Polanco homers, but bullpen squanders lead

Infielder has shown steady production since recovering from ankle injury

July 21st, 2021

CHICAGO -- Jorge Polanco’s ankle troubles now seem like a distant memory -- and his bat is leaving little doubt of that. Less of a distant memory are the continued struggles of the Twins’ bullpen.

After the Twins nibbled away at White Sox pitching throughout Tuesday night’s contest, Minnesota finally surged ahead in the eighth on a two-run, go-ahead blast by Polanco. But for the second straight game, Minnesota’s bullpen continued its season-long woes by coughing up the late lead -- this time, with Jorge Alcala and Hansel Robles allowing five runs in the bottom of the frame to send Minnesota to a 9-5 loss at Guaranteed Rate Field.

After Andrew Vaughn and Billy Hamilton punched through RBI singles, the biggest blow came off the bat of José Abreu, who crushed a three-run homer off Robles, one of Minnesota’s few players on expiring contracts who could fetch value at the upcoming July 30 Trade Deadline.

“We did some good things, put ourselves in a spot to win late,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Whenever you lose a game late, it certainly digs at you worse than a typical loss where you just get outplayed the whole game. We were in a spot to win the game and we brought in two of our good bullpen arms to give us a chance and to hold the lead. We weren't able to get it done tonight.”

But before that flurry against the beleaguered relief corps, you can file Polanco’s go-ahead big fly away with the other recent smashes he had contributed to flip the outcomes of games, including a pair of go-ahead, three-run homers against Detroit in the final two games before the All-Star break.

With Dallas Keuchel and Michael Kopech out of Tuesday’s game, the Twins pounced on White Sox right-hander Ryan Burr, who issued a leadoff single to Josh Donaldson before Polanco extended on a 3-1 fastball and crushed it on a line over the right-field wall.

“He's been playing really well and has come up with big hits for us,” Baldelli said. “He's playing confidently. He's playing through a sore back right now, too, a sore lower back. So what he did tonight, he's doing while also having a little trouble swinging.”

Even while banged up, Polanco now has 17 hits this month, second on the team behind Luis Arraez, who exited in Tuesday’s fourth inning with right knee soreness after slipping while attempting to make a play on Abreu’s third-inning triple. The Twins don’t expect to place Arraez on the injured list immediately, but he’ll be on crutches to keep weight off the leg while he undergoes imaging and is further evaluated in the coming days.

The version of Polanco that started the 2019 All-Star Game at shortstop for the American League sure looks like he’s been back for some time -- and every big left-handed swing makes that more and more evident, considering that’s the side of the plate from which his hitting was most impacted at the end of 2019 and throughout ’20, as a result of which he underwent two surgical procedures following each season.

But since that troublesome right ankle last flared up at the end of May, Polanco had hit .274/.332/.480 with nine homers entering Tuesday’s game -- and more importantly, he’s only missed two games in that span since May 25.

“He's a gamer,” Baldelli said. “He takes the field all the time for us when other guys can't. He's always out there and grinding this stuff out and playing well. When he's doing it, I think it helps our lineup out in a big way. And being the switch-hitter he is, he lengthens the lineup out wherever you put him in the lineup."

That’s going to be significant for the Twins in the remainder of 2021 and beyond, especially since Andrelton Simmons could be traded away at the upcoming Trade Deadline, pushing either Polanco or Nick Gordon into an extended look at shortstop.

If the Twins hope to return to contention in 2022, they will likely need Polanco’s steady, cost-controlled production from the middle infield to anchor the lineup in the years to come so that they can direct their expenditures elsewhere -- say, toward a more reliable pitching staff that could prevent calamities like Tuesday’s from happening as frequently as they have this season.

"When you've got one of your good, young players as a middle infielder, a switch hitter, it does a lot of things,” Baldelli said.