Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Twins get a lift but they’ll be without Byron Buxton for a while

TARGET FIELD – The Twins completed a sweep of the Royals with a low-scoring finale, just to show off a little versatility. The Twins scored 22 runs in their first two games of the series, winning a close one and a laugher, before Sunday’s contest.

The Twins improved to 27 games better than a .500 win-loss record with the sweep – 69-42 – and currently lead the division by 3 games. They’re on pace to win 100 games, and there’s no small-sample-size qualifier necessary at this point in the baseball season.

This column presents 5 thoughts on the state of affairs for the 2019 Twins.

1. Devin Smeltzer pitched 6 good innings in his first MLB win.

The rookie faced just one batter more than the minimum through 6 innings, thanks in part to a nifty pick off in the 3rd inning got Nicky Lopez erased from the bases.

I’d suggest that it’s one thing for, say, an infielder to come up and take four at-bats and fill in for the club in a pinch. It’s another ball of wax to be asked to step up and start a game and pitch three times through a Major League lineup. Yes, it’s your job and this is the big leagues. But it just feels like a bigger ask to me to do what Smeltzer did Sunday. (It’s not terribly surprising if you witnessed Smeltzer toss 5 innings of 1-run ball in relief against the New York Yankees.)

“He’s earned his Major League first win,” manager Rocco Baldelli said, with an emphasis on the word “earned.”

“He’s come out, he’s pitched really well for us, every time we throw him out there he competes really well. … He was great again today,” Baldelli said.

Baldelli stopped short of promising the rec-specs lefty another start in in the Twins’ rotation. But the apparent truth is that Smeltzer could be pitching his way into the Twins’ plans – in the rotation or in relief. We’ve seen so far that no lights are too bright for him.

“I’m a pretty even-keel guy,” Smeltzer said Sunday. “I do a little bit of meditation before the game to make sure my heart rate’s down because I’ve gotten in problems in the past, where I have too much of a spike of heart rate and adrenaline in that first inning and that’s when I get in trouble. … I’ve taken a lot of pride in [improving] that.”

“I’ve always been a big believer in myself. You’ve got to be the biggest fan of yourself to be successful, so even when my stuff isn’t playing well I have to believe in it, and that it is going to play well and be there when I need it.”


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The lights never seem to be too bright for this guy, Devin Smeltzer. Earned another start in my book. #mntwins

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2. Byron Buxton’s absence will be difficult to overcome for the Twins

Buxton has a subluxated shoulder after crashing into a wall last week, and he’s landed on the Injured List once again. We’ll have the larger injury-prone discussion at a later time when we’re talking more long-term picture. The point right now is that this injury matters to the Twins’ ability to make the postseason.

He’s been electric for the most part when he’s been healthy this year. And even when his bat isn’t swimming in electrical current, the lightning bolt in centerfield is an undeniable jolt to the Twins’ ability to prevent runs in the field.

How many wins does that cost the Twins the rest of the way? How many extra runs will the Twins allow with a non-Buxton outfield alignment? It’s more than zero. Would you be shocked if it was the difference in a couple games the rest of the way?

I still believe that the Twins are in the driver’s seat to win the American League Central. I just know that it must feel different as a pitcher to have that Buxton Security Blanket roaming out in centerfield and turning would-be doubles into outs. When he’s out of the lineup, you’d expect that earned-run averages go up, the chain reaction of defensive positions hits just about every spot on the diamond. Suddenly Max Kepler slides over to centerfield and he’s not as outstanding relative to his outfielder peers in right; both corner spots need to cover more outfield ground; Marwin Gonzalez the Gamer is forced into more consistent outfield duty instead of being deployed as a Swiss army knife; Miguel Sanó is an everyday third baseman or is spelled by guys playing slightly out of position; and on it goes down the line.

Aside from just the simple truth of seeing Buxton’s absence when fly balls land for base hits in the outfield, his impact on the chain of Twins fielders is felt on a daily basis when he’s not in there. And it’s felt to a greater degree when he misses a stretch of time and the Twins are covering multiple games, series or weeks without their star centerfielder.

What now? Challenge to Kepler, Jake Cave, Marwin Gonzalez and others to pick up the slack in the field as best as possible. Challenge to the pitchers to keep loud contact to a minimum. And challenge to the bats to stay hot and keep crushing bombas. Run prevention takes a hit without Buxton, but run scoring can still be a calling card for the 2019 Twins.

3. Is the Twins starting rotation good enough to win a postseason series? A World Series?

Yes, it is.

I get this question quite often these days, and there’s some important context to provide. First things first, let’s say the important words: The starting rotation is good enough to get to the finish line when backed by one of the best lineups in baseball.

With that established let’s also say: The starting staff is good.

We could point to each of the Twins’ five starters and say that they’ve had their ups and downs this year, some more frequent than others and some more extreme. At different points of the season, literally all 5 of the starters have looked like a guy that you’d like to have starting in Game 2 of a postseason series.

Overall the starting pitchers for the Twins have posted a 3.77 ERA this season, which ranks fifth in the big leagues. They’re also near the top of the list in terms of innings load.

Yeah, but is that good enough to win a World Series?

OK, you’d rather have 3 top-20 pitchers like the Astros now have in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Think about that ERA number, though, and how it compares with recent World Series winners.

2019 – Twins,    3.77 ERA             (5th in MLB)

2018 – Red Sox, 3.77 ERA            (8th in MLB)
2017 – Astros,   4.03 ERA             (6th in MLB)
2016 – Cubs,      2.96 ERA             (1st in MLB)
2015 – Royals,   4.34 ERA             (22nd in MLB)
2014 – Giants,   3.74 ERA             (16th in MLB)

I know that this is very crude measure to determine “good enough” status, but please take note. Go back and look at the league-wide ERA each of those seasons and it’s an even rosier picture for Minnesota – the ERA for starting pitchers at large is higher right now than any of the previous 5 seasons, at 4.51.

The American League rep in the World Series in 2016 was the Cleveland Indians (4.22 starters ERA, ranked 8th in MLB); in 2014 it was the Royals again (3.60 starters ERA, ranked 11th in the Majors).

Before responding in the comments with a Yeah-But justification just know that we’ve already found the answer to the question – The Twins starting rotation is good enough to go to and win a World Series.

4. This week will test your ability to focus One Series At a Time

The Braves are coming to town, a good baseball club not to be overlooked. Then the Cleveland Indians invade Target Field for four games that could help decide the American League Central pecking order.

Some even believe that the 10 games remaining between the Twins and Indians will decide the division winner. Barring something extreme, I’m not in that group. But if it helps you sleep at night to win the head-to-head matchups with your direct competitor in the division, go ahead and take care of business, Twins. Good sleep is important.

One other consideration is that the American League Central as a whole is not very good, especially if you exclude the two top dogs. So there are the 10 games between the two games to consider. But don’t forget that the Twins also have 26 games against the other three Central clubs, while the Indians only have 16 of those cupcakes left on the schedule. Taking care of the cupcakes is a good strategy for getting fat, and the Twins are within their right to do that.

But again, this is not the time of year to look too far ahead on the schedule or to start doing Central-division math. And with no August trades, there’s not much sense for us on the outside to worry about the perils lurking around every corner. Now the focus must be One Series At a Time, and that starts this week with the Atlanta Braves. The pitching matchups.

Jake Odorizzi v. Mike Soroka
José Berríos v. Mike Foltynewicz
Martín Pérez v. LHP Max Fried

Kevin Gausman had previously been penciled in to pitch against the Twins this series but he was claimed off waivers by the Reds so now he and his 6+ ERA changing zip codes before facing the Twins.

5. Eduardo Escobar slugged a home run off former teammate Brian Dozier.

If you followed these guys in their respective Twins careers, this moment was a mood all by itself.

Dozier was pitching in mop-up relief and throwing to former Twins teammate Kurt Suzuki. When Suzuki caught for the Twins, he and Escobar were inseparable friends from what I could tell. The same was true of Dozier and Escobar – brothers and the diamond and in the dugout, they’d say.

Suzuki and Dozier were largely responsible for the fact that no teammate has been teased and tormented more than Escobar over the past decade. A recent story came out in the Athletic about Escobar’s phobia of cats, and how the other two former Twins would harass him the way ballplayers of all ages would do for a laugh.

Escobar would accept the ribbing with a smile and a sometimes could be heard shouting in the clubhouse in his distinct accent – ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

The group would laugh and go on their way, the work day slightly brighter because of Escobar’s presence and good nature.

This time, Escobar got the last laugh.