By week's end, the hot-hitting Twins had moved back into the lead with a bit of breathing room, and they're poised to keep adding in the days ahead.
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/12 through Sun, 8/18
Record Last Week: 5-1 (Overall: 76-48)
Run Differential Last Week: +17 (Overall: +144)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central (2.5 GA)
Willians Watch: ON THE COMEBACK TRAILIt's been nearly two months since our guy Willians Astudillo played in a game for the Twins. But finally, the Tortuga Drought is nearing its end.
Astudillo opened up a minor-league rehab stint at Pensacola on Thursday, and naturally, he homered in his first at-bat. This was vintage Willians in every way; on a 1-0 count, he hammered the first pitch in the strike zone deep to left, and proceeded to jog around the bases with his poorly tucked jersey hanging out the back of his pants. In other words, it was a thing of beauty:
Following his splashy debut, in which he also drew a walk (!), Astudillo went 4-for-8 with a homer, double and three RBIs on Friday and Saturday.
Aside from the fun factor, there are more practical reasons to be excited about Astudillo's pending return. Namely, his presence as a third catcher will make it easier for Rocco Baldelli to use Mitch Garver at other positions, or to pinch-hit Garver for Jason Castro late in a game. However, while La Tortuga has wasted no time showing he's ready to go, Minnesota's roster situation may impede his arrival. It's very possible – likely, even – that the Twins will wait until rosters expand in September to recall the beloved backstop.
In other roster moves for the week:
- The Twins activated Sam Dyson, who looked vastly better after a 10-day spell, tossing four scoreless innings while allowing just one run. Granted, that run did hurt – a game-tying solo shot in Texas – but the offense quickly picked him up. To make room for Dyson, Cody Stashak was optioned to Triple-A.
- Randy Dobnak headed back to Triple-A with Michael Pineda coming off the injured list on Thursday. Pineda was solid in his first start back but seemed to run out of gas quickly. He got through five innings with three runs allowed, and gave way to Devin Smeltzer who covered the final four frames. Smeltzer was quickly swapped out for Lewis Thorpe, who arrived on Friday. By rotating arms through that final spot in the bullpen, the Twins are managing to keep a fresh long-relief option available pretty much at all times, which is savvy.
- Ryan Eades was claimed off waivers by Baltimore. With Eades out, Minnesota's 40-man roster stands at 39, leaving one conspicuously open spot...
When the Twins added him as an unexpected splash very late in the offseason. Marwin Gonzalez was viewed as something of an extra luxury – he fixed a problem that did not yet exist, as John aptly put it at the time. But here in the late stages of the summer, he's proving himself to be essential.
With his team facing its most critical remaining stretch of the schedule, minus Byron Buxton and Nelson Cruz, Gonzalez has stepped up in a massive way. Following a big series in Cleveland the prior week, where he was 6-for-15 with several clutch hits, Gonzalez absolutely torched the Brewers and Rangers in their home parks, collecting 13 hits in 26 at-bats with nine RBIs while starting all six games.
The versatile veteran came through with big hit after big hit all week, leading the charge for an offense that was on its game in averaging 7.8 runs and making up for some shortcomings on pitching and defense. Also contributing to the potent productivity:
- Rookie sparkplug Luis Arraez amazingly shows no signs of slowing down. You'd think that, with simple regression to the mean, his batting average and OBP would start to sink, but he just keeps taking excellent ABs and getting rewarded for them. Last week he was 6-for-22 with his third homer, two walks and two strikeouts, leaving his line for the season at .342/.412/.447.
- Once again, Miguel Sano's plate appearances are turning into appointment viewing. The complete contrast from two months ago, when watching him flail was more of a "peek through your fingers" experience, is incredible. Sano and his hitting coaches deserve all the credit in the world. Last week he went 7-for-23 with three home runs and seven walks – par for the course of late. He makes pitchers sweat and preys on the slightest mistakes, harkening back to his glory days as a rookie and a 2017 All-Star. If this dominant Sano is back for good, the heart of the Twins lineup is in great shape.
- Sano's turnaround should remind us all that baseball seasons are long, slumps come and go, and long-term track records matter. We're seeing a similar case, albeit to a lesser extent, in Jake Cave. The vitriol I was seeing from fans toward this guy, after he struggled through 100 sporadic plate appearances with the Twins, was kinda dumbfounding to me given what he did last year in Minnesota, and this year at Triple-A. Naturally he's coming around – after sitting in Milwaukee, Cave went 6-for-12 while starting three times in the Texas series, and is batting .429 in August. Patience, people!
- Speaking of patience, Eddie Rosario has rediscovered a semblance of it. After going from June 16th through August 11th without drawing a single unintentional walk, he drew one in each of his first three games last week. Incidentally, he also hit a pair of home runs on the week. It's true that Rosario is capable of producing with the swing-at-everything approach (he did bat .329 over the aforementioned walkless stretch) but I believe he'll be in better position long-term – especially in those high-leverage spotlights he loves so dearly – if he's forcing opposing pitchers to come to him. Even though he had a somewhat quiet week, I see the walks as a very promising sign.
- Finally, how about a round of applause for Ehire Adrianza? His emergence this year feels like sort of an "icing on the cake" nicety but should not be overlooked. The slick-fielding utilityman has put it all together at the plate, in a way I hoped he might last spring when the starting shortstop was suspended. Adrianza has always shown glimmers of power along with a decent plate approach, and this year at age 29 his skills have come to fruition. He only started twice last week but got into five games and made the most of every chance, going 6-for-12 with zero strikeouts. Since the start of June he's hitting .333/.410/.471.
Schoop made two starts on the week, and has been in the lineup for only five of Minnesota's 14 August games. He's essentially a backup at this point. But he's a dang good one as far as depth and pinch-hitting options go. Hopefully he'll feel a little more confident after that redemptive moment in Arlington.
Redemption was the banner headline of the week for the bullpen. We mentioned earlier Dyson's bounce back off the IL. Trevor May was also in pristine form, allowing zero hits and a walk while striking out three over two appearances. Outside of an (admittedly painful) solo homer allowed in the opener against Cleveland, May's been nearly perfect in August, allowing zero runs and only one hit with nine strikeouts and a 15% swinging strike rate.
Overall, Twins relievers allowed 11 runs (9 ER) in 22 innings of work, with three of the scores coming on a single swing of the bat in Milwaukee. When Sergio Romo allowed that bomb, it was certainly a low point, but was set up by a bad defensive miscue (see below), and Romo was lights-out in his three other appearances.
With Romo and Dyson in the mix, May rolling again, and Zack Littell quietly excelling (he has a 0.96 ERA in 17 appearances dating back to the start of June), this unit suddenly looks pretty strong heading into the final stretch. I'll be curious to see what Thorpe can do as the second lefty if they give him some real opportunities to assert himself. The looming presence of fellow southpaw Ryan O'Rourke, who's allowed one run over six innings at Triple-A since joining up on a minor-league contract, is also intriguing.
The defensive performance of Jorge Polanco at shortstop has been a never-ending roller coaster. At times, he goes through stretches where he looks completely serviceable, even mixing in a few flashy plays to resemble something of an asset. And then, there are the downswings where he looks totally unviable. Lately he's been in the latter mode, and it's a stark reminder of just how much sloppy play at the infield's most critical position can hurt you.
Polanco committed five errors on the week, running his total to seven in the month of August after he was charged with just nine total through the first four months. All his gaffes last week came on fairly routine plays. The most egregious came when he inexplicably dropped a force-out at second base, delivered right into his glove, but the most damaging was a bounced throw to first that set up Milwaukee's go-ahead (and eventual game-winning) homer on Wednesday.
If this is anything like his defensive slumps of the past, Polanco will shake this off eventually and get back to playing at an acceptable level. But his medley of miscues serves to reinforce the narrative that his days at shortstop are numbered, with a move to another position needing to come sooner rather than later.
It would be nice if Polanco were offsetting his struggles in the field with impactful performance at the plate, but that hasn't been the case. He did come through with an enormously clutch three-run triple on Sunday, breaking a late tie, but the big bops have been few and far between.
Dating back to the start of June he's slashing a mediocre .263/.317/.411, with deteriorating discipline. Given the aforementioned offensive rise from Adrianza, and his clear defensive edge, it'd make sense for the Twins to mix him in more at shortstop over the next few weeks. Not to send a statement to Polanco, but simply to rest up the All-Star and get him right for the stretch run.
Speaking of offensive non-factors, C.J. Cron has been in that category for quite a while now. Although his two-run homer on Saturday was a nice sight, it was Cron's first long ball in two weeks, and he's been unable to contribute much in other ways. He went 3-for-19 last week and has been plain-old ineffective since returning from his latest IL stint, with a .656 OPS and zero extra-base hits outside the homers. On Sunday he came up in a crucial spot in the eighth, with runners on the corners, one out, and a contact play in motion. He grounded meekly to short and got the go-ahead run cut down at home. (Thankfully, Polanco came through two ABs later.)
Cron has been scuffling for a long time while battling through an inflamed thumb that is pretty clearly still affecting him. Getting him some extra time off, along with Polanco, would seem prudent. Patrick Wozniak had a good piece here over the weekend outlining a platoon scenario for Cron. Would the Twins consider placing him on IL to make room for Astudillo until the end of August, or to make room for Cruz's impending return?
While the situations surrounding Polanco and Cron are somewhat concerning, the most troubling lowlight of last week was probably Jose Berrios's start on Saturday. Coughing up seven runs (three earned) in 4 1/3 innings, he ran his ERA up to 8.44 in three August starts. One wonders if he himself could use a little breather – it'd be an affordable luxury for Minnesota with a soft spot in the schedule ahead. The Twins absolutely need him pitching like an ace into the postseason in order to have a chance.
The bright side for Berrios was that his sagging velocity rebounded and he actually induced 16 swinging strikes, his highest total in two months. So maybe we just chalk this one up to hot bats in the Texas heat.
After working as a starter for the first six weeks, before going on the shelf with a shoulder impingement, Brusdar Graterol has been working in relief since his return. On Wednesday, in his second appearance back for Pensacola, he entered in the eighth and picked up the final four outs, notching the save in a 9-7 victory. He followed on Saturday with two perfect relief frames for the Blue Wahoos, mixing in a strikeout with five grounders. Then, on Sunday, the Twins promoted Graterol to Triple-A, perhaps for one last test-run ahead of a big-league debut. About that open 40-man spot...
This is exciting stuff and we'll be tracking it very closely. Graterol, still only 20 and touching nearly 104 MPH on the gun as a reliever, has the potential to be a real difference-maker in the Twins bullpen for September and (hopefully) beyond.
DOWN ON THE FARM
As the Twins continue to search for answers in the late innings, last summer's Ryan Pressly trade is haunting them like a walk in the Metrodome. Minnesota gave up control of a reliever who now ranks among the league's very best, while their bullpen suffers. Not only that, but Pressly is doing it for a chief rival in the American League. It's not all bleak, though. There have been positive recent developments with the prospects who came back in exchange for Pressly.
Jorge Alcala, the headlining arm, has mostly been a disappointments since arriving, and owns a 5.87 ERA overall at Pensacola this year. But in late July, the Twins finally stopped trying to use him as a starter, shifting him to a more suitable bullpen role. He has since allowed only two runs on seven hits and two walks in 10 2/3 innings, with seven strikeouts. The Twins announced on Sunday he's moving up to Triple-A along with Graterol, so Alcala too has the potential to impact this pennant race with his high-powered arm.
And then there's Gilberto Celestino, a younger outfielder who came over alongside Alcala. He struggled mightily through the first two months at Cedar Rapids this year, putting up a fruitless .219/.299/.290 slash line, but has completely turned things around this summer. Since the start of June he's at .322/.389/.506, including .407/.467/.630 in his past 20 games. The 20-year-old brings standout speed and increasingly evident power. When you talk about "helium guys" in the Twins system, Celestino's near the top of the list.
The good news is that Minnesota took advantage of its favorable schedule to re-stake a 2.5-game lead in the Central last week. The better news is that they're well positioned to build on this momentum in the week ahead.
You can't really ask for an easier slate than the White Sox and Tigers at home, although the Twins will have to deal with Lucas Giolito and Matthew Boyd. Meanwhile, Cleveland is heading into Citi Field to face Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, and the Mets before returning home to welcome (with a huge sigh of relief) the Royals.
Oh, and by the way, Cruz is expected back on Monday.
MONDAY, 8/19: WHITE SOX @ TWINS – RHP Ivan Nova v. RHP Kyle Gibson
TUESDAY, 8/20: WHITE SOX @ TWINS – RHP Reynaldo Lopez v. RHP Michael Pineda
WEDNESDAY, 8/21: WHITE SOX @ TWINS – RHP Lucas Giolito v. RHP Jake Odorizzi
FRIDAY, 8/23: TIGERS @ TWINS – LHP Matthew Boyd v. RHP Jose Berrios
SATURDAY, 8/24: TIGERS @ TWINS – RHP Edwin Jackson v. LHP Martin Perez
SUNDAY, 8/25: TIGERS @ TWINS – RHP Spencer Turnbull v. RHP Kyle Gibson
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
Game 119 | MIN 7, MIL 5: Marwin Comes Up Clutch To Put the Twins Back in First Place
Game 120 | MIL 6, MIN 5: Twins Can’t Sweep, Polanco Commits Costly Error
Game 121 | MIN 13, TEX 6: Pineda Solid While Offense Provides Plenty
Game 122 | MIN 4, TEX 3: Twins Prevail Behind Clutch Schoop HR, Great Bullpen Performance
Game 123 | MIN 12, TEX 7: Twins Win Slugfest in Texas
Game 124 | MIN 6, TEX 3: Polanco Leads Twins Over Lynn in Texas
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