A little more than a year ago — and far less than that on a baseball calendar including only months in which real games have been played — the Minnesota Twins faced a crisis.
On July 23 and 24, 2019, the Twins gave up 24 runs in two games in home losses to the New York Yankees, reviving fan fears of pinstripes and Blake Parker. The sounds made by Yankees bats against Twins relievers will not be included in the sounds pumped into Target Field this season to encourage the home team.
The Yankee losses shaved the Twins’ Central Division lead to two games and prompted a midseason overhaul of a pitching staff that, had it not worked, would have been viewed as a desperate attempt to whitewash a failed plan. Instead, the Twins’ brain trust made a flurry of moves that helped the team run away with the division.
Those moves are still paying dividends. On Sunday morning at Target Field, the Twins placed their planned starting pitcher, Homer Bailey, on the injured list and replaced him with what in clubhouses is known as “Johnny AllStaff,” a game patched together with relief pitchers.
Short reliever Tyler Clippard started with two shutout innings and five other relievers finished off a 3-1, two-hit victory over Cleveland.
“We’re making it very well known to the baseball world that we can pitch”
The Twins are 7-2. They have already won series against their top presumptive rivals in the AL Central, Chicago and Cleveland. They lost the opener of this four-game series on Thursday night, then won three in a row.
As of Sunday afternoon, they owned the second-best record in baseball. They are 108-63 since Derek Falvey hired Rocco Baldelli. And they have transformed their bullpen from a source of angst into a source of pride.
Sunday, the Twins won without using their scheduled starter or their best reliever — closer Taylor Rogers.
“We understand that if we do pitch well we’re going to win a championship,” Clippard said. “So far it’s been really fun to watch. I’m super excited about what we’ve got.”
Since mid-July 2019, the Twins have overhauled their reliever pecking order.
On July 20, they sold Mike Morin to the Phillies, and saw once-promising lefty Adalberto Mejia go to the Angels on waivers.
On July 21, they sold Matt Magill to the Mariners.
On July 27, they traded for Sergio Romo.
On July 29, they granted Parker, who had been their closer, free agency.
On July 31, they released former Cleveland closer Cody Allen from their minor league system and traded for Giants reliever Sam Dyson.
The trades added a savvy, experienced, highly competitive veteran in Romo. Dyson would get rocked in his first two Twins appearances, go on the injured list because of right biceps tendinitis and admit he had been pitching while hurt in July.
What this series of moves accomplished was clearing the way for the Twins’ new Big 3. Rogers would excel as the Twins’ primary closer. Trevor May and Tyler Duffey would become dominant setup men. And Romo, Cody Stashak, Zach Littell, Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer would emerge as standouts in their roles.
Without Jake Odorrizi or Bailey available for the Cleveland series because of injuries, the Twins held Cleveland to four runs in four games.
“It goes back to last spring training, when we had guys like Duffey and Trevor May kind of working on who they really needed to be out of the bullpen,” Twins catcher Mitch Garver said. “You’ve seen the guy that Duffey has turned into. He’s throwing the ball really well, he can spin it when you want to. Those are two guys who have bought into the analytic program that we have going and have been nothing but successful over the last 12 months.”
In 2020, the Twins have only two active pitchers with ERAs above 3.60: Jose Berrios (7.00) and Smeltzer (11.57).
They have 12 pitchers with ERAs of 2.25 or lower. One of them, Lewis Thorpe, will start Monday against the Pirates.
“We’re making it very well known to the baseball world that we can pitch,” Clippard said.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org