This isn’t the first time Devin Smeltzer has been summoned to the Twin Cities to replace an ailing Michael Pineda on the Minnesota Twins’ 25-man roster.
That came back in late May.
But if how the young lefty has thrown in his big-league stints has been any indication, there might not be many more recalls — he’s been that impressive.
The last time we saw the lefty on a big-league mound, he was giving the Twins a massive lift on July 24. Their pitching staff was in tatters, and after Jake Odorizzi was bounced early that night by a powerful Yankees offense, Smeltzer jumped in and cleaned up the final five innings of the game, allowing just a solo homer to Edwin Encarnacion while allowing the offense to claw back and at least make a game of it late.
His reward was being sent back out right after the game in a seemingly endless cycling of pitchers between Rochester and Minnesota leading up to the trade deadline — but he wasn’t there for long.
Smeltzer got word that he would be needed to start on Sunday sometime Saturday and arrived in Minneapolis with plenty of time to prepare for Sunday’s start.
He couldn’t have looked more locked in.
Smeltzer and three relievers combined for a two-hit shutout of the Kansas City Royals in a 3-0 win — and it was threes across the board.
- Three runs scored
- Three wins in the series
- Three games up in the Central
There was also one very notable one in there as well — it was Smeltzer’s first MLB win.
The offense wasn’t terrific, as Royals righty Brad Keller held them at bay for much of the afternoon, but they got just enough production — both in terms of manufacturing runs and driving the ball out of the ballpark — to steal a sweep and grab their 69th win of the season.
Here’s what I saw:
1. Smeltzer was unbelievable
Smeltzer kept the Royals off-balance all afternoon long with a mix of fastballs at 89-91 mph, quite a few changeups and an occasional slider or curve. While there was some hard contact off Smeltzer — including two groundouts above 110 mph off the bat of Jorge Soler — it was mostly weak contact and fly outs for the left-hander.
The last two outings have been a big confidence booster for Smeltzer, who came to the Twins at last year’s trade deadline with Luke Raley for second baseman Brian Dozier.
“I’ve always been a big believer in myself,” Smeltzer said. “You’ve got to be the biggest fan of yourself to be successful. Even when my stuff’s not playing well, I’ve got to believe that it is going to play well and that it’ll be there when I need it.
“So I’m coming out every day and making sure that I’m getting my work in so that once every five days, or if I’m in a ‘pen role, coming out every day or every other day or whatever it is, I’ve got myself ready to go.”
Smeltzer fanned four batters and walked just one, and after recording the first seven outs in a row, he allowed a single to Nicky Lopez — then promptly picked him off first base.
He allowed one more hit in the fourth inning — an Alex Gordon single — and was lifted in the seventh after Gordon walked to open the frame, but those were the only baserunners all day against Smeltzer or any of his pitching mates.
Gordon was erased on a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play to end the seventh, and no Royals player reached base after that.
No Royals player even reached second base safely on the afternoon, as Smeltzer, Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers slammed the door forcefully to end the series with the Atlanta Braves coming into town next.
2. Luis Arraez made a play that showed significant baseball IQ
The Twins offense was held down by Keller through five innings, but broke the ice for the first run of the game in the sixth. Arraez dusted off Keller’s shoulder with a single back up the box to open the inning, and he picked up second base on a check-swing wild pitch with Nelson Cruz up and nobody out.
Cruz then hit a slow roller to Hunter Dozier at third base. Now the general rule of thumb for a runner at second base is anything hit on the ground to the left of wherever you are is a ball you advance on, and anything to your right you’re supposed to freeze.
But Arraez showed impressive moxie for a 22-year-old, and picked up third base though the ball was hit almost directly at Dozier.
See, Dozier was playing back, and had to charge the ball to make the play. By the time he fielded it, he was past the bag with momentum carrying him forward — leaving him no chance to make a play on Arraez streaking behind him to pick up third base.
It was a heady play that wound up giving the Twins a run, as Eddie Rosario smoked a ball into the gap in right-center that Soler made a diving catch on, but had no chance to throw out Arraez at home.
For all the buzz that the Twins only hit home runs and don’t know how to manufacture runs, this was about as “manufactured” of a run as one can get.
Manager Rocco Baldelli definitely notices these kinds of heads-up plays.
“Well he has that baseball awareness that not every player has,” Baldelli said. “He has it at a very young age. I would bet that he didn’t just gain it. Like I’ve kind of said here before and several people have noted, he’s probably had that baseball sense and awareness since he a kid. He’s gifted in that way.
“It was a great read, and it puts us in position to win a game. Sometimes it takes plays like that. It’s not always a homer or a guy striking a guy out with runners in scoring position, it’s a good read going from second to third. It’s hard to put any sort of number on that or value that, but you know the guy can play and he’s a winning player.”
3. Jason Castro continues to do enough offensively to garner at least a share of the platoon behind the plate
Castro thumped a 1-1 fastball from Keller onto the berm in center field, just beyond the outstretched arms of Royals center fielder Bubba Starling, to give the Twins a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning.
While Castro’s numbers pale in comparison to Mitch Garver’s — and frankly, almost everyone’s do — the veteran backstop is doing more than enough to at least garner a timeshare behind the plate, especially against righties.
While Garver is carrying nearly a 1.200 OPS against southpaws, Castro is hitting a more than respectable .271/.352/.564 against righties. In fact, among American League catchers with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Castro (.916 OPS) and Garver (.870) are Nos. 1-2 in OPS against right-handed pitchers.
So while it might be easy to want Garver back there every single night, that simply isn’t going to happen. First of all, Castro is regarded well enough defensively to at least be part of a timeshare, and also keep in mind that very few catchers play almost every day outside of a healthy Yadier Molina or Salvador Perez.
In other words, don’t sleep on Jason Castro.
4. The defense behind Smeltzer and co. was simply terrific
We’ll simply rely on video and photos to illustrate this point. Ehire Adrianza made one of the finest plays a Twins shortstop has made all season in the sixth inning, diving to his left and popping up to throw out catcher Cam Gallagher on a bang-bang play:
Here, Arraez added a defensive gem in the ninth inning to go along with his two hits — his third multi-hit game over his last nine:
And not to be outdown, but the newly-recalled Jake Cave got in on the action, ending the game with a sprawling catch in right field to keep the two-hitter intact:
5. Keller is a really, really good pitcher
Not only did Keller hold down the Twins for only two earned runs with seven strikeouts in seven innings, but he did something that few pitchers have been able to do all year — keep them in the ballpark.
Castro’s home run in the seventh proved to be the dealbreaker in that respect, but in a year where balls have been flying out of the park at unprecedented rates, Keller has done a terrific job limiting the damage. Among qualified starters, Keller ranks seventh in MLB with 0.86 home runs allowed per nine innings after Sunday’s loss.
Keller was also bringing the heat, as the righty sat 95-96 mph with his four seam fastball and touched 98 at times. Keller had a respectable 11 swinging strikes on his 98 pitches, with a surprising six coming on his 44 four-seam fastballs.
Higher than 10 percent on any fastball is wild.
While the Royals have been an utter disappointment this year, Keller sure hasn’t. He’s posted a 3.95 ERA in 146 innings and despite his ugly record (7-11), he sure looks like a really, really nice find from the Rule 5 draft. That’s where the Cincinnati Reds nabbed him after the 2017 season, only to send him to the Royals in a deal later that day.
Notes and Quotes
- The win pushed the Twins to 69-42 — with 27 games over .500 being their high-water mark of the season.
- Sixty-nine wins over the team’s first 111 games gives the Twins the second-best pace to this point in the season in club history. The 1965 team was 72-39 and the 1970 team was an identical 69-42 through 111 games.
- Baldelli on his team’s strong defensive effort: “Yeah, (we) made several plays. This was a good ballgame. It was a different type of ballgame than we played earlier in the series, but it was a day where we had to come up and make plays and had to execute and pitch well and do all those things. As we’ve seen from this Royals team, they play us very tough. They will beat you if you don’t execute. They’ve been impressive in a lot of ways throughout the year. We knew we had to come and do it, and we did it today.”
- Baldelli on Smeltzer’s first win: “It’s always fun for all of us. First wins. First base hits. These are awesome moments. You don’t see them very often. You only see them a couple times a year maybe, when you’re here and playing 162. One thing I can say about Smeltz is that he’s earned his first major-league win. He’s come out and pitched really well for us. Every time we throw him out there he goes out there and competes really well. He’s done it a few times for us. He looked great. He was great again today.”
- Smeltzer on meditating before games: “It’s anywhere between five and 15 minutes. I kind of just do it until I feel right, until I lose thought. I do it out in the bullpen with the fans, because I’ve said in the past that anybody can get in a quiet room and slow their heart rate down. But where I’m going to make my money is in front of all of the people So if I can get my heart rate down with the music and pregame stuff going on, I’m going to be in a good place and making sure I can control my breathing there.”