Zulgad: Stop sign: Twins third base coach might want to reconsider his waving ways

MINNEAPOLIS — Raise your hand if you could have identified what Tony Diaz did for the Twins before this weekend. Be honest. Maybe the most diehard fans would have known he was on Rocco Baldelli’s coaching staff, but there would have been no shame in admitting you had no clue that Diaz was in his first season as the team’s third base coach.

Diaz probably liked it that way. Unfortunately for him, that began to change Saturday night. By late Sunday afternoon everyone knew Diaz’s name — and that was not a good thing.

The 42-year-old Diaz, in his 20th season of coaching baseball at the professional level, went from flying under the radar to being the target of enormous second-guessing after getting C.J. Cron thrown out at the plate on Saturday night, and following that up by doing the same to pinch-runner Ehire Adrianza with what would have been the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday.

If these were the same old Twins — in other words the mediocre to hapless collection we saw for the past eight years — than nobody would have cared that Diaz’s stop sign had temporarily malfunctioned. But the Twins entered this four-game series at Target Field with only a two-game lead on Cleveland in the American League Central after once holding an 11.5-game advantage. Questionable decision-making wasn’t going to be ignored.

Diaz was definitely guilty of it.

It started with two outs in the fourth inning on Saturday and the Twins leading 2-0 with Marwin Gonzalez on first base and C.J. Cron on second. Adrianza hit a sharp single to right that Cleveland’s Yasiel Puig fielded on one hop. Casual baseball fans know that Puig’s right arm doubles as a cannon but Diaz sent the slow-footed Cron to be thrown out by a substanital margin at home plate.

Baldelli defended Diaz’s decision in his postgame comments by pointing out it was a rainy night, the ball was wet and any outfielder, even Puig, hates to throw a waterlogged baseball. Baldelli has made it clear he will defend his players and coaches at all costs in his rookie season as a manager and this was no different. Nobody was buying that Diaz had made a good decision, but the fact the Twins won the game, 4-1, helped deflect attention away from Diaz.

That wasn’t the case Sunday.

The Twins trailed the Indians 3-1 entering the bottom of the ninth and were facing Cleveland closer Brad Hand, who entered the day second in the AL with 29 saves. The Twins rallied to pull within 3-2 on Luis Arraez’s singe to right that scored Eddie Rosario. Cron then had a 10-pitch at-bat that ended with him singling to left to put runners on first and second with one out. Adrianza, and not Jake Cave, was called on to run for Cron. Marwin Gonzalez fell behind 0-2 in the count against Hand before lining a double to left that scored Arraez and caused Diaz to send Adrianza home.

Here’s what happened as Indians left fielder Tyler Naquin relayed the ball to shortstop Francisco Lindor, who then threw a dart to catcher Kevin Plawecki, who legally blocked home plate as he tagged Adrianza.

Baldelli again defended Diaz in his postgame comments — “Obviously we’re going to back his calls and his instincts as our third-base coach,” Baldelli said — but internally there had to be questions about how wise it was to send the not exactly lighting-quick Adrianza. Diaz holds him at third base and the game is tied with runners at second and third and one out.

The fact that Jonathan Schoop, who is no longer a regular, was due up next wouldn’t have given the Twins a ton of confidence but Max Kepler would have been on deck. Could Schoop have gotten the ball in the air to the outfield for a sacrifice fly?

As it turned out, he grounded to third to end the inning and the Indians’ Carlos Santana blasted a grand slam off reliever Taylor Rogers in the top of the 10th as Cleveland won 7-3, giving the Indians three of four in the series and a tie with the Twins atop the AL Central.

This wasn’t just on Diaz either. There were many who wondered why Baldelli didn’t have Cave run for Cron instead of Adrianza? That would have meant that the switch-hitting Adrianza could have pinch hit for Schoop. Adrianza is hitting .316/.400/.526 against lefties, like Hand, this season.

But, ultimately, it was Diaz who was in the spotlight at the worst possible time on Sunday. There are two football comparisons here. The first is that coaching third base is like being an offensive coordinator. Ordinarily, if you are talking about them it’s not good. Think Bill Musgrave and his small play chart. The difference these days is Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has become so good at chasing offensive coordinators out of town, the fan base doesn’t have enough time to turn on them.

As far as the art of sending runners, that seems more like clock management in football — something Zimmer has struggled with at times. Knowing when to call a time out, or send a runner, seems pretty darn simple until one is faced with all of the decisions that go with it. Who is the outfielder? Is it a relay situation? Who is up not only next but two batters from now? An easy decision to make in hindsight, can be far more difficult as the stadium is going wild and runners are cricling the bases and looking for direction.

If Diaz didn’t know that before this weekend, he does now. A year ago, Diaz was the first base coach for the Colorado Rockies. There’s very little a first base coach can screw up. Diaz was probably missing those far simpler days on Sunday evening.