MINNEAPOLIS — When he stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning Sunday, Brian Dozier’s sole intention wasn’t necessarily to spoil Justin Masterson’s no-hit bid.
Merely reaching base would’ve been a coup with the stuff the Indians’ All-Star right-hander brought with him to Minneapolis to start the season’s second half.
“I was gonna take one to try to work the count,” Dozier said. “When I got up there, I thought, ‘What the heck?'”So the Twins second baseman offered at the first pitch he saw — a sinker that broke in toward his hands, shattered his bat and landed just out of centerfielder Drew Stubbs’ sliding reach. Dozier chugged around first for a standup double and later scored on Joe Mauer’s grounder to second.
That forced Masterson to settle for a one-hit, one-run, eight-strikeout performance that sent Minnesota back into first-half mode after it had already clinched a three-game series win Saturday against Cleveland.
In the Indians’ 7-1 victory, Masterson’s sinker, scorching fastball (he struck out Mauer at 97 mph in the first inning) and breaking slider (he pulled Trevor Plouffe two feet past the outside portion of the strike zone to end the fifth) had a struggling Twins lineup as off-kilter as it’s been all season.
“He was filthy,” Dozier said.
It had been 11 days since Masterson pitched; he never left the American League bullpen during Tuesday’s All-Star Game. The rest apparently did him well, as he threw 67 strikes on 93 pitches.
Lifted between the seventh and eighth innings after his no-no was no more, Masterson didn’t go as deep as he had in three complete-game victories to date.
But the AL’s No. 4 strikeout man mowed down Minnesota so efficiently that Twins starter Scott Diamond barely had time to catch his breath between trips to the mound.
“He pitched in control the entire game, and he was making our hitters swing at pitches that they really didn’t want to,” said Diamond, who lasted only 4 2/3 innings and coughed up five earned runs on seven hits. “He just kept the pace of the game moving so fast that it just seemed like I wasn’t even able to rest.”The Twins left-hander had hoped for a fresh start following a rocky first half.
Thanks to continued lack of command and a hungry group of Indians bats, Diamond didn’t get it.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis, also an All-Star, roped a two-run home run that bounced off left-center-field flowers in the third inning, and a walk followed by consecutive up-the-gut singles set up Michael Brantley’s bases-clearing triple in the fifth.
That chased Diamond (5-9, 5.53 ERA), who has made it past the fifth inning just once in his past eight starts.
He returned to the home clubhouse Sunday concerned for his starting job.
“I know I’m not pitching well, so anything is possible, and anything could happen,” Diamond said. “The feedback (from the coaching staff) has been positive, because my bullpens have been good. That’s kind of what’s keeping me afloat right now.”
Dozier, though, moved closer to solidifying his spot as an everyday second baseman with a pair of doubles and scored Minnesota’s only run.
“It was good to see him battle early and finish the game strong with a pair of doubles,” bench coach Terry Steinbach said. “So it was good for him and for our club before we hit the road.”
Maligned manager: Steinbach filled in for an ill Ron Gardenhire for the second day in a row, though this time, he began the contest as the man in charge.
Saturday, Steinbach took over in the fifth inning after Gardenhire left with a stomach bug. The manager was at the ballpark a day later but opted to watch the game from his office, still battling the same minor ailment.
Gardenhire’s health is improving, Steinbach said, and he’s expected to make the team’s trip to Anaheim and Seattle this week.
“We anticipate him being here, very soon, answering these questions,” Steinbach said, motioning toward the podium in Gardenhire’s office.
Gardenhire, 55, was in good enough spirits to duck in as media filed out and clamor, “We just almost got no-hit; get these guys the hell out of here.” He also spoke with reporters before the game.
The Twins’ most recent call-up sipped a two-game cup of coffee with Colorado in 2008 before being sent back down to the minors. Sunday, the 33-year-old pinch hit to lead off the eighth inning, drawing a four-pitch walk against Cleveland reliever C.C. Lee.
In just his fifth big-league plate appearance, he became one of five Minnesota batters to reach base Sunday.
Bernier moved to second on another base-on-balls, but Pedro Florimon then grounded out into an inning-ending double play.
Downtrodden Trevor: Bernier or another minor leaguer could be in line for more playing time at third, unless Trevor Plouffe can turn things around.
Plouffe went 1-for-9 in three games against the Indians and struck out seven times, including every at-bat in the series’ final two games.
He’s still hitting a respectable — but not stalwart — .261 for the season, but the last thing an ailing offensive team needs is another cold bat stuck in the lineup.
“I just think hitters go up and down like that,” Steinbach said. “Plouffey, for whatever reason, whether he’s trying too hard out there or they’re throwing nasty pitches against him, it’s just one of those things where he has to ride the storm. But he’ll hit his way out of it.”
Masterson had Plouffe so out of sorts that his bat left his hands as he swung and missed at a down-and-away slider to terminate the fifth. Plouffe responded by removing his batting helmet and chucking it at the ground.
Stuck in the middle: In a meeting over brunch with reporters before Sunday’s 1:10 p.m. first pitch, Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said he could see Dozier and Florimon comprising Minnesota’s middle infield for years to come.
To what extent and for how long is up to them, Antony said.
“I think they’re gonna dictate that, but yeah, I think there’s a possibility,” Antony said. “They play such good defense that if they both become .250, .260 hitters and Dozier’s a guy who gets 12 to 15 home runs, hitting .260 and playing that type of defense, yeah, why can’t he be an everyday second baseman? Florimon, the defense that he’s played and has shown the ability in stretches to be a capable offensive player, I still think there’s more there.”
The pair has combined for just 11 errors this season. Dozier came into Sunday with a .993 fielding percentage, while Florimon was just below him at .980. They turned a pair of inning-ending double plays Sunday, each setting the other up for a perfect strike to first.
Offensively, though, Antony’s right; they need some work.
Tending more toward the power side of the scales, Dozier entered Sunday batting .229 with eight home runs. Florimon, though aggressive, is more of a ground-ball hitter. He’s batting .234 and has driven in 31 runs this year.
Unless Antony and general manager Terry Ryan decide to trade either of them, Dozier and Florimon aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Both players’ contracts stipulate they’re arbitration-eligible in 2016 and won’t become full-fledged free agents until 2019.
Up next: The Twins head west for a seven-game road swing, first playing a three-game set at Anaheim on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday then taking on the Mariners in a four-game series to finish out the week. Following its first day off since the All-Star break, Minnesota then returns to Target Field for a three-game clash with Kansas City.