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Zulgad: Twins' slump might not be worthy of panic but could foreshadow problems in shortened season

Adalberto Mondesi, Jorge Polanco
Kansas City Royals Adalberto Mondesi, back, steals second base behind Minnesota Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco during the first inning of a baseball game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Twins held a two-run lead and were two innings from completing a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon when things went awry. Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers combined to give up three runs as the woeful Bucs won in a walk-off. Still, getting worked up about the defeat was difficult.

The Twins left Pittsburgh with a 10-3 record, a 2.5-game lead in the American League Central and a three-game series in Kansas City ahead against a Royals team that was 4-10 and had just ended a six-game losing streak. In a 60-game season filled with cupcakes, nobody was going to get concerned about a hiccup against the Pirates.

The problem was the Royals didn’t look like the feeble bunch the Twins expected, and the Twins were too often punchless when they needed a big hit. The result was Kansas City victories by scores of 3-2 on Friday, 9-6 on Saturday and 4-2 on Sunday. The Twins hit five home runs in the three games, but generated only three runs that did not come as a result of those homers.

Minnesota (10-6) now holds a half-game lead on the Detroit Tigers (yes, that’s not a typo) and Cleveland in the AL Central.

A postgame tweet was sent after the Twins’ latest setback with the word “Panic.” It was (mostly) a joke, but figuring out how to analyze and weigh things in this pandemic-shortened season isn’t all that funny. While 60 games is an incredibly short season and the Twins already are nearing the 20-game mark, 16 teams are going to qualify for the postseason and there is no significant advantage in getting a high seed for the three-game first round.

The biggest concern isn’t that the Twins will miss the playoffs — the first- and second-place teams in every division will go, plus two wild cards — it’s that they easily could get bounced in the opening round. The potential danger of this happening was on display in the three games over the weekend as the Royals’ bullpen surrendered only two runs (both on Saturday) six hits, three walks and had 17 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.

Jose Berrios, who almost certainly will be manager Rocco Baldelli’s choice to start Game 1 of the playoffs for the Twins, had a chance to provide his team with a boost on Sunday. Instead, the righthander gave up two runs on three hits in the first inning and fell to 1-2 on the season with a 5.31 ERA. Berrios surrendered four runs on eight hits with three walks and four strikeouts before departing after throwing 96 pitches in 5.1 innings. One of the hitters Berrios walked, Whit Merrifield, scored on a sacrifice fly in the third inning.

“I thought his command was fine. I don’t think it was his best command, but I thought he was able to make pitches generally when he needed to,” Baldelli told reporters. “Walks are always a factor. If there are going to be walks, they’re going to end up coming into play and you’re going to have to find a way to get around them. I thought it was a fine start by Jose. He went out there and continued to battle.”

The problem is that in his fourth full big-league season, Berrios is supposed to be able to do more than battle. He’s supposed to be able to dominate opposing lineups, and Berrios hasn’t looked anywhere close to being dominant in four starts this season. If the Royals can jump on Berrios, as they did Sunday, that means any team he faces in Game 1 of the playoffs can do the same.

That’s not exactly a comforting thought.

The Twins loss on Saturday gave them a three-game losing streak only 15 games into this season. The team did not lose its third in a row in 2019 until game No. 94. The Twins had only one four-game losing streak last season and that fourth loss occurred exactly one year ago Sunday. The difference is the Twins had played 116 games at that point.

That was a club that when all else failed, at least in the regular season, could use offense to beat opponents. The Twins not only hit a big-league record 307 home runs but also were second in baseball with a team batting average of .270. The Twins entered Sunday third in the major leagues with 25 homers but were 16th with a .232 team batting average.

The good news is that center fielder Byron Buxton seems to have straightened things out at the plate after a rocky start. His streak of homering in consecutive games ended at three on Sunday, but he did have a single and ended up scoring the Twins’ first run of the game in the third inning on Max Kepler’s double.

The bad news includes the fact that Miguel Sano is now hitting .111/.149/.356 with three home runs and six RBIs in 13 games. He has struck out 23 times in 45 at-bats, including two more strikeouts on Sunday. Mitch Garver did not play on Sunday and is slashing .094/.250/.188 with one home run and two RBIs in 10 games. Garver, who hit 31 home runs last season, is 3-for-32 and has one hit (a home run) in 19 at-bats this month.

“I think, just in general, the offense is probably a little flat,” said Baldelli, whose team won 14 of 19 games against the Royals last season. “A few guys just maybe not seeing the ball as well as they normally would. But also I think we’re probably missing some fastballs that we would normally be on. Balls that are hittable pitches, balls that are not too high up in the zone or out of the zone. Balls that are directly in the zone where we would want to be looking for them. (We just don’t) have the quality of contact that we’re accustomed to and that we would expect. I think we’re missing the pitches that we would generally be on. Why that is? I couldn’t give you an exact answer. We talk about the circumstances of this year and how guys got ready for the season. I just think that’s probably a point emphasis and something we can focus on.”

Considering how short the regular season is going to be, and the fact the Twins will face the Royals seven more times over the next two weeks, that focus needs to come quickly.