October 5, 2022

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Correa leading the way to Twins' stellar fielding

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MINNEAPOLIS — Defense is sometimes an underappreciated part of baseball in this age of shifts, strikeouts and three true outcomes — but you don’t even need to go all too far back to find how that element of the game has had a significant impact on the Twins in big moments.

Consider, for example, Game 1 of the 2020 Wild Card Series between the Astros and Twins. The teams were tied, 1-1, in the ninth inning before a botched routine play on a force attempt by then-shortstop Jorge Polanco opened the floodgates to a three-run rally for Houston. Last Opening Day, a ninth-inning error led to a blown save for Alex Colomé, the start of his early-season collapse from the closer’s role.

No more of that. Carlos Correa is here to demand nothing short of perfection — and the shortstop has led by example, starting with two diving plays and a perfect relay throw home in his first three games alone.

“The one thing that I’d like for you to point out is the defense,” Correa said. “Defense has been solid the first three days. We lost two close games early because we didn’t hit, but when the defense is that solid and you can maintain that, you’re going to have great results at the end of the day. You saw today that defense can win ballgames.”

On Monday, Correa was presented with his Gold Glove Award and Platinum Glove Award in a pregame ceremony, a day after an eye-popping play that left little doubt about his early-season form for 2022.

In the first inning of an eventual 10-4 win over the Mariners, Mitch Haniger drove a line drive into the left-center field gap with two outs, cut off by Alex Kirilloff before it hit the warning track. Kirilloff’s throw hit Correa, the cutoff man, who made a lightning-quick exchange — measured by Statcast at 0.7 seconds — and nailed an 88.7 mph strike home to cut down Jesse Winker.

A matter of minutes later, Byron Buxton crushed a leadoff homer to put the Twins on top — and the club was seemingly feeding off the energy from that play.

“[Correa] made a great throw, and that’s what it takes to win the close ballgames — you have to have those plays like that to get you through,” Buxton said. “Defensively, that’s right up my alley. So that got me going.”

Those are the kinds of plays that can make the difference in tight games, particularly in the playoffs, where Correa and these Twins hope to be, come October. Or even in the regular season, too — as was the case on Sunday, when the Twins took advantage of an error by Adam Frazier at second base with Gary Sánchez’s two-out grand slam.

This might be another one of the better defensive alignments the Twins have fielded in some time. Polanco is at home at second base, where he was a more effective defender in ’21 (minus-4 outs above average) than he was at shortstop in ’19 (minus-22). Gio Urshela is a solid defender at third, and Miguel Sanó continues to improve at first.

And then, there are the two Platinum Glove fielders up the middle in Correa and Buxton. Correa has already provided two highlight-reel diving plays on grounders and a leaping snag of a line drive in addition to that relay throw.

Even if others don’t have that big-play ability, Correa knows sound defense can carry them a long way — though it won’t always be smooth, as the Twins showed with three errors in Monday’s series finale against Seattle.

That’s why he’s pushed his teammates to ratchet up the intensity of infield drills before games, taking special pride when they’re particularly crisp, fast-paced and productive. He’s introduced a fun “game,” he calls it, where any infielder who misses a ground ball or makes a bad throw in practice needs to get on the dirt and give his teammates five push-ups.

“He mentioned that if we take infields like that, we’re going to be the best defensive team in the league, and we believe that,” Polanco said.

Those sorts of plays haven’t necessarily made a difference in a tight win yet, but Correa knows those are coming. He’s been on those winning teams, in those winning situations — and in his mind, this is what it takes.

“During practice, that’s why I always throw with intent,” Correa said. “Those plays can change the course of a game, especially late in the game. So for me, getting those outs is really important.”

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