The look on Byron Buxton's face Sunday said it all.
In the fourth inning of the Twins series finale against the Rangers, Buxton was on second, Jonathan Schoop on third, with one out. Max Kepler lifted a fly ball to medium-deep center field that should have scored Schoop easily, except that Buxton tried to tag up and go to third.
With two outs. While he was already in scoring position. In a tie game.
Joey Gallo made a perfect throw to nail Buxton, nullifying Schoop's run and Kepler's RBI, and Buxton sat at third base for quite some time. Perhaps he was simply waiting for the Twins' replay team to ask for a review, but I suspect that he knew he was out. More importantly, I hope he was contemplating the gravity and stupidity of what he had just done.
Manager Rocco Baldelli went out of his way to be diplomatic as he discussed this game-changing play. "It's a good talking point and a good play for everyone to watch and kind of learn something from, too, because obviously we did our job in every other way," he said. "It's a run that probably should have scored and just ultimately didn't."
That speech made it sound as if there was no one to blame, that it was just one of those things that happened.
Baldelli is a first-year manager. He's clearly a "players' coach," and so far this year he's had little reason to publicly criticize his players. In fact, the first three months of the season have basically been one long honeymoon for him and his staff. It's easy to accentuate the positive when you're in first place.
But Buxton is a professional baseball player, and he's not some just-called-up rookie. He's played the game long enough to know when to run and when to stay put.
Baldelli should have stated the matter quite simply: Buxton broke one of the cardinal rules of baseball, and it cost his team a run and perhaps a game that could be very important as the season winds down.
ACCOUNTABILITY IS KEY
I cover the Rochester Honkers for the Post Bulletin, and manager Thomas Walker is definitely a players' coach. He doesn't micromanage the game, and he wants his guys to take the extra base, to be aggressive when the moment is right.
Walker also serves as the third-base coach. On those rare occasions when a Honkers player runs into an ill-timed, inning-ending out at third, I've seen Walker have an immediate chat with the player, right there on the infield in front of everyone. Such conversations are usually short and very one-sided, as you can imagine, and Walker gets his message across.
Amazingly, Walker's players don't melt into puddles of goo. One of the great ironies in sports is the fact that coaches at the highest levels feel compelled to coddle their millionaire players, to avoid embarrassing them or "showing them up," while high school kids and college students are expected to absorb a public tongue-lashing without moping about it afterward.
I'd like to assume that while Baldelli didn't criticize Buxton publicly, he spoke very candidly with him behind closed doors. And I'd also like to assume that Buxton finally has learned the lesson that world-class speed doesn't entitle him to take unnecessary, selfish risks.
He better have learned that lesson, because adversity is coming for the Twins, who will come out of the All-Star break to face the red-hot Indians, Yankees and A's. It's entirely possible that Minnesota's 5 1/2-game lead will vanish in the next two weeks -- which would mean that come August, the Twins will begin a two-month battle for a playoff berth.
While it's been fun watching the Twins mash their way toward home run immortality, I expect that the fate of this team will ultimately hinge on the thing that usually decides pennant races -- pitching, defense, avoiding mistakes and taking advantage of the opponents' miscues.
Some miscues (a lot of them, in fact) are a result of thinking too much and trying too hard. Baldelli himself has been guilty of such offenses, with the prime example being a recent game when, with one out, he called for a suicide squeeze with Buxton hitting and runners at second and third.
Buxton is far from an accomplished bunter, and he's fully capable of hitting a 3-run homer, yet Baldelli called for the squeeze and ran his team right out of an inning.
It was a play that would have made Baldelli look like a genius if it had worked, but Baldelli didn't need to be a genius. He just needed Buxton to hit a routine, ordinary fly ball.
Baldelli has a good team, but it isn't good enough to win a division, let alone a World Series, if he and his players mistake recklessness for aggressiveness.
Reckless teams are fun to watch, but they tend to lose big games in September and October.
Eric Atherton is a Post Bulletin sports reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org