It’s a game of inches, they say. Or in the case of Tuesday night, a few feet.
Just a few feet separated a diving Aaron Hicks — in the midst of the ultimate revenge game — from missing the soaring, sinking line drive off the bat of Max Kepler in the 10th inning on Tuesday night. Had that happened, the Minnesota Twins win a game for the ages, take the series from the New York Yankees and set the stage for an epic showdown in game three on ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball.
Instead, Hicks made the great play — with his home run in the ninth punctuating the fact that the Yankees scored nine runs in the game’s final three innings — and it sent the series to a rubber game in front of a national viewing audience.
A rubber game after an instant classic that ended well after midnight local time. A game that lasted five hours and three minutes. A game that saw six lead changes, including five after last call. A game that saw Didi Gregorius go 5-for-5 with seven RBIs.
No matter how you slice it, there was a significant potential hangover factor for both sides, as emotions ran high deep into the night with missed calls, ejections and leads that evaporated like early-morning dew.
But that hangover, to use the term loosely, only bit one team — at least to start. The Yankees kept up their blazing offensive pace through the game’s first four innings, taking a 9-3 lead as Jake Odorizzi alternated hits with strikeouts all night long in what even the right-hander felt was a bizarre outing throughout.
“I mean, I didn’t execute the fastball as well as I had in the past,” Odorizzi said. “But command-wise, it wasn’t like I had horrible stuff. It just seemed like every ball they hit was a hit. If they didn’t get a hit, it was a strikeout. It was a very weird outing from the sense of that any ball they put in play was going to be a hit regardless.”
But from that point on, the hero of the night was lefty Devin Smeltzer, who earlier in the day had been summoned from Triple-A Rochester for the third time this season.
But instead of starting like he had in his previous two times with the club, this time he was the first — and ultimately the only — reliever out of the chute on a day where the club not only sent back swingman Kohl Stewart but also made the tough decision to designate veteran righty Blake Parker for assignment.
Parker was a huge part of the powderkeg that was lit in the late innings on Tuesday night, and he stood in front of his locker dutifully and took questions afterward. It was that kind of mentality and accountability in the clubhouse, manager Rocco Baldelli suggested, that made the move to cut Parker loose so difficult.
Anyway, after Odorizzi soaked up the game’s first four innings — including going back out for the fourth to get his pitch count over 100 — Smeltzer was called on to somehow, anyhow stem the tide against a Yankees offense that had scored 18 runs in the span of just seven innings.
And with a bullpen gasping for breath, that’s exactly what the rail-thin lefty did.
Smeltzer scattered five hits, allowed just a single run on a homer to Edwin Encarnacion, and fanned four batters without issuing a walk.
And Smeltzer’s reward for this act of courage? A return ticket to Rochester, where he’ll find a pitching staff ravaged by the ripple effect of the shuttle between upstate New York and the Twin Cities.
In recent weeks, the Twins have designated Parker, Adalberto Mejia, Matt Magill and Matt Morin for assignment, and in the process have pillaged the Red Wings for Smeltzer, Stewart, Cody Stashak, Lewis Thorpe and Carlos Torres. Even Sean Poppen got in the act recently as well.
And that’s nothing to say of Cody Allen, who also left the team to be with his wife, who went into labor early Wednesday morning.
But the reaction to Smeltzer’s effort was the utmost of appreciation — from Baldelli, to Odorizzi, to even Smeltzer for getting the opportunity in the first place.
“If it’s playing in short, right, catcher, being the bat boy — I don’t care,” Smeltzer said. “Whatever helps the team win, I’m here for.”
Odorizzi also made sure to commend the effort by the young Smeltzer, who through 21.2 MLB innings has posted a 2.91 ERA, 17 strikeouts and just four walks.
“I think what Devin did was a big lift for everyone in the bullpen,” Odorizzi said. “I said the same thing, I was just going to keep going. If I was going to throw 130 pitches, I would have done it. It was one of those points where it already sucks, and (it’s) the worst outing of my career. Might as well just save pitches for the guys in the bullpen. I’ll just sit out there and wear it.”
All of which is to say that Smeltzer has not only acquitted himself well in the big leagues, but endeared himself to his manager as well.
Baldelli left little doubt that this outing was an eye-opener that Smeltzer, despite being sent back afterward, would be back before the end of the season.
Not only back, but getting big outs as well.
“That was just a great effort,” Baldelli said. “He came in. It’s not even his day to pitch. He’s been starting. It’s not even his day. He’s coming in a day short. He’s available to come in and throw 60-70 pitches. What does he do? He just comes in against one of the better teams you’re going to play against, one of the better lineups, and just went right through ‘em. He attacked ‘em. He confidently went about his business regardless of who he was facing. He executed. He did all the things we talk about and in the process picked us up in a huge way with the state of where our bullpen sits right now, as far as usage.
“It was just a very, very big effort, and I think he’s positioning himself well to help us as this season plays out.”
To the unitiated, it may seem cruel to send Smeltzer out after such a valiant effort, but that’s just the business of the game. The lefty has thrown nearly 140 pitches over the last four days, and simply put wouldn’t be available for at least the next three or four days.
And with a bullpen still in flux — though definitely less so thanks almost exclusively to Smeltzer — that’s a roster spot the Twins simply couldn’t afford to sit on as the team heads to Chicago to begin the next road trip.
The Twins managed to tack on three runs after Odorizzi recorded his final out in the fourth, and another run in the fifth against Yankees reliever Nestor Cortes Jr., but ultimately that was it as the offense went cold over the final four frames.
But without Smeltzer’s performance, they might not have even gotten the chance in the first place.
That shouldn’t be forgotten, even on a night where the Twins dropped yet another series to those damned Yankees.