In theory, Devin Smeltzer pitching seven scoreless two-hit innings, perhaps the start of his life, should produce a win. In the abstract, a rested Tyler Duffey, who hasn't allowed three runs or four hits in any outing this season, should protect a 2-0 lead. On paper, the Twins loading the bases with nobody out and trailing by one run should produce a tie score, minimum.
But at Target Field?
The loss was more than hypothetical.
"We had a lot of different ways that we could have won the ballgame," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said after Duffey coughed up the lead and the Twins left 10 runners stranded, three of them in the eighth inning. The result was a 3-2 loss to the Royals, one that looks inexplicable everywhere but the scoreboard.
"It's one of those things, man, they're all pretty good contact hitters, and if you leave pitches over the plate for them to handle, they're going to hit them," said Duffey, who gave up a two-run, game-tying double to Whit Merrifield and a go-ahead double by Bobby Witt Jr. "So here we are."
Here they are, losers of two consecutive games for the first time in two weeks, and in both cases, their starting pitcher left with a lead. In this case, it was 2-0, with Ryan Jeffers and Gilberto Celestino providing run-scoring hits in support of Smeltzer.
It looked like plenty, especially with Smeltzer's wife, Brianne, helping out.
"My wife told me this morning I needed to throw more changeups down and away," the lefthander said. "I agreed and that's what we did."
Hire that pitching coach. Using that changeup, as Smeltzer relayed during the pregame strategy meeting with his catcher, and wielding a fastball that registered 90 mph only twice all night, allowed a single to Andrew Benintendi in the first inning, and a two-out single to Hunter Dozier in the seventh — and nothing else but a harmless walk. Smeltzer's six strikeouts represent the most in his career since he whiffed seven Brewers during his big-league debut in 2019.
"Smeltz was excellent. He was excellent," Baldelli said. "I don't know if you can go out there and pitch much better than he did. The opposition looked uncomfortable in a lot of at-bats. He kept them off-balance nicely and missed a few bats as well. Everything we could ask for from him."
Will Smeltzer, demoted to St. Paul after holding the Royals to one run last Friday, get to keep his roster spot this time?
"The way Smeltz is throwing, we're going to see [him] in one way, shape or form going forward," Baldelli said.
Now, if they can only revive the offense. The Twins, who have scored two runs in three consecutive games, handed Duffey a 2-0 lead. It disappeared quickly.
Emmanuel Rivera and pinch hitter Ryan O'Hearn singled, and with two outs, Merrifield timed a 1-0 curveball and drove it into the gap in right-center, a double that allowed both runs ahead of him to score and tie the game.
After Andrew Benintendi walked, Witt took advantage of Duffey's biggest mistake, a two-strike curve left that drifted over the plate. The rookie hammered it to left-center, and Merrifield easily scored the go-ahead run.
“We had a lot of different ways that we could have won the ballgame.”
"It wasn't a bad pitch, but it's a pitch to a guy like him that he can handle," Duffey said. "That's just one of those things that, in the moment, I haven't faced this guy yet, I can throw him one, make a good pitch. He got the barrel down to it and hit a double."
The Twins threatened to take the lead right back in the bottom of the eighth, when Gary Sanchez reached on an infield error and Gio Urshela and Luis Arraez looped hits into the outfield, loading the bases. But Jose Miranda looked at a third strike from Royals closer Scott Barlow, pinch hitter Nick Gordon swung at strike three, and Max Kepler rolled out to third base to preserve the Royals' lead.
The Twins also had a chance in the ninth when Byron Buxton lead off with an infield single, ending his 0-for-30 slump, and Sanchez singled with two outs. But Gio Urshela grounded into a fielder's choice to end the game.