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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Joe Mauer’s grand slam, Josh Donaldson’s blast, Kyle Gibson’s recovery

MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins on Sunday took a punch in the first inning and didn’t stagger or fall down. Instead, they rallied behind starter Kyle Gibson and delivered a few big blows of their own, including a couple haymakers that landed, and by the end of the day Sunday, they’d boarded a plane headed for New York with a 2-game lead over the Angels for the second Wild Card spot in the American League.

Paul Molitor contended that Sunday’s was one of the biggest games the Twins have faced in recent weeks. One Twins scribe said it’s the biggest win of the year for the Twins, because of what losing would have meant.

This column presents 5 thoughts from Sunday’s 13-7 win for the Twins.

1. Kyle Gibson recovered from a terrible first inning to complete 6 innings and improbably earned the win.

Here’s how the 1st inning went for Kyle Gibson and the Twins:

Home run (Josh Donaldson)
Walked in a run
Single (2 more runs)

Before you settled into your seat for the afternoon, every Blue Jays hitter had been up to the plate, the Twins were down 4-0, and long reliever Nik Turley was warming up in the bullpen. The Jays appeared close to chasing Gibson for good, and it would have been a rotten start for the Twins righty after a string of 9 really good outings overall.

Twins manager Paul Molitor said he was “one pitch away” from pulling Gibson from the start on multiple occasions.

Jason Castro found a minor thing with Gibson’s delivery – his release point may have been off, Gibson said – and then the catcher coaxed his starter through the early troubles. Gibson’s been on a great run of starts lately and part of that has been cutting his walk rate in half. So it was surprising when he came out in the 1st inning Sunday and couldn’t find the plate. He walked four hitters from the first nine, before he “settled down” the rest of the way. Don’t you love that baseball cliché?

As Gibson explained, what changed had little to do with nerves and a lot more to do with a feel for his pitches. Bouncing a slider to No. 9 hitter Richard Urena to end the first inning with a strikeout helped Gibson get his full arsenal of pitches back on track, he said.

And the Twins have scored runs in bunches for Gibson lately. The Twins have won each of the past 6 games that Gibson has started, and in those games they’ve scored at least 13 runs on three separate occasions. That includes a 17-0 shutout over the Royals and a 16-0 shutout of the Padres.

“Maybe he knew subconsciously that the double-digit run support was going to come somewhere along the way,” Molitor joked Sunday.

Sure, he gave up one more solo shot to Donaldson, but to get through 6 innings with just one run allowed after that 1st inning was a remarkable turnaround.

Kyle Gibson’s new approach to fastballs may be key to his late-season breakout

2. The first of Josh Donaldson’s two home runs landed in the third deck in left field. And it’s one of the longest home runs ever hit at Target Field.

The accounting on this is a little questionable, and it depends who you believe. Here’s what I’ll tell you: Donaldson came up with 1 out and nobody on base in the 1st inning and Kyle Gibson threw a middle-middle sinker and Donaldson put a hurt on it.

It sailed into the third deck in left-center field, which is typically reserved for the show-off round of batting practice – and even then, it’s only for guys like Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas. A member of the Twins’ communication team estimates the distance on every  home run hit at Target Field, and it’s based on charts that project how far it should be based in part on where it landed. Statcast also estimates the total distance, and it’s based on the velocity and angle of a ball off the bat, and I’m guessing it also factors in the part of the stadium that it landed, although that’s never been fully clear to me.

Anyway, Statcast measured Donaldson’s first bomb at 481 feet, which is longer than any home run this year except for one – Kennys Vargas’ big blast on June 20 against the White Sox (483 feet, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker).

When Miguel Sano crushed a pitch over the batter’s eye and into the lounge/bar area in center field, it was measured at 466 feet. Paul Molitor said at the time that “there’s a very, very small percentage of guys that could dream of hitting a ball like that.” The same could be said of Donaldson’s drive.

Donaldson got Gibson again in the 2nd inning before the Twins’ starter finally retired him in the 4th inning with a strikeout.

“When I finally got him out, Mollie asked me if I wanted the ball,” Gibson cracked, apparently not interested in the keepsake. “I told him I’d like one of the first two, but they’re probably in St. Paul so he couldn’t get them.”

3. Joe Mauer pulled an 0-2 fastball in the right-field bleachers for a grand slam.

Can we take a second to appreciate how great Mauer’s been this season?

He missed some time in early July because of a strained lower back. He returned after the all-star break and has basically been a consistent force in Minnesota’s lineup ever since. Dating back to August 1, the Twins’ first baseman is hitting .346/.410/.463. That batting line is every bit as good as the great numbers he posted in 2013, the season he caught a foul tip on his catcher’s mask, which gave him a concussion and forced a mid-career position change.

“He’s been our most consistent taking-a-good-at-bat kind of guy, not to mention Gold Glove defense,” Molitor said. “I think he kind of shocked us all a little bit by turning on that pitch—you know, you don’t see the pulled homers too much. But it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Mauer has legitimately been one of the Twins best players this year, and he’s a big reason the offense has gone from decent to excellent in the second half. I can’t believe it sometimes, but despite losing Miguel Sano for at least a month (and probably more), the Twins are in the conversation with teams like the Cubs and Indians for the best offense in all of baseball right now. Yes, Brian Dozier, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario and others should be credited. But don’t overlook Mauer right in the middle of everything.

And after having seen most Twins games this season, including some against some very good defensive first baseman, I think Mauer’s put himself in a great position this year to win his first Gold Glove as a first baseman.

His grand slam on Sunday put the Twins up 12-5, and the blast was impressive. Not just because of where it landed, but because of where it started. Jays reliever Chris Rowley had nobody out and the bases loaded in the 5th inning. He got Mauer down in the count 0-2, and tried to force a fastball inside, out of the strike zone and tight against Mauer’s body.

No problem. Here’s a clip of the pitch, where you can see how quickly Mauer got his hands through the hitting zone on his home run.

He was playing a day game after a night game, which you don’t always see from Mauer. He must be feeling pretty good right now, and he’s a big reason the Twins are competitive in the race for the postseason.

4. The Twins as a team tied a couple of “records” during Sunday’s win. One of them owes a bit to consistent and balanced power, and the other to my own short-view accounting.

Eddie Rosario lifted a home run in the 2nd inning, the first of his two long balls Sunday. The Twins now have hit at least one home run in 16 games in a row, which ties the longest such streak in franchise history, according to the team. Let’s see if they can set a new high-water mark in New York against the Yankees. That’s a possible preview for the Wild Card game for the right to face the Cleveland Indians (probably) in the Division Series.

The other “record” is a little hazier. Since the second Wild Card team was introduced in 2012, only five teams have lost 100 or more games:  the 2016 Twins; the 2013 Astros and Marlins; the 2012 Astros and Cubs. The 2013 Astros held the record for biggest improvement after a season with triple-digit losses, when they improved by 19 wins in 2014 (70-92). The 2017 Twins now have 78 wins, which is 19 more than they had a year ago, and they’ll almost definitely set a new record at some point here.

Admittedly, it’s a very short time window to draw from. But I don’t think we should let that fact diminish the accomplishment the Twins have already secured, regardless of the way this season ends.

Would the Twins be the most unlikely MLB postseason in history?

5. The Twins have already scored more runs this year than they did all of last year.

They put 7 runs on the board in the 2nd inning, shortly after Gibson put them in an early hole, and then they tacked on 6 more runs in the 5th inning to win 13-7.

One year ago the problem was pitching. Let’s focus on the offense for a second.

How many standout offensive players did Minnesota have last year? Brian Dozier and his 42 home runs; Robbie Grossman and his .386 on-base percentage; and Miguel Sano, who hit 25 home runs despite an overall step backward in his second year in the big leagues; and Max Kepler had a nice year. That’s pretty much it.

This year? Go up and down the lineup. Dozier’s turned it on since the non-waiver trade deadline; Mauer’s doing his thing; Sano was having a great overall year before he was hurt; Byron Buxton has broken out in a big way; Jorge Polanco stunningly transformed from one of the worst hitters in the big leagues to one of the best, and has flipped his season on its head in the process; Eddie Rosario has a emerged as a real threat; Grossman is still getting on base at a good clip. Writing out the lineup card must be fun these days for Paul Molitor.

Last year’s Twins team scored 722 runs, which ranked 16th in baseball. Middle of the pack. (The trouble was that the 889 runs they allowed as a team was just one run short of the worst in baseball.)

This year, they’ve already scored 23 more runs than they did last year, including Sunday’s offensive outburst. It’s just the latest in a run that’s seen the Twins erase a run differential that was so far negative that it helped convince the Twins front office that the team wasn’t worthy of big additions at the trade deadline. That they even got into positive territory (+3 entering Sunday) is impressive, but that they’ve done it without Sano is almost unbelievable.

The Twins began play Sunday ranked 9th in baseball and 5th in the American League in terms of runs scored.

This might sound like a hot take, but I think I believe it. With or without Sano in the lineup, I’m not sure the Twins are a team you’d want to face in a one-game playoff series, or even in the 5-game Division Series after that.

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