4/18 GAME NOTES: Hughes, Kepler Falter Early in Blowout Loss to Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians set the tone early, scoring runs in five of the game’s first six innings to thump the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Tuesday night, 11-4. Three of the five innings resulted in crooked numbers, as Phil Hughes (2-1) couldn’t keep the Indians off the scoreboard and none of his relief counterparts could, either.

All four pitchers who saw action for the Twins allowed at least one run.

On the other side, Josh Tomlin (1-2) bounced back from two brutal starts and did enough to keep the Twins off balance for six innings, inducing nine grounders to make up for a paucity of strikeouts on a night where Minnesota’s offense was again stymied for the most part.

Tomlin retired seven of the final eight Twins he faced.

The tone for the game was set early, as Francisco Lindor singled with one out in the first, moved to third on a Michael Brantley double and scored on an Edwin Encarnacion groundout to get the scoring underway. Eight pitches later, Jose Ramirez finished off a plate appearance where he fouled away four pitches by driving the ball to deep right-center, where Max Kepler measured it, but squeezed his glove too early for a costly error.

Ten pitches later, Cleveland had pushed across another run and taken a 3-0 lead — one they would not squander the rest of the night.

The Twins returned fire in the bottom half of the first inning with a pair of runs on a Kepler sac fly and a Robbie Grossman double, but by the time they answered with their third run of the night — a Jorge Polanco sac fly in the fourth — they already trailed 6-3 and never got any closer.

Cleveland tacked on one run on a Yandy Diaz sac fly off Justin Haley in the fifth and two more off Haley in the sixth on a two-run triple from Lindor. The final crushing blow came in the ninth inning, as Encarnacion hit his second home run as a member of the Indians — a majestic 370-foot blast to the upper deck in left field off reliever Michael Tonkin to cap the scoring on the night.

Here’s what we saw from our vantage point:

Hughes simply didn’t have it…

Manager Paul Molitor said he wasn’t sure why Hughes had scorned the changeup he’d worked on all spring, but that he suspected the 30-year-old righty probably didn’t have a good feel for it. That suspicion was confirmed, as Hughes said the pitch was terrible for him in the bullpen, and the only one he felt was well executed happened to be the one put in play by Lonnie Chisenhall for a run-scoring single in the first inning to give Cleveland a 3-0 lead after Kepler’s error.

Hughes is exactly right. Look at the blue dot at the bottom on the attached strike zone plot. That’s a well-executed changeup that Chisenhall managed to get just enough of to get it out into right field.

(photo credit:

With his new-found changeup not working, Hughes was forced to turn a fastball that had a bit more life than earlier this season, but still not enough. According to Brooks Baseball, Hughes averaged 91.3 mph on his four-seam fastball and 90.7 mph on his two-seamer — up from his season averages of 89.5 on the four-seamer and 88.9 on the two.

As weird as it sounds, things weren’t all bad for Hughes, who threw first-pitch strikes to 14-of-19 hitters (73.7 percent) and did get five swinging strikes on 73 pitches (per Brooks). Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press counted six, which would be good for an 8.2 percent rate — slightly above the 7.4 percent he entered with. According to ESPN, Hughes had seven swinging strikes — for an even better 9.6 percent rate. It’s a little bit of window dressing on a rough start, but there were some signs that better times could be coming. Hughes did say early in the season he wasn’t sure how he’d perform in cold weather, and it was 53 degrees and cloudy with a high humidity that made it more bone-chilling cold that it would ordinarily feel at that number.

Thus far, Hughes’ three starts have come at the following game-time temps:

  • April 18 – 53 degrees (Target Field)
  • April 13 – 47 degrees (Comerica Park)
  • April 7 – 46 degrees (Guaranteed Rate Field)

With those temps in mind, it’s possible we haven’t seen the best of what Hughes has to offer so far this season.

All told, four of the first five runs Hughes allowed came with two outs, with the fifth run — the outlier, not sequentially — coming on the Encarnacion groundout where he was the second out of the inning. Finishing off batters is no new thing for Hughes, and finishing off innings was no easier for him on Tuesday night.

….but he also wasn’t helped by his defense

The primary culprit was Kepler, who absolutely clanged a routine fly ball to right field. Right or wrong, fair or not, that really set the tone for a game that became a laugher rather quickly.  

Tomlin was not particularly special, but did enough to win

Tomlin came in with an ERA of 18.47 and left with a mark of 11.68, and in the meantime did the bare minimum for a quality start with three earned over six frames. He threw 55-of-85 pitches for strikes, fanned two batters and walked none in a fairly good “get back on the bicycle” start against a scuffling offense. One could argue his start was less encouraging than Hughes’ really, in that he only had five swinging strikes and was bailed out by what can only be termed an odd bunt attempt by Byron Buxton with two on and two out in the fourth with the Twins trailing 6-3.

Buxton dropped down a bunt on a 1-0 pitch, with catcher Roberto Perez springing out of his crouch and getting the speedy center fielder by plenty to end the inning, and the threat. Molitor said after the game that he thought the play made some sense with Buxton scuffling and Dozier behind him in the order, but that he didn’t place the bunt to the third base side like he should have. By Molitor’s reckoning, the Indians had given him plenty of room on that side to get the bunt down, but he was unable to do just that

Jason Castro ended one streak — and started another

After lining the first pitch he saw to Ramirez on a short hop to wrap up the first inning and extend his hitless streak to 0-for-15, Castro got off the schneid in style by going 3-for-3 the rest of the way. All three hits were singles, but at least now he’s hitting a more respectable .257/.409/.371. He came into the game hitting just .194/.375/.323 — which was somehow still good for a 109 wRC+.  

Lindor is an impossible out right now

Lindor was 2-for-5 but was at the forefront of the Indians offense all night with a run scored in the first and a two-run triple against Haley in the sixth. The player I dubbed my “favorite visiting player to watch” is now on a career-high 12-game hitting streak, and is hitting a robust .351/.415/.684 on the season. If that wasn’t enough, he’s a ridiculous defensive shortstop and will spend the entire season at only 23 years old. He’s a legit superstar.

Miguel Sano did not have a great night — but did smash an oppo bomb

The strikeout bug bit #MiggySmalls with three whiffs in five plate appearances, but he went nuts on a 1-2 pitch from Indians reliever Dan Otero in the eighth for his fourth home run of the season. It went 399 feet to right-center, and prompted Indians manager Terry Francona to make a pitching switch so fast he nearly met Sano on the third base line as he rounded the bases.

To digress briefly, Ron Gardenhire’s surgery for prostate cancer went well

Dick Bremer of Fox Sports North reported on Tuesday night’s telecast that Gardenhire had undergone the procedure and was doing well afterward. Everyone at Zone Coverage wishes Gardenhire all the best in his recovery and ultimate return as bench coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Notes and Quotes

  • Both teams moved to 7-7 after Tuesday’s game.
  • The Twins have lost three straight games for the first time all season.
  • The Twins have lost eight of their last nine games against Cleveland.
  • Tomlin has two or fewer walks in 34 straight starts.
  • Hughes on his changeup: “I felt like I couldn’t get it going tonight. I don’t know if it was because I was behind a couple times, but the pace and everything felt a little off. I just didn’t find a rhythm. Some of the stuff, I obviously need to locate my pitches better, mix in my offspeed stuff better and tonight everything just seemed like it was erratic and a little all over the place. I think that was the biggest difference.”
  • Hughes on what he has to do without a workable changeup: “I’m trying to locate my fastball better and throw some curveballs in or do something. I felt like I was — for a couple hitters — making some decent progress. I think in the third there was the homer to Ramirez, and after that it was kind of just back to being all over the place a little bit.”
  • Hughes on getting out of the first after Kepler issue: “It’s not a great way to start. Obviously, I have to regroup and find a way to limit the damage there. I wasn’t able to do that; I gave up a couple hits after that. It was a tough way to start, but I have to find a way to regroup and get us in the dugout. That’s kind of the theme for all three of my starts so far is I have to not give up runs in the first inning. That’s been kind of a weak spot so far. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game and isn’t a good way to start. I’ve got to be better in that regard too.
  • The pitch to Ramirez for a home run: “Yeah it was a cutter that I was trying to get into his hands and it kind of stayed down where he could handle it and it wasn’t at the belt or belly button where I wanted it to be. He put a good swing on it. I was talking to Castro, and it wasn’t a bad pitch selection, but just a matter of not being up as much as you’d like it to be.”
  • Hughes on his change in the ‘pen: “It was awful in the bullpen. I think I threw one to Chisenhall that he pulled through the hole that was actually down. It was decent location, but just one of those things where — whether it was location or confidence — I just couldn’t get it going.”

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