Twins unleash pair of flamethrowers out of 'pen

Paddack, Stewart show the kind of weapons they can be in the postseason relief corps

September 27th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s not often that a playoff-bound team gets to fundamentally reshape its bullpen in the final month of the season for the better.

But that’s exactly what the Twins have done, fortifying their relief corps with premium stuff to address what looked to be the roster’s shakiest point -- just in time for the postseason. And Tuesday night offered a preview of what that could look like in the postseason.

Both and  made their long-awaited returns to the mound -- Paddack from his second Tommy John surgery, and Stewart from a lingering elbow issue -- in the Twins’ 11-3 victory over the A’s at Target Field. It marked the penultimate major step of a bullpen facelift that has the Minnesota relief corps potentially the deepest it has been all year.

“It kind of sucks not to contribute in any way for the past 2 1/2 months,” Stewart said after he was reinstated from the 60-day IL. “To be back now, especially at the right time … I’m thrilled. I feel good, so [I’m] just going to go out there and do what I can to help the team and focus on each pitch, filling up the strike zone and let the rest take care of itself.”

Paddack was actually supposed to make his 2023 debut on Sunday, but he had it wiped out by a 50-minute rain delay. This time, it was for real.

Long after the Twins took the lead on Matt Wallner’s Statcast-projected 463-foot grand slam, Paddack showed the vastly improved stuff that was promised, hitting a career-best 99 mph as he struck out the side in the sixth, earning a standing ovation from the Target Field crowd as he yelled in triumph and walked off the mound.

“A lot of special moments for me there,” Paddack said. “A lot of emotion I got to let loose. Family was there. That’s always a special moment. Sixteen months and some change, second go around, I’ve been visualizing that outing right there for a really long time.”

But the rust also showed as he allowed four baserunners to open the seventh, including a two-run Seth Brown homer and an RBI double by Jordan Diaz. He finished with three runs allowed on four hits and one walk in two frames with four strikeouts. He was already looking ahead to better bottling in his adrenaline to sustain for a second frame and more aggressively attacking in a relief mindset.

And the Twins wasted no time in showing how they feel about where Stewart could fit, putting him in for the ninth inning for his first appearance since June 25. Stewart responded with two strikeouts in a quick, scoreless frame, picking up right where he’d left off with his 0.70 ERA when he got injured in June dropping to 0.68.

That makes it three bullpen reinforcements this month, including Louie Varland -- and the final major step will soon come, too, with Kenta Maeda’s debut in relief this season following his move out of the rotation announced earlier this week. Maeda had previously been a reliable force out of the Dodgers’ playoff bullpen, with a 1.64 ERA in 22 career postseason relief innings.

So here’s how the new-look Minnesota bullpen might look when the Twins open the postseason on Oct. 3 as the likely hosts of one of the AL Wild Card Series:

Multiple innings/flexible bridge usage: Maeda, Paddack, Varland
Middle innings: Emilio Pagán, Kody Funderburk
Late/leverage innings: Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar, Stewart, Jhoan Duran

There’s some wiggle room in there, and as Tuesday showed, there’s still rust to be shaken off and discovery to be done in new roles. But in all, it certainly has the makings of the best raw stuff the Twins have sported in a bullpen as part of manager Rocco Baldelli’s three playoff runs.

If there’s a short start and the Twins need to bridge the gap to their late-inning relievers, or if they’re playing from behind, Varland, Maeda and Paddack could help in stints of up to three innings. They’d bring additional upside, considering that Varland and Paddack are both throwing up to 99 mph in shorter stints. 

And if Stewart can keep this up, too -- watch out.

“Definitely was anxious to get back,” Stewart said. “This is the most fun I’ve had. So to be back now, I’m thrilled. What’s done is done, and I try to look forward with each pitch, with each day. Glad I’m where I’m at right now.”