Trevor May left two curveballs up. Nelson Cruz popped out with the bases loaded. Taylor Rogers blew a save. With the exception of their 14-4 loss to the New York Mets, every game the Minnesota Twins have lost since failing to sweep the Cleveland Indians in Ohio has been close.
Sunday’s game against the Oakland Athletics looked like another close one that Minnesota would let slip.
They blew a 4-0 lead, gave up six runs in innings five through eight and won it on another Max Kepler walk-off against old friend Liam Hendriks in the ninth inning.
“He’s been doing it all year for us,” said Rocco Baldelli. This was Kepler’s second walk-off this season, fourth of his career. “This was a huge day for him. It was a day where we needed a lot of big efforts and he was certainly one of those guys that got it done.”
With the Cleveland Indians on a winning streak and Minnesota having only won one game in their last six, this was a must-win before the New York Yankees come to town.
“We needed this game for sure. We’ve been battling these last couple of weeks,” said Ehire Adrianza, who hit an RBI triple to tie the game before Kepler’s walk-off winner. “That’s a lot of energy man. I think with this win the team has to lift up a little bit. We’ve got a pretty big series coming — we face a pretty good team.”
“We needed it,” echoed Kepler.
The failure of the offense to deliver when it matters most at times, coupled with a few bullpen mishaps, has resulted in the Twins losing five of seven while Cleveland has gone 7-1. But injuries to key players are playing a factor, and many core contributors are playing hurt as they try and stave off the surging Cleveland Indians, who are playing a soft spot in their schedule while Minnesota faces the A’s and the Yankees.
Even the blowout loss was closer than the score would suggest. The Twins were up 3-2 when May gave up a three-run home run to Dominic Smith in the seventh inning, and then things really only got out of hand when Eddie Rosario lost a ball in the sun on a routine fly ball in the eighth inning and the Mets scored six unearned runs to put the game away.
Matt Magill, who pitched that inning against the Mets, has since been traded to the Seattle Mariners for cash. Taylor Rogers and May have been asked to pitch multiple innings recently, and Zack Littell was optioned to Triple-A after Sunday’s game, despite pitching well as a converted starter, in order to allow the Twins to bring up fresh reliever.
“That was definitely a challenging stretch, which I think we’ve weathered pretty well even with maybe getting a little less production,” said Baldelli. “Our guys got through that in an impressive fashion. That being said, it’s also nice to look up and see just about the whole group getting healthy at the same time.”
Their star player remains out with concussion-like symptoms, however. Byron Buxton’s return appears imminent, but his injury is unpredictable by nature. And while he’s been around the clubhouse, he has not been in the dugout during games — allowing him to recover away from the bright lights and cacophony of the game.
The Twins are 8-14 without him in the lineup, and 52-23 when he’s available. Not only is he emerging as the star player he was projected to be, but Baldelli and the players say he provides energy — much like Rosario or Luis Arraez — that has been notably absent while he’s recovering.
“A lot of the guys out there feed off him in a lot of different ways,” says Baldelli. “They know him as a person, they know he goes out there and competes and battles and picks his teammates up and does so many good things for the group.”
Although the Indians have closed the gap since Minnesota left Cleveland, the Twins are primed to create separation after the trade deadline. Not only do they have enough prospects to bolster the bullpen by trading for a couple relievers after they DFA’d Mike Morin and Magill, but they could also deal for a starter if the price is right.
Regardless of what happens at the deadline, as long as they add to the bullpen and get relatively healthy, the schedule begins to favor them after they play the Yankees. They face the Chicago White Sox and the Miami Marlins on the road, then get the Kansas City Royals at home.
If they play well against the Yankees, and take care of business against the White Sox, Marlins and Royals, this slump will become a distant memory. But if they look like the same old Twins against New York, it will put added pressure on what they do at the deadline.