As Max Kepler sent a 3-1 pitch from Kenta Maeda into the right field seats in the top of the first inning on Wednesday night at Target Field, there was a roar from the crowd as Team Kepler took the lead on Team Polanco. The only thing is there was no crowd other than the small gathering behind home plate that included owner Jim Pohlad, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and a few others.
But thanks to sound provided by Sony, the Twins became the latest Major League team to experiment with in-stadium crowd noise during an intrasquad game. It seems as if that will be the norm throughout baseball next week as the 60-game MLB season gets underway with fans not allowed into stadiums because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Twins tried a similar dress-rehearsal game last week — Wednesday’s was easily the most official — and used player introductions, scoreboard video, walk-up music and several other normal game-day operations.
The issue is that the lack of crowd noise created very odd silences. For instance, a batter would be introduced, his walk-up song would play and then there would be nothing. That silence disappeared on Wednesday as the Twins’ game-operations department used all the bells and whistles they are likely to use during games this season.
“Silence is definitely what we’re going to hope to avoid,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Wednesday night after watching Team Kepler and Team Polanco play to a 3-3 tie in seven innings. “That’s when you really start observing and thinking really odd things. You’re not used to being on the ballfields with a noiseless environment. All of the sounds and everything, it’s going. It’s definitely going to increase our intensity, and probably help the quality of the play itself.”
There are a few reasons constant noise is important. This includes the fact that it will make it more difficult for opposing players to hear strategic conversations that might take place. As Baldelli pointed out, silence isn’t a player’s friend in baseball. It seemed as if the constant “buzz” of the crowd was a bit loud when Wednesday’s game began but the operations crew found an eventual balance that made it seem as natural as possible. Turning up the volume for big plays will be a balancing act. There were a few cases Wednesday when a foul ball was greeted with a bit too much enthusiasm.
“All of the sounds and everything that went along with the presentation tonight was good,” Baldelli said. “It’s definitely going to increase and help the quality of the play itself. When you get that engagement and that feel of being out there at a major league ballgame. I also think every stadium is going to play with all of the new toys that they have. They’re going to figure out some different things. That’s exactly why we’re out here doing this right now. We’re going to continue to make adjustments and things like that. But it definitely felt more like a real game and that does help.”
Kepler’s home run to lead was the only run Maeda gave up over five innings. He surrendered two hits, walked two and struck out four. Team Polanco, which wore the Twins’ home whites, went up 2-1 in the third when Nelson Cruz homered to right with one out after Jorge Polanco had doubled.
Team Kepler tied the score in the top of the sixth inning on Kepler’s run-scoring double to right off reliever Sergio Romo, but Lane Adams’ single off closer Taylor Rogers scored Alex Kirilloff in the bottom of the inning to make it 3-2. Catcher Ryan Jeffers then homered to left off veteran reliever Tyler Clippard with two outs in the top of the seventh to tie it again. Jeffers hit 14 home runs last season between Single-A Fort Myers and Double-A Pensacola.
The Twins will be off Thursday before resuming intrasquad play on Friday afternoon at Target Field. The team’s only tune-up against a big-league opponent will come next Wednesday versus the Cubs at Wrigley Field before the Twins open the season on Friday against the White Sox in Chicago.
Baldelli wants his player ready and he felt that putting on the uniforms and making an instrasquad game as official as possible on Wednesday helped.
“I think the players responded with some added energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “It does give you adrenaline back to get out there, be in two dugouts, have the uniforms on. Having the third base coaches out there giving signs and then truly just playing against the other team. Even though it’s your buddy and your teammate, going out there, the guys will have a smile on their face and they’ll laugh a little bit. … (But) this is the kind of game that gets you ready to play real baseball. I would call it a very productive time for us.”