Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, the former Twins manager and player, had a great view of Wednesday’s Carlos Correa/Sonny Gray pickoff play from his seat just below the Target Field radio and television booths. Only Molitor’s focus was elsewhere.
Like almost everyone else in the announced sellout crowd of 38,518, Molitor wondered what pitch Gray might throw Toronto batter Bo Bichette with a full count and the tying runs in scoring position in a 2-0 game. So when Gray wheeled and fired to Correa covering at second, nailing runner Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to end the fifth inning, the savvy Molitor was surprised — which, of course, is why the play worked.
“I was caught off guard,” Molitor said in a telephone interview the next day. “But when I thought about it, Correa’s instinct, knowing Gray was in the game and he could trust him in that situation, it made perfect sense. I was thinking about the batter … would Gray go after him, or walk him, go and get the next guy. Then, boom.”
Championship players make championship plays. Correa will always be associated with the sign-stealing 2017-18 Astros, something he’s accepted and addresses whenever the topic comes up. But Correa is also one of the game’s smartest players, worth every dollar of the six-year, $200 million contract he accepted from the Twins last winter after the Giants and Mets backed away from more lucrative deals.
Correa gives the Twins something they haven’t had, frankly, since Molitor managed: someone who anticipates and sees things other players and managers don’t. The Twins ended their North American sports record 18-game postseason losing streak in this week’s AL Wild Card Series in large part because of Correa’s savvy, as much as their pitching and sensational rookie Royce Lewis’ two Game 1 homers.
In Game 1, Correa saved a run by running down a fourth-inning grounder that slipped under third baseman Jorge Polanco’s glove and firing on the move to catch Bichette trying to score. The Game 2 pickoff play, identical to one he and Gray collaborated on in Tampa Bay on Sept. 12, brought the crowd to its feet.
“That was another example of how a good shortstop can impact a game, and a season,” said Roy Smalley, the former Twins shortstop and part-time TV analyst for Bally Sports North who watched both games from home. “He’s been doing that for two years now. He’s a guy I love to watch play.
“What was special about that was his awareness of Guerrero not particularly paying attention, not thinking he could be picked off in that situation. That’s the kind of play that changes outcomes.”
Correa said after the top of the first inning, he mentioned to Gray that Toronto runners were taking big leads, and the crowd was so loud runners at second couldn’t hear third base coach Luis Rivera yelling “Back!” on pickoff attempts. “I told him there were some free outs on the bases,” Correa said. So in the fifth, Correa gave a sign to catcher Ryan Jeffers to put on the pickoff play.
Jeffers, like most catchers, wears a device known as Pitch Com that sends messages to an earpiece worn by the pitcher. Gray said he heard Timing Pick, Second Base. That meant counting to three, wheeling and throwing.
“In a moment no one expected it,” Gray said.
Said Molitor: “This hasn’t been talked about a lot, but that play took courage in that situation. You’re one pitch away from getting off the field. A blind throw like that, there’s at least some chance you might hit the runner, though it’s not very likely Guerrero could score because he’s diving back.
“I’ve never seen a play like that, a backdoor play in that situation in a postseason game.”
Smalley was equally amazed by Correa’s hustle in Game 1 on a painful left foot (he’s battled plantar fasciitis for months). On X (formerly Twitter), Smalley compared the distance Correa ran to Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter’s “flip” play in the 2001 AL Division Series, when Jeter raced into first base foul territory to retrieve a wild throw and nab Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate.
“Nobody makes that throw, sprinting close to 90 feet, continuing your momentum toward the foul line, and making that throw with accuracy and velocity,” Smalley said of Correa.
“It was a smart play by Bichette. He should have been safe. I’m not stunned that often at a baseball game, but I was absolutely stunned. It’s one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.”
After almost two decades of teams making plays like these against the Twins in the postseason — mostly by the Yankees — a few finally went their way. They’ll need more this weekend when the AL Division Series opens in Houston.