ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s a fragile existence out where the money’s a bit tighter and the depth chart’s a bit thinner, where trying to win baseball games – today and tomorrow – feels like a bold and risky endeavor.
Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to admire the Minnesota Twins, who don’t always get it right, who’ve endured some ugly ones, who’ve earned their share of dark Octobers, and who are pretty determined to try anyway.
So some years they win 85 and one year recently they lost 103 and as of Tuesday night they had the second-best record in the American League, and sometimes it all seems to rest on the back of a butterfly in a windstorm, but that’s the life, right?
Some do it better. Some don’t. Others just refuse to show up. And if you’re thinking that’s the bare minimum, then look lower. Look under the Twins. There’s plenty down there.
So in a land of behemoths, in a season long enough to wait on the likes of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs and undo the upstarts whose enthusiasm outguns their actual aptitude, the Twins – if healthy, if engaged, if not unlucky, if they can keep pitching – are plenty good enough to keep doing this.
They offer the second-best offense in the AL, and hardly ever strike out, and hit a lot of home runs, and have Martín Pérez pointed in the right direction, and are a good week’s of games ahead of the Cleveland Indians, and you can almost see June from here. The clubhouse, to hear it from those who go to work there every day, is irreverent in the best possible way. No one is above a jab. No subject is beneath a laugh. It is the sort of place where Nelson Cruz can spread his cool perspective, and Willians Astudillo can fire at will, where the youngest among them are free to grow and the eldest are reminded it is, after all, a game. Some is a reflection of first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, the folksy and clever 37-year-old who, raised by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, knows something about sums amounting to more than all the parts. Some almost certainly is a consequence of winning. Come out 32-16 and life’s a giant bowl of cheese curds.
And then there’s Jorge Polanco, the 25-year-old shortstop who debuted nearly five years ago, required some time to get his legs under him, sat the first half of last season after testing for a steroid, and for the first two months of this season is about the best player in the league not named Trout.
The bench coach for the Twins, Derek Shelton, crossed his arms Tuesday afternoon and said of Polanco, “You know that thing people say about a guy being the best player nobody knows about? He’s the best player nobody knows about. Except they will know about him now because he’s hitting .340.”
The same could probably be said of the Twins, and part of the reason is Polanco, so it makes some sense they arrive – or arrive again – together. While his suspension cost them some heartache and more than a few games, they also were secure enough in their feelings for him to extend his contract by five years and $25.75 million, and only 11 months after Stanozolol founds its way into a plastic cup. In the 122 games since, he’s hit .306 and OPSed .855, including .335 and .992 this season, while playing a capable – if not elite –– shortstop.
A year ago he was reacquiring the trust of the organization in Florida, in extended spring training, encouraging the youngest among them, measuring the work ahead of him. Today they count him as their best player and among their team leaders.
Derek Falvey, the team’s chief baseball officer, called it, “A testament to a kid who has faced some adversity,” however self-inflicted.
“I believed in the kid,” he said. “You bet on character. Every step he took, he continued to work toward the player we thought he’d be beforehand.”
Shelton, a former hitting coach, said Polanco possesses, “An unbelievable ability to control at-bats you don’t see in a young player … I think it comes from this calmness he has about him. He never gets sped up, regardless of the situation.”
He had two more hits Tuesday night here, and two more RBIs, and scored two more runs.
“I think I can be really good,” Polanco said. “I know I can be really good. I have to work hard and have in my mind how good I can be … I’ve always known that I can do what I’m doing now. Not forgetting I have to work hard for them. And not taking things for granted at the same time.”
So the Twins’ lead in the AL Central got a little bigger. And summer drew a little nearer. And, maybe, it all began to look a little less fragile.
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