Target Field is a perfectly cromulent name, but it’s really too bad that Death Valley is already taken. That’s what the ballpark has become lately for visiting teams.
Sonny Gray returned from the injured list with four shutout innings Saturday, three relievers held Oakland to one hit over the final five innings and the Twins ran their streak to 23 consecutive innings at Target Field without allowing an earned run. Jorge Polanco’s 451-foot blast provided the lone run, enough to carry the Twins to their eighth consecutive home victory, 1-0 over the Athletics.
“Shutouts are always fun,” Gray said after the Twins recorded their fourth of the season, third at home, and continued an impressive pattern in their home park. Visiting teams have scored only 37 runs in the season’s first 14 games at Target Field, a 2.64-per-game average that’s the lowest in the American League. During the Twins’ eight consecutive victories in Minnesota, no opponent has scored more than four runs, and they have been held to one run or fewer five times.
Gray’s return after missing three weeks because of a strained right hamstring was the day’s most heartening development for the Twins, but it was tempered by a worrisome departure from their lineup. Byron Buxton left the game after seven innings, apparently after feeling some tightness in his right hip.
Still, the day was a triumph for Twins’ pitching, which never allowed an Athletics baserunner to reach third base. Gray was particularly happy to contribute to a Twins victory, rather than make another rehab start for Class AAA St. Paul, which was the plan as recently as Thursday afternoon.
“I was stretching in the outfield [in Baltimore]about to play catch, and I told Wes [Johnson, the Twins’ pitching coach]’Hey, I can pitch [Saturday]. I don’t have to pitch in the minor leagues.’ He said, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Gray recounted. “I was like, ‘Yeah!’ … He came back in the clubhouse, I guess it was like an hour after that, [and] just goes, ‘Yes.’ “
Activated a couple of hours before game time Saturday, Gray quickly proved he was ready. The veteran righthander allowed two singles and walked two hitters, but never put more than one runner on in the same inning. He hit 93 mph with his fastball, induced 10 swing-and-misses among his 66 pitches, and struck out seven of the 15 A’s hitters he faced, five of them looking.
“His two-seamer, he was able to start it outside and it was running back and just hitting the corner,” said Twins coach Jayce Tingler, again serving as acting manager with Rocco Baldelli sidelined by COVID-19. “It was breaking a little bit more than usual, and early on, you saw some of them kind of bounce. Once he was able to get that into the zone a little bit, he was really good.”
Danny Coulombe, Griffin Jax and Jhoan Duran took it from there, surrendering only one hit, a two-out Christian Bethancourt double off Jax in the seventh inning. Though a two-out walk and hit batter in the ninth put him in jeopardy, Duran struck out Bethancourt to end it. With five strikeouts, Duran earned a two-inning save, only the second by a Twins pitcher in a one-run game over the past three seasons.
Oakland starter James Kaprielian, who returned from his own rehab stint last week after suffering elbow soreness last month, was perhaps even more impressive than Gray, lasting 99 pitches in his second MLB start of the year. But his 99th pitch was his undoing — it was a 2-2 curveball low and across the middle, and Polanco unloaded on it. The second baseman drilled it into the Delta Sky Suite club above center field, only the eighth player in Target Field history — oddly, all Twins — to reach that target.
“He got something he could handle,” Tingler said. “Runs were hard to come by.”
They have been for awhile now in Death Valley.