MILWAUKEE — In preparation for Byron Buxton’s eventual return, the Twins said Wednesday they expect to occasionally move rookies Edouard Julien and Royce Lewis around the infield. Julien made a brief appearance at first base late in Tuesday’s loss and Lewis — who homered in Wednesday’s 8-7, 10-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers — could occasionally fill in for shortstop Carlos Correa down the stretch.
Though these measures aren’t quite as jarring as piggybacking starting pitchers or employing a six-man rotation, the sight of Julien anywhere on the field other than second base was unusual. Meanwhile, Lewis has only appeared at shortstop for one inning in the majors this season along with five games in the minors.
But when Buxton is ready to play once again, the Twins must free up at-bats at designated hitter for the 2022 All-Star. While the Twins would love for Buxton to play in center field if he can, the expectation is that would begin on a limited basis, meaning he spends more time at DH. With that in mind, manager Rocco Baldelli is looking for ways to optimize playing time for his roster.
“The competition for at-bats is elite,” Lewis said. “We have so many guys that easily could be starting everyday players for a lot of other teams. I don’t take it for granted that I get to play a ton and I appreciate it. And I think that, to have Rocco’s support especially playing short, third, wherever it may be, I just know that I have his full support and he’s got my back.”
Earlier this month in St. Louis, Julien began taking ground balls at first base. At the time, Buxton was on the active roster and the Twins were considering a way to keep Julien’s bat in the lineup. Hitting .290/.384/.481 with 10 home runs and 22 RBIs, Julien has been a catalyst for the Twins, particularly since the offense awoke from its slumber after the All-Star break.
After Buxton was placed on the injured list on Aug. 4 with a right hamstring strain, the idea temporarily was shelved. Still, Julien worked with assistant coach/infield coach Tony Diaz several times to take grounders in case the scenario arrived.
Late in Tuesday’s blown loss, it did.
“It’s kind of the similar work every day that I do,” Julien said. “The glove is just bigger, but you’ve got to receive the ball at first base. The ground ball aspect is the same thing. … I feel pretty comfortable. I’m going to need a couple games to get acclimated, but I feel pretty good. I don’t think it’s the hardest position. I say that now and I’ll probably regret it, but hopefully I’m going to get comfortable there pretty easily.”
The Twins simply need to find ways to keep the bats of Julien, Jorge Polanco and Lewis in the order as often as possible, especially with Alex Kirilloff on the IL with a right shoulder strain. Whereas the offense struggled consistently before the All-Star break, the Twins have been hitting over the past five weeks. Since returning on July 14, the Twins have scored 180 runs in 36 contests, an average of five per game.
While Julien would never approach the same level of defense as Joey Gallo, his constant presence on the bases and working counts is far superior to the veteran.
“We’re gonna have to find different ways to put a lineup together, especially once Buck comes back off the IL,” Baldelli said. “On those days, when Buck’s in the lineup, we’re not going to be able to play Eddie and Polo and Royce in the lineup at the same time. So, finding ways to do that is part of our job right now.”
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The plan for Lewis — who is hitting .311/.349/.467 with five homers — calls for him to take ground balls at shortstop on a part-time basis. Lewis would only take grounders on the days when he’s either out of the lineup or is the team’s designated hitter.
Given he’s spent most of his time at third base, Lewis appreciates he’s been asked to focus entirely on that position during pregame work. Lewis said sticking to working at third is helping him rediscover comfort at the position. But he also is excited about the possibility of stepping in at short for Correa, who continues to play despite dealing with plantar fasciitis, a condition he admitted earlier this month makes him “slow as f—.”
If asked, Lewis said he has no issues filling in for Correa.
“Just to still have it in the bag and to continue to work on it because in the future, you never know if Carlos needs a day,” Lewis said. “With all the guys we have, versatility, it makes sense. And at first, to be honest, I was a little shocked I wasn’t doing that already beforehand. The fact that they told me third honestly made my life easier because then I just focused on third. But now mixing in a day or two to take some grounders at short, especially on days where I’m off … it’ll be good for me just to keep my mind versatile and to know that I can still do it.”
When Buxton will return isn’t certain, though being activated after rosters expand on Sept. 1 makes more sense. The Twins previously said Buxton would first play on a rehab assignment before he rejoins the team. Thus far, no start date for Buxton’s assignment has been announced.
Bullpen struggles again in walk-off loss to Brewers
Playing in the third-hottest game in the history of American Family Field, the Twins jumped all over former National League Cy Young winner and three-time All-Star Corbin Burnes for six runs on Wednesday afternoon. Lewis, Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Farmer each homered and Correa had a sac fly as the Twins built a three-run lead through 5 1/2 innings against Burnes.
But once Kenta Maeda exited his start after five innings, the Twins fell apart. Starting with Emilio Pagán yielding a two-run homer to Willy Adames in the sixth inning, Twins relievers surrendered five runs (three earned) in 4 2/3 innings. Caleb Thielbar allowed a solo homer to Tyrone Taylor in the seventh inning and Jhoan Duran gave up two unearned runs in the bottom of the 10th inning, losing on a walk-off infield single by Brice Turang.
Maeda recovered nicely after struggling early as humid conditions led to an abundance of sweat and little grip on the baseball. The pitcher said he changed his jersey three separate times as the temperature at first pitch registered 97 degrees Fahrenheit and climbed to 100 with a 116-degree heat index.
Maeda needed 92 pitches to complete five innings, striking out six while allowing two runs and four hits.
Though he required at least four innings from his bullpen, Baldelli felt good about his team’s positioning as all his relievers were rested.
“At that point, you feel like it’s your game,” Baldelli said. “It’s your game to win, and apparently your game to lose, as well.”
Even though the Brewers’ stadium features a retractable roof, it wasn’t equipped with air conditioning when it was built earlier this century. Rather than close the dome entirely, the teams agreed to play with one half covered to allow for fresh air.
“This is probably the worst heat game I’ve played in the big leagues, for sure,” Lewis said. “It felt like 200. It felt like we all jumped in a pool and then went to go play a game.”
(Photo of Royce Lewis: David Berding / Getty Images)