Written By Brandon Warne (ZoneCoverage.com)
It’d be easy to see why crowds would have been subdued over the weekend as the Minnesota Twins (13 games under .500 entering the series) took on the Kansas City Royals (47) for a three-game set at Target Field.
Not only were both teams afterthoughts in October discussions, but both had been playing pretty ugly baseball of late. The Twins came in on a five-game losing skid, and the Royals had literally lost twice as many games as they had won — all season long.
And while the weather had a tinge of October in it — especially as the teams played late into the evenings as well as Sunday afternoon — there was reason for fans to pay attention, even as the last game coincided with the big-ticket item of the weekend in the area, the season- and home-opening game for the Minnesota Vikings.
After Royals righty Jorge Lopez threw eight perfect innings before a Max Kepler walk and a Robbie Grossman single fouled things up, the two teams played a sleepy but brisk game on Sunday, with both teams scoring a run until things heated up — with a Willians Astudillo walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth to give the Twins a 3-1 win.
The key players from the night before played a role on Sunday as well. Grossman got the Twins on the board with their first hit much earlier on Sunday (second inning) than on Saturday, while Kepler poked a two-out double in the ninth to set up Astudillo’s heroics just two pitches later.
Astudillo isn’t one to wait for much at the plate, as he’s known for his prodigiously low walk and strikeout rates, though he did throw caution to the wind with a home run — something he’s also not known to do very often.
“I was looking for a specific pitch,” Astudillo said after the game with remnants of a post-game shaving cream pie clinging to his black and blonde-highlighted mane. “The first one wasn’t even close so I waited for the second one.”
Astudillo couldn’t recall the last time he’d hit a walk-off homer, if ever, but he was tremendously excited to do it at this level.
“It’s a walk-off in the big leagues,” Astudillo said through team translator Elvis Martinez. “This is the big leagues, it’s a walk-off and a win for the team. I’m very emotional. Very happy.”
Astudillo even got the ball from the home run back, in exchange for two signed balls:
Willians Astudillo is getting the ball back from the grand slam. In exchange, he’s giving the two kids each an autographed baseball of his own: pic.twitter.com/Xd7TIOQZZg
— Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne) September 9, 2018
Manager Paul Molitor talked of how the “legend continues for Mr. Astudillo,” but he was just as impressed with how Astudillo handled a pitching staff with four pitchers seeing action on the day — one new to the organization, one a teammate of his in Rochester and two relievers who have been in the big leagues all season.
In order, that’s Chase De Jong, Zack Littell, Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger.
“I think that’s sometimes an overlooked aspect in today’s game,” Molitor said of Astudillo’s work behind the plate in addition to at it. “A guy who can do his job back there and stay present in terms of different pitchers — new plan, same hitters. It’s just one of those things where you’re constantly having to be thinking ahead.
“I think he did a really nice job. He was kicking himself for the homer; not that it was the wrong call, we just didn’t execute the pitch. He’s getting a chance to show us he can handle himself back there.”
That homer came with Littell left a 3-2 cutter over the middle of the plate, and Adalberto Mondesi — who has hit quite a bit better as the season has gone on — deposited it into the right-field seats to tie the game at a run apiece.
But Littell has taken some steps forward both in this outing — 3.1 innings, one earned run, one strikeout, no walks and just two hits allowed — and his last one in Texas, Molitor said.
“I think we’re seeing more of what we know about of him in terms of swings and misses and aggressiveness,” the manager said. “He’s throwing the ball a little bit harder than I expected coming up here later in the year. The cutter has been a really nice pitch. The last couple outings have been moving forward for him.”
As far as Molitor’s comment on Littell’s velocity, the righty hit 96 mph on the gun with his four-seam fastball.
Littell worked right after starter Chase De Jong, who gave the Twins four shutout innings and openly told Molitor he’d like a fifth. But Molitor resisted, and instead stuck to the plan of piggybacking him with Littell — something he was hesitant to commit to going forward.
He did leave the door open, however.
“I thought his mix was good,” Molitor said of De Jong, who fanned five batters but walked four. “Despite the lack of high-end velocity, it looks like he knew how to elevate when given opportunities on guys that expand up there. We saw a nice mix of pitches. He had a little bit of (trouble) with command; he put the guys on base with the walks and those types of things.
“We went out there and got the big groundout to end the inning with the bases loaded. (Adrianza) made a nice play on the back end there. But I thought he competed well. Like I said, I know he wanted a chance to go through five and maybe get a win. But it was a good first outing.”
The Ehire Adrianza play Molitor is referring to came in the third inning. Rosell Herrera opened the inning with a walk before De Jong fanned the next two batters. Mondesi reached on a throwing error by De Jong, and Alex Gordon walked to load the bases.
Then, Hunter Dozier rapped a ball that Adrianza picked up to his backhand side, and won the race to the base, beating Mondesi to third to keep the Twins up at the time, 1-0.
De Jong campaigned to go back out for the fifth, Molitor reiterated, but the manager resisted.
“He asked about going back out for the fifth,” he said. “Rightfully so. I had no problem with that. He was in the right frame of mind in terms of him saying he felt great and wanted to keep going. But no, we decided to set it up the way we did and went with it. And Littell did a nice job coming in.”
The unassuming De Jong nearly slipped out of the clubhouse before Twins PR guru Dustin Morse caught him quick for a few words.
“The strikeouts were great, the walks were horrendous,” the righty said. “Very unusual for me. Let’s chalk those up to maybe new team debut jitters. Astudillo did a tremendous job with the fingers back there. Think maybe I shook off once, cause I wanted to get a first-pitch breaking ball in there. But other than that, he was phenomenal back there. Behind the plate and, obviously, at the plate too was wonderful. We were able to miss a lot of bats and even when they hit it we were getting some soft contact. I’ll take that any day.”
De Jong also allowed himself to take in the moment a bit, as he hadn’t pitched in the big leagues at all this season.
“It means that the work I put in over the past year to 15 months makes it all worth it,” he said. “I really grinded to get back here and to have a little success. A couple scoreless innings, that’s wonderful.”
Oh, it was more than just a couple scoreless innings. It was four — and it extended his streak to eight innings at Target Field overall.
The last time De Jong was in the major leagues was on June 15 with the Seattle Mariners — against the Minnesota Twins.