It was a nearly perfect 72-degree day at Target Field on Saturday afternoon as the Twins played host to the Tampa Bay Rays in the penultimate game of a six-game homestand. This was the type of day made for significant walk-up sales by fans who made the late decision to see the AL Central-leading Twins.
The Twins had beat up on the Rays on Friday, thanks in part to two homers from the red-hot Byron Buxton and a 3-for-5, two-RBI performance from likely one-year Twins shortstop Carlos Correa. If fans made the decision to head to Target Field it was in large part to see those two try to make it two in a row. Not surprisingly, the first two jerseys that were seen upon arrival was a No. 25 Buxton and a No. 4 Correa.
There was only one problem. Neither was in the lineup as the Twins continue to take a page from the NBA’s book of load management. Having either one not on the field to begin Saturday’s game would have been disappointing to many of the 22,741 fans who showed up, but to have both out? That’s an insult to a ticket-buying public that pays probably an average of $15 to park, spends substantial money on tickets and then buys souvenirs and concessions. That includes beers that cost up to $16. (I know that from firsthand experience.)
Instead of Buxton, fans got Gilberto Celestino in center field. He immediately made a first-inning error. Nick Gordon, a decently utility player, was at shortstop. And the just recalled Chi Chi Gonzalez gave up three runs in the first inning in what might have been his last start with the Twins. Gordon later made a costly throwing error in the seventh inning that allowed a run to score to pull the Rays within one after Minnesota had taken a 6-4 lead in what ended as a 6-5 Twins victory.
Despite the Twins improving to nine games above .500, this feeling persisted: Never before has a first-place club worked so hard to alienate a fan base. It’s a shame, too, considering the Twins will wrap up a nine-game stretch against AL East heavyweights from Toronto, New York and Tampa Bay on Sunday and are 5-3 in that stretch.
“I still don’t know what the right thing is,” manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters before Saturday’s game when asked about a lineup that also did not include regular third baseman Gio Urshela. “If anyone has any thoughts, let me know. But I honestly don’t know. It just so happens that a few times their schedules have lined up where we’ve had a couple days off at the same time. I like the lineup when they are both playing. We’ve actually found ways to still win games when they’ve both been off.
“Part of me thinks one thing, that you make it work where one guy is off and the other is not. But this is the way it’s played out. To be honest, I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve stopped thinking about it. If they’re both off on the same day, so be it.”
A couple things here.
I’ve been saying for a few weeks now that I don’t believe this is all Baldelli. The Twins are secretive about their decision-making process but it’s reasonable to believe that there are multiple chefs in the kitchen when it comes to preparing the lineup and pitching decisions. Baldelli is the face of the decisions — and takes the heat — but to think that president of baseball operations Derek Falvey, general manager Thad Levine and many others aren’t involved would be missing the point of how MLB teams work in 2022.
The other point, and perhaps the most important one, is the decision to sit your two best players on a Saturday afternoon creates a public relations problem. The Twins operate a business that is trying to make money and sitting their two top players is a message to fans that they should spend their money and not worry about who is playing.
Imagine being from outside the metro area and bringing your son and/or daughter who might be falling in love with baseball, and trying to explain why their favorite players are both being given a day off their feet? Buxton did pinch run in the eighth inning, but was quickly erased on a double play grounder from Ryan Jeffers.
There are various reasons the Twins entered this weekend averaging 19,445 fans per game to rank 20th in the big leagues. But moves like the one made Saturday don’t help, even if the team did win.
Buxton’s absence from the lineup isn’t a surprise. He’s been battling a knee problem for much of the season and it was nearly a month ago when Buxton wasn’t even allowed to pinch hit in a 3-2, 10-inning loss to Cleveland at Target Field. Baldelli said at the time in that type of situation that Buxton simply wouldn’t play, although that later proved not to be the case and wasn’t the case Saturday.
Correa returned this week after missing eight games while on the COVID list. He served as the designated hitter on Wednesday against the Yankees, was at shortstop on Thursday and Friday and was given another rest day on Saturday. Buxton had been the designated hitter in the first game against New York, spent the next two days in center field and then was the DH again on Friday. He slashed .412/.500/1.353 with five homers and seven RBIs in those games.
The desire to keep Buxton healthy — the Twins are hoping he can play in at least 100 games for only the second time in his career — makes sense. But why not rest Buxton on Saturday and Correa on Sunday? Or, better yet, wait until the upcoming trip to Seattle to rest Correa so you don’t do it in front of the home fans? Did Correa really need to get off his feet that badly and if he did it might be best to give much more of an explanation than was provided.
The fact the Twins lineup knocked around Rays starter Shane Baz and came away with a win was good news for the team and their fans. But that doesn’t justify sitting two big-contract stars on a gorgeous June day. Win or lose, that’s just bad business.