A little more than two years into his tenure as the Twins’ manager, Rocco Baldelli is experiencing his first real rough spot, and getting his share of blame for the problems of a team that has lost eight of nine heading into a weekend homestand against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Not every decision Baldelli made in his first two seasons bore fruit, but most of them did; and because the Twins were winning American League Central titles virtually tape-to-tape, the backfires were easily forgotten.
But less than 20 games into the 2021 season, the Twins are losing, and never more dramatically than when they blew a two-run, 10th-inning lead in a 13-12 loss Wednesday in Oakland to cap a disastrous West Coast trip. The Twins had three games postponed by positive COVID-19 tests and went 0-4 against the Angels and A’s.
“It’s been a hell of a trip, in not a good way,” Baldelli said in the immediate aftermath.
Returning from a three-day layoff with a doubleheader Tuesday against the A’s, the Twins lost 7-0 and 1-0. On Wednesday, they scored 10 runs in the first six innings and lost anyway, wasting Byron Buxton’s two-run, 10th-inning home run. While the Twins rallied from a two-run deficit to build a 10-7 lead in the sixth inning, they also blew three leads.
Twins fans are not happy — with the offense, the bullpen or the manager, whose conspicuous moves Wednesday at RingCentral Stadium came back on him like a boomerang. Just as Baldelli’s decision to let embattled closer Alex Colome pitch a second inning appeared to pay off, it was derailed by his decision to pinch run for third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Colome walked the bases loaded in the 10th and took his third blown save in five opportunities, but he got a pair of ground balls when he needed them. The first was mishandled by Travis Blankenhorn, who pinch-ran for Donaldson, the second misplayed by Luis Arraez, Donaldson’s replacement at third.
“What we really saw today was something we haven’t seen a ton of from our group, and I stand in the front of it and take responsibility for all of it,” Baldelli said.
That’s good, because he’s getting it.
One couldn’t help but wonder how Baldelli’s good cop/good cop style would rub fans when the Twins inevitably started losing, and we’re getting the first real taste of it this month. It’s not good. Colome, Blankenhorn and Arraez all had chances to win Wednesday’s game and end a three-game losing streak, but fans shared most of their ire for Baldelli.
The guess here is it’s because a fan base that recently swallowed the team’s 18th straight playoff loss isn’t interested in magnanimity. They don’t want to hear the manager protect players’ feelings with just about every public statement he makes.
Baldelli’s responsibility is to manage his team, hence all that, you know, trust and nurturing and encouragement and stuff. But managing the fan base is part of it, too, even if it’s not in the job description. When the team is terrible, fans want some red meat, some gnashing of teeth, and perhaps a player or two thrown under the team bus.
Let’s be honest, Donaldson’s legs have been an issue; had he pulled up lame trying to score from second on a single, Baldelli would have been criticized for not pinch-running for him. The veteran third baseman likely makes the game-winning defensive play, but pinch-running for him wasn’t insane.
In the end, Baldelli broke down Wednesday’s loss to its basics — “We needed to make one of two routine plays, just routine ground balls, and we just weren’t able to do it” — but he can appear too understanding.
“We’re finding ways,” Baldelli said in perhaps his most Rocco Baldelli statement of all, “to not win games.”
Lose, Rocco! You’re finding ways to lose!
Look, decision-making has not been a Baldelli shortcoming. Pulling Jose Berrios in the playoffs last fall comes to mind, but it’s hard to argue with two division championships in two seasons. But if the Twins don’t turn it around here, his ingenuous compassion will wear thin with fans.