It is, after all, only one game. And as usual after the season opener, there are 161 games remaining.
But the horrendous 6-5 loss in 10 innings at Milwaukee on Thursday in the opener stood out a little more than usual because the Minnesota Twins, defending Central Division champs from the past two years, have been relegated by most experts to chasing the Chicago White Sox, almost everyone's favorite in the division this year.
It might not even have been such a noticeable loss except that it came because of defensive lapses, the part of the game the Twins have prided themselves on through the years. And the loss stung more than usual because the Twins took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, got an immediate out (10 straight by four relievers) and then had an 0-2 count on the second batter. It unraveled from there after new reliever Alex Colome hit that batter.
Colome fielded a ball hit back to the mound and, instead of taking an easy out at first, threw high to second and didn't get an out. There should have been two outs, with a runner at second. The next batter hit a fly to right and right fielder Max Kepler dropped it, jumping at the track when he didn't need to. He wasn't charged with an error but it was a ball that should have been caught. That play scored a run and a two-run double followed to tie the game.
Earlier in the game a dropped throw by the team's new shortstop signed to improve the defense, Andrelton Simmons, produced an unearned run. The Brewers had only one earned run. And the defensive miscues by Simmons, Colome and Kepler were all by veteran players who have a total of 25 years in the majors.
(It should be noted that the final Milwaukee run in the 10th inning is listed as unearned because it came after the inning began with a runner on second and no outs because of the ludicrous rule that says that's how extra-inning games are now going to be decided. It's a black mark on baseball to decide games that way, no matter that each team begins each extra inning with a runner on second. Yes, I'd consider myself a baseball purist and the rule stinks, as does the idea to play seven-inning games this year in doubleheaders.)
OK, we've got that all of that out of the way. Now let's get to the team's chances of defending its division title, the reason for this annual guess about how the team might fare, remembering that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.
Nearly all of the experts who have favored us with their picks have chosen the White Sox to win the division. Sports Illustrated has the Sox finishing at 94-68, two games ahead of the Twins but giving the Twins a wild card berth where they're predicted to beat Toronto and then lose — surprise, surprise — to the Yankees.
Three out of five for CBS Sports pick the White Sox to win the division. And among 100 MLB staffers, 71 pick the White Sox to win the division, even after the loss of Eloy Jiminez, one of Chicago's top hitters, to injury. Going way out on a limb, Dan Plesac of ESPN's baseball guys not only predicts the Twins to win the division but also to beat Atlanta in the World Series. Hmmm . . . In an ESPN poll 47 picked the Dodgers to win the World Series, 8 picked the White Sox and Plesac picked the Twins.
Baseball America picks the White Sox first in the division, the Twins second. USA Today voters went 5 for the Sox, 2 for the Twins. But Baseball Prospectus staffers voted 28 for the Twins, 13 for the White Sox, writer Jeff Euston picking in the Twins to win the World Series. Writer Steve Givaraz picked the Twins to win the Central but picked the White Sox, as a wild cad, to win the World Series. Hmmm . . .
The White Sox definitely have a group of good young players. And their pitching staff, at least at this time of the year, appears to be superior to the Twins. The Sox even let go of Colome, the ninth-inning pitcher for the Twins yesterday, after a 2-0 season in 2020 that included an ERA of 0.81. The Sox have a good closer in Liam Hendriks and their starting rotation appears to be better than the Twins.
I am wondering if the Twins will regret letting Eddie Rosario, a talented hitter and left fielder who didn't always do things the Twins Way, go the free-agent route. Many thought rookie Alex Kirilloff would replace Rosario but he had an unproductive spring and been shipped to the Triple A team in St. Paul for now. In fact, utility man Luis Arraez, a better infielder than he is an outfielder, opened in left for the opener but moved to third after Josh Donaldson was injured in the first inning. You may remember that Donaldson, with a big contract, did almost nothing for the Twins last year after being injured. He was handed a four-year contract for $92 million by the Twins prior to the 2020 season.
If Donaldson is healthy, the infield looks good with Simmons added at shortstop, Jorge Polanco moving to second and Miguel Sano at first. Byron Buxton (456-foot homer Thursday) and Max Kepler (three hits after a 3-for-43 spring) are set in center and right, with left field a question mark at this time. The catching position may be a bit unsettled as Mitch Garver and rookie Ryan Jeffers split time there. The hope is that designated hitter Nelson Cruz can produce one more good season at age 40-41.
I still think the rotation of starting pitchers is a question mark, although Kenta Maeda and Jose Berrios are somewhat proven. Michael Pineda, newcomers J. A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker and possibly Randy Dobnak round out a group that has some question marks. The bullpen is said to be improved but there are question marks there also about some recycled additions.
Another worry is that the Twins, although it was a shortened and thus unusual season, didn't hit in 2020 like they did in 2019 when the team went on a home run binge. Were some of those 2019 seasons a one-time thing or can we expect a return to those kind of stats in 2021? The spring training hitting slump is a bit worrisome but often those stats don't mean a thing once the season begins.
Looking back on my roster predictions of a couple weeks ago, I missed out on the left field position, predicting Kirilloff would be there instead of being sent to a minor league team. That was my only misstep but I'm still leery about the 2021 Twins. I was worried last year that the White Sox, with a mix of veterans and good young players, would finish ahead of the Twins but Minnesota did enough good things to repeat as division champs, although the team's now-almost-predictable playoff woes continued. So I'll put it this way: If — and it's a big if — the pitching staff comes through in a big way, the Twins can repeat. The White Sox, and pitching-rich Cleveland Indians, may have enough to make it a three-team race.
City of Princeton, Minnesota put imprint on all kinds of March Madness
March is tournament time for high schools and colleges, and while the NCAA basketball tournaments get the majority of media coverage, other athletes and other sports are also in the limelight. You could make a case for Princeton High School sophomore Tyler Wells leading the parade locally as he won his second straight state wrestling title two weekends ago. This past year he was also ranked third nationally at his weight. The PHS wrestling team, for the first time ever, qualified for the state tournament as a team . . . Other Mississippi 8 teams in state competition are the Becker girls basketball team (won in first round), the Chisago Lakes girls hockey team (lost in semifinals Thursday) and the Monticello boys basketball team (lost in first round) which surprised everyone with a section championship despite a record of 8-13, three of those wins coming in the section tournament. (Princeton beat Monticello by 20 and 16 points during the season) . . .There was a definite Princeton footprint on Channel 45's coverage of the boys state hockey tournament on Tuesday and Wednesday as Jim Erickson, formerly the sports guy at radio station WQPM in Princeton, was the play-by-play guy doing his usual outstanding job at the microphone. He was paired on Wednesday with Lou Nanne, the most knowledgable hockey guy (high school, college, pros) in the state and on Tuesday with Mark Parrish, former Bloomington, Minn., high school player, St. Cloud State player and NHL player for 11 seasons. Parrish also added some good insights. Erickson, in my mind, is the top play-by-play guy in the state and was great to have in Princeton, for all sports, when he was here . . . As Erickson was doing the Eden Prairie-St. Thomas Academy game Wednesday night he brought up an Eden Prairie game in 2011, mentioning that the call of that game was done by Clay Matvick. Meanwhile, on ESPN at the same time Erickson mentioned Matvick, Matvick was doing the play-by-play of the NCAA women's hockey championship game won by Wisconsin in overtime. Matvick, a 1991 PHS grad who got a degree at St. Cloud State, started his career in St. Cloud, has moved on to working nationally for ESPN and ABC, and is one of the few guys around who can do football, baseball, softball, basketball and hockey, his Minnesota background in hockey giving him an edge. You can see him all year around on national broadcasts . . . Last week as the NCAA hockey tournament was in progress, goals were scored by defenseman Nick Perbix for St. Cloud State and by forward Jack Perbix for Minnesota in first-round wins for each team. They are the sons of Lisa and Jay Perbix, a PHS grad who played his college hockey at Gustavus Adolphus College. Nick has been drafted by the NHL's Tampa Bay team and Jack has been drafted by Anaheim. They played high school hockey for Elk River . . . To continue the Minnesota connection, Mark Johnson is the coach of the Wisconsin women's hockey team and has now coached six NCAA title teams after the Badgers won Wednesday. A Minnesotan, you may remember him as a player at Wisconsin, a member of the 1980 U.S. team that won gold at the Olympics, and then a NHL player for many years . . . As Erickson and Nanne talked about Minnesota hockey Wednesday night, they brought up statistics that are very impressive. In the 16-team NCAA men's hockey tournament that is now down to the Frozen Four, there were 116 players from Minnesota on those rosters, 18 more than the total of players from the next four states combined. Remember when the state high school tournament went to two classes, some saying that was going to dilute the tournament? I think it's been the opposite. Those 118 players come from 54 Minnesota high schools, some of which didn't even have hockey 27 years ago when the two-class system was adopted. The level of play has gone up by leaps and bounds, as witnessed during this year's tournament, including the Dodge County-Hermantown game on Tuesday when Hermantown's Zam Plante played nearly 35 minutes as his team had to play with mostly JV players because of a COVID problem with a previous opponent. Plante put on quite a show playing as a forward and on defense. And Dodge County's Brody Lamb, headed to play at the University of Minnesota, scored six goals . . . Nationally in basketball, Hopkins product Paige Bueckers has been named the top women's player in the college ranks while playing for UConn, an honor never accorded a freshman. And Jalen Suggs from Minnehaha Academy is the starting point guard for unbeaten Gonzaga as it seeks the NCAA title this week. There are many in the country who think the No. 1 recruit in men's basketball is Chet Holmgren, also from Minnehaha Academy. Last year in the 68-team field for the men's tournament, there were more than 25 players from Minnesota on those rosters. Who would have thought that a few decades ago when Minnesota expanded to two basketball classes and then eventually to four?
PRINCETON SPORTS MEMORIES
April 19, 1951 - After the school board decided not to renew the contract of athletic director Vince Hunt two weeks earlier, 42 members of the local National Guard unit in training at Fort Rucker in Alabama during the Korean War signed a letter asking that Hunt be retained.
April 13, 1961 - Doris Strombeck had a 213 game in the Tuesday night women's league at Kenby Lames and Al Remus had a 627 series in the Wednesday night league at Princeton Recreation.
April 14, 1966 - Mankato State wrestling coach Rummy Macias was the speaker at the annual athletic banquet at South Elementary. About 160 athletes were honored.
April 14, 1971 - Princeton beat St. Francis 13-8 in the baseball season opener as Howie Solhieim pitched the win and got three hits . . . Princeton beat Milaca 84-57 in the track opener as Mark Blaske had three firsts and Steve Henchen had two.
April 14, 1976 - Gary Klym pitched a two-hitter in a 1-0 win over Mora in eight innings and Fred Jenson beat Foley 6-2 as Stu Remus hit a two-run double.
April 10, 1981 - Doug Burns ran a 4:29.3 1,600 meters in a meet at St. Francis a day after running a 9:42.7 3,000 meters indoors. Jim Michael won the 400 and 800 at the St. Francis meet.
April 10, 1986 - Mack Savage drove in three runs and Bryan Hoff, Chris Klinghagen and Jeff Murray each drove in two in a 12-7 win over Alexandria at the Metrodome . . . Former PHS pitcher Tim Vagle got the win in relief for Itasca Community College (Grand Rapids, Minn.) in a win over an Illinois school at the Metrodome.
April 11, 1991 - The season was about to open on the 35th year of racing at Princeton Speedway . . . Rachel Brown got the win in relief as the PHS softball team beat St. Michael-Albertville 6-5.
April 11, 1996 - Dan Engblom of Princeton ran in and completed the 100th Boston Marathon. His time was 3:06.
April 5, 2001 - David Myers (15.5 points. 7.5 rebounds) and Eric Standberg (9.4 points, 10.5 rebounds) were all-conference in basketball. Both played on an AAU team made up of Rum River Conference players that won a tournament at Centennial in April.
April 13, 2006 - The PHS baseball team opened the season with a 7-1 loss to Monticello in the first-ever Mississippi 8 baseball game and then lost 1-0 to Duluth East on a Saturday but beat Duluth Denfeld 7-3 later that day as Zach Neubauer pitched six innings for the win and Scott Roehl got three hits . . . In the first-ever Mississippi 8 softball game for PHS Amber Hein struck out 12 in a 5-2 win over Monticello. The team then lost 12-0 to Duluth East and 8-1 to Duluth Denfeld.
April 14, 2011 - Maddy Wood won the 400-meter dash and Jadyn Bonasera the shot put in a triangular track meet with Monticello and Buffalo . . The softball team lost 7-6 to Monticello as Katelyn Vickers had four hits.
April 14, 2016 - In a Mississippi 8 indoor meet at Monticello Larkin Walter won the 55-meter dash for Princeton and Reilee Schepper had a second, a third and two fifths . . . Jack Southard shot an 83 to lead PHS golfers at an invitational in Monticello
(Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years), and has written about sports in the area for the past 54 years.)