Minnesota broke the all-time MLB home record with a month left to spare. September roster expansion brought with it a flurry of additions. And the Twins extended their lead in the AL Central by two more games with another dominant week on the road.
Let's break down where things stand as we head into the stretch run.
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/26 through Sun, 9/1
Record Last Week: 5-1 (Overall: 84-52)
Run Differential Last Week: +23 (Overall: +174)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central (5.5 GA)
Willians Watch: HE'S BACK!
Starting next season, September rosters will increase to 28. So for now, the Twins are enjoying their last year of unencumbered freedom by calling up a full complement of reinforcements for the final month.
Among the expected arrivals are a number of familiar pitchers: Zack Littell, Kohl Stewart, Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer. One of those pitchers (probably Smeltzer) will be at least temporarily replacing Kyle Gibson in the rotation, as he was placed on the shelf with ulcerative colitis – apparently it's been bothering him for most of the season, which... ouch. Poor guy.
The biggest name in the weekend's roster influx is Brusdar Graterol, Minnesota's top pitching prospect who joins much more as an impact infusion than simply a depth plug. He debuted on Sunday, tossing a scoreless ninth with a strikeout while giving up two weakly hit singles. As advertised, Graterol flashed 100 on the radar gun, and he impressed with his location on a few perfectly placed burners on the edges of the zone.
Next in line for his MLB debut is Ian Miller, the speedy outfielder acquired from Seattle last month. The 27-year-old will serve a very specific purpose: wheels on demand. He had 35 steals on 42 attempts in Triple-A this year and is 243-for-294 in seven minor-league seasons. Definitely a good piece to have, although the Twins are even happier to have their centerpiece blazer back.
Byron Buxton was activated on Sunday, after having his rehab paused early last week when he felt pain in his shoulder while swinging. He appeared as a defensive replacement late in his first game back. It sounds like he's still not going to be available to hit for the time being, but he can run and play defense so that's positive news. LaMonte Wade Jr., himself activated from a lengthy IL stint, also joins to bolster outfield depth and entered Sunday's game.
But... I've buried the lede here! Willians Astudillo has finally returned after hitting .325/.372/.500 in nine games at Triple-A. He started at first base on Sunday in his first game back, finishing 1-for-2 with a pair of HBPs.
How. About. This. Offense.
By launching 15 more bombas last week, the Twins blasted past the major-league record for home runs in a season, set by the 2018 Yankees at 267. Multiple other teams will eclipse that mark this year, but the Twins got there first. It's an amazing feat on its own, and especially when you consider they accomplished it before the calendar flipped to September.
That wasn't the only notable slugging record to fall. On Saturday in Detroit, the Twins became the first team in MLB history to have eight different players reach 20 home runs, when Jorge Polanco crossed the milestone on a two-run jack. Back in January I wrote about how, as recently as 2013, the Twins didn't have a SINGLE PLAYER hit 20 home runs. It was clear at the time that this lineup would be fundamentally different from those of the Terry Ryan era. But no one could foreseen a turnaround this drastic.
Contributing to last week's bash-fest, which saw the lineup churn out 49 runs in six games and carry the team to a 5-1 record despite mostly subpar work from the rotation, were a combination of usual suspects and surprise faces. Let's run through some of the top producers in another monster week for the Bomba Squad:
- Nelson Cruz: He just continues to rake, and was 12-for-25 last week with a homer and eight RBIs. Despite the ruptured tendon in his wrist, the 39-year-old is starting everyday and producing relentlessly. He's even showing excellent vision at the plate, with three walks against four strikeouts last week.
- Jonathan Schoop: His late-season emergence is very intriguing. For much of the summer his undeniably strong production has been inflated by garbage-time feasting. But no one could say such a thing about last week, arguably his best of the year. Schoop went 7-for-17, with his three home runs including a key early bomb against Lucas Giolito and a tone-setting three-run shot the following day. Schoop still probably doesn't find his way into an optimal, healthy Twins lineup right now, but he's a great piece to have on hand.
- C.J. Cron: It sure seems like his thumb is feeling better. The first baseman struggled through a couple months while acknowledging his inflammation, going on the shelf two separate times. But of late he's been finding his stroke. Last week he put on a power-hitting clinic with two homers and three doubles among his seven hits. In five starts, he drove in seven runs.
- Polanco: Another (relative) recent laggard whose bat is once again heating up. The shortstop delivered a nonstop assault at the plate, going 12-for-24 to nudge his batting average back over .300.
- Max Kepler: He missed time while nursing a bruised knee but was outstanding while on the field, going 4-for-12 with a homer and two doubles.
- Mitch Garver: He hit the record-breaking home run on Saturday night, one of two on the day and three on the week for the best power-hitting catcher in franchise history. It still feels very weird and wonderful to write those words.
- Jake Cave: He saw his batting average – which flirted with .500 in the first three weeks of August – come down to earth a bit as he finished 5-for-23 on the week. But Cave mixed in two homers and a double, as well as a big early two-run single on Sunday.
In a game that epitomized the all-around contribution that serves as trademark for this historically potent offense, the Twins put up 10 runs on 16 hits in Chicago on Thursday to clinch a sweep despite the absences of banged-up Sano, Kepler, Marwin Gonzalez, and Buxton. Garver was also on the bench. I thought Cave's quote after the game said it all:
While the offense kept surging, the bullpen continued to assert itself as a strength for the Twins. On the week, relievers combined for 22 1/3 innings, allowing just four earned runs (1.61 ERA) with a 26-to-1 (!) K/BB ratio. Just outstanding work.
Particular standouts included Trevor May, who struck out eight over three scoreless innings, and Tyler Duffey, who turned in two shutout frames with four strikeouts. These two have quietly turned into overpowering late-inning threats. In August, May allowed just one run in 12 appearances while registering an 18% swinging strike rate. Duffey didn't allow a single run in his 13 appearances while holding opponents to a .167 average.
On top of the strong performances, the Twins were able to once again reserve Taylor Rogers, who pitched just once all week, just as he did the week prior. Getting their bullpen ace ample rest at this point of the season is a victory in itself.
As fantastically as the Twins have been playing, it becomes slightly harder to enjoy when Jose Berrios – perhaps the team's single most important player as far as postseason advancement is concerned – continues to bottom out. His latest turn counted as an improvement, as he allowed three runs over six innings to qualify for the lowest threshold of a "quality start," but the right-hander was still a far cry from ace form.
His velocity continues to sputter. His once-sharp command keeps faltering (he was charged with FOUR wild pitches in the start – one more than he had all season coming in). And once again the gas just seemed to run out midway through; Berrios got through four scoreless frames before giving up three runs in the fifth and sixth. All this against a very weak White Sox offense.
Alas, Berrios now must attempt to put a very ugly month behind him – he posted a 7.57 ERA in five August starts as opponents hit .333/.395/.556 – and turn the page in September. Phenomenal as their offense is, the Twins have little hope of winning a playoff series if they don't have a multiple starters who can keep another elite lineup in check. Right now, Berrios doesn't look capable. He's had his hands full with some of the league's worst offenses.
That's also true for Gibson, who at one point looked like a credible option to start playoff game No. 2 behind Berrios. For a second straight time on Friday, Gibson faced the AL's worst offense, and for a second straight time the Tigers had his number. This time around, Gibson allowed four runs on 10 hits while laboring through five innings on 107 pitches. Making the long, plodding outing all the more frustrating is that he was pitching with a big lead, having been handed a four-run lead before he even took the mound.
Much like Berrios, Gibson is experiencing a troubling decline in velocity at a troubling time. His steady emergence as a quality No. 2/3 type, which began around the middle of 2017, was fueled by all-around velo gains throughout his arsenal – perhaps the result of mechanical overhauls he implemented ahead of the '17 campaign.
As the progressive velocity chart below via Brooks Baseball indicates, Gibson saw a steady ascension throughout his pitch repertoire, starting in late 2017 and carrying over all the way to the middle of 2019. But of late? Yikes.
That downward dive at the right end is alarming. It is likely that the ulcerative colitis issue, which landed him on the IL Sunday, helps explain Gibson's softened edge. This is a miserable digestive tract affliction that can take a toll on one's overall health, energy, and weight. From knowing people who've dealt with it, I can say it's not always the easiest to treat. But Gibson says he hopes to return after missing just one start.
The Twins are a great team. They've shown they can slug with any team in the game, and their bullpen is giving us reason to believe – especially with the arrival of Graterol. But it's just really damn hard to win against fellow great teams without high-end starting pitching, and two of Minnesota's best hopes on this front are completely out of whack with the postseason a month away.
Gibson has arguably the best stuff in the rotation. (His 13.3% swinging strike rate leads all Twins starters and ranks qualified among AL starters.) Berrios is undoubtedly the best overall pitcher in the rotation. Until they find a way to get going again, it's hard to have much confidence in the team making any kind of legitimate run.
While their primary focus for the next month will obviously be fending off Cleveland and locking up the Central, the Twins will simultaneously be trying to establish a pitching hierarchy for the postseason. That means lining up starters for a potential ALDS, of course, but also identifying the most trustworthy arms for the middle and late innings. Given the current state of their rotation, it's very possible the team will pivot to lean heavily on relievers come October.
Can Graterol make enough of an impression to warrant a roster spot for the playoffs? I think it's far from a given. Keep in mind he just turned 21 and has thrown only a handful if innings above Double-A. Can May and Duffey continue to distinguish themselves, especially against stronger competition in the next few weeks? Will Rogers look rested or rusty in the action to come after getting a lot of downtime the past couple weeks?
These are the threads I'm following closely as we roll into the final month.
DOWN ON THE FARM
On Thursday, Trevor Larnach was named Florida State League Player of the Year, in recognition of his .316/.382/.459 slash line over 84 games in a pitcher-friendly environment where the average hitter sat at .242/.313/.353. Although the FSL shut down early last week, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the Sunshine State, Larnach was still playing, having been promoted to Pensacola midway through July. He celebrated the honor by launching a homer in a 3-for-5 night, and has an .830 OPS through 42 games at Double-A, with Pensacola's regular season reaching its end on Monday.
As the minor-league seasons wind down, attention begins to turn fully toward the big-league roster, which is a lot more populous now than it was two days ago.
Twins fans have been dealing with a strange medley of feelings lately. On the one hand, the Twins are setting records, racing toward their first division title in nine years, and winning a whole lotta games. They're 12-4 in their last five series. They're holding strong.
On the other hand, they've won only one series against a good team in the past two months. Their rotation looks like a mess even against bottom-dwelling clubs that have all but given up. And now, the difficulty level is about to turn up by several notches. It feels like a reckoning is coming unless Minnesota can rise to the challenge.
Fenway Park is an extremely difficult place to win when your pitchers are misfiring. If Berrios and Martin Perez can't turn things around quickly the Red Sox series may get ugly. Afterward, the Twins return home for a massively critical three-gamer against Cleveland, perhaps with a chance to bury the dagger.
It's crunch time.
MONDAY, 9/2: TWINS @ TIGERS – RHP Jake Odorizzi v. RHP Jordan Zimmermann
TUESDAY, 9/3: TWINS @ RED SOX – RHP Jose Berrios v. RHP Rick Porcello
WEDNESDAY, 9/4: TWINS @ RED SOX – TBA v. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
THURSDAY: 9/5: TWINS @ RED SOX – LHP Martin Perez v. RHP Nathan Eovaldi
FRIDAY, 9/6: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Adam Plutko v. RHP Michael Pineda
SATURDAY, 9/7: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Aaron Civale v. RHP Jake Odorizzi
SUNDAY, 9/8: INDIANS @ TWINS – RHP Mike Clevinger v. RHP Jose Berrios