Week in Review: Bucking a Bad Trend
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/31 through Sun, 9/6
Record Last Week: 5-2 (Overall: 25-17)
Run Differential Last Week: +7 (Overall: +34)
Standing: 3rd Place in AL Central (1.5 GB)
Bomba Counter: 56 (Pace: 80)
It wouldn't be a week in the 2020 season if there weren't some significant injury news to report. This time around it was Max Kepler going down, placed on the Injured List with a left adductor strain. It marks the first time in his career Kepler has landed on the DL/IL. Keeping in mind what happened late last year, when the right fielder was hampered by a shoulder injury in September and rendered almost totally ineffective in the playoffs, it would make sense if the Twins take a very cautious approach and keep him sidelined for most of the month.
Joining Kepler on IL was Alex Avila, who is dealing with lower back soreness (perhaps helping explain his 1-for-17 stretch at the plate leading up the move). He was replaced by Willians Astudillo, who brings some energy and hitting ability but is a major downgrade defensively.
Luis Arráez experienced a setback with his balky knee, limping out of Wednesday's game against Chicago, but it appears relatively minor as the Twins didn't put him on the shelf and he returned to the lineup on Sunday. This is just something the second baseman will be dealing with, and the Twins will be attempting to manage, the rest of the way.
Fortunately, the past week's negatives were counterbalanced and then some by refreshingly positive news on the health front. Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton made their highly anticipated returns and wasted no time impacting the club, helping turn around a dire cold spell. Michael Pineda debuted in triumphant fashion.
Kepler going on IL also opened the door for Brent Rooker to get called up from St. Paul, giving the Twins a much-needed righty power bat infusion. He debuted on Friday, playing both ends of the doubleheader, and has made a fast impression with three hits and three RBIs in his first four games.
Ahead, we'll discuss the contributions of returning stars, as well as some other positive developments in a big rebound week for the Twins.
As the Twins skidded into the trade deadline last Monday, and then passed on the opportunity to bring in any help, our collective hopes were pinned on the returns of key sidelined players, who were hailed as saviors for a spiraling squad.
They ... pretty much lived up to the billing.
Buxton came blazing back onto the scene Tuesday, robbing a home run and driving in the winning run as Minnesota snapped its six-game losing streak with a 3-2 win.
There really is a different energy and vibe to this team when Buxton is on the field, which helps explain why the dramatic difference in the Minnesota's record when he plays (79-33) and when he doesn't (47-45) dating back to the start of last year. His abilities to impact games defensively and punish the ball are obvious difference-makers, but what really strikes me is the speed element he brings this a team, which otherwise has very little (the Twins rank last in the majors in steals and attempts).
Since returning, Buxton has already reached on two grounders that would've been fairly standard outs for almost any other hitter, and the second of those was a biggie.
He puts pressure on the defense. He turns routine infield choppers into base hits. These are the kinds of things that can be game-changers for a slumbering offense as much as a monster home run.
That said, we'll also take the monster home run. Donaldson delivered one of those in his second game back – an atom smash to straightaway center field – after coming through with a two-run double in his return on Wednesday. Like Buxton, he quickly made his presence known both on offense and defense.
Donaldson never looked quite right early in the season, seemingly hampered by the calf issue that eventually forced him into a month-long IL stint, but the version we're seeing now is bringing the rain.
It's crystal-clear that nothing is more important to the Twins' chances of a deep postseason run than keeping Donaldson and Buxton healthy and effective.
They'll need some help, though, and the past week brought plenty of promising signs on that front. Big Mike made a big impression in his return to the fold Tuesday, allowing two runs over six innings while racking up a whopping 16 whiffs on 81 pitches. Pineda was efficient and in control throughout, picking up right where he left off in 2019 and looking very much like a playoff starter.
The same can be said, thankfully, for José Berríos, who seems to be distancing himself from some early-season struggles. The righty was masterful in Wednesday's win over the White Sox, tossing six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts. His last three starts have all come against relatively strong opponents (Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago) and Berríos has allowed only four earned runs in 17 ⅔ innings. Opponents are hitting .175 against him with one home run during that span. Toss in another shutdown performance from Randy Dobnak (five scoreless innings on Friday) plus the continued excellence of Kenta Maeda (eight strikeouts in a quality start Saturday), and the Twins are looking pretty strong on the rotation front.
The bullpen is mostly holding up too (Sunday notwithstanding), thanks in large part to some unlikely heroes. Caleb Thielbar and Matt Wisler each had a pair of key appearances as they continue to prove themselves as critical low-key additions to the Twins bullpen.
Thielbar picked up the win in Minnesota's slump-snapping victory against Chicago on Tuesday, with a scoreless seventh in relief of Pineda. Thielbar added two more shutout frames in the back end of Friday's doubleheader, lowering his ERA to 1.38 in 13 total innings. He has 17 strikeouts and four walks. Amazing.
Wisler, meanwhile, has been phenomenal in the opener role – I praised him for it in last week's column – and now he's shown he can close too. He picked up the save with a scoreless ninth on Tuesday, and he too tossed two clean innings Friday. Wisler has a 0.96 ERA and 24-to-11 K/BB ratio in 18 ⅔ innings on the season. Opponents are hitting .125 against him and his all-powerful slider.
Not enough can be said about what incredible offseason pickups these were by the front office, costing essentially nothing and delivering enormous returns.
Wisler and Thielbar continuing to excel has been all the more vital as other bullpen fixtures falter. The unit hit its low point of the season on Sunday when Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo and Devin Smeltzer combined to cough up eight earned runs on 11 hits in four innings against an unspectacular Detroit offense.
May has given up home runs in three of his last four appearances and his ERA has ballooned to 5.74. Taylor Rogers had another rough outing on Monday, although the three runs scored against him were all unearned due to Kepler's outfield drop. Opponents are hitting .391 against Rogers in his past 10 appearances.
Regression is surely a factor for this bullpen, which was performing at an absurdly high level early on, but it doesn't help that relievers are constantly working in stressful, high-leverage situations thanks to an offense that continues to so rarely create separation.
Coming in, the Twins were viewed as one of the league's best offensive teams not only because of their depth in the lineup, but also their depth beyond the lineup. Ehire Adrianza was coming off a career-best season with the bat, while Marwin Gonzalez is here largely because of the offensive ability he brings along with his defensive versatility.
Neither one is doing anything at the plate, and it's a huge problem for this team.
Adrianza was hitless in his past 12 plate appearances before doubling high off the right field wall in his first at-bat Sunday. His two hits in that game were his only ones of the week. For the season, he is batting .190, and is 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position.
Gonzalez went 2-for-17 on the week, dropping his overall line to a miserable .218 /.301/.306. He inexplicably batted cleanup on Tuesday, despite being one of the weakest bats on the roster. Gonzalez hasn't collected an extra-base hit in two weeks while playing almost everyday.
The Twins have little choice but to play both regularly right now, with Kepler injured, Arráez aching, and both Buxton and Donaldson being eased in. The inability of either Adrianza or Gonzalez to make anything happen at the plate is greatly suppressing the lineup and hurting the team.
The Twins called up Ryan Jeffers, and now Rooker. Is anyone else from the alternate site going to be joining the action here in the final month? If any other players are expected to possibly play a role in the postseason picture, the Twins will basically need to make that decision within the next week; in order to be eligible for the playoffs, players must be on the active roster by Tuesday, September 15th.
Will we see additional young talents factor for the Twins in the remaining weeks? It's worth noting that pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic and Matt Canterino were added to the 60-man player pool last week, though it seems highly unlikely either would jump straight to the majors at this juncture. A bat seems more plausible, especially given the struggles of Minnesota's depth players, and the ongoing injury concerns in the outfield.
It's going to be a weird week. On Monday, the Twins wrap up their four-day, five-game home series against Detroit. Then, they travel to St. Louis for two games in one day on Tuesday. This is followed by two consecutive days off, and then a massive home series against Cleveland over the weekend.
MONDAY, 9/7: TIGERS @ TWINS – RHP Michael Fulmer v. RHP Michael Pineda
TUESDAY, 9/8 (1): TWINS @ CARDINALS – Jose Berrios v. TBD
TUESDAY, 9/8 (2): TWINS @ CARDINALS – TBD v. TBD
FRIDAY, 9/11: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Shane Bieber v. RHP Randy Dobnak
SATURDAY, 9/12: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Zach Plesac v. RHP Kenta Maeda
SUNDAY, 9/13: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Triston McKenzie v. RHP Rich Hill
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 36 | CWS 8, MIN 5: Drop Kick
- Game 37 | MIN 3, CWS 2: Pineda, Buxton Shine in Return to Roster
- Game 38 | MIN 8, CWS 1: Berríos Dominates, Bats Bust Out
- Game 39 | MIN 2, DET 0
- Game 40 | MIN 3, DET 2
- Game 41 | MIN 4, DET 3: Fashionably Late
- Game 42 | DET 10, MIN 8: Bullpen Finally Breaks
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