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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Pinch hitting for Buxton, wasting Santana’s start, Mollie tossed

MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins lost their fourth consecutive game Thursday to the Indians. After a promising start to the season, Minnesota is now below .500 at 7-8.

The regret must be creeping in a little extra Thursday because Ervin Santana was on the mound, and the Twins would do well to capitalize on his good starts as the spring progresses.

This column presents 5 thoughts from Thursday’s game.

1. Paul Molitor was thrown out in the 8th inning for arguing in defense of his catcher.

Jason Castro was called out on a checked-swing third strike by home plate Alan Porter, who I believe had a rocky day behind the plate.

Castro had a runner on first base with two outs and the Twins trailing 4-2, when he appeared to check his swing on a 1-2 pitch from Andrew Miller. Porter, the plate umpire, didn’t think Castro checked, and it was apparently so obvious to him that he didn’t ask for help from his third base umpire. He just pointed at Castro to signal that indeed he had gone too far with his swing and the inning was over.

Castro appeared shocked and Molitor ran onto the field and was quickly tossed, while Castro got to stay in the game. Molitor didn’t turn back to the dugout, but when for a little stroll up the third base line with Porter while the manager vented his frustration during their one-sided discussion.

Pleasantries exchanged, Molitor walked to the clubhouse and Joe Vavra took over managerial duties for the remainder of the game. Afterward, Molitor was asked if Porter’s strike zone was the cause of mounting frustration.

“It was a little tough to gauge, I thought there were some inconsistencies today,” Molitor said. “Probably not the difference in the game, I just felt on that particular check swing that it was close. … I think that’s a hard call for him to make if he’s tracking the pitch. That’s what they have the rule for.”

2. Ervin Santana was strong once again, as he continues to play ace on a team that didn’t really seem like it had one.

Santana pitched 6 innings and gave up a run in the 5th inning, which snapped a streak of 22 consecutive innings without allowing a run. Big Erv was still a ways away from the franchise record, which Johan Santana set in 2004 with 33 shutout frames in a row. When your name is used in the same sentence as that guy, you’re in good company.

Santana walked three batters Thursday, which is out of character for him this year. He’d walked just 5 batters in 22 innings in his first three starts. Santana typically relies on his slider for swing-and-miss strikeouts. It’s been a reliable weapon for him throughout his career. On Thursday, though, he got two strikeouts with his fastball and then turned it over to his changeup for his final three punch outs.

He said that’s a decision he’ll make based on his stuff on game day, and in this case he was having a harder time gripping his slider in the cooler April weather in Minneapolis. So he audibled and threw more offspeed pitches in two-strike counts.

With 1 earned run allowed in 6 innings, his ERA shot up to 0.64 on the season.

3. The Twins needed 5 relievers Thursday and luckily they had 8 sitting in their bullpen.

I think that in this current stretch of games, that length might be a little bit of overkill. Here’s the relief schedule dating back to Santana’s last start, his one-hit gem Saturday against the White Sox.

Saturday: Ervin Santana pitched 9 innings in his one-hit gem. No relievers necessary.
Sunday: Matt Belisle (21 pitches), Ryan Pressly (14 pitches), Brandon Kintzler (9 pitches).
Monday: Tyler Duffey (32 pitches), Taylor Rogers (7 pitches).
Tuesday: Justin Haley (59 pitches), Michael Tonkin (15 pitches), Craig Breslow (13 pitches).
Wednesday: Postponed for rain.
Thursday: All 5 relievers – Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, Matt Belisle, Craig Breslow and Ryan Pressly — needed at least 11 pitches.

It looked like a really well rested bullpen entering Thursday’s game. And including that tilt against the Indians, the Twins had 10 games in 12 days on their books. If they could handle that load with seven relievers, the Twins could instead add a fourth bench player to give manager Paul Molitor a little flexibility. As it stands, they’re going with three bench bodies, including a catcher. My personal opinion is that the team is limiting its flexibility right now by feeling compelled to keep extra insurance available in the bullpen.

If they run into trouble at any point and needs arms for the next game, they could always make another roster move.

I don’t know exactly who that extra guy would be – Kennys Vargas? Daniel Palka? – but the Twins were in a tight spot after pinch hitting Eduardo Escobar for Byron Buxton, Escobar stayed in the game and played left field.

Should the Twins make a roster swap for another position player?

4. Indians starter Trevor Bauer balked in a run in the 4th inning.

That’s pretty rare.

It started with Joe Mauer’s double to the left-center gap – his first extra-base hit of the season. Then Miguel Sano struck out and Max Kepler singled on another line drive. Robbie Grossman worked a walk, and it’s fair to note that I think Bauer really got squeezed during that plate appearance. Whether or not that impacted what happened next, I couldn’t say.

Jason Castro stepped to the plate, and as Bauer was in his delivery, it appeared his right (back) foot slipped on the pitching rubber. Rather than striding and throwing the ball haphazardly, he held onto it, which is a violation of the rules. Mauer got to trot home and everybody moved up a base on the balk.

If you’re scoring at home, Castro doesn’t get an RBI for that, but the earned run does go on Bauer’s ledger.

5. Byron Buxton was pulled after two plate appearances, when Molitor decided to pinch hit Eduardo Escobar in an important plate appearance in the 7th inning.

Eddie Rosario had singled against against lefty reliever Boone Logan, and Terry Francona went to his bullpen to get right-hander Bryan Shaw. That’s when Molitor gave Buxton the hook in favor of Escobar, a switch-hitter, who worked a walk. The Twins rally fizzled and Escobar stayed in the game to play left field.

It’s hard to argue with Molitor’s decision, given how Buxton has hit so far this season. I do wonder how that affects a guy’s mentality, when he’s probably gone most of his baseball career without being lifted from a game for performance reasons.

On one hand, Molitor can’t worry about that because he’s got to try to win a game that day. On the other, Molitor has to be concerned with that because Buxton is such a pivotal player to the Twins’ fortunes this season and beyond.

“I really don’t look forward to pinch hitting for guys in certain situations, especially with almost 3 innings left to play,” Molitor said. “I just thought with the matchup, I’d give one of my lefties a shot. … It’s just one of those things where he’s having a tough time getting hits right now, and [I] don’t know how many opportunities I’m going to get, so I made the switch.”

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