Steam rose from the infield dirt. Yes, steam. You know that wispy smoke on the hood of your car after a long drive on a stupidly cold morning? That’s what the heavily bundled Twins saw at Target Field before batting practice on Opening Day, a byproduct of the underground heating system gently warming the freshly watered soil.
“That’s pretty entertaining,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’ve never seen steam rising off the infield dirt. Only in the cow pasture. I’ve seen it rise off horse manure.”
It was 35 degrees with a 17 mph wind blowing out to center field when Vance Worley threw his first pitch at 3:17 p.m., weather that mandated ski caps, heavy fleece and the thickest gloves. It missed by two degrees tying the record low for a Twins home opener, from 1962 at old Metropolitan Stadium, when the Twins and Los Angeles Angels played in 33-degree conditions the day after a six-inch snowfall postponed the opener.
During batting practice, first baseman Justin Morneau yelled for strength and conditioning coordinator Perry Castellano to fire up one of the gas-powered heat blowers in the dugout so he could warm his hands before stepping into the cage. Detroit’s Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter wore heavy sweatshirts under their jerseys, and Fielder added a ski hood that covered most of his face. Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks, the wind blowing dead at him in his major league debut, guessed he went through six handwarmers.
Only Worley, pitching in short sleeves, faced the elements with defiance. No one in the stands was that brave. One woman in the lower field boxes sported a full-length fur coat.
Less than half the sellout crowd of 38,282 stuck around for all three hours, 28 minutes of the Twins’ 4-2 loss to defending American League champion Detroit, a game that hardly alleviated the fear that the Twins are bound for their third consecutive 90-loss season.
The poor conditions aside, the Twins did just enough wrong to lose. From going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position to leaving 12 men on base to failing to make pitches and plays at critical times, the Twins let a winnable game slip away.
Catcher Joe Mauer threw wide of second base on a possible strikeout/throwout double play with Jhonny Peralta running in the second. Peralta ended up scoring on an Omar Infante single.
After trailing 3-0 early, the Twins cut it to 3-2 and loaded the bases in the seventh, only to see Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee strike out back-to-back against reliever Al Alburquerque.
Third baseman Plouffe made a questionable choice on a sacrifice in the eighth, charging instead of covering the bag. The Twins got an out at first, but the runner who reached third scored when an overeager Josh Roenicke bounced his first pitch as a Twin through Mauer’s legs.
The Tigers weren’t great either but didn’t have to be. Ace Justin Verlander, making his first start since agreeing to the richest contract ever for a pitcher (seven years, $180 million), struck out seven over five scoreless innings. He schooled the promising young Hicks, striking him out his first three at-bats on three different out pitches — a change-up (swinging), fastball (looking), slider (swinging). Hicks fared better once Verlander left the game, grounding out and walking.
“I was too anxious trying to get that first hit,” Hicks said. “I just exposed myself. It was fun to get the knowledge and experience of facing him, so the next go-round I’ll be more prepared and know what he throws.”
At least Hicks came away with one special moment. Hunter, his favorite player growing up, waved him over during batting practice and chatted him up. The two had never met.
“He just said, ‘Hey, hey, c’mere,’ ” Hicks said. “It was fun to meet him and talk to him a little bit. The fact he had seen me play and had seen video of me feels good. To know that your favorite player actually notices you, it’s fun.”
Judging any season by the Opening Day can be perilous, but here’s what we know:
• The middle of the lineup is the same crew that struggled to score runs in 2012; thinking they will do better without a proven leadoff hitter seems wishful.
• General manager Terry Ryan’s pitching acquisitions offer some promise for 2014 and 2015, but the present rotation, with newcomers Worley, Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia, remains a big unknown.
• The Twins could be atrocious again, or serviceable.
• A lousy April and May may endanger Gardenhire’s job and render Target Field a ghost town in August.
We’ll see what happens. It shouldn’t be this cold for the next two games of the series, which probably means we’ve seen the last of the smoking infield.
“That was a first for me,” Parmelee said. “Them watering it and seeing that thing steam up — that was kind of fun.”