When Martin Maldonado drove in Humberto Arteaga to put the Kansas City Royals up 3-0 in the first inning, it looked like the Minnesota Twins would suffer their third loss in a row for the first time this season. When Martin Perez, Friday’s starter, gave up a three-run home run to Cheslor Cuthbert in the fifth to put K.C. up 6-3, it almost certainly looked like the case. Not only would it come at the hands of the Royals, who have as many wins (26) as the Twins have losses, but it would come at a time when they’ve been particularly turbulent.
They just saw Jose Berrios hold the Boston Red Sox to one run and won a 17-inning game against the defending champs the next day. Their lineup has blown away non-playoff teams and ignited comebacks. They’re also dealing with injuries and fatigue from the late game against the Red Sox.
“I just think a few of our players were a little tired and unfocused,” said Eddie Rosario, who went 3 for 5 and drove in the winning run of the game, an 8-7 Twins victory. “We just got to pull through together and I think we got back to where we needed to be today.”
“It’s a bunch of individuals that believe in themselves,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “They believe in the guy next to them.”
The clubhouse is brimming with a quiet confidence. To a man the players will tell you, on the record and privately, that they believe this is a winning team. But there has been some cause for concern recently.
The Twins really miss Byron Buxton’s defense in center field, and the versatility of Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza. Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi have both had short starts in their most recent outings. Miguel Sano is striking out 40 percent of the time.
“I consider him a very unique player,” said Baldelli, noting that he’s mostly offering at strikes and has laid off right-handed breaking balls that a lot of power-hitting righties flail at.
“His production has been I think very, very good and he’s going to have spells where if he’s not hitting the ball over the fence, we’re going to end up talking (about it). I really don’t see anything different from him right now than I saw early on.”
Sano is hitting .215/.308/.516, and has not gotten All-Star votes two years removed from making the All-Star team at age 24. His home run in the eighth broke an 0 for 18 streak. He also struck out four times in the game.
“The first couple bats, the last few days, I never put my head down,” said Sano. “And then I took the opportunity in the at-bat, and I locked in and I said, ‘I need to do something here.’”
His recent slump is accentuated by Gonzalez’s absence, but the Twins are far from power-starved. Pitching, on the other hand, is more of a concern.
Not only did Gibson and Odorizzi fail to get out of the fourth inning in their most recent starts, but Martin Perez looked like a Derek Falvey reclamation project early in the season. Perez, 28, owned a 6.22 ERA (75 ERA+) last year, but he reinvented himself with a new cutter this season and had a 2.95 ERA following his May 23 start.
But on May 30 he had his shortest start of the season: a two-out, six-run bludgeoning in Minnesota’s 14-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. In his last four starts, however, he has a 7.58 ERA and opponents are hitting .296/.360/.370 against him.
He struggled earlier in the year and bounced back, so this might just be a temporary lapse. He owned a 7.56 ERA in the 8.1 innings he pitched piggybacking off three of Michael Pineda’s starts as he came back from Tommy John surgery last season. But in his six starts from April 15 to May 23 he had a 2.17 ERA and held hitters to a .221/.290/.354 line.
“The stuff is very good. He’s a guy still pitching in a different way than he’s ever pitched before in his life,” said Baldelli, referring to Perez’s new repertoire. “He still misses bats even when he’s throwing the ball over the plate. He doesn’t need to stay out of the zone to get swings and misses. He has that kind of stuff.”
There isn’t a surefire replacement for him, or any other pitcher who falters or gets injured.
Of players on the 40-man roster, Stephen Gonsalves is a longtime prospect they could turn to, but he had a 6.57 ERA (65 ERA+) in seven outings last year. Devin Smeltzer had two good starts this year, but seemed to rely more on funk than stuff. Lewis Thorpe has yet to pitch in the majors. Sean Poppen, a 19th rounder out of Harvard, gave the Twins four innings of relief after Gibson’s short start against Boston, but gave up three earned runs and is unlikely to make a start soon.
Kohl Stewart, who was sent down to make room for Blake Parker after the game, might get another opportunity in lieu of an injured or struggling starter. The current regime didn’t choose him No. 4 overall in 2013, but as a top pick in the organization, he’ll probably get multiple chances to prove himself.
Stewart had a 6.61 ERA in four starts last year, but had a 1.33 ERA in his four other outings when the Twins used an opener. He’s made two starts this year and went six innings each time, giving up five runs to the Houston Astros in the first one and three to the Detroit Tigers in the second one.
He also pitched four scoreless innings of relief against Kansas City.
“The efficiency was fantastic,” said Baldelli, referring to the 42 pitches he threw. “He attacked them with his sinker and his slider, and he was on the (strike) zone.
“He relies on his action, and the action, kind of the boring action and the ball moving down and things like that. It definitely gives a different look than a lot of other starters that are out there running around these days.”
Minnesota avoided losing three straight, but the cause for concern is less centered around that streak, specifically. It’s more about a potential collapse, or a first-round exit in the playoffs. Therefore, it’s more what underlying factors resulted in the losses. Are the starters failing to go deep into games? Are key hitters in a slump? Are star players injured?
Most of all, they’re in trouble if their quiet confidence ever becomes palpable uncertainty.