By Tom Powers, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Aug. 20–TOM POWERS
When Danny Valencia arrived from the minors in early June, he apparently was carrying a horseshoe, a four-leaf clover and a lucky charm. He was raw and he was impressionable and he was as lucky as they come.
During his first few weeks with the Twins, Valencia established himself as the King of the Bloops. Plink, plank, plunk — he was dunking little hits all over the field. He played sparingly at the start, but even so he always seemed to thread a ground ball through to the outfield or plop a flare just out of everyone’s reach.
The result was an average that looked mighty impressive, even if the hits weren’t.
“It’s nice to be lucky,” Valencia said with a laugh. “It gives you peace of mind. At least you’re getting your hits in.”
This went on for some time. Then Valencia stepped up to the plate one day and began driving the ball. The bloops have been replaced by hard shots, many of which wind up in the gap. And the batting average, already near the .300 mark, climbed into the .330 range.
Valencia had one of just five Twins hits in an unsightly 11-0 loss to the White Sox on Thursday night. Chicago handed Minnesota a real beating and just in time, too. Another Twins victory would have put them six up in the standings and gone a long way toward eliminating the White Sox.
At six games out, I figure Ozzie Guillen starts going off the deep end, cussing out his players and maybe even getting fired before the season ends. But worst of all,
there would be no pennant race. September is supposed to be the most exciting month of the season. A nice, tight race will ensure that. And at four games behind, the White Sox still are in it, rotten bullpen and all.
“I predict this thing is going to be all the way to the wire,” Guillen said.
Good. We could use the excitement.
Valencia had an interesting night, making a nice play on a hot shot but then throwing the ball off line to first base. It’s hard to blame any Twins fielder for a misplay on Thursday, though. They stood around on the field for what seemed like days as the pitchers labored, giving up 21 hits.
Meanwhile, Valencia has third base under control, which is especially important because Nick Punto reinjured his hamstring.
“I’ve always felt I could play here,” Valencia said before Thursday’s game. “But I felt like maybe on that Baltimore-Kansas City road trip, I first knew that I could be really successful.”
That trip occurred toward the end of July. Valencia had 14 hits and drove in eight runs over a four-game span. And he has been a fixture at the hot corner ever since.
Valencia, 25, followed what appears to be a pattern with Twins prospects: As they get closer to the majors, they become less touted. Almost from his first season in the organization, 2006, he was talked about as a future major leaguer. And as the organization rolled players in and out of the third base slot, they all were supposedly just keeping the position warm until Valencia arrived.
But as he began climbing the minor league ladder, he began receiving more critical reviews. I don’t know if the brass starts getting nervous or what, but by the time Valencia had reached Triple-A, the organization seemed to have cooled on him. Suddenly, the reports had a negative tone.
Last year, for example, he supposedly suffered from a lack of concentration and was making too many errors on routine plays. When the rosters expanded in September, he didn’t even get a call-up.
This spring, the Twins opted to go with the light-hitting Punto at third and Valencia was sent back to the minors. As injuries hit the team, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes and Trevor Plouffe all got chances before Valencia. When he eventually got the call, he was productive even if it was the result of a slap hit here and a seeing-eye grounder there.
Ron Gardenhire, who likes having Punto’s glove in the lineup, was slow to increase Valencia’s playing time. But when he started driving the ball, there really was no keeping him off the field. It’s his position now.
“I was just hoping to be part of the team,” Valencia said.
Now he is a big part of it.
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