MINNEAPOLIS — The 2020 Twins’ season-long struggles against left-handed pitchers were among the more confounding developments from a team that boasted the likes of Mitch Garver, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Sanó in the middle of a lineup that returned most of its core from the “Bomba Squad” of ‘19, which left the smoldering ruins of southpaws strewn in its wake.
Minnesota finally found its mojo against a left-hander again on Thursday — and it was a sight to behold.
The southpaw in question was Seattle hurler Marco Gonzales, and the Twins dealt him two big blows on a three-run homer by Garver and a solo blast by a red-hot Byron Buxton, who finished with three hits and fell a triple shy of the cycle, as Minnesota cruised to a 10-2 win over the Mariners in front of a sellout crowd of 9,675 in its home opener at Target Field.
“It felt like there were a lot of people in the stands, I’ll be honest with you, and for us to go out there and play a nice ballgame for them makes it all the better,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Gonzales was tagged for seven earned runs, marking only the second time since the start of the 2020 season that the Twins piled on more than four runs against a lefty. The Twins had gone from an MLB-leading .872 team OPS against lefties in ‘19, to a .658 team OPS against southpaws in ‘20, ranking 27th in MLB.
Even as the injured Donaldson (right hamstring strain) remained out of the lineup, right-handed bats — old and new — made a big impact in the rout, much more in line with what Baldelli expects from the extreme right-handed skew in his starting lineups against lefties. Kyle Garlick collected two more hits, including an RBI double, while Buxton scored two runs, Garver cranked a pair of extra-base hits and Andrelton Simmons picked up three knocks.
Buxton’s hot start has more than made up for the temporary loss of Donaldson’s bat. The center fielder is the first player in Twins history with extra-base hits in each of his first six games of a season. In fact, his first seven hits of 2021 went for extra bases — including four homers and three doubles — before his sixth-inning single broke the streak.
Fans didn’t seem too disappointed when he didn’t triple to complete the cycle, as chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” rained down on Buxton throughout the afternoon.
“I’ve been working a little harder in the cage to work on my routine a little bit more, and trusting the process of what I’m working on in the cage to translate to the field,” Buxton said. “It’s a growth process, but things are starting to come together.”
Just as significant is the production from Garver, whose regression from Silver Slugger Award winner in 2019 to a .511 OPS in ‘20, as he struggled with an oblique injury, certainly didn’t help the Twins’ struggles against lefties. He started showing flashes of his old self with hard-hit contact (in excess of 95 mph) on all four balls he put in play in Thursday’s game, including the 106.3 mph homer that traveled an estimated 435 feet to center, and a 101.3 mph double, in addition to a pair of flies to the warning track.
Those are the kinds of at-bats that gave Baldelli faith in making Garver his preferred leadoff hitter against many lefties — and the Twins will keep putting him in prominent spots for those situations.
“[He] has that ability to go out there, have good at-bats, learn from his previous at-bats, learn from at-bats that he’s had recently,” Baldelli said. “Again, a guy that we really are going to rely on and need against left-handed pitching, and I think he’s comfortable in that role too, facing those guys.”
The loss of big right-handed bats like Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron from the ‘19 squad didn’t help last season — and neither did injuries to Garver and Donaldson. Though Donaldson isn’t active for now, the Twins hope that they now have enough right-handed depth to not only survive, but thrive, when lefties are on the mound — as will be the case again on Saturday.
“I expect us to be able to put a group out consistently that makes life difficult for left-handed starters,” Baldelli said. “Forcing those left-handers to work to get through the lineup, I think, is important, and I don’t think we have any soft spots for them.”