Written By Brandon Warne (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
The first two games of the season have shown exactly how narrow the margin can be for a team battling to overtake the favorite to win the division.
On Thursday in the season opener, the Minnesota Twins used a pair of broken-bat hits and an opposite-field double past a drawn-in outfield to steal a 2-0 win.
On Saturday, the Cleveland Indians returned the favor in the ninth inning with a one-out single, advancing two bases on wild pitches and scoring on a sacrifice fly to plate the go-ahead run in a 2-1 win at Target Field on a chilly afternoon.
For the second game in a row, the primary battles took place between the starting pitchers, as each had the offense eating out of the palm of their hand.
The game wasn’t without controversy, either, as Nelson Cruz didn’t take too kindly to being brushed back, and ultimately hit by a pitch from Trevor Bauer in a subsequent plate appearance.
Here’s what I saw:
Blake Parker’s first appearance with the Twins was a bumpy one. He fell behind the first two hitters he faced, with the first (Tyler Naquin) popping out to Mitch Garver and the second (Carlos Santana) singling through the shift.
With a 1-1 count on Hanley Ramirez, Parker jerked back-to-back splitters which sailed past Garver and to the backstop, allowing Santana to reach third. After Ramirez walked, Greg Allen hit for Jordan Luplow and dropped a sacrifice fly into center to plate Santana for the eventual game-winning run.
Parker said the baseball was a bit slick, but rejected the notion that it was the reason he threw the wild pitches.
“I thought I just yanked it,” Parker said. “I thought that was a good pitch to throw at that time, to that hitter. Obviously, it’s a competitive pitch for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve used to get people out game in and game out, and a pitch I have to rely on moving forward.
“So yeah, we’ll get a better feel for it moving forward and go from there.”
Jake Odorizzi was absolutely terrific
The veteran righty tossed six innings with just one hit allowed — a Ramirez home run — two walks and a career-high-tying 11 strikeouts.
Perhaps most amazing was that of the 16 swinging strikes Odorizzi accrued — a terrific figure on 92 pitches thrown — 15 came on his four-seam fastball. Odorizzi mixed the fastball extremely effectively up in the zone, something that worked well as he sat in the 90-93 mph range with the offering.
Sixty-one of Odorizzi’s 92 pitches were four-seam fastballs, and he actually had nearly as many whiffs on it (15) as he did fouls (16). He had more swinging strikes than he had called (nine), which is also fairly unusual.
“I commanded my fastball really well today,” Odorizzi said. “Moving it in, up, out when I needed to. Just trying to keep guys off balance, but kind of grabbing a little bit. It was cold, and the farther you get in on people, the more stinging gets in their hands.
“That’s kind of our gameplan going in. Force people to hit, try to get some early kind of outs. We didn’t get too many of them, but I was ahead in the count for the most part, and just pitching off that.”
Bauer wobbled late, but was brilliant overall
One could easily argue Bauer was better than Odorizzi, though his totals took a bit of a hit as he lost his way before ultimately completing the seventh inning.
The last frame wasn’t pretty, though. Jorge Polanco walked to lead off the inning, and Bauer hit Cruz with a pitch to put runners on first and second. Bauer then fell behind Eddie Rosario 3-0 before getting him to fly to left, and then C.J. Cron hit an absolute rocket that was speared by Brad Miller at second base, who turned it into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
For the day, Bauer recorded 17 swinging strikes on 108 pitches, though he probably should have been lifted after hitting Cruz. With a better bullpen behind him, he likely would have been. Nevertheless, he was hitting 94-96 mph all afternoon long despite the frigid temperatures, and had multiple swinging strikes on five different pitches.
It was a very, very impressive afternoon for Bauer, who put in a ton of work adding a changeup and working on the shaping of his pitches this offseason.
It definitely showed.
There was some controversy about how the Twins handled the ninth inning
Byron Buxton opened the inning with a pop fly into shallow right that Max Moroff couldn’t corral due to the blustery conditions. It was ruled a double, and the Twins were in business against Chaska native Brad Hand in the ninth.
Max Kepler followed by striking out swinging, then Polanco hit a liner to deep center that moved Buxton to third. The Indians opted to walk Cruz intentionally and followed by walking Rosario unintentionally — a terrific plate appearance — before getting Cron to lift a fly to right.
There were questions about if Kepler should have bunted, or if manager Rocco Baldelli should have used either Willians Astudillo or Tyler Austin as a pinch-hitter in that spot.
Ultimately, it probably comes down to Baldelli wanting to show faith in his newly-extended leadoff hitter more than anything, but statistically this would have been one of the few instances where bunting would have made some sense.
As noted by Tom Tango’s Run Scoring Matrix — find it here — the odds of scoring a single run in the inning go from 61.4 percent with a runner on second and nobody out to 66 percent with a runner on third and zero out.
Now a lot of this comes down to situational stuff. With first base open, the Indians could opt to walk any hitter they simply don’t want to face — like they ultimately did with Cruz. Pinch hitting Astudillo on the surface makes sense due to his ability to make contact, but they might simply walk him to get to Polanco and set up a potential double play.
That’s not the worst situation in the world, because ultimately it makes it more likely that Cruz would have gotten to hit instead of walked.
But anyhow, all of this is assuming wanting to play for one run instead of the win. Of course, extending the game by tying it makes the most sense — you can’t win it without first tying it — but with hitters 1-2-3 coming up, it’s not 100 percent indefensible to think a little bigger and hope that between them they could cash in the league’s fastest runner without any funny business at the plate (i.e. bunting).
Hitting Austin might have been the play, because he hits lefties well and if the Indians had opted to walk him, the Twins still have the option to go to Astudillo if they’re not sold on Polanco hitting from the right side (.628 OPS last year) and want contact above anything else.
Really, this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think Baldelli completely botched the situation. I feel like the matrix is agnostic of the situation, which is that there’s no guarantee Kepler gets a bunt down against a tough lefty and again, they have the game’s fastest runner at second base.
That extra base is less valuable in that case. It just so happens that Polanco’s liner to center magnifies that they didn’t try the bunt.
Cruz didn’t take kindly to being hit on the hand by a Bauer pitch
I sensed that Cruz didn’t like when Bauer went up and in on him earlier in the game, and that was before the ball that hit the knob of his bat and was first ruled as a hit by pitch before replay review confirmed that wasn’t the case.
But yeah, Cruz was certainly not happy Bauer’s 95 mph heater in the bottom of the seventh caught him on the top of his hand after a first-pitch slider missed badly.
The frustration most likely stems from how much it hurts to be hit in 30-degree weather, but unless there’s some beef that Twins reporters and the like aren’t aware of from before, it situationally made no sense to hit Cruz there. Bauer was all over the place, had just walked Polanco and would obviously not want anything to do with hitting Cruz and putting two on with nobody out in a tie game.
Either way, Cruz wasn’t having it after the game.
“I don’t mind getting hit,” Cruz told Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune afterward. “Sometimes I like to get hit. But in some situations, you figure out it’s enough when they come up and in. Especially on your hands.”
Bauer, to his credit, seemed unfazed by the situation.
Notes & Quotes
- The Twins opened the season with 12 consecutive shutout innings — the third-longest streak in club history, according to the game notes. The 1970 and 1961 teams both went 13 innings.
- The first-pitch temperature of 34 degrees was third-coldest in Target Field history. On April 7, 2018 against Seattle there was a game-time temperature of 27 degrees.
- Polanco’s triple in the fourth inning was the team’s first of the season.
- Taylor Rogers extended his scoreless innings streak to 28.1 frames dating back to last season.
- Ramirez homered in the fourth inning to give Cleveland a 1-0 lead for his first hit in an Indians uniform.
- Odorizzi on piggybacking Jose Berrios’ great start with his own: “Jose set the tone really great two days ago. I just wanted to go out and follow his lead. I watched his game and saw what he was doing well and worked well for him, and just modified it to work well for me and the things I do well. It’s important for us to have good pitching throughout this year, and we’re off to a really good start. It’s a really good thing, and hopefully, Pineda can keep it going tomorrow because starting pitching is one of those things that turns into a contagious sort of thing. You see a lineup get hot, you can see starting pitchers get hot and it just keeps going. And trying to one-up the next guy in the most competitive good way possible. So spring from Jose to me, and now pass the torch.”