The Twins actually won in extras, thanks to Kyle Garlick's improbable homer (free post)

Kyle Garlick vs. Cleveland strikeout artist James Karinchak was the matchup of the day on an afternoon filled with drama, and Minnesota's first win in extra innings (1-8).

The Twins pulled three important tricks with one fine performance Sunday: 1) They won their first game in extra innings with an 8-5 win in Cleveland; 2) They proved to the world that James Karinchak is human; and 3) most importantly, having lost 10 of their previous 11 series entering play Sunday (with one result pending thanks to a rainy-day reschedule with Detroit in July), the Twins won a series. 

One series at a time, I always say. 

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1 - Kyle Garlick and the new biggest hit of the season 

Let’s start right there, with the hit that produced the series win. Oh sure, there were moments before and after that one that will deserve attention in their own time. This one needs to be circled, though, because I believe that Garlick’s 3-run home run in extra innings Sunday is the biggest hit of the season for the Twins to date. 

Earlier that morning, the team’s president of baseball ops, Derek Falvey, was being asked about the likelihood that the team would be sellers ahead of the July trade deadline -- a point he didn’t refute but also didn’t confirm. Later on that same afternoon, the Twins refused to blow a late lead and fold to a strong bullpen. They refused to lose another one in extra innings, and specifically, Garlick refused to be defined as a guy who can only mash lefties and has no hope in the world against a dominant strikeout artist like Cleveland’s righty ace reliever James Karinchak. 

It was a significant moment. And improbable, too:

a) A year ago at this time -- well, like every Major Leaguer, Kyle Garlick was not playing. More to the point, a season ago he was up and down between the Phillies’ bench and the team’s alternate site during the shortened season. He played in a dozen games and didn’t hit much and was made available in the winter for a team like the Twins to scoop him up (but only after he’d been claimed once and waived by the Braves in the offseason). About a month before the sports world had shut down last year over COVID-19 concerns, Garlick was traded from the Dodgers to the Phillies, making the Twins his fourth organization in the space of about a year. 

b) Garlick was in the game because Max Kepler -- who had the other big hit on the day, a 3-run homer to give the Twins their first lead -- was forced to leave the game with an apparent leg injury or discomfort after his 7th inning lineout to the outfield. He appeared to be hobbled while jogging to first base, so the Twins made the switch. Without knowing exactly what manager Rocco Baldelli is thinking at all times, I think I can say with confidence that the swap certainly was not to hunt a right-handed strikeout artist matchup for the right-handed hitting Garlick (39% strikeout rate in a limited sample vs. righties this year). 

c) To that last point, James Karinchak has been filthy this year. In 20 ⅔ innings, he had 38 strikeouts entering play Sunday -- all told a 51% punch-out percentage. He’d faced 31 righties this year and surrendered two (2) hits. How about this for his career against righties? In 100 plate appearances: 11 hits, 46 strikeouts. His fastball averages 96 mph. And his heater rates statistically as one of the best put-away pitches in the big leagues with two strikes. Entering Sunday he had gone into battle with 205 hitters and only 2 of them took him deep. Now you can add Garlick’s name to the list (Hunter Dozier and Keston Hiura were the other two). Video here if you haven’t seen it already.

d) Ball 1 in the matchup was a high fastball -- close but high, and Garlick took it. Strike 1 was a fastball up but in the zone. Balls 2 and 3 were heaters that missed the zone, but particularly Ball 3 was close enough that Garlick might have tried to swing for it; he didn’t and instead found himself in a favorable count 3-1, rather than trailing and just hoping to hang on with 2 strikes. He was swinging on 3-1 and he absolutely let loose on a fastball but didn’t make contact. Some would argue for taking a pitch against a hurler with such a penchant for whiffs. I say you’ve gotta love the aggressiveness with a runner in scoring position and all of the factors that I just mentioned working against Garlick in that plate appearance. 

It turned out he would get three swings at fastballs and the third one was a beauty, 109 miles an hour off the bat, which I believe is the new hardest hit ball of his career, according to Statcast data. Gravity finally pulled the ball back to the ground after 442 feet. 

e) Garlick’s at-bat was great, and also worth noting that it was preceded by Josh Donaldson getting a tough-earned walk. Donaldson fell behind in the count 1-2 after a curveball he wasn’t looking for found its way into the strike zone. Then consecutive curves missed low, high and low again with Donaldson refusing to offer. He worked the walk to add another runner to the bases in addition to the ghostie runner that Rob Manfred added for some reason in extra innings. 

More tomorrow in our regularly scheduled 5 Thoughts column for members. For tonight, breath easier, Twins fans. And thanks to each of you who have already supported this column.