The National League wing of the Twins’ pitching rotation is having no trouble adjusting to the American League. Maybe playing the Cardinals helped smooth the transition.
For the third consecutive game, a longtime National League starter pitched five strong innings for the Twins and walked away with an impressive victory, and Rich Hill’s spotless night may have been the most remarkable. The 40-year-old lefthander, his pitching elbow surgically repaired only eight months ago, allowed last year’s NL Central champions only a couple of singles and a walk and never allowed a Cardinal to advance past first base in his five shutout innings, picking up the 3-0 win over St. Louis at Target Field.
Not since last June 2 had Hill, at 40 older than every active big leaguer except Fernando Rodney and Albert Pujols, pitched so commandingly. But after fearing his career was in jeopardy when he underwent surgery in November, Hill is now determined to win a World Series before his long career ends. Though his fastball doesn’t break 88 mph and his curveball is his only other weapon, Hill looked in postseason form already during his Twins debut.
“I barely broke a sweat,” joked Hill’s almost-as-veteran catcher, Alex Avila. Hill “has been inspiring, really, because he’s battled back from some tough injuries and has been throwing well for a long time. It’s just a matter of being able to land those strikes because he’s got that good carry on the fastball, and good spin on the curveball, so it was fun.”
It was more than just fun to Hill.
“To have it come out the way it did has been unbelievable,” said Hill, pitching for the ninth team of his 16-year career. “I’ve had zero issues with my elbow since the surgery. It has been pretty incredible.”
Almost as incredible as the traditionally pitching-deficient Twins getting victories from three newcomers in a row — something that had never happened to this franchise before, and only three times in big-league history.
Hill, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey, three winter acquisitions who have a combined 440 starts for National League teams (and just 65 now in the AL), each pitched five innings in their Twins debuts, and while Hill was the only one not to allow a run, Maeda (whose AL debut came Sunday in Chicago) and Bailey arguably made only one mistake apiece — two-run homers each time.
“It’s impactful for them to come in and get the job done right away, but also for the team and their teammates. Everyone wants to make a great first impression,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “To have all three of those guys come in off of good camps and ramp-up periods, and on their breaks just putting in the work to be here and be ready. Everyone can feel it, they sense it, and now we got a chance to watch them go out there and do it. It’s three great performances in a row.”
Match that kind of starting pitching, plus four overpowering relief innings that also never allowed a Cardinal to advance past first base, with the Twins’ relentless offense, and you get a 4-1 start that leaves the Twins as the only one-loss team in the AL Central, with second-place Cleveland coming to town for four games this weekend.
Oh, that offense? Cardinals righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon and the St. Louis relief corps actually did a good job of limiting the Twins on Wednesday. Wearing their throwback powder-blue uniforms for the first time this season, Minnesota managed only five hits, but they were timely enough to produce three runs.
The first came on Nelson Cruz’s first-inning double on a 3-2 pitch, a scorching two-out line drive that reached the wall in right-center and scored Luis Arraez from first base.
Ponce de Leon didn’t make another mistake until the fourth inning, but it was a loud one. After getting Eddie Rosario to foul off an inside curveball and a high-and-away fastball, the righthander came inside with another fastball on 0-2. Rosario didn’t miss, and the ball glanced off the ribbon scoreboard on the upper deck in right, Rosario first home run of the season.
“I wanted to try to hit a homer all day today,” mostly because he wanted to model those baby-blue uniforms, Rosario said. “The last couple of games, I wanted to try to select good pitches to hit. I felt a little late when I see a [pitch] that’s a strike. I wanted to change a little bit and be more aggressive.”