Twins boasting a much-improved defense in 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins turned in a handful of nice defensive plays in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Philadelphia. Shortstop Pedro Florimon led the way with a gem up the middle of the infield for the first out of the game, and outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Clete Thomas followed suit with nice catches of their own.

Yet, while those types of defensive plays are the ones that make the highlight reels, they’re not what has impressed manager Ron Gardenhire the most about his team’s defense this season.

It’s been getting back to fundamental baseball that has the skipper pleased.

“It’s not always about the great plays, but it’s about the outs you’re supposed to get,” Gardenhire said. “The outs we’re supposed to get, we’ve been getting, along with some pretty good ones. Arcia running that ball fading away from him, that was a really nice play. Florimon, the first play of the game, a hard-hit ball up the middle, he made a really nice play.

“We can make some of those, too, but really it’s the outs you’re supposed to get.”

For a franchise that has prided itself on defense over the years, the Twins got away from playing fundamental defense last season. Minnesota committed 107 errors in 2012, tied for ninth-most in baseball. The Twins’ fielding percentage of .983 also ranked in the bottom third of all 30 teams.

This spring, Gardenhire and the rest of the coaching staff put a heavy emphasis on getting back to playing fundamental baseball. That starts with defense. Through the Twins’ first 61 games, it seems those lessons learned in spring training have paid off. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Phillies, Minnesota had committed just 26 errors, tied for fifth-fewest in the majors.

“It makes my job easier knowing they’re going to run the balls down and make the plays behind me,” said Twins right-hander P.J. Walters, the benefactor of the trio of nice plays made in Tuesday’s game at Target Field. “Those plays they make, they obviously get an out; they keep a guy off base. The balls in right center and down the line that the outfielders run down are extra base hits if they don’t catch them. That’s more pitches I’ve got to throw. … As a pitcher, that’s huge.”

The Twins’ defense has been solid despite a rotating lineup and, as a result, plenty of moving parts on defense. Gardenhire has had to shuffle his outfield recently as center fielder Aaron Hicks landed on the disabled list. The infield remains in flux, too, with Trevor Plouffe also on the DL and a platoon of veteran Jamey Carroll and utility man Eduardo Escobar bouncing around the infield while Brian Dozier has manned second base.

“I know I can speak for everybody, I feel like we have a lot of guys that can play some different positions,” Dozier said. “The outfield’s been doing a good job hitting relay men, playing balls off the wall, running balls down. That goes a long way. I think a big thing is hitting cutoff men this year and keeping double plays in order and allowing us to turn a lot more double plays.”

The Twins have turned 62 double plays, the fourth-most in baseball. As Dozier noted, it’s due to outfielders doing the little things correctly that Minnesota has found success turning double plays. Having a staff of groundball pitchers also helps, but the infielders have had to make the plays behind them. For the most part, they have.

The starting pitching remains a work in progress — the Twins’ rotation has a 5.22 ERA, third-worst in baseball — and the offense has been streaky throughout the season. The one constant, though, has been the defense. Minnesota’s ability to field the ball is a big reason why the Twins appear to be improved from last year’s team that lost 96 games.

“I think from Day 1 when we had our first meeting, Gardy put more emphasis on we’re going to get back to throwing and catching the ball like we’re supposed to and being fundamentally sound, one through nine, everybody on the field,” Dozier said. “There’ve been times this year when we went through a struggle hitting. But I think the defense has been the most consistent. That’s why we’re still winning baseball games. We’re hanging in there. You’ve got to start with pitching and defense. Safe to say everything’s been good so far.”

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