The Minnesota Twins took the opening series of the season against the Detroit Tigers this week. Yep, that’s right, the defending AL Champions.
It is kind of a big deal.
“That was big for us,” said third baseman Trevor Plouffe. “Anytime we play the Tigers, it’s a big series, especially coming off the year they had last year.”
The Twins lost on Opening Day, 4-2, but won the next two games with a walk-off single by Eduardo Escobar on Wednesday (3-2) and an offensive explosion on Thursday (8-2).
“Getting down in that first game and then coming back and winning the next two,” continued Plouffe, “that was a big thing for us.”
“I know the expectations outside the clubhouse aren’t the greatest,” admitted pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who got the win on Thursday only 11 months after having Tommy John surgery, “but everyone in here, we believe in each other and know what we’re capable of.”
Right now, it looks like the Twins are capable of pitching competently enough to keep themselves in the game and have a better lineup than most people thought going into the season. As long as the pitchers can hold their own, the bats should be able to produce enough runs to win baseball games this year.
No, there are no guys that can pitch like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or Yu Darvish on this staff, but they don’t need to. All Minnesota’s pitchers have to do is go deep in the game and keep things from getting out of hand.
So let it be known: The Twins are above .500 for the first time since 2010! The AL Central is ours again! Look out Angels, Rays and Blue Jays, we’re coming to getcha!
World Series or bust!
“Really? Are you going to do that?” manager Ron Gardenhire asked the media. “It’s been three games. C’mon, c’mon, save it.”
Gardy’s right: Like Larry David, we should curb our enthusiasm, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some positives to take away from the series.
The pitching has improved
Oh, yes it has. A year ago, Nick Blackburn, Jason Marquis and Co. were stinkin’ up the place like a trey full of lutefisk, but Vance Worley, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey Febrezed Target Field in their Twins debuts this weekend.
Worley lived up to his nickname, the Vanimal, by going sleeveless in near freezing weather on Opening Day. He looked shaky against the vaunted Tigers, but got better as the game went on and really was not provided a lot of run support in his 4-2 loss.
The Correia signing was maligned in the offseason by many fans that thought the team could have gotten any old 32-year-old, mediocre free agent pitcher and had no idea why the team gave him a two-year deal. In his AL debut, however, the former San Francisco Giant, San Diego Padre and Pittsburgh Pirate went seven innings and only gave up two runs on seven hits.
“It’s [a situation] where I could have gotten pinch-hit for in my other league,” he said. “In one of those games down 2-0, I probably would have gotten pinch hit for in the fifth or sixth.”
Safe to say, Gardenhire wants him to pitch like that every night and has no intention of removing him early during a start like that.
“That’s the kind of start we hope for from every pitcher,” he said, “I was happy with his performance.”
Pelfrey was humming right along when he was removed after 5.1 innings, but only because he wanted to limit the pitches thrown in his first outing after Tommy John.
“Pelfrey really battled,” he said Gardenhire. “We wanted to take him out…but he told me ‘I’m a horse.’” And, of course, Seabiscuit would never come out of a game early.
“I think he’s probably joking,” said the former New York Met, who was also making his AL debut. “He came to take me out after five…and I said, ‘I’m not done.’”
As long as those guys pitch like they did in the opening series, Minnesota is in good hands.
Minnesota has some power in its lineup
The Twins scored 13 runs against the Tigers, including eight on Thursday. It wasn’t just the Three J's—Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham—that were carving up pitchers, either. Guys at the bottom of the lineup, like Eduardo Escobar and Brian Dozier, were getting in on the action.
“We’re a good hitting team,” said rookie Aaron Hicks, who got his first hit on Thursday. “We’re a team that’s not going to give up and we’ll do what we can to win ballgames. Any type of hit, really, we need to start a rally and get things going.”
“It’s always good getting your first one in there,” said Chris Parmelee, who got his first hit of the season on Thursday as well. “Hicksy, getting that first big-league hit, that’s awesome.”
Hicks struggled a bit in the opening series, striking out seven times and registering only a single hit, but the rest of the team had a great series offensively. Plouffe and Willingham both hit home runs to left-center off of Rick Porcello in Thursday’s win.
“The first few days you’re antsy,” avers Plouffe. “You want to get out there, get a few hits, but you’ve got to slow things down and I think we did that in the last couple of at-bats and saw the ball better, slowed it down.”
And to be fair, the team was facing Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Porcello in those three games. All three of those pitchers are capable of shutting down the best hitters in the game, so given who they faced, the Twins fared pretty well.
Parmelee and Hicks need to be more disciplined at the plate, though
With the bases loaded the seventh inning on Opening Day, Detroit reliever Al Alburquerque fanned Chris Parmelee on seven pitches, six of which were sliders that appeared to be heading out of the zone (three balls were called before Parmelee during the at-bat).
Parmelee would strike out five times during the series and never displayed that offensive prowess that made him one of the top prospects in the Twins' farm system a few years ago. Part of this might be the cold weather, but he’s also got to choose better pitches to hit. The at-bat against Alburquerque was his worst of the series, but it was not the only one where he chased outside pitches.
Patience at the plate should come with time, however, and as Plouffe said, everyone is kind of on edge in the first couple of games. That and they were facing one of the best rotations in the league.
For Hicks, this is not only his 2013 debut, but it is the first series the 23-year-old center fielder has played in the major leagues after winning the position outright in spring training. Minnesota believes that things will start clicking for him sooner than later.
“We told him, ‘Just keep swinging. You’re going to play. You’re going to play for a good while here,’” said Gardenhire of his conversation with Hicks. “We always say 1,000-1,500 at-bats before you really get a feel for yourself in this league, and he doesn’t really have many right now, so he’s got a way to go.”
As long as Parmelee and Hicks take after guys like Willingham and Plouffe, who drew a combined six walks in the series, their offense will come in due time.
If the Twins get decent starting pitching this year, they will exceed everyone’s expectations. There is no true ace on the staff right now and even Worley, Correia and Scott Diamond—when he returns from the disabled list—are stretch No. 2 starters. Pelfrey’s ceiling may be high enough to be considered a bona fide No. 2, but we’ll see how he performs post-surgery.
The Twins can still put an entertaining product on the field, however, without dominant pitching; their lineup just has to pick up the slack.
If Hicks can be more patient at the plate and get on base more and Parmelee can tap into his offensive talent, the Twins are more than capable of doing that. Mauer has been great in the 2-hole: While he’s not a threat to steal, with Willingham, Morneau and Plouffe batting behind him, he shouldn’t need to.
And think if Parmelee and even Dozier find their groove. The former doesn’t need to hit 40 home runs, he just needs to hit for extra bases with some regularity, and the latter should be able to evolve into a contact hitter with some power to remain at the bottom of the lineup.
All in all, the Twins proved in the opening series that even if they aren’t going to go on a miracle run this year, they can at least play some entertaining, competitive baseball in 2013.
All quotes were obtained first-hand, unless otherwise indicated.