CLEVELAND: Dozier bright spot for struggling Twins

Published 5:55 am Wednesday, September 21, 2016

This past Sunday wasn’t that much different than most days here lately for Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, the Fulton native and former Southern Miss baseball standout.

Playing in New York, Dozier extended his hitting streak to 22 games, made an unassisted double play in the field – and lost. It is the story of this season – and really of Dozier’s Major League career.

He goes out and does his job above and beyond the call – at the plate, on the base baths and in the field, but the Twins lose. And lose. And lose. And then lose some more.

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While Dozier has produced one of the best personal seasons of any second baseman in Major League history, Sunday’s loss was the Twins’ 95th of the season, compared to just 55 victories. Minnesota must win eight of its final 12 games to avoid the embarrassment of a 100-loss season.

Now then, compare those numbers with these: As of Sunday, Dozier, 29, was hitting .281, with 41 home runs, 35 doubles, five triples, 99 runs scored and 98 runs batted in. He has stolen 15 bases and owns a .576 slugging percentage. He ranks second in the league in home runs, third in slugging percentage.

“I am sure when I get back to Hattiesburg in a couple of weeks and have time to decompress, I’ll look at those numbers and they’ll taste a little better,” Dozier said by phone after the Twins’ charter returned to Minnesota Sunday night.

“Right now, nothing really tastes good,” Dozier continued. “When you look up and see that you’re 30 games out of first place and on pace to lose over 100 games, the losing just gets old and all the home runs in the world don’t matter.

“People who saw me play at Southern Miss know how I am,” Dozier continued. “It’s all about winning. You don’t go between the lines for personal numbers. You go out there to win.”

His manager, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, has called Dozier a model of consistency and appreciates that his best player keeps producing in the midst of all the losing.

“Dozier has put together a phenomenal run…,” Molitor told reporters earlier Sunday. “He’s putting up historical numbers at his position. The hitting streak speaks to a little bit more of the consistency of his at-bats. He’s doing his job. He’s a catalyst for our offense. At the end of the year, you’re going to look at the body of his work and it’s going to be pretty impressive.”

It already is. Dozier has hit 39 of his 41 home runs while playing second base. His next home run, if he hits it, will set a new record for American League second baseman. The Major League record for home runs by a second baseman is 42, shared by Rogers Hornsby and Davey Johnson.

That’s right: Rogers freaking Hornsby.

Dozier would have to hit three more to equal that. Of course, he hit three in one game recently. The Twins lost it, naturally.

How does it feel, Dozier was asked, to have his name mentioned in the same sentence with legends such as Rogers Hornsby?

Dozier laughed. “Well, I gotta tell you, I know I don’t belong in the same sentence with Hornsby,” Dozier said. “He did what he did for a lot of years.”

Yes, and Dozier is just entering the prime years of a middle infielder’s career. He is completing the second year of a four-year, $20 million contract. Two more seasons similar to this one, Dozier could break the bank in free agency in 2018.

But Dozier isn’t getting ahead of himself. He knows that three and a half months ago he was slumping, below the .200 batting average mark. What happened?

“I was getting into bad habits, trying to yank everything out of the park,” Dozier said. “I got back to waiting on good pitches, and I moved back four or five inches further off the plate. And it just started. I got in a groove and home runs and doubles started coming in bunches. The ball started looking like a big ol’ beach ball. That’s baseball. It’s a game of streaks.”

USM baseball coach Scott Berry, one of Dozier’s biggest fans, has watched closely.

“To me, he looks a little more spread out in his stance and really stays in his legs more,” Berry said. “His approach and timing at the plate are more consistent. Most importantly, he has developed an eye to lay off pitches out of the zone.”

The results are amazing – indeed, historic.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address