by the Orioles, which opened up a spot on the 40-man roster. Will that spot soon be occupied by Brusdar Graterol? Graterol, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, missed two and a half months with a shoulder issue, but is back now and pitching out of the bullpen in Pensacola. Wednesday night, Graterol reportedly hit 102 MPH, while tossing 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Though he’s a starter long-term, the Twins clearly seem to be grooming him to be a reliever right now. All his appearances have been 2 innings or less since returning from injury, and he’s been pitching in the middle or late in games in Pensacola. If Graterol is indeed called up and can handle the pressure of a big league playoff race, he could be a potentially huge addition to the Twins ‘pen. With a healthy Sam Dyson, the Twins would suddenly be looking at a back end of their bullpen that featured Graterol, Dyson, Romo, and Taylor Rogers. That’s an imposing top four, and their contrasting styles would give opposing teams very different looks in the late innings.
With the Yankees and Astros essentially locked into the playoffs as the top two seeds, and Boston fading a bit, the playoff race may be coming down to four teams for three spots. Cleveland, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Oakland all entered Thursday within four games of each other.
With about a quarter of the season left, it’s still perhaps a bit early to be scoreboard watching (or to count the Red Sox out), but this could be a fascinating sprint to the finish between these four teams. Among the four, the Twins have the easiest schedule. After facing Texas (60-60), they’ll play 26 games of their remaining 38 games against Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit. They play 13 straight against the White Sox and Tigers beginning Monday, then end the season with 13 against the White Sox, Tigers and Royals. In between, they face Cleveland six times, and have a road series in Boston and home series against Washington.
The Central race seems destined to come down to the season’s final week, as does the wild card. If that’s the case, the tight games the Twins have played against playoff-caliber teams over the past month should prepare them well for the stretch run.