Minneapolis — Physical errors happen. Baseball is a hard game played by imperfect human beings.
Mental mistakes, as any manager will tell you, shouldn’t happen. They are mostly inexcusable and unacceptable.
Sometimes they are almost inexplicable.
Javier Báez is a Gold Glove-winning shortstop. He’s good for a couple highlight-worthy plays a week. But in the second inning of the Tigers’ 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins Tuesday night, he had a brain cramp that contributed to the first run of the game.
Max Kepler was on first base with two outs. Everybody in the ballpark knew that he would be running on the 3-2 pitch to Gio Urshela. Still, after Urshela looped a single to shallow left field, Báez pointed for left fielder Willi Castro to throw the ball to second base.
“We called it too early and they sent him home,” Báez said. “He just had a good jump and it took a little bit for Castro to get to the ball because he was playing over and it was soft contact. And they just kept sending him.”
Normally, throwing to second would be the play. You want to split the runners and not let Urshela get to second. But Kepler was running on the pitch and was about to round third when Báez motioned for Castro to throw to second.
“We didn’t see that, didn’t expect him to be that close to third base,” Báez said.
Kepler scored relatively easy and the Tigers, who continue to struggle offensively, were once again tasked with digging out of an early hole.
The Twins scored another runner from first base in the third inning. This time Luis Arraez came all the way around on a double into the left-field corner by Carlos Correa. Castro appeared to have some difficulty picking the ball up off the carom.
Tigers starter Beau Brieske needed 90 pitches to get through four innings. But despite allowing six hits and a walk, the deficit was only two runs.
“Brieske had to work, but he ended up getting a big out at the end,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He was able to complete his outing and he did give us a chance because he hung in there.”
Credit center fielder Derek Hill for that last out in the fourth, a run-saving out.
With Urshela on third and one out, Ryan Jeffers hit a line drive to center. Hill charged, caught it and without breaking his momentum, threw a 92-mph strike to home plate to nail Urshela.
“The reaction to the ball and getting behind the throw — he positioned himself well,” Hinch said. “A lot of fundamental things went right. That was a big out, keeping them off the scoreboard with us having as tough a time as we were having offensively.”
The two runs, though, ended up being one more than Twins veteran right-hander Sonny Gray needed.
“Sonny was Sonny,” said Tucker Barnhart, who caught Gray the last three seasons in Cincinnati. “When he’s on like that, he’s tough to hit.”
Gray put on a clinic in pitch sequencing. He kept the Tigers off balance for seven innings by expertly commanding and mixing his five-pitch arsenal.
“We didn’t react to his spin and we didn’t respond to his fastball,” Hinch said. “He had his way with us.”
He struck out 10 and got 13 swings and misses and 22 called strikes. The Tigers managed four hits, two by Jonathan Schoop, and put only two runners in scoring position against him.
“We had a chance to win in the ninth,” Barnhart said. “I know I sound like a broken record saying it, but that’s what you want — a chance to win the game. We just didn’t get it done tonight.”
The bullpen covered four scoreless innings. Jason Foley worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. Jacob Barnes worked a scoreless sixth and Michael Fulmer, in his first action since last Wednesday, struck out the side in the seventh.
Drew Carlton pitched a clean eighth.
The Tigers did put two runners on against closer Jhoan Duran in the top of the ninth. Duran, firing 102-mph seeds, gave up a leadoff single to Miguel Cabrera and hit Jeimer Candelario with a two-strike pitch with one out.
But Castro hit into a double play to end the game.
“It sucks losing,” Barnhart said. “It’s tough coming out on the wrong end of these things. But we have a lot of games left and I have a lot of confidence in this team and in this clubhouse.
“Stay the course.”