NEW YORK—The Twins lost a close ballgame Monday, falling 2-1 to the Yankees in a well-played, late-season game between two playoff contenders. Despite the loss, the Twins still hold a 1.5 game lead over the Angels for the second wild card spot, with 12 games remaining. If the Twins are able to hold off the Angels, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be back in New York in two weeks for the wild card game.
Monday’s game had a playoff feel to it, with relatively cool weather, a sizeable crowd at Yankee Stadium, and a few key late at-bats deciding the game. Former Twin Jaime Garcia, who made only one start for Minnesota before being traded to New York, shut down the Twins over 5.2 innings, allowing just one unearned run and striking out nine. The Twins had a great chance to take the lead in the 8th inning, loading the bases with one out for the hot-hitting Joe Mauer. The Yankees countered with Aroldis Chapman, who struck out Mauer on three pitches before getting Byron Buxton to fly out.
The game was an important one for the Twins, for a lot of reasons. Every game at this stage is important, of course, but these games hold extra meaning because of the possibility they’ll be back in New York in early October. More broadly, the series is a good test of their ability to play big games in hostile environments, something many of the Twins’ young core is experiencing for the first time.
“I think it’s good for us,” Brian Dozier said of playing meaningful September games at Yankee Stadium. “We’re very young. We have a lot of people here who have never even played at this stadium, much less thinking about maybe it [the wild card game] could be here. This late in the season, especially for a lot of the young guys that never even been here, I think that’s big.”
Paul Molitor, about as even-keeled as it gets, said he’s trying not to make things bigger than they are, though admitted before the game he was interested in seeing how his team would respond to the bright lights of New York.
“What I’m looking forward to today, is I want to see how some of these guys respond. Because it’s always a little different here. You try to keep it as normal as you can, but I’ve played here in October and it’s just got a different feel,” he said before the game. “I think that’s part of the challenge of leadership, to try to help steer them through some of these things that are going to be emotionally charged. I do think there could be some help if we’re able to advance by playing in these games.”
The Twins will have a chance to even the series tomorrow, with Jose Berrios getting his first taste of Yankees Stadium.
Adrianza’s leg kick
As is the case with most overachieving teams, there have been a number of unsung heroes on the Twins this season. Super-utility man Ehire Adrianza is among them. In 61 games this year, Adrianza’s hitting .270/.335/.383 while playing around the diamond. Adrianza’s a strong defender in the infield, and has been able to fill in adequately in left field, despite having never played the outfield in the big leagues prior to this season.
Adrianza’s having by far his most productive year at the plate, and he credits hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez for improving his mechanics. Specifically, Adrianza said he’s worked with Rowson and Hernandez on adding a leg kick, which he’s never had prior to this season. Adrianza said he didn’t have the leg kick in spring training, and began incorporating it in May after spending April on the DL.
“I changed my approach at the plate,” he said of his offensive breakout. “Rudy and James have helped a lot this year from the beginning of the season. I’m doing the leg kick now. I see more of the ball, [see it] more clearly. I can recognize the pitch more. It was tough at the beginning, it was new for me. The first couple games I wasn’t feeling pretty good, but they told me you have to keep learning because that’s going help you to be a better hitter. The results are pretty good so far.”
I think Adrianza’s comments are interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it seems he’s another hitter who’s improved under the tutelage of Rowson. Buxton clearly credits a lot of his success to him, and Eddie Rosario’s also had a vastly improved approach at the plate this season. Second, Adrianza’s changes demonstrate that Rowson isn’t uniformly anti-leg kick, but rather makes changes based on what he sees in the mechanics of each individual player with whom he works. When Rowson suggested Buxton get rid of his leg kick earlier this year in an effort to make better contact and have a stronger lower half, some were critical of the decision.
Rowson, in my view, deserves a lot of credit for the Twins blossoming into one of the better hitting teams in the American League. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the offense has been particularly strong in the second half of the season, as Rowson accumulates more time with his young offensive core.
Busenitz holding up
The Twins are relying on several rookie relievers to carry them through the playoff push. Alan Busenitz and Trevor Hildenberger, in particular, have played critical roles down the stretch, with both pitching in mostly high leverage spots. Neither has experience working deep into September, and that’s surely something the Twins are cognizant of, though at this point they probably don’t have much of a choice but to ride them through the rest of the season.
Busenitz said Monday his arm is holding up fine, and that his velocity isn’t down, as far as he knows. As far as the high-leverage innings, Busenitz says he tries not to think about it too much.
“There’s a little more pressure,” he said. “I try to keep the same approach. Plate’s the same distance. Same hitters.”
It’s rare, though, for a rookie reliever like Busenitz, who wasn’t a heralded prospect or even on the 40-man roster to start the season, to be pitching critical innings in a playoff race. He seems to be enjoying the experience.
“It’s freaking amazing,” he said. “I love it.”