Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Dramatic game goes to Indians, a third base coach can’t win

MINNEAPOLIS – When the finale of the Twins-Indians series began at Target Field on Sunday, the outside temperature was a wonderfully pleasant 72 degrees. By the time the Twins had lost a game that felt winnable in extra innings – allowing the Indians to take 3 of 4 games and pull even in the AL Central standings – the room suddenly felt a whole lot hotter. Now, the challenge will be in Minnesota’s clubhouse to stay cool under the collar amidst a sudden division race with a surging opponent.

This column presents 5 thoughts on Sunday’s 7-3 loss, the heavily scrutinized decision of a third base coach, and the bigger-picture implications of a series loss to Cleveland.

1. Let’s start with the comeback attempt by the Twins.

Trailing 3-1 and facing the closer, Eddie Rosario opened the 9th inning with a double against Brad Hand to get things started. (Of course he did.) One batter later, Luis Arraez sent a one-out single into the outfield and plated Rosario. (Again, of course he did.) Then slugger C.J. Cron, who crushes lefties, got the best of the tough lefty dressed in Cleveland garb, when Cron’s 10-pitch plate appearance ended in a base knock to the outfield.

Ehire Adrianza took over the base running duties for Cron after that job well done, and Marwin Gonzalez battled and battled, fouling off four pitches before sending a double over Tyler Naquin’s head in left field.

All of those events were great for the Twins and impressive against a reliever as great as Brad Hand. If it wasn’t for the play at the plate and the ensuing half inning, the Twins would have had plenty to celebrate for that comeback.

2. How many variables go into the decision to send the runner?

It’s no question the play that will be talked about in offices around the great state of Bombasota on Monday.

A would-be winning runner getting thrown out at home plate amidst a rally is a sure-fire way to invite scrutiny, and that’s what third base coach Tony Diaz got for his decision to send Adrianza in the 9th inning Sunday. Adrianza was out by a healthy margin, and the Twins went on to lose the game.

So, how much goes into the hold-send decision that needs to be made in an instant during the heat of the game?

I asked manager Rocco Baldelli after the game for his opinion. Maybe a dozen factors? Maybe much more? Is it as simple math as saying, ‘Runner has a 50/50 shot to score,’ and weigh that against the likelihood that the next guy knocks him in? (If you think the next hitter has less than a 50% chance to do the job, the thinking goes, then a 50/50 baserunning proposition sounds like a favorable alternative.)

“There’s really no way to do that,” Baldelli said. “If you want to try to break it down on paper after the game — and not in our shoes because we don’t do that and we never will. If anyone who’s doing that thinks that’s the way that it works when it’s out on the field, it’s not. You have to take into account everything you know, all of your instincts and watch the play in front of you. There’s way too much going on to break it down to that level. At some point you just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ We have tremendous faith in Tony and you let him make his calls.”

“They made a perfect relay and you have to make that call early, earlier than you probably want to have to make that call, but Tony made a call on it,” Baldelli said. “Obviously we’re going to back his calls and his instincts out there as our third base coach and again, they made a perfect relay and we gave ourselves a chance to win the game if they don’t make that play.”

Baldelli is right when he says that it’s not exactly fair to criticize Diaz for his snap decision in the moment, when we have the ability after the fact to pause time, reflect on all the variables, crunch some numbers and then spit out the “yes” or “no” answer. And yet, it’s worth outlining them for the purpose of the exercise.

So, what are the variables we should consider on that play?

*Indians players involved in the relay, outfielder Tyler Naquin and shortstop Francisco Lindor.

They made a strong relay and Adrianza was clearly out at the plate.

*The runner, Adrianza, and his reads on the bases.

“I thought he had a really nice read,” Diaz said. “He was almost at second when the ball went over [Naquin’s] head.”

Why Adrianza instead of a faster runner like Jake Cave?

“We chose AD to go out there and run,” Baldelli said. “He’s pinch run for us several times this year. He does a good job on the bases. He makes good decisions. We went with him.”

*The aggressiveness of the offensive team.

“[With the] winning run, pushing the envelope a little bit,” Diaz said. “Two perfect throws required, and if we’re going to take a chance every time two perfect throws are required.”

3. What about the alternative?

Third base coaches in general get criticized way more often than they deserve. Part of the job.

And while the Twins wouldn’t criticize one of their own — and while sometimes the scrutiny from the outside is something less than objective — it is fair to raise the question whether sending a runner in that spot was the right instinctual decision.

*The alternative with the no-send decision.

Everything is clearer with the benefit of hindsight, but with one out and runners on second and third base, the Twins would have been in an enviable position. If in theory you think the runner’s chance is about 50% to be safe in that situation, you weigh that in real time (or preferably beforehand) against the possibility that the next hitter(s) get the same job done.

In this case, what was the percent chance that Jonathan Schoop at least lifts a sac fly to the outfield, or that Max Kepler comes through with a base hit against a lights-out lefty? Is it greater than the percent chance that Adrianza scores on that particular relay play?

*The next hitters are vital to the “math” equation we’re trying to work out here.

Schoop is better against lefties than righties, although he’s been pretty bad at the plate this year in important spots. In situations defined as “high leverage” by Baseball Reference, the Twins second baseman is hitting .222/.306/.352 this season. It’s a small sample relative to his entire career and even to his 2019 season as a whole, but it’s worth making note.

If Schoop got out without plating a run, Max Kepler would have had his crack against the lefty Brad Hand, and he’s been a pretty good hitter against righties and lefties this season. Would he have come through in that spot if given the chance? Impossible to say. It’s just the other side of the “send-Adrianza” coin.

4. Taylor Rogers had an uncharacteristically bad inning.

Rogers was working one day after he pitched 2 innings.

The Twins super lefty “closer” threw 31 pitches across 2 innings to earn a save on Saturday night before he was asked to go out and get another important job done Sunday. Rocco Baldelli asked Rogers to keep the score tied at 3-3 in the 10th inning against the last hitter in Cleveland’s batting order and then the top of that formidable lineup.

Kevin Plawecki singled softly; Rogers walked Francisco Lindor; Greg Allen bunted to the right of the mound and Rogers sort of stumbled as he went to field it, and no outs were recorded; then the unthinkable, a grand slam off Carlos Santana’s bat put the Indians up 7-3, and made the sellout Target Field crowd slump its collective shoulders, as the best reliever in the bullpen was not able to find his way out of a tight spot.

The Twins have asked Rogers to pitch the day after working 2 innings exactly once a month so far this season. On April 20, the lefty pitched 2 innings and then came back for one more against the Orioles the next day, when he allowed 1 earned run with 1 strikeout, a walk and 2 hits. May 13, he threw two frames and was back at it the next night against the Angels at Target Field, when he pitched the final 2/3 of the 8th inning, tasked with handling Mike Trout-Shohei Ohtani-Andrelton Simmons; he was successful. On June 21 he pitched two innings and came back the next night to blow a save against the Royals. José Berríos had gotten himself into trouble and Rogers couldn’t bail him out that time around. Then on July 12 he pitched 2 innings coming out of the all-star break and went out the next night and hung a zero on the Cleveland Indians.

That mixed bag of results led to Sunday’s game, clearly the worst stat line of his season on the second night of work after pitching 2 innings: 4 earned runs on 3 hits, 1 strikeout, 1 walk and a grand slam. He got one out and then gave way to Cody Stashak.

Rocco Baldelli said before the game Sunday that Rogers would be available and that he recovers well for a reliever, even following a 31-pitch effort the night before. I’m sure the Twins have evidence to support that claim, and there’s no real way for us on the outside to know if that workload impacted Rogers’ outing Sunday. What we do know is two great left-handed relievers who are used to slamming doors shut did not do that on Sunday, and Cleveland came out on top by the time the dust settled.

“Well looking at him, he threw 30 pitches last night. We do ask guys occasionally to come back and throw a day (after) throwing that number of pitches. Could it have affected him in some ways? Maybe so but it’s something that you try not to do if you don’t have to do it, if you’re not in that sort of situation. It’s something we’ve stayed away from but it’s something that does happen in a game. It’s something that we will do on occasion.”

Maybe that’s a different situation if recent trade acquisition Sam Dyson was healthy and available over the weekend.

Starters staying in line: Perez and Gibson scheduled to pitch in Milwaukee

5. The Indians are now tied atop the A.L. Central standings with the Twins.

The Twins were one of the best teams in baseball trough two months, and their record showed it. Lately they’ve stumbled into more like a .500 club while missing important players to injury. The Indians started the season with several key players out, Jose Ramirez wasn’t contributing to his usual standard, and pitchers fell off amidst a slow start in Cleveland. The past 2 months they’ve found their form and become one of the behemoths in the American League, storming back to tie a Twins team that at one time looked uncatchable.

And after all that, the two teams are dead-even at 71-47, fully 24 games better than .500, eyeing a postseason spot with 44 games left to play in a standard regular season.

“It’s a long season,” Marwin Gonzalez said after delivering the game-tying double and almost knocking in the winning run. “Forty-four games [left] is a lot of time to do some damage. It’s like Opening Day. We’re tied.”

Taylor Rogers is known around baseball as a quiet, steady guy. He was irked after the way things went Sunday, and you could tell in his tone. He was asked if it’s disappointing to lose 3 of 4 to the Indians to finish the weekend in a tie for first place after the substantial lead that the Twins once held in their division.

“No. I can’t speak for everybody but personally, no,” he said. “I think it’s like we talked about, baseball is a marathon and not a sprint. If it was a sprint, Cleveland would have had a bad year when they didn’t start so hot. It’s a marathon, and this group will keep doing what it has been doing. And we will see what happens at the end.”

After losing Byron Buxton and Nelson Cruz and Michael Pineda to injury, Baldelli was asked if he’d plan to address the team at any point. He hasn’t made a habit of that sort of thing this year – or if he has, he certainly hasn’t made a habit of running around talking about it with the media.

“We’re in a pretty good frame of mind,” Baldelli said after the game. “You’re going to go through runs where you’re playing good teams. You’re going to go through runs where you’re playing well, winning some games but losing some games that you think you should win. We play so many games here and our guys give a tremendous effort every single night when we’re out there that there’s really nothing more you can ask for. We have a very stable clubhouse, which we’re very fortunate for. We have a lot of guys who show up every day the same way regardless of whether we win or lose.”

That steadiness will no doubt be tested Tuesday after an off day, as the Twins head to Wisconsin to take on the Brewers. Forty four games left to decide the A.L. Central.