MINNEAPOLIS — The start Carlos Martinez waited 729 days to make and spent months proving he should earn was over before he could get a dozen outs.
Two days shy of the two-year anniversary of Martinez’s last start in the majors, the Minnesota Twins greeted him with a power-stacked lineup that turned one runaway inning into an early lead the Cardinals could not overcome in a 6-3 loss at Target Field. The Twins, baseball’s “Bomba Squad,” hit two home runs — the first punctuated a five-run second inning and the second came on Martinez’s final pitch of his 3 2/3 innings.
Around the trouble, when he was around the strike zone and not in the meat of it, Martinez was the effective, even frenetic pitcher the Cardinals now need even more.
“Look, you can spin it a lot of different ways, right?” manager Mike Shildt said. “You can look at it and say that a good hitting club made him pay for some mistakes. And then you can also easily say, you know what, the guy got better as the game went. Carlos is going to be fine. That’s probably my wrapup point to it. I’m not concerned about Carlos.”
• BOX SCORE: Twins 6, Cardinals 3
• STANDINGS: Cubs on top early in NL Central
Martinez’s return to the rotation came on the same day the starters encountered their first turbulence of the shortened season. Within a week of the Cardinals having enough starters to shift two rising performers, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber, to the bullpen and name Kwang Hyun Kim the closer, Miles Mikolas went on the injured list with a season-ending forearm injury.
A two-time All-Star in the role of starter, Martinez’s presence in the rotation was always noteworthy because he edged Kim for the role and moved out of the bullpen, and now it has new gravity because of the innings and mid-rotation steadiness Mikolas can deliver.
Since his most recent start — on July 30, 2018 — Martinez has had shoulder trouble that left him groping for his velocity and day-to-day strength and ultimately planted him at closer. For the start that he chased, that he worked away from the ballpark to command, he drew one of the most thunderous lineups in baseball. The Twins set a major-league record with 307 home runs last season, and to that sock-hop lineup they added former MVP Josh Donaldson. The lineup is so coiled with muscle that Miguel Sano, who had 34 homers and a .923 OPS last season, batted eighth Tuesday. He loomed as the second hitter of the second inning as it skittered away from Martinez (0-1).
Sano doubled down the third-base line, and that moved Luis Arraez to third. The inning shifted under Martinez’s feet. Byron Buxton hit a hard groundball that brought shortstop Paul DeJong in with time he thought he had to get the out at home.
Arraez arrived safe for a 1-0 lead.
A single and a sacrifice fly would put the Twins ahead 3-0, and then Jorge Polanco, an ascending star in the AL, connected on a 91-mph fastball for a two-run homer. Martinez pitched a perfect third. In the fourth, Donaldson connected for a solo homer on Martinez’s 73rd and final pitch. It came on a 91-mph fastball. The Twins led, 6-0.
“The two-seamer was not working a lot. It wasn’t good,” Martinez said. “I was hurt on my four-seamer sometimes. I don’t know what was the error. I was in focus and attacked the zone early. I don’t know if they knew what was coming.”
After the five-run second, the only Twin to reach base was Donaldson. The Cardinals bullpen, led by Gomber into the game, pitched a perfect 4 1/3 innings to give the offense a chance to animate. Tyler O’Neill tagged a two-run homer, and Tommy Edman hit a solo homer to center field off Buxton’s glove for all of the Cardinals runs.
O’Neill’s homer came off Twins starter Homer Bailey, a familiar foe for the Cardinals from his days as the Reds’ star-crossed ace. In 28 starts, nearly a season, against the Cardinals he had a 5.80 ERA.
“I’m going to enjoy this one a lot,” Bailey said of his sixth career win vs. the Cardinals. “It’s been a long time coming. Sometimes you don’t look at history because it doesn’t really play in the present.”
Tuesday’s game was the latest but not the hottest home opener for the Minnesota Twins — missed that by 7 degrees, 89 in 1980 vs. 82 on Tuesday — but the pregame festivities balanced deftly the ceremonial with the memorial.
A banner stretched across a balcony over left field read, “Always Remembered: In Memory of COVID Victims.” A lengthy montage of photos went through members of the baseball and Twins family that have died in recent months, and toward the end there was a memorial for George Floyd, the African-American man who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck. His death, and the protests that followed, happened a 15 minute drive from Target Field.
There was a flyover after the anthem, and during it eight members of the Twins, including manager Rocco Baldelli, took a knee.
At 8:46 local time, the game stopped in the middle of the fifth inning with Austin Gomber on the mound. The public address announcer asked for a moment of silence to remember Floyd, and the Cardinals on the field pulled their hats to their hearts. The time was chosen because 8 minutes, 46 seconds is how long Floyd had the officer’s knee on his neck.
The Twins game management moved respectfully from moments of somber reflection — made all the more so by the empty seats surrounding the game — to the videos of celebration for the team’s 60th season in the Twin Cities.
They also greeted the Cardinals with some 2020 gamesmanship.
Ballparks, like Busch Stadium, are using prerecorded crowd noise to fill the air because fans cannot. The Twins gave it a twist. It started during BP. The soundtrack for the Cardinals batting practice was all mellow tunes. There was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and then Boyz II Men’s ballad “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” Celine Dion’s torch song from “Titantic” was cut short, but Madonna’s balcony-belter from “Evita” kept going and going and going. “Don’t cry for me Argentina,” filled the ballpark as Harrison Bader took BP. Air Supply accompanied a pitching change later in the game.
“You learn to tune it out over the course of the game,” Edman said.
In the top of each inning, the Twins let the ballpark speak for itself by giving the Cardinals a stillness when they hit. Faux cheers swelled for outs. The murmuring, rumbling, energy of the crowd and the guitar licks of louder music came during the bottom of the inning, as the Twins hit.
They didn’t have any trouble making their own noise.
The lineup Martinez readied to face averaged nine runs a game in its opening series and entered Tuesday with a .838 OPS. Martinez had an adventurous, active first inning. He had a single go off his glove. He committed an error. He was in foul territory for a popup on the third-base side, and also there to back up Paul Goldschmidt for a popup on the first base side. The Twins got one ball out of the infield, and yet Martinez had to pitch around the bases being loaded to finish the inning without allowing a run. He couldn’t pull off the same trick twice.