Scenes from Spring Training: A day with the Twins, Part 1

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Twins pitchers throwing.jpgI woke up bright and early, had the worst cup of coffee you’ll ever get
in the lobby of a major chain hotel, stopped at a 7-11 to get a better
cup of coffee and then headed to the ballpark. Why a 7-11? Because the
entire State of Florida appears to consist of densely-landscaped eight
lane thoroughfares lined with strip malls that are almost, but not
entirely impossible to enter after you realize that there might be
something worth entering them for. Like, say, a Starbucks.  When I
tried to get the GPS in my car to find me a better coffee place than
the 7-11 it wept and then committed suicide.

To the ballpark.  Allow me to say that the folks who work for the
Twins at Hammond Stadium are the nicest people on the planet.  I get
lost a lot whenever they let me out of my mother’s basement, and each
time I got lost, someone in a blue shirt kindly showed me where I
needed to be.  One of the guys working on the press level — Art — was
particularly nice. Turns out Art lived in Columbus for several years
where, among other things, he coached Paul O’Neill when he played high
school baseball.  Art and I chatted about Ohio a bit and then I was off to the Twins’
clubhouse, where Dustin the media guy told me I might want to be for A
Big Announcement.

“You signed Mauer?” I asked.

“Um, no,” Dustin replied.

“I think you should wait until Opening Day in the new park, then
announce you’ve signed him right after the National Anthem. The place
will go nuts!” I offered, quite proud of myself for thinking of
something so clever.

“Say, that’s . . . that’s an . . . interesting idea,” Dustin replied, scanning my eyes for signs of The Crazy. “I think I’ll mention it to Bill next time I talk to him.”

I sure hope he gives me credit!

I made it downstairs and, because I’m me, I couldn’t find the
clubhouse entrance.  A nice man in a blue shirt named Richard (the man, not the
shirt) pointed the way, telling me to “Look for Dominic. He’s working
the clubhouse door.” We had joked a bit when I first walked up to him,
so I left joking “I’ll tell Dominic you said it was OK if brought out a
couple of jerseys and bats and things for my kids.” Richard said “don’t do that, or
I’ll have to kiss the ring twice.”

I didn’t know what he meant until I met Dominic, the older, bespectacled
but undoubtedly formidable gentleman who signed me in to the clubhouse.
I made a similar joke with him about stealing stuff, and Dominic calmly,
but a tad too seriously for my tastes, said “You look like a nice boy. I’d hate to
have to break your legs.”  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say
that Dominic has lived a colorful life.

Once inside I waited with some other reporters in for The Big News
about Joe Nathan. In hindsight I wonder if the whole team knew it yet,
because the mood was pretty upbeat. Twins players had just been given a
copy of the team media guide. Jon Rauch — whose neck tattoos and sheer
height are much more impressive in person than on TV — was walking
around and bragging to everyone that he had two career hits (“says so
right here!”).  Gardenhire walked by at this point and Rauch said “hey
Ron, I have TWO career hits!” with a big dumb smile on his face.
Gardenhire — channeling Lou Brown — kept walking and grumbled “well, good for you.”

We’d soon learn that Gardenhire had other things on his mind.  I wonder
if one of those things was figuring out if Rauch’s hitting prowess was
worth wasting in the closer’s role.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.