Twins’ depth on display as Royce Lewis, Matt Wallner key 5-3 comeback over Detroit


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MINNEAPOLIS — A valuable player to the 2023 Minnesota Twins for his speed and versatility, Willi Castro was placed on the injured list Tuesday afternoon. But unlike a year ago when the Twins had little depth to replace key players lost to injury, this time Royce Lewis stepped in.

In yet another instant where a mix of overwhelming depth and young talent have propped them up, Lewis jump-started a game-defining, sixth-inning rally with an RBI single. Later in the same inning, Matt Wallner, who arrived in May to backfill several injuries, received a curtain call after crushing a 450-foot grand slam in a 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers in front of 30,150 at Target Field.

The success of Wallner and Lewis is the latest example where an offseason spent building depth along with a farm system producing consistent talent has kept the Twins well-positioned to win their first American League Central title since 2020.

Whereas injuries crushed them a season ago when they finished with the second-most days lost to injury in the majors, thus far the 2023 Twins’ depth has insulated them from the same issues. Though Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is well aware how bleak a team’s fortunes can be after filling his lineups with Quad-A players last season, he’s enjoyed his roster’s depth and not being forced to constantly search for answers.

“This year, at no point, really, has it felt like we’ve been depleted,” Baldelli said. “There were times last year toward the end of the season where that was the case. … You need two and three options at almost every position in the field to get through a full season. I feel like Derek (Falvey) and Thad (Levine) have done a good job of just giving us, not just a team that we can put out there, nine guys to take the field, but almost an entire another team of players, some on the bench and some at Triple-A, right now that we can turn to.”

Baldelli’s pregame availability Tuesday felt eerily similar to many down the stretch in 2022 as he discussed the status of key injured players, including Byron Buxton, Alex Kirilloff and Joe Ryan.

Tuesday’s session also included details on the loss of Castro, the super utilityman who’s provided good value with his speed, positional flexibility and clutch hitting. Castro felt a tug on his left side in Philadelphia on Friday and woke up in pain Saturday, which resulted in an MRI and a diagnosis of a Grade 1 mild left oblique strain. Later, Baldelli noted that outstanding rookie second baseman Edouard Julien also was out of the lineup with hamstring tightness.

Yet this time around, Baldelli’s armed with answers for the team’s questions.

Lewis, with his nonstop positive energy, returned to the lineup after missing 36 games with a left oblique strain geeked about helping the Twins reach the postseason for the first time since 2020. Whereas last season the Twins filled gaps with less talented players, this time they plugged in Lewis, who carried an .827 OPS through 99 big-league plate appearances this season and went 5-for-12 with two homers on his Triple-A rehab assignment.

“This is what we live for, right?” Lewis said before the game. “A chance to be in the World Series and in the playoffs. That’s what we are going for. Hopefully, I can help any way possible that we can lock up that spot and then worry about the postseason.”

A few hours later, Lewis broke the seal in his third at-bat of the night. With Detroit starter Alex Faedo out after 81 pitches and five scoreless innings, the Twins broke through against reliever José Cisnero. Trailing 2-0, Jorge Polanco drew a leadoff walk before Max Kepler made the Tigers pay for allowing his foul infield popup to drop harmlessly by singling to right-center.

After Cisnero evened the count at 2-2, Lewis punched a 97 mph fastball into left for an RBI single. Carlos Correa followed with an infield single off reliever Will Vest to load the bases and set the stage for Wallner, who arrived in May after Kepler and Trevor Larnach suffered injuries.

Whereas last season Wallner was raw and full of swing-and-miss, this time around he’s thrived. After quickly falling behind in the count 0-2, Wallner drew even, fouled off two more pitches from Vest and then blasted the ball into the stratosphere to make it 5-2.

“We’ve kind of been seeing it throughout the year,” said Twins starter Bailey Ober, an early-season rotation replacement who struck out six and allowed two runs over five innings. “When Royce is healthy, it seems like that moment finds him and it almost seems like every time he’s come through. Wallner right now is swinging the bat really well. I think I’ve only seen Miguel Sano hit a ball out there. That ball was crushed. Put a great swing on it. It’s been huge for those young guys stepping up.”

Several young players managed to step up down the stretch in 2022 as the Twins suffered massive injuries, namely Nick Gordon and Jose Miranda. The two broke out and along with Correa and Gio Urshela kept the Twins from sinking before September.

But as the injuries piled up, the Twins couldn’t maintain. They rolled out names like Tim Beckham, Billy Hamilton, Caleb Hamilton, Jermaine Palacios, Sandy León and Mark Contreras, a group that combined for a staggering 267 plate appearances.

With injury questions related to Larnach, Kirilloff, Buxton, Lewis, Tyler Mahle and Polanco headed into the season, the Twins’ decision-makers hoped to avoid a repeat of 2022 and made adding depth a priority of the offseason.

They acquired shortstop Kyle Farmer from Cincinnati in November and signed Castro, pitcher José De León and catcher Tony Wolters to minor-league deals. Veteran Joey Gallo was signed in December and there were January trades for Pablo López and Michael A. Taylor. Even though it was hard to see a fit, the Twins signed veteran Donovan Solano to a one-year deal on Feb. 23.

They also signed Dallas Keuchel to a minor-league deal in June and claimed Jordan Luplow off waivers this month — all to avoid another roster disaster.

“I feel better at this moment,” Baldelli said. “Things change on a dime. I don’t want to start talking like this because it happened fast last year when it did happen. You play with who you have. Simplify it. We play with who we have today, and we’ll worry about tomorrow and all the things that come with it when we get there.”

Ryan could start rehab assignment soon

Twins athletic trainer Nick Paparesta was encouraged after starting pitcher Joe Ryan participated in a bullpen session Tuesday. All went well during the session and if Ryan emerges healthy Wednesday, he should make a rehab start soon.

“We’ll have a little bit more specifics on what day and where in the next 24 hours,” Paparesta said. “Obviously, we always want to see what tomorrow brings for us before we make a decision.”

Castro feels fortunate after MRI

Castro admitted he was worried his season might be lost before he underwent an MRI on his left side. While he can still bat left-handed, Castro is limited from the right side. But after learning his strain was ruled Grade 1, the mildest form, Castro is hopeful for a quick return.

“When it’s (Grade) 2 or 3, that’s when it’s months,” Castro said. “(Paparesta) told me he was going to put me on the 10-day IL, and he told me that hopefully, in a couple days, I would be feeling great and back again.”

Kirilloff headed in right direction

Paparesta said he hopes to know by the end of the team’s five-game homestand when Kirilloff, out with a right shoulder strain, could begin a rehab assignment. His shoulder not healing fast enough, Kirilloff was given a cortisone shot on July 31 and is responding well. The first baseman/outfielder expects he’ll return this season, “hopefully sooner or later,” he said.

As for now, Kirilloff is building up his swing: “Just the hitting progression, just trying to work through the hitting progression, then on volume. Once volume’s built up, try to pick up the intensity. And then once you feel good with the intensity, you get back into live at-bats.”

Buxton resuming baseball activities

Out with a right hamstring strain, Buxton is finishing up his “off-the-ground conditioning” with an eye on his running progression coming shortly, Paparesta said. Buxton was placed on the IL retroactive to Aug. 2 but won’t return before he heads on a rehab assignment as well.

“Byron is getting back into baseball activities at this point in time,” Paparesta said. “Obviously, him getting back into baseball activity is a good sign. Throwing, hitting, taking some groundballs and stuff, which is good.”

More injury news

Reliever Brock Stewart is throwing from 90 feet but hasn’t advanced to throwing off a mound yet, Paparesta said. The Twins hope by this weekend to have a better sense for how soon Stewart, on the IL with right elbow soreness since June 26, can throw a bullpen session. … Miranda said his right shoulder feels much better after a three-week shutdown. On the IL with a right shoulder impingement since July 12, he is hitting off a tee and throwing at about 50 percent from 60 feet. He hopes to start a rehab assignment in three weeks. … Coming off his second Tommy John surgery, Chris Paddack is facing live hitters at the team’s Fort Myers, Fla., complex this week. Paparesta said the pitcher and the Twins are still waiting for the go-ahead from Paddack’s surgeon, Dr. Keith Meister, to get the right-hander into a game. Despite no clearance yet, Paparesta isn’t ruling out Paddack pitching this season. … On the IL since May 18 with a right tibia fracture, Gordon will begin “ground-based running” this week, Paparesta said. Gordon is expected to begin a rehab assignment before the season is out. “Something we’re definitely shooting for this season, absolutely,” Paparesta said.

(Photo of Carlos Correa and Matt Wallner: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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