Jharel Cotton was wearing a T-shirt during batting practice Friday with the Twins' bullpen's manifesto printed on it: "Give Us a Dirty One."
That's a reference to "dirty" innings, as opposed to "clean" innings in which a relief pitcher enters a game at the start. "Dirty ones are when guys are already on base and we have to get out of jams," Cotton said. "As bullpen guys, that's our job."
From that narrow view, the Twins' bullpen has been remarkably effective this season, having allowed only 23 of 92 runners inherited from the previous pitcher to score, a 75% success rate that ranks fourth-best in the major leagues, behind the Diamondbacks (78.7), Rays (78.9) and Tigers (76.0).
That's particularly encouraging, given that Minnesota's pen ranked dead last among the 30 teams last season with a success rate of only 56.2%, or 78 of 178 runners allowed to score.
"We take a lot of pride in having each other's back," Cotton said. "Working out of trouble is how you win games. That's what we're all about."
No doubt the Twins' improvement in cleaning up the occasional pitching mess is part of the reason the Twins have bounced back from 2021's last-place disaster. And a couple of Twins have been particularly adept at salvaging potentially rough innings.
As the lone lefthander for much of the season, Caleb Thielbar has been summoned into problematic innings more than any other pitcher, inheriting 22 runners in 29 appearances. Only three have come around to score, an 86.4% success rate that would lead a lot of teams.
It doesn't lead the Twins, however, because Joe Smith, whose 14 inherited runners are second-most on the team, has yet to allow any other pitcher's runners to score. Not since righthander Michael Jackson kept the first 15 runners he inherited from scoring in 2002 have the Twins had a reliever preserve a 100% success rate so long.
But there is irony in those T-shirts, provided for each pitcher by bullpen coach Pete Maki, too. "Dirty" assignments for relief pitchers are becoming less common, for a variety of reasons. Cotton himself has entered his last eight appearances at the start of an inning, and has exited a game in mid-inning only twice all year.
"We can't be running out there every [game in the] seventh inning because a guy doesn't look good to the first few hitters," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, because his bullpen is often stretched thin, a problem that may only get worse now that MLB limits teams to 13 pitchers on the 26-man roster. "We can't make that work."
Smith himself provided an illustration of that reality Thursday night. He entered the game in the seventh inning with the Twins ahead 1-0, and quickly loaded the bases with a walk, a double and a hit batter. Though the righthander was clearly battling control problems, Baldelli said there was no thought about replacing him.
"We can't use six pitchers to get through three innings to win games, and we know that. Joe had to make adjustments, and if he didn't, we wouldn't have won the game," Baldelli said. "We have to pick and choose our spots to go out there and … get a guy."
It worked out. Smith got two ground balls for forceouts at home, and a fly ball to end the inning.
"We're not going to have right now, in this run of games we have, too many days where we just have a surplus of available arms" to work dirty innings, Baldelli said. "Plus, that's Joe Smith — that's what he gets paid to do."
Opening for Buxton
One advantage to the limit on pitchers: The extra position player allows teams to wait out short-term injuries rather than place them on the injured list. Byron Buxton, out since Tuesday with knee soreness but showing improvement, is "lined up to play" on Saturday, Baldelli said, and that likely wouldn't have been the case if the Twins had 14 pitchers.
"We have more options when making lineups, we have more options during games," Baldelli said. "It's a little scary" having only three bench players, especially if someone is nursing a minor injury, "because you're one issue away from having a pitcher having to go in."
— Jorge Polanco is practicing again, and is on course to be activated early next week without a rehab assignment, Baldelli said.