If you’re old enough to remember movie westerns, you know the scene:
Wagon train is rolling along, hoping to get through territory of hostile tribe. Wagonmaster spots lone brave on hilltop, says, “We don’t have to worry about him.” Sidekick says, “Better look again, boss” and points to where the brave has been joined by a few hundred of his best buds, all looking decidedly unfriendly.
That’s about how the Minnesota Twins must feel right now. Their double-digit division lead, held for most of the season, is all but gone, with Cleveland just two games behind and looking decidedly unfriendly. Five Thirty Eight still Minnesota with a 71% chance to win the AL Central, but that number seems to be dropping slipping daily.
Which leads to the question: Can you hit a baseball while you’re looking back over your shoulder?
We should find out over the next four days, as the Twins try to recover from being blasted by the New York Yankees by enjoying four games with the White Sox, whom they’ve beaten four out of six so far, by an embarrassing total of 43 runs to 18.
The Sox are used to losing to the Twins, of course — they’ve done it for decades — but the style this year is decidedly different. It is not for nothing that Ozzie Guillén called the team “piranhas” (o pirañas, depending on his level of vitriol/awe), killing you with a few thousand bites of small ball. That was how Minnesota played.
Until this year. Now, they’re killer whales.
In the offseason, the Twins did something interesting. Instead of using the White Sox system of picking up free agents based on who was related to whom by marriage and how many degrees of separation they were from good players, the Twins spent big bucks to get the actual good players themselves.
It has paid off, big time, with 194 homers already, far and away the MLB lead. Of the free agents, Nelson Cruz has 22 HRs and a .933 OPS, Jonathan Schoop 15 HRs, and Marwin Gonzalez 12 — plus waiver pick-up C.J. Cron (on the IL now, as is Byron Buxton, a big break for the Sox), who has 18 dingers and an .814 OPS.
The Twins have scored 576 runs, third in the AL, and with all those long balls, they’ve still managed to strike out 132 times fewer than the Sox, and draw 83 more walks. The pitching can be shaky - Jose Berrios has been terrific, as has closer Taylor Rogers, but most starters have ERAs over four. They just try to outscore you, and they’ve sure succeeded at that with the Sox.
A DISCLOSURE AND MOMENTARY DIGRESSION
I must take a moment to confess I once rooted for this franchise. Not as the Twins, heaven forbid, but waaaaay back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and they were the original Washington Senators. The Senators were perennially terrible, hence the famed line, “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League, ” but they were my hometown team when I was six, and it was there my dad took me to my first game, vs. the Philadelphia A’s.
My hero the was third baseman Eddie Yost, known as The Walking Man. Yost was a good glove guy, but not all that good a hitter, though he did hold the record for leadoff homers for many years.
Yost played in the majors for 18 years, despite being a corner infielder with modest power and a lifetime .254 average, for one very good reason — unlike the White Sox, as individuals, team and organization, Yost really knew the strike zone. Eddie walked 1,614 times (almost double his K’s), leading the AL six times and MLB five times, peaking with 151 walks in 152 games in 1956. That upped his on-base percentage to .394 lifetime, with many years better than .400 ... and the best of any Sox regular is Yoán Moncada at .357. That makes a whole lot of difference in winning ballgames.
Too bad the Sox find it impossible to learn that.
BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED COVERAGE
As for pitching matchups this series, they should be:
Thursday: Jose Berrios vs. Lucas Giolito
This should be a doozy, two of the AL’s best going head-to-head. Giolito, you know. He went five innings of one-hit shutout ball in his only start against Minnesota this year. Berrios, you know all too well — a relatively small (six foot even), 25-year-old, righty All-Star. He’s just 8-5, but with an ERA of 2.96 and ERA+ of 154. Berrios has already faced the Sox twice this season, going 1-1 despite terrible fielding behind him, giving up 18 hits in 14 innings, but just four earned runs because he didn’t walk anyone.
Friday: Michael Pineda vs. Dylan Cease
This should be a key outing for Cease, as it’s the first time the rookie will face a powerful offense. So far, Cease is 1-2 with a 6.19 ERA, showing flashes of excellence but a tendency to have a very bad inning. With the Twins, a bad inning can be very bad, indeed. Pineda is a very big righthander (6´7´´, 280 pounds) with a 6-5 record and 4.41 ERA. In his one outing vs. the Sox this year, a win, Pineda went six innings, giving up four hits, one walk and one earned, while K’ing eight.
Saturday: Martin Perez vs. Iván Nova
Nova carries a 5.49 ERA, but had a complete-game, one-run performance last time out, albeit vs. the Miami Marlins. He’s faced the Twins once this year, giving up four earned in six and losing. Lefty Perez is 8-3 with a 4.37 ERA and got hammered by the Yankees in a victory last time out — but everybody gets hammered by the Yankees. Perez hasn’t faced the Sox this season, and, since he’s new to the division, hasn’t started against them since April 2016, which it isn’t fair to count — but we will, because he gave up five runs, and the Sox won, 5-0.
Sunday: Kyle Gibson vs. Dylan Covey
Righty Gibson is 9-4 with a 4.24 ERA, and is striking out one per inning. His last start was one of the Yankee hammerings, giving up five runs in five innings, but in his sole appearance against the White Sox this year he rolled through seven easy innings, with five hits, one run, one walk and 9 Ks. Covey is, well, Covey.
Sox should have an advantage if they knock the starters out, because the Twins bullpen has to be utterly exhausted after the Yankees scored 30 runs in a just-ended, three-game series.
It’s a series of contrasting situations. At this point, while individuals certainly will be trying to win, no win or loss means much of anything to the Sox, so they can be nice and loose. But every game counts for the Twins, so they may be looking back over their shoulders. Let’s hope so.