Twins Winning in the Margins
Image courtesy of © Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY SportsSetting the stage a bit: Kyle Gibson had a less than ideal outing. Although he cruised through four innings ceding just one run, there’s no denying that he danced around a certain level of danger. In the fifth, the good fortune ran out and the Royals hung a five spot on the Twins starter. After building a 3-1 lead the inning prior, Rocco Baldelli’s club found themselves looking at a 6-3 deficit with just four innings to play. What took place from that point forward is where this story begins.
The Twins lineup put up runs in three of the next four innings, heading into the bottom of the ninth clinging to a 7-6 lead. This lineup, which has been infused with power bats and fresh faces, took good hacks at the plate while forcing counts in their favor. Coming back from a three-run deficit, they allowed the bullpen an opportunity to steal a win out of what looked like a defeat.
In the bottom of the ninth inning Whit Merrifield stepped to the plate, and the tone was set. Mitch Garver, who was more than overwhelmed defensively in 2018, took over the game. Trevor May had gotten behind to the tune of a 3-1 count and poured in a fastball on the outside corner of the zone. Garver stuck the pitch and attacked it, allowing home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg to accurately call it a strike. A season ago, Garver likely lets the pitch get in on him or drift, and it would no longer present as a pitch within the strike zone.
After generating that strike, which Merrifield believed was ball four, May went back to the corner of the zone but slightly missed his spot. Garver set up low and Trevor’s fastball drifted outside and off the plate. Because Garver was able to grab the strike just a pitch earlier in the at-bat, the Royals outfielder chased this one and rolled a weak grounder to second base. With such a strong hitter at the plate, and only a one run lead to protect, that at-bat set up the Twins to hang on in the game.
We’re far too early in the season to put any stock in advanced defensive metrics. That said, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone closely observing the Twins not taking notice of Garver’s step forward. He’s got a much stronger command of the zone, is setting up behind the plate in a way that allows the umpire a better vantage point, and in general his defense appears to have taken significant strides forward. For both Garver and the pitching staff, this is a development that will no doubt equate to a few more wins over the course of a full season.
On top of this specific instance, Minnesota won their second one-run game of the season by closing out the Royals. A season ago the Twins went 15-21 in one-run contests. They didn’t win their second one-run game on the road until June 28th. In completing the two-game sweep of Kansas City, Minnesota busted out the brooms over a full month earlier than last year. Winning the close games, and beating a team they should, are two areas of welcomed development for this big-league slate.
It’s early and will remain that way until spring turns to summer. Taking care of business as often as possible helps to set up a much more manageable path to the postseason, however. Minnesota leads the division by a game currently. They haven’t experienced a 2.0 game lead since June 15, 2017 and haven’t led by more than 3.0 games since October 3, 2010. Continuing to put themselves in a position where they can win in these small scenarios, or key instances, is what will eventually vault this team to a place to which they aspire.
Mitch Garver setting up an important out in April isn’t a huge deal. Coming back to win a one-run game against the Royals before May likely gets forgotten. Replicate these situations as often as possible however, and you’ll have a season in which a strong process is driving equally strong results.
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