Twins third baseman Miguel Sano threw out Mariners first baseman Ryon Healy for the final out of the first inning.
The Twins and manager Paul Molitor must feel lucky that just six games into the season they are 4-2 and have third baseman Miguel Sano already performing at the All-Star level he showed last season.
With Sano coming off offseason surgery on his left tibia and then facing an MLB investigation, which eventually was closed for lack of evidence, there was some uncertainty whether he would start the season with the big league club.
But Sano is not only back and healthy, he provided the spark to the Twins’ 4-2 home opener win over the Mariners at Target Field on Thursday.
The Twins went 2-for-16 as a team through the first five innings and hadn’t manufactured much of a threat to Seattle starter James Paxton. But after Joe Mauer led off the sixth inning with a single, Sano came to the plate and on a 2-1 curveball clubbed a home run to left-center to even the score at 2-2.
“It’s impressive,” Molitor said. “He has a chance to do some special things with the talent that he has. I think he is still learning. He’s going to become a better hitter, as well as a better power hitter. I like the fact that he’s using the whole field a little bit better.
“But that home run today, we were having a tough time with Paxton out there, and with one swing he gets us back to even.”
Through the first six games of the season Sano is hitting .280 with three homers and seven RBI, and that is on par with the great start that he had last year for the Twins, when he hit .350 with two homers and eight RBI in their first six games.
The Twins as a team have really been on to start the year, hitting 12 homers in six games. Compare that to just five homers in the first six games of 2017.
Molitor was asked if he had any nervousness about possibly not having Sano at the start of the season.
“I think our front office were open to listening to various things throughout the winter [regarding the MLB investigation], but for him to come back from that surgery and have a healthy spring training, we had to build him up a little bit early, but he’s anxious to play,” Molitor said. “It hurt him not to play down the stretch last year, and I have a feeling he’s going to be on a little bit of a mission this year.”
Sano made a throwing error at third on Thursday, but Molitor chalked that up a bit to the cold weather and the effect it can have on an infielders’ fingers. He said Sano is getting better in that area.
“He takes a lot of pride in it. He has had to work to get to the level that he is at, and we think there is more in there,” Molitor said. “He can make some spectacular plays, but we’re trying to work on consistency and confidence.”
And while some people have complained about Sano’s conditioning, Molitor thinks he is coming along great for a player who had to rehab a big chunk of the offseason.
“I think that he is doing fine conditionally,” he said. “I think he is trying to do better because he lost some time this winter, but he is moving around fine. I’m happy to see he’s running as well as he is, and defensively he’s getting some of that quickness back.”
Last year Sano was putting up the kind of numbers the Twins front office had dreamed of since the Twins signed him as a free agent in the Dominican Republic for $3.15 million in 2009.
He finished 2017 hitting .264 with a .352 on-base percentage, .507 slugging percentage and .859 OPS and made his first All-Star team.
Still it has been a difficult couple of months for Sano after he went down with a stress reaction in his right tibia on Aug. 19 last season, then couldn’t be with the Twins as they made the push for the postseason, and then had to deal with three months of rehab and the MLB investigation.
Sano said on Thursday that he is happy to be with his teammates and he thinks the work the front office did in the offseason was tremendous.
“It’s a great start for us, really good. We lost that first one, but we have won four games and this is one of the best teams in my life,” he said. “We have pitchers, we have hitters, and we have defense.”
The Twins pitching staff put together another sterling performance on Thursday, even if Kyle Gibson labored a bit in allowing two runs, one earned, on seven hits and a walk in 4⅓ innings.
The bullpen provided 4⅔ innings of scoreless relief, allowing just one hit and three walks. Fernando Rodney, acquired as a free agent in the offseason, recorded his first save for the Twins.
The Twins staff has allowed just 14 earned runs in the first six games, posting a 2.33 ERA, and Jack Morris, who will enter the Hall of Fame later this season, said that Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Lavine knew what they needed to do to give this team a chance to compete not only for the playoffs but for the World Series.
“That’s the part of the game they needed to address. The outfield defense is solid, the overall defense I think is solid, they’re going to score their share of runs, this is a young team that can generate offense. What part of the game did they need to address? Pitching,” Morris said. “They went out and got three starters, added a couple guys in the bullpen, I think they did a good job.”
While Lynn and Jake Odorizzi were the big-name starters added to the club, Morris thinks that relievers Addison Reed, Zach Duke and Rodney will be just as important to the long term success of the staff.
That was in evidence on Thursday, when they picked up Gibson, and through six games the relief staff is 2-1 on the season for decisions and has allowed five runs in 20⅓ innings, good for a 2.24 ERA early in the season. Reed has retired 17 of the 20 batters he has faced this season, allowing just one hit.
“Reed is a guy that I think will really be the anchor in that bullpen,” Morris said. “Rodney is going to be a little bit of a roller-coaster ride because of his command, but he is a veteran who has been around and embraced this role for a long, long time. The bullpen I think I strengthened overall, and that’s a plus.”
On top of that Morris noted that the Twins are off to a great start without Ervin Santana, who is dealing with a broken finger.
“You have the ace of their staff of the last few years coming back in the rotation in the next month or so, so that will be a big plus,” he said. “Somehow these guys, [Jose] Berrios and Gibson in particular, have to take the next step forward, and they have done that so far.”