The Minnesota Twins went into Sunday’s game with the expectation that it’d just be more of the same — cold weather and hot pitching — as they looked to steal a series at home against the Cleveland Indians.

Instead, Michael Pineda returned from an over one-and-a-half-year absence to fire four solid innings, Martin Perez piggybacked that with 3.2 solid frames of his own and Ryne Harper polished things off with his MLB debut in a 9-3 win at Target Field on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

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Nelson Cruz doubled early in the game for his first extra-base hit as a Twin, and then doubled down with a booming homer to center as Minnesota absolutely tattered Cleveland pitching — starting with Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco — on the afternoon.

Now the Twins hit the road for nearly two weeks, starting with Kansas City and not returning home until they face Detroit on April 12.

Here’s what I saw:

Win probability table/The turning point


Source: FanGraphs

The Twins were never really in any danger, but business picked up in the second inning when Willians Astudillo doubled on the first pitch he saw to drive home C.J. Cron and open the scoring.

The Twins tacked on a pair of runs in the fourth with a two-out, 0-2 double from Byron Buxton, but the big blast that basically sealed Carrasco’s fate came in the fifth inning, when Nelson Cruz hit a towering homer to the second deck in left-center, above the bullpens to give the Twins a 5-0 lead.

Pineda looked like he hadn’t skipped a beat

Manager Rocco Baldelli intimated prior to the game that there was a good chance he’d be piggybacking Pineda with Perez, and the plan that came to fruition was that the former would go four innings before giving way to the latter.

It just so happened that Pineda cruised through those four frames on 40 pitches (28 strikes) with five strikeouts, one walk and just one hit allowed. Pineda copped to having significant nerves coming into his first start in nearly 21 months, but none of that bled into his performance on the mound.

“I feel so happy today,” Pineda said. “I mean, a year-and-a-half of no pitching. Today was my time to pitch, and I’m happy I threw the ball pretty good.”

Baldelli lauded Pineda’s willingness to stick to the plan of bringing in Perez even though Pineda was on cruise control.

“I really want to make the point of we can’t do what we did today without the unselfishness of Michael Pineda. To be throwing the way that he was throwing and coming back from everything he’s come back from, and when we go to him after the fourth inning and tell him that he’s done. He’s a competitor and he wants to pitch, which is what we want from our guys, but he was willing to do this and let Martin Perez come in the game and also get his work in too.

“Without that type of unselfishness, we can’t do the things that we want to do and we can’t function. So, I have to commend him from my end and the staff’s end, but also for every guy in that clubhouse. It was incredible how that worked and that’s not an easy thing to generally work through, and he allowed us to do that. So, I thank him for that.”

Ultimately, Baldelli said that Pineda’s performance made the decision to take him out difficult, and that’s all they could have asked for.

Pineda’s velocity was down from the spring — 90.4 mph average, 91.9 max — but that was most likely due to the temperature being roughly 50 degrees cooler on Sunday than in Fort Myers the past few weeks.

The big righty had seven swinging strikes on the day — four from his slider, two from his four-seam fastball and one on the curve.

He felt the slider was working especially well.

“My slider and changeup were working good,” he said with the smile of a seven-year-old with $10 burning a hole through his pocket at the candy store.

Perez was terrific, too

The numbers don’t really bear it out — three earned runs in 3.2 innings for a 7.36 ERA — but Perez looked very good on the mound Sunday. Statcast had him as high as 97.2 mph on his four-seam fastball and 96.9 on his two-seamer, and his four-seam average velo of 92.5 mph is extremely deceptive because it was picking up his cutters as four-seamers.

The cutter was coming in at 89-90 mph and was biting hard — see the Ramirez reaction below — whereas the true four-seamer was coming in more along the lines of 95-96 mph regularly.

Anyway, here’s Hanley’s reaction to getting clowned by a ridiculous cutter:

Perez had 12 swinging strikes on 82 pitches — more than enough to keep him stretched out for his first start in some 10 days or so — with 10 of them coming on the “four-seam” fastball.

I’d wager eight of them were on the cutter, which will likely be added into his pitch mix in the near future on Statcast. 

The offense absolutely throttled Carrasco and friends

Carrasco got an early shower after 4.1 innings, allowing 10 hits and six earned runs. And as Statcast’s Andrew Simon notes, the Twins absolutely peppered the ball through seven innings:

Buxton’s double was especially impressive, as it came on an 0-2 pitch and scored a pair of runs with two outs in the fourth inning.

And whether he’s playing it coyly or he’s just simplified things, Buxton was right to the point when asked how he handled that at-bat against Carrasco.

“See the ball up. See the ball up, hit it hard somewhere,” Buxton said. “(Carrasco) is a great pitcher but every pitcher makes a mistake every now and then. He left a slider up in the zone that I can handle.”

Buxton basically repeated the axiom two questions later.

“See ball. Hit ball. Hit it hard. I’m not worrying about how hard I hit it or where it lands as long as I get a hit and I can cause havoc. That’s helping us getting closer to scoring runs and winning the game.”

The score permitted Baldelli to empty his bench

With the Twins up 8-0 in the bottom of the seventh, Baldelli allowed Ehire Adrianza to pinch-hit for Cron, Tyler Austin to hit for Marwin Gonzalez and then Jake Cave to enter the game in right field for Max Kepler.

That meant each player was getting their first action of the season, with Cave roping a single into right-center that scored Astudillo on a bit of a strange play. With the ball hit to right-center, Buxton rounded second hard and saw that Astudillo was being held up at third by base coach Tony Diaz.

By that point, Buxton was in a pickle, but Astudillo raced home as Byron was tagged out for the first out of the inning.

Don’t you hate when you come upon a turtle in the middle of the road? Buxton chuckled when asked that question after the game, but said “Oh nooooo…” when notified that broadcaster Dick Bremer was trying to get a “Tortoise and the Hare” moniker going for the duo.

It was all in good fun.

Ryne Harper made his long-awaited MLB debut

Harper, who turned 30 on Wednesday, came in and threw a scoreless ninth inning, though it wasn’t without bumps.

Harper walked Kevin Plawecki and Jordan Luplow with one out, but recovered to get Eric Stamets to foul out to Astudillo before striking out Max Moroff swinging on — you guessed it — a cut fastball.

Wait, what? The curveball guru didn’t get his first MLB whiff on a curve?

A sheepish Harper laughed it off after the game amidst a huge smile.

“It came on a cut fastball inside,” Harper said. “Honestly, I sent that text to a buddy. I never thought my first strikeout in the major leagues would be on a pitch other than a curveball.”

How did the day compare to his 30th birthday, however? That is, the day he found out he’d made the club?

“The 30th birthday was special but yeah, I got to throw this time so that’s out of the way and looking forward to the next (appearance),” he said.

Buxton continues to turn heads on offense

In addition to Buxton’s double, he cracked a single into left field in the eighth inning that might have been stretched into a hustle double if not for Astudillo running the bases in front of him.

Overall, Buxton was 2-for-4 and through three games is hitting .400/.400/.700.

Astudillo had a terrific game, but it wasn’t without controversy…

Before doing anything hitting-wise, Astudillo backed up a play at first base that really has to be seen to be believed.

To lead off the top of the second inning, Carlos Santana hit a ball into the shift that Jorge Polanco knocked down but couldn’t field cleanly. His throw was wide to Cron, but Astudillo alertly not only backed up the play, but fired to first to get Santana, who had made a move toward second and was scurrying back to the bag to avoid being tagged out to no avail.

After cracking a double on the first pitch he saw, Astudillo hit a nearly identical double in front of Buxton in the fourth inning. The park couldn’t hold it, however, and Jonathan Schoop — who was on first base — had to retreat to third base despite the likelihood he’d have scored since there were two outs in the inning.

…as the Twins were more than just a little ticked off that Shane Bieber plunked La Tortuga late in the game

Nevertheless, when Astudillo came up in the eighth against Indians fifth starter Shane Bieber — who like Perez was getting some extra work out of the bullpen with off days rendering his rotation spot moot early in the season — there was really no reason to believe there was any angst between the clubs.

Cruz was upset Trevor Bauer came up and in on multiple occasions on Saturday, but ultimately nothing came of it and it appeared the righty was mostly just dealing with scattershot command more than anything.

But when Astudillo was plunked by Bieber on the first pitch he saw in the eighth inning, home plate umpire Todd Tichenor came out in front of the plate and issued warnings to both sides.

Mar 31, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Willians Astudillo (64) hits an RBI double in the bottom of the second inning against the Cleveland Indians at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Baldelli came out to talk to Tichenor briefly, but clarified that the Twins were none too pleased about the situation.

“Honestly, I can’t answer that question,” Baldelli said when pressed on the issue. “There’s no way to ever know in those situations for sure, as far as intent. But I would also say that Todd behind the plate does a really good job. It’s his job to protect both teams.

“It seemed like we were the team that was getting thrown up and in more than the other this series. And it’s not something our players and our staff take kindly to. But I do have to respect the way it was handled by the umpires. And Todd has to make a decision there and he did and I will stand by that decision.”

Ultimately, it didn’t sound like the Twins were going to take this lying down.

“It’s their job to protect the players,” Baldelli said of Tichenor’s warning. “It’s also our job to protect our players. And I think both of those things can co-exist and we can work things out on the field in our own ways sometimes. I do generally respect the way that it was handled and the umpires do a good job of making sure safety comes before anything else. We also take note when our guys do continually get thrown either at or near.

“Those things are hard to forget.”

Notes & Quotes

  • Pineda’s outing was his first MLB appearance in 633 days (July 5, 2017 with the Yankees).
  • Cruz needs one more double for 300 on his career.
  • Baldelli on Harper’s debut: “He did a nice job. He does what he does. He spins the ball really well. He got out there and got some firsts out of the way. And it’s just a very special moment for everybody involved mostly for him. Seeing him out there and doing his thing after putting in so much work it’s a great thing.”
  • Baldelli on the team hitting the road: “I think this is a good opportunity for our guys to rest a little bit because there has been a lot going on with spring training and then coming up here for the opening series there is always a lot going during the opening series of a season.”
  • Harper on having his family in town for his debut: “They’re here. They left right after the game, headed to the airport but they were all here and they got to see it so I’m happy. They were probably like ‘Hurry up, game,’ because they had a flight at 6 o’clock. They barely made it.”
  • Buxton on team’s early success: “We build off of this. Like we said before we went out today, ‘Don’t try to go out there and do too much. Stay within ourselves. Be ourselves and the game will take care of itself’ and that’s exactly what we did. Pineda went out there and pitched a heck of a game and Pérez as well and even our bullpen. They put up zeroes and allowed us to get our bats going.”
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