By late Sunday morning, the Twins still hadn’t decided whether one of the most popular members of their squad would travel to New York for Tuesday’s American League wild card playoff game.
Miguel Sanó? No, that seemed assured, even with Sanó running half-speed on a sore left shin. But Caballito, the cute brown-and-white stuffed horse infielder Eduardo Escobar keeps in his locker? That needed to be determined.
Escobar’s nickname, Caballo, is Spanish for horse. (He’s Venezuelan.) When U.S. Immigration officials approved Escobar’s green card application May 30 in Miami, Brian Dozier, who occupies the next locker at Target Field, dispatched a clubhouse attendant to buy a stuffed horse as a gift. The clubbie came back with one big enough for a toddler to sit on. Delighted, Escobar named it Caballito, or Little Horse.
“All the boys come and touch him for good luck,” Escobar said through translator Carlos Font. “It became a thing for us.”
Teammates outfitted Caballito with a novelty Twins cap and casual footwear, and Escobar changes the shoes every day. Sunday’s choice: Golf shoes. If the clubhouse energy needs a boost, Dozier leaves it coffee or a Red Bull. In August, someone added a purple Minnesota State Fair ribbon.
“That was spearheaded by Dozier, but then we all kind of put together a few things that would be fun for him to be enlightened by as an American citizen,” said closer Matt Belisle. “Those two are like brothers. They’ve gone back for awhile now. They have a blast.”
Since Caballito took up residence in the clubhouse, Escobar’s hitting took off. He batted .354 in June, then tailed off for two months before re-emerging in September, slugging nine homers with 25 RBI filling in for the injured Sano at third base.
Caballito hasn’t gone on the road with the Twins because no one wants to lug around a big stuffed animal. But Sunday, Escobar seriously considered taking Caballito to New York, where the Twins haven’t exactly had the greatest luck. Ultimately, he left it behind.
“We know Caballito is watching,” Dozier said.
A difficult history
Curiously, the Twins — the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games one season and make the playoffs the next — approach this playoff visit to Yankee Stadium with much less anxiety and trepidation than previous postseason trips. Whether that produces a better result remains to be seen.
Most Twins fans are sick of the numbers, but here they are: Since 2002, including postseason, the Twins are 33-90 against the Yankees overall and 14-46 at the former and present Yankee Stadiums. Twelve losses, the last nine straight, and just two victories came in well-documented AL Division Series defeats in 2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10. All, it should be noted, came against superior, veteran Yankee teams, included the 2009 world champions.
The first of those 46 losses in the Bronx — Jason Giambi’s 14th inning grand slam in the rain off Mike Trombley, after the Twins had taken a 3-run lead in the top of the inning — established a pattern of Twins relievers failing in big situations. Juan Rincón blowing a four-run lead in the eighth inning of 2004 Division Series Game 4, with Rubén Sierra’s three-run homer the key blow, prompted his famous mangled line, “No one wants to be in my pants right now.”
When Joe Nathan returned last month to sign his one-day contract and retire as a Twin, he was asked if there he could have one pitch back in his career. “Just one?” he asked. Always thoughtful and reflective, Nathan named two, the first from another painful 2004 ALDS loss.
The Twins had won Game 1 and led Game 2, 6-5, in the 12th. Nathan, in his third inning of work, walked No. 9 hitter Miguel Cairo on a 3-1 pitch with one out. That irked Nathan because Cairo wasn’t much of a threat and it brought up someone who was, Derek Jeter, who walked on four pitches. Cairo and Jeter scored in a crushing 7-6 loss. Nathan’s other choice you can probably guess: Alex Rodriguez’s game-tying two-run homer in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.
Former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, never one to mask his emotions, tensed and turned defensive whenever reporters brought up the Yankees. That trickled down to the clubhouse. By the 2010 ALDS, even Gardenhire’s wife Carol was tired of hearing about it.
Paul Molitor, Gardenhire’s successor, rarely let his emotions overwhelm him as a Hall of Fame player. He’s no different as a manager. Molitor handled the obligatory Yankee question Friday without a hint of discomfort. He trusts the veterans in his clubhouse — Joe Mauer, Belisle, Ervin Santana, catchers Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez — to keep the inexperienced ones calm and focused, as they have all season.
“I think there will be some people that try to conjure up every Yankee fact that ever existed, Twins-Yankees postseason, all those type of things,” he said. “But I think between the players that have been around and experienced some of these things, myself, and the coaches, the more we can instill in these guys confidence, that there’s no reason to think they can’t go in there and win the game. There’s no reason I can see. History excluded, I think we match up actually pretty well. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Anybody can win one game
Book this: Yankee fans expect a walkover. The game probably won’t sell out; the Yankees expect around 40,000, well short of capacity, as fans save their money for later rounds. Twins backup outfielder Zack Granite, the Staten Island, N.Y., product, said no one outside his immediate family asked him for tickets, which surprised him. He fielded about 30 requests for the series in September.
Throughout the clubhouse, the anybody-can-win-one-game vibe carried the day. No one appeared intimidated by the task awaiting them, though the honest ones conceded the obvious: The Twins better be ahead before Yankees manager Joe Girardi turns to power relievers David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.
Mauer is the only active Twin to have faced the Yankees in postseason. Santana, Tuesday’s announced starter, pitched decently in a September 18 loss at Yankee Stadium, allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings. But that left him 0-5 there in his career with a 6.43 ERA. And two relievers the Twins leaned on down the stretch, Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz, are rookies.
Then again, Yankees starter Luis Severino, 23, just finished his first full major-league season and will make his playoff debut. Yankee sluggers Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are new to this, too. No more Jeter or ARod or Hideki Matsui to break anyone’s heart.
“If it was still the same, if we had guys who were here that were there, then it’s a different conversation,” Dozier said. “The way this team goes, we don’t really care who’s in front of us, what we’ve got to accomplish, anything. We just play. That’s the fun part.”
Outfield coach Jeff Pickler said veterans like Belisle and Hector Santiago showed younger Twins not only different ways to win, but how to handle losing and failure. Understanding the latter kept the inevitable losing streaks from turning into catastrophes. So after the sweep in New York, the Twins bounced back to win five straight and ultimately clinch the second wild card. All season, the Twins never lost more than four straight.
Molitor likes his team’s offensive balance: Four players with 20 or more homers, and five with 70 or more RBI. One of those is Sano, may be limited to pinch-hitting. (Max Kepler, with 19 homers and 69 RBI, just missed.) Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco have been particularly productive since Aug. 1; third base coach Gene Glynn compared it to “getting three bats at the trade deadline.”
The way this improbable season has gone, the hero might be the horse. And not the stuffed one.