CLEVELAND — Rocco Baldelli was answering a question about whether there was pressure to win the first game of the Minnesota Twins doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, which they won 2-0, knowing that the second game would be pitched by the bullpen as well. As he was answering the question, the telephone in the visiting manager’s office rang. He paused, telling the media he had to take the call.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona was on the other line.
While a recording of Francona’s press conference after the first game of the doubleheader played on the television in front of him, he told Tito that Lewis Thorpe would start Game 2.
Who is your starter for Game 2? a reporter asked, eliciting laughter from everyone in the room. It was the first time that this was announced. In all honesty, Baldelli didn’t know who he was going to pitch in the second game because it depended on how his bullpen handled the first one.
“I mean, we’re really playing it by ear at every point during these kinds of games,” he said. “You probably use a lot of good information, you pay attention to what your guys are doing, you’re just watch every move. There’s no right answer. There’s no playbook. You’re kind of matching up the entire game and trying to get the best out of your guys.”
Minnesota dug out of a 5-2 hole and won the second game 9-5 to go 5.5 games up on Cleveland. If the Twins go 7-7 in their final 14 games, the Indians would have to go 13-0 to win the division outright.
Miguel Sano’s first career grand slam, off of Cleveland reliever Nick Goody in the 8th inning, not only broke a 5-5 tie, but may have ended the Tribe’s chances of winning the AL Central.
“It’s a tremendous swing, and a very challenging, dramatic moment,” said Baldelli. “Something big was needed. These are really emotional, big games, these games are fun, they’re a different brand of baseball this time of year, and that’s just a huge play and a huge swing. It kind of puts us in position to win the game, flat-out.”
“A couple of times, I had the bases loaded and I tried to hit the ball too hard (earlier in the season),” admitted Sano. “In that at-bat, I went to the plate and was just thinking about trying to hit the ball. And I got the opportunity to hit my first grand slam.”
Jorge Polanco delivered the game-winning two-run home run in the first game, and went 3-for-5 and drove in three runs in the second.
“He’s just a hell of a player and coming through with moment after moment in these late in the year games,” said Baldelli. “All the things we’ve discussed about these games, they’re big games and big players show up and do big things in these games.”
But the bullpen was ultimately the story.
Devin Smelzter, Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers combined to throw a shutout in the first game, and Lewis Thorpe, Cody Stashak, Brusdar Graterol and Trevor May kept things together in the second. That’s nine pitchers delivering 18 outs for a team that needed to ensure Cleveland didn’t close in on them in the division race.
The only pitcher to give up an earned run was Thorpe, who gave up five in 3.2 innings in a situation where he was asked to provide length.
“I think I was sort of, I don’t want to say intimidated, but more nervous in the fact pitching in a big game like that,” said Thorpe, who gave up two runs in the first inning.
“Just didn’t have it in the first inning. My command, that wasn’t me, that’s not who I am, throwing balls, walking people. I had to nail down and keep pursuing and I think I did that. Stro (catcher Jason Castro) back there and Wes (pitching coach Wes Johnson) helped when he came out.”
“We needed all of them and everybody delivered,” said Baldelli. “Lewis Thorpe going out and throwing 40 pitches in the first inning and getting through the inning and then giving us multiple innings after that was enormous. It gave us the opportunity to turn to all these other guys and we had numerous guys go out and throw the ball really well after that.
“I think that could probably get lost in a lot of things. There was a chance he wasn’t going to get through that first inning and he found a way to get through it and keep going and gave us a bunch of pitches in several innings. Without pretty much everybody that was out there over the course of the day, Game 1 and Game 2, we don’t win. We needed everybody.”
On a day when the Twins needed bullpen depth and their offense to deliver, it did.