9 Thoughts from 9 Innings of a Home-Opening Win
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports1st Inning: Making Martínez Sweat
The bottom of the first was not a great showing for the Twins offense. They missed some big opportunities. Nelson Cruz popped out to foul territory on a 2-0 count with two in scoring position, and later Mitch Garver grounded out to third on 3-1 with the bases juiced. No one hit anything particularly hard.
And yet ... this lineup still made life extremely difficult for Cardinals starter Carlos Martínez, who needed 21 pitches to get through the frame. While the Twins may have failed to cash in, it's the kind of high-stress experience for a pitcher that can set up an inning like the second, where Minnesota took off and pushed across five runs.
Martínez, a very good pitcher with a 3.36 career ERA, was soon chased from the game after just 4 2/3 innings.
2nd Inning: Hip Hip, Jorge
Punctuating the five-run outburst in the bottom of the second was No. 3 hitter Jorge Polanco, who launched a two-run homer into the right field plaza. He very nearly followed with another bomb from the other side in his following at-bat, two innings later, though Cards left fielder Tyler O'Neill was able to track it down at the warning track.
Polanco tends to get lost in a shuffle a bit for this offense, as a steadily solid hitter amidst a sea of flashy sluggers. He ranked sixth on the team in OPS+ last year, and he was a bit quiet down the stretch. It can be easy to forget he was the lone All-Star on a historic 2019 offense.
One person who does not lose sight of Polanco's abilities at the plate is his manager.
Polanco batted cleanup in the second game of this season in Chicago. That marks the only time since Rocco Baldelli took over as skipper that the shortstop has hit anywhere below third in the lineup.
3rd Inning: Living on the Edge
The last time we saw Homer Bailey, it wasn't such a pretty sight. The newly signed right-hander got knocked around in his final tune-up start at Wrigley, as the Cubs took advantage of too many hittable pitches left up around the belt. His official debut was a different story. While he wasn't immune to mistakes, Bailey was executing far better this time out, peppering the borders of FSN's strike zone visualization to maximize the effectiveness of a so-so fastball.
Here in the third inning, he was at the height of his prowess for the evening, striking out the side with some stellar pitch sequences. Impressively, it was his slider and not his highly-touted splitter doing much of the work.
Bailey had a crisp outing, allowing four hits and two walks over five innings, with four strikeouts. It's a continuation of the trend we saw in 2019, which saw noticeable improvement in many indicators of hard contact (Barrel %, Sweet Spot %, XBA, XSLG).
If he can keep dancing around the edges, while dropping the occasional slow breaking ball over the plate to catch a hitter off-guard, he's gonna be in good shape.
4th Inning: Here Comes the Rain
It was a picture-perfect summer evening for the opener at Target Field, although the Bringer of Rain did make his first splash in the bottom of the fourth. Josh Donaldson watered the plants on the right-field overhang with an oppo shot that just barely cleared the wall.
One thing that's really struck me about Donaldson is that even when he doesn't square it up – and so far he hasn't done so much; prior to the bomb, he was 2-for-11 with two infield singles – he still puts a charge into the ball.
That home run came on a ripe pitch over the middle, but he really didn't seem to get all of it. There have been a few other occasions, including his sacrifice fly earlier in the game, where the ball has carried surprisingly far off Donaldson's bat. This guy is as strong and powerful as advertised.
5th Inning: Bailey Bounces Back
The lone blemish in Bailey's outing came here in the fifth, where he left a hanging offspeed pitch over the dish and O'Neill destroyed it for a two-run homer. Following a well-struck single to open the inning, it looked like the Twins starter might be starting to lose steam. But he buckled down and rattled off three straight outs – a pop-out to first and two grounders.
That's the resiliency you like to see from a back-end starter. It was maybe more encouraging to me than his triple-K third.
6th Inning: Pesky Arráez
The sixth was fairly uneventful, with Tyler Clippard entering to pitch a clean top half and Minnesota going down 1-2-3 in the bottom. But one guy who did not go easily was Luis Arráez. As ever.
The scrappy second baseman drove a pitch the other way and nearly had extra bases, but O'Neill was able to chase it down in left with a diving grab near the line. Arráez makes pitchers and defenders work awfully hard to get him out. He still has yet to strike out through 12 plate appearances, and he's been hitting the ball pretty dang hard. To have a player like this near the bottom of your lineup (he's hit seventh twice and ninth once) is just an unbelievable advantage.
7th Inning: Stashak and Bullpen Depth
Bailey was out of the game for Minnesota after five, but the Twins had no trouble filling in the remaining innings. Second out of the bullpen was Cody Stashak, who delivered his second scoreless outing of the young season. With the exception of a ground-ball double, Stashak was basically flawless, throwing 12 of 17 pitches for strikes and retiring the side with little trouble.
Just as Arráez is a major asset at the lower part of the order, Stashak is a major asset in the middle of the bullpen. He's looked every bit as good as the 3.24 ERA and 25-to-1 K/BB ratio in last year's MLB debut suggested.
8th Inning: Buxton Drops the Ball
Trevor May followed Stashak in the eighth. Leading off against him was Tommy Edman, who lifted a deep fly to center field. Byron Buxton, making his first appearance of the season, sprinted back, reached the wall, and had it measured. He leapt up, had it in his glove, and the ball glanced right off it over the fence.
It was a bit strange to see from Buxton, for whom the spectacular has become almost routine. But among all the negative outcomes of him chasing a ball to the wall, a solo homer with a fairly comfortable lead is one we'll take.
It was a tough break for May, but he recovered nicely by striking out the next three batters. His stuff looks absolutely filthy, as he induced seven swinging strikes on 21 pitches.
9th Inning: Where is Rogers?
With the exception of Rich Hill (who starts tomorrow) only two players on the active roster had yet to see game action by this point: Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers. Even in a save situation – albeit on the less-intense side – the Twins' top-tier closer remained unused. Romo tossed a clean ninth to close out the 6-3 victory.
That leaves Rogers, one of the team's best and long-tenured players, as the only reliever we've yet to see. It doesn't necessarily point to any error in judgment from Baldelli, as there's been no real need to turn to the team's highest-leverage arm, but still it seems strange that Rogers hasn't even gotten in an inning of work while several others have made multiple appearances.
Hopefully there's nothing bothering the southpaw physically, and this is all situational and strategic. Through the team's first four games in 2019, Rogers had already thrown four innings across three appearances.
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