Call-up gives Valencia new opportunity
MINNEAPOLIS — It's three hours before Saturday's game at Target Field, and Twins clubhouse attendant Wayne "Big Fella" Hattaway is entertaining a crowd.
"Why're you here?" he asks in his scratchy, nasal voice, his mustache and eyebrows twitching and arching with delight. "Who are you all waiting for, Babe Ruth?"
The crowd remains, cameras and notepads hovering around a locker in the corner of the room that's mostly reserved for the team's youngest players. It's the domain of those in flux between the majors and Triple-A. Some have found a full-time job in Minnesota. Others merely rent space.
Big Fella is persistent. The cameras aren't usually so dogged in these parts, and he's going to milk this upcoming reunion for all it's worth.
Because it's not Babe Ruth. It's not even Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. It's Danny Valencia, fresh off a plane and ready to suit up for his first major league game since May 9, when he was sent to Triple-A Rochester. Valencia's arrival came just a day after the Twins put Trevor Plouffe on the disabled list, and the call-up gives Valencia a chance to regain the trust of the team on which he spent all of 2011.
Back in the majors, Valencia inherited the .190 batting average he left behind in May. A .250 hitter in Rochester with seven home runs and 37 RBI, the third baseman has also been handed the chance at a starting job despite the numbers that greeted him, and it's up to him to make the most of that.
Valencia got off to a decent start on Saturday, breaking an 0-for-28 streak that saw his average plummet from .253 to .184 with a double in the seventh inning of the Twins' 12-5 win over Cleveland. With the hit, Valencia contributed to the Twins' two-day carnival of offense, but on a night like Saturday, one RBI and two runs scored barely stood out. Going forward, the hitting must continue, and Valencia must avoid throwing errors like the one he committed in the ninth inning. He needs to prove that his promotion was the right decision.
Bringing Valencia back to the majors wasn't the Twins' goal at this point in the season, but was rather a move of necessity. Up until now, they thought they'd found their third baseman in Plouffe, but with his right thumb injury, which will keep him from playing until August 5, Valencia was the obvious choice.
That said, manager Ron Gardenhire was less than effusive about the third baseman's performance in Triple A. The decision was less his than that of general manager Terry Ryan and the Rochester coaching staff. It's not that Gardenhire wouldn't have come to the same conclusion, but the manager pointed out that he's left to rely on very basic reports -- the likes of "good day," "bad day," "good defense" -- when it comes to his players in the minor leagues.
Ryan, though, said that he's not one to weigh complicated factors when deciding who to promote. It's a simple decision of who's playing best and can meet the team's needs.
"Who's ever getting the job done, we're going to bring them up," Ryan said. "Those days of 'because of this' and 'because of that' and 'they've been there' and 'he's on the roster,' I think you've got to go and get the guy that's performing and getting the job done for that Triple-A club."
That, if true, is a vote of confidence in Valencia, who was leading the Red Wings in RBI at the time of his call-up despite having played in the majors for the first month of the season. And though those numbers might not be reflective of what Valencia is capable of doing in the big leagues, both Gardenhire and Ryan were optimistic that he might be able to outperform his Rochester numbers.
That hope comes for the disappointment Valencia felt at being demoted after more than a full year in the major leagues. That sentiment can come across in a player's numbers, Gardenhire suggested, and Valencia was upfront with his manager about how difficult it was to motivate himself at times. He went from playing in front of nearly 40,000 fans a night to crowds barely more than a tenth of that size. He faced different competition and the lingering sting of his circumstances; it's no wonder he felt that way.
There are no guarantees that the major leagues will bolster Valencia's numbers, but there's at least a measure of hope. And with more at-bats, more confidence and a dose of perspective, Valencia should look at this stint in Minneapolis as a realistic second chance.
"Baseball's a progression," Gardenhire said. "You're supposed to get better the more at bats you get, the more you play. Just like any sport, you're supposed to get better. There's going to be lulls. There's going to be times when you struggle and you have to make some adjustments, whether it's being sent to the minor leagues or making adjustments in your swings or your defense."
For his part, Valencia is remaining silent about expectations, which have been a cruel mistress for him this season. When asked about the playing time he thinks he'll see and how well he imagines he'll hit, Valencia has nothing to say. Go ask Gardy, and that's about it.
Valencia doesn't want to think about it. At worst he's terse, at best circumspect. If Valencia has learned one thing from his disappointing season, it's to stop thinking, to stop beating himself up over the fact that his good friend took his big-league job. He's finished wondering where he'll be playing tomorrow or what this stint will mean.
"It's hard to expect anything down there, really," Valencia said of waiting for his call-up. "You can't worry about that. You can't control it. It's up to them. My days of playing GM are done."
That's for the best, to stop thinking, to start watching and listening. See the packed Saturday crowd. Hear it cheer as you cross the Target Field plate for the first time in months. If that doesn't make a player try his hardest to earn a spot when it's time for the team to make a choice, nothing will.
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