MINNEAPOLIS -- If that three-game set against the Yankees was a preview of a potential playoff matchup, it's hard to say that the Twins didn't rise to the occasion.
The Twins fell in another high-scoring slugfest on Wednesday night, 10-7, after Jake Odorizzi surrendered a season-worst nine earned runs in four innings. The Twins didn't win the series, but they played three compelling, tightly contested games against the best team in the American League. And they got several encouraging relief performances from several young arms, including five strong innings from Devin Smeltzer in the series finale.
In doing so, the Twins wrapped up a difficult stretch against the A's and Yankees with a 3-4 record despite the attrition in the bullpen, and emerged from the challenge encouraged by how evenly matched the games proved to be.
"We've had several series in a row with teams you could see playing in the playoffs," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I think we competed very well against these teams, and I think the guys all know that we can compete and beat all of these teams. There were a lot of nights where we probably weren't even playing our best baseball. ... Maybe we weren't clicking in every way, and we were still going out there and competing well."
Smeltzer had been recalled from Triple-A Rochester before the game and was immediately called upon in the fifth inning, with the Twins trailing, 9-6. The wiry 23-year-old efficiently attacked the strike zone with all three of his pitches and shut down the Yankees' potent attack, holding them to five hits, including a solo homer, across his five innings without a walk and striking out four.
The left-hander, who had been called up in part due to his ability to give the Twins some length out of the bullpen, did just that, and in an efficient 63 pitches. Smeltzer did not allow multiple hits in an inning until the ninth, when Edwin Encarnacion took him deep for a solo homer. The effort lowered his season ERA to 2.91 in 21 2/3 innings.
With the Twins needing another fresh arm for their bullpen, Smeltzer was optioned back to Rochester following the game.
"I got asked to come up and help the bullpen out, and I was joking around before the game, if they asked me to come up and play right field because that's what they needed, I'll do anything to help the team win," Smeltzer said. "I came out and put in everything I've got. I just made sure I got one pitch at a time and kept working."
Smeltzer followed similarly encouraging appearances from both Lewis Thorpe and Cody Stashak in the first two games of the series. The 23-year-old Thorpe, with only one Major League appearance under his belt, held the Yankees to one run in 2 2/3 innings on Monday. Stashak, 25, threw two scoreless innings in his Major League debut on Tuesday.
"I'm glad they did it," Thorpe said of being thrown against the Yankees' lineup in only his eighth relief appearance in professional baseball. "I didn't look at it like facing the Yankees. I just went out there and just acted it was any other game that I pitched. To do that against that type of team is just unbelievable."
"They went out there and they were not scared," Baldelli said. "They went out there and did what they know. They took what they've been doing in the Minor Leagues and brought it here and attacked a really good lineup with their stuff. And they were extremely effective. It was fun to watch."
There's certainly room for the Twins to add relief help before the July 31 Trade Deadline, but chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said on Wednesday that the Minor League arms that the Twins already have in their system could also factor into the bullpen in the second half, regardless of the help that could arrive within the next week.
"To some degree, we're seeing [auditions] now," Falvey said. "We're still going to look at these guys, evaluate them as part of the mix. We know we're going to need depth, more than the names we have up here now. So we'll just continue to get those guys ready."
This series marked a promising step for some of those young pitchers.
"You never know what you're going to get when you bring someone up, guys who haven't done this before," Baldelli said. "And the poise, the confidence, all those softer factors played out very well for all three of those guys. It was good."
Though Smeltzer has been a starter or provided significant length in all of his appearances at the Major League level this season, the left-hander could be a natural fit to transition into a relief role for the second half.
Last season, Smeltzer was moved into the bullpen in July by the Dodgers' Double-A affiliate, and the Twins kept him in relief at Double-A Chattanooga after he and outfielder Luke Raley arrived in the trade that sent Brian Dozier to Los Angeles. Smeltzer posted a 3.00 ERA in 10 relief appearances for Chattanooga following the trade.
He's confident in what he's shown the Twins at the Major League level and is more than ready to accept a second-half relief role.
"100 percent," Smeltzer said. "If it's playing in short, right, catcher, being the batboy, I don't care. Whatever helps the team win, I'm here for."