Week in Review: Bittersweet Ending
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 9/24 through Sun, 9/30
Record Last Week: 5-1 (Overall: 78-84)
Run Differential Last Week: +27 (Overall: -37)
Standing: 2nd Place in AL Central (13 GB)
We still can't say with certainty, and may not be able to do so for another month or so, but there've been plenty of signals that this is it for Joe Mauer. He started every game last week, including – conspicuously – both ends of a Friday doubleheader. He basked in standing ovations and tipped his cap to the crowd numerous times. His teammates waxed nostalgic about him in interviews. He took the field for the ninth on Sunday at catcher.
Oh, and Mauer also played really, really well. It was a vintage week for the veteran, who collected hits at a feverish pace en route to an 11-for-29 (.379) finish.
Yes, the hits were almost all singles. Yeah, he grounded into a couple of double plays. It was signature Mauer through-and-through. But as with his career as a whole, the good healthily outweighed the bad as the first baseman put together exemplary ABs and came through in big spots, pushing his batting average with runners in scoring position to a ridiculous .413.
In MLB history, Mauer's .334 average with RISP ranks fourth among players with 1,000 PA, trailing only Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew and Joey Votto (h/t Aaron Gleeman).
What a ride it has been.
While most of our eyes were on Mauer all week, plenty of other Twins were doing special things.
Most heartening, to me, was Mitch Garver's explosive return to the starting lineup on Friday. As we all know, Mauer's career was thrown off its Hall of Fame course by an incident scarily similar to the one that sidelined Garver for much of September.
So as Joe likely opts to retire, partially due to lingering after-effects from that concussion that continue to afflict him, it was all the more relieving to see Garver play nine innings in the double-header nightcap. Not only that, but he delivered his best offensive game of the year, driving in six runs on a 4-for-5 effort. The 27-year-old started again on Sunday, at DH, and singled in four at-bats.
Jake Cave started his year as the No. 3 hitter for the Rochester Red Wings, freshly acquired in a spring trade with the Yankees. He ended it Sunday as the No. 3 hitter for the Minnesota Twins, capping off a remarkable 2018 ascendance.
Cave fit the bill in his final week, collecting hits in all six of his starts on the way to an 8-for-22 finish, including his 13th home run on Sunday. More encouraging than the hits were the walks – four of them, which doubled his total from the previous 25 games.
In batting .269 with a .481 slugging percentage as a rookie, Cave has convincingly displayed his hitting ability. Improved control of the strike zone may be essential to sustained success going forward, because it's really tough to hold up with a 30%+ K rate and sub-5% BB rate. But all in all, an excellent rookie year for Cave.
Same goes for Willians Astudillo, even though he didn't get nearly the same amount of tread as Cave. La Tortuga made the most out of his time after joining the team for good in late August, producing at the dish with stunning consistency. After a 9-for-23 final week, he wraps up September with a .388 average, 17 RBIs and only one strikeout in 70 plate appearances.
I'm not sure Astudillo will find a way onto the Opening Day roster next year, but he's absolutely hanging onto his 40-man roster spot. Incredible showing.
Plenty of pitchers also punctuated their seasons in prime fashion. The team's top two starters both turned in gems, with Jose Berrios firing seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts on Friday and Kyle Gibson following with six innings of one-run ball on Saturday. By surpassing the 200-K mark in his last start, Berrios became the first Twins pitcher to do so since Francisco Liriano in 2010.
With his 9.45 K/9 rate, Berrios edges that 2010 Liriano campaign (9.44) as the ninth-best in franchise history. Four of the top eight belong to Johan Santana.
Kohl Stewart also put a bow on his sterling month of September with his best outing as a pro, logging six shutout frames against Detroit on Tuesday. He allowed two singles and no walks in a near-spotless performance. The night prior to his excellent last start, I'd written about my intrigue with Stewart, whose astounding ability to limit hard contact and home runs has shone through at the big-league level, restoring intrigue that diminished during a non-dominant rise through the minors.
In 36 2/3 innings during his MLB debut, Stewart held opponents to a .246 average and .326 slugging percentage while surrendering just one homer. His control wasn't nearly good enough and the volume of contact was troubling, but there's definitely something to work with here.
Finally, we'll close out with a couple of big bright spots in the bullpen. Taylor Rogers continued his immaculate late-season run with two more scoreless outings, extending his run to 27 straight. Despite clearly emerging as the team's best reliever, Rogers hasn't gotten a shot at closer duties, and that's just fine, as he's thriving as is.
It is Trevor May who has stepped into that ninth-inning role here in the home stretch, with gusto. The right-hander recorded three more clean appearances last week, converting his second and third saves in as many tries. On Sunday he entered and pitched around a leadoff double to protect a one-run lead, notching a pair of impressive strikeouts.
May been nothing short of phenomenal since rejoining the fold at the end of July. In 25 1/3 innings, he put up a 3.20 ERA and 1.03 WHIP to go along with a dazzling 36-to-5 K/BB ratio.
If you take out his disastrous early-September appearance as "opener," in which he was tagged for four runs on five hits in one inning, May completes his comeback season with a 1.77 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. He's locked in as a pivotal bullpen asset for 2019 and offers Ryan Pressly-type upside.
Of course, May only got his shot in the ninth because of Trevor Hildenberger's failure to establish himself in an extended look following the Fernando Rodney trade. His latest meltdown came against Detroit on Tuesday, when Hildy entered in the eighth and turned a 2-0 lead into a 4-2 loss. It was the fifth straight appearance in which the righty allowed at least one run to cross the plate. He added a sixth on Sunday when he issued two hits and a walk while failing to record an out.
He hasn't quite been right all year and Hildenberger's late slump has epitomized his struggles – lagging command, frequent meatballs, inability to put hitters away. His ground ball rate dropped from 58.8% in 2017 to 46.3% in 2018, and the latter is probably not a workable number for him.
While Rogers and May have both solidified their standing, Hildenberger heads into the offseason as a question mark, and will likely have nothing promised next spring.
It was mostly a positive week for the rotation, but Stephen Gonsalves' erratic final turn was representative of his first foray into the majors at large. Despite being awarded a win, the left-hander wasn't especially impressive, issuing four walks over 3 1/3 innings while throwing only 43 of 76 pitches for strikes. The progress Gonsalves displayed with control in his previous start evaporated; he finishes with 22 walks allowed in 24 2/3 innings and a ghastly 2.03 WHIP.
Like Stewart, Gonsalves is tough to square up. He showed this throughout the minors and he's carried it up to the majors, where he has allowed only two home runs and six total extra-base hits. In September opponents batted .173 and slugged .192 against him.
But at this time, the lack of control is a crippling weakness. Gonsalves allowed a .418 on-base percentage with the Twins. He'll undoubtedly be billed for Rochester to open next year, and will know exactly what he needs to work on.
Though much more established as a big-leaguer, Max Kepler will also head into this offseason recognizing a clear need for improvement. The outfielder did finish strong on Sunday with a double and his 20th home run, but it was his first multi-hit game in nearly three weeks. He closes out a disappointing third season with a .727 OPS, which is nearly identical to his marks in both 2017 (.737) and 2016 (.734).
Kepler put up his best walk and strikeout rates this year, improving each significantly. Yet he posted a career-worst .224 average. He improved against lefties but regressed against righties, equating to the same middling production overall. The 25-year-old seemingly has the talent and aptitude to be a real impact player, but it hasn't come together yet. And if he keeps stagnating at the plate, the Twins are going to have to take a hard look at his fit as a core piece.
Having said all that, Kepler was not a hindrance this year by any means and showed significant improvement on the defensive side. He'll be back. Will Logan Forsythe?
A hot start after joining the Twins vaulted the impending free agent into consideration as a short-term plug for the team's vacancy at second, but he slumped down the stretch, managing only three singles in 24 at-bats last week to finish September with a .205 average and just two extra-base hits in 100 plate appearances.
Even as a one-year stopgap, I think the Twins are gonna need to aim higher at second base this winter. Ehire Adrianza, who might have merited consideration with a strong second half, also failed to help his case with a 1-for-11 week. He finishes with a .680 OPS that's 27 points short of last year's semi-encouraging mark.
The central storyline for Twins Territory during the final week was Mauer's future, and it'll continue to hold that distinction until he makes an official decision. Watching the game play out on Sunday, his intention to retire felt like the world's worst-kept secret, but for now his status remains uncertain, and Minnesota's outlook at first base is a total mystery.
That'll be one of many intriguing storylines to follow in the coming months as the Twins seek to retool and right the ship. We'll be covering them from every angle in the Twins Daily 2019 Offseason Handbook, coming soon. Keep your eyes peeled for preorder details this week. This is gonna be a fun one.
I've really enjoyed bringing you these weekly recaps all season, and hope you feel the same way. Bring on the offseason.
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 156 | DET 4, MIN 2: Mauer Reaches Milestone, Hildenberger Flops
- Game 157 | MIN 11, DET 4: Bats Bust Out, Bullpen Shuts Out Detroit
- Game 158 | MIN 9, DET 3: Vive La Tortuga
- Game 159 | MIN 2, CHW 1: Berrios Reaches 200 Ks
- Game 160 | MIN 12, CHW 4: Garver Drives In 6, Mauer Showered With Applause
- Game 161 | MIN 8, CHW 3: Twins Continue Trend of Finishing Strong
- Game 162 | MIN 5, CHW 4: You Are Appreciated, Joe Mauer
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