Smeltzer seizes opportunity; stock now soaring
DETROIT – The hardest pitch of Devin Smeltzer’s outing -- 92.2 mph -- came in the seventh inning on Tuesday, when he’d already blown well past his season high in pitches and as he readied himself to cruise past his previous career high.
This is the fully realized and unleashed version of Smeltzer that he hasn’t been since before a series of injuries derailed his 2021 -- and, frankly, it might be the best the left-hander has been since he debuted in ‘19. Pitching in turn for a fourth consecutive start, Smeltzer twirled another gem, allowing two runs on 101 pitches across 6 2/3 innings to give the Twins’ bullpen a breather during an 8-2 victory to open Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Tigers at Comerica Park.
The Twins couldn’t carry the momentum of Smeltzer’s dominance into the nightcap, during which they were held to three hits in a 4-0 defeat.
"Today's the best I've felt,” Smeltzer said. “Fastball velo, fastball command, it was the best it's been. I was able to move the ball down and out. Changeup was good. They fought it off pretty well, but I got the weak contact I was looking for.”
After giving the Twins only their third outing of seven complete innings in ‘22 in his last start, Smeltzer looked unfazed by a lineup of nine right-handed hitters (including two switch-hitters batting righty), getting touched only by Jeimer Candelario’s RBI groundout in the fourth inning before a bobbled turn on a likely inning-ending double play in his final frame prevented him from completing seven innings once again -- and led to the other earned run on his ledger.
Though Smeltzer has been in the big leagues for parts of each season since ‘19, this is the first real chance he’s gotten to pitch as a true starter in a regular rhythm, considering the brunt of his usage in the past has come as a spot starter or long-relief innings-eater, largely dedicated more by the needs of the team than by his own performance or schedule.
With Chris Paddack sidelined due to a second Tommy John surgery, Josh Winder rehabbing from a shoulder issue and Joe Ryan on the COVID IL, the Twins’ once-formidable rotation depth has thinned to the point that Smeltzer, previously on the outside looking in, has finally gotten the chance to break into a consistent starting role. He thinks that’s made all the difference.
“I can settle into a routine, I can throw my bullpen knowing that I'm traveling with the team -- not [wondering] what team,” Smeltzer said. "When you're going up and down, you have to take travel days into account. It can move your bullpen day around. It can move your long toss day, your lifts. Travel is hard on the body, especially commercially, so when you're going up and down, it's tough to settle into a true routine.”
He’s been attacking with confidence, turning away from his new slider to his changeup and curveball against such a righty-laden lineup, scattering six hits in the 6 2/3 frames without issuing a walk.
“You try to just enjoy these times because they don't last forever,” Smeltzer said. “It's a lot more often that you have one or two pitches working, if any, that you just have to go out and grind and do what you got to do. So when you have things working and feel working, you reiterate it and just keep rolling, stick to the routine and just trust that things are going to be there.”
This outing was particularly meaningful for the Twins in that they’re mired in a stretch of 18 games in 17 days -- including Tuesday’s doubleheader -- and it helped Minnesota get out of the first game using only Griffin Jax in an extended relief outing to finish out the win.
The Twins will soon have some decisions on their hands whenever Ryan clears COVID protocols and Winder potentially returns to the rotation next week, but it’s tough to argue with Smeltzer’s 1.50 ERA and 0.83 WHIP through his four starts. He’s waited for this opportunity -- and once again, he’s just trying to make the Twins’ rotation decisions as difficult as possible.
“I think this is the best he's ever been, I really do,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “The ball coming out of his hand is as good as it's ever been. He's throwing the ball very confidently. ... You couldn't ask for more from this guy right now than what he's giving us.”