Smeltzer sizzles to give Twins share of 1st

Lefty paves way with 6 scoreless frames, bullpen squashes Guardians' late rallies

June 23rd, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- There’s nothing quite like clutch pitching to bust a team out of a skid.

The Twins needed a win to avoid a sweep and pull back even with the Guardians atop the American League Central, and they needed a lengthy start to avoid having to dig too deep into a taxed bullpen that had blown late leads in the first two games of the series.

Devin Smeltzer gave them both.

Smeltzer delivered six crucial scoreless innings in Thursday’s series finale at Target Field, then the relief corps held on for dear life as Joe Smith stranded the bases loaded in the seventh and Caleb Thielbar left the potential tying run on second base in the ninth to preserve a 1-0 victory.

“It was a heck of an outing for [Smeltzer], and this was a day we needed someone to just come in and do something like that, and he really showed up,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

The Twins (39-32) and Guardians (36-29) finished the series in a virtual tie atop the division once more, with all three games in the set decided by one run. Victories in these matchups look like they won’t come easily, and on Thursday, working without any wiggle room due to the success of opposing starter Zach Plesac, Smeltzer gave his team another one of its best outings of the season to swing the game in Minnesota’s favor.

The left-hander rebounded from a tough start in Arizona (4 1/3 innings, six earned runs) by matching Opening Day starter Joe Ryan for the team lead with his second outing of six or more scoreless innings in 2022.

That kind of upside and relative consistency has led to Smeltzer securing an unexpected spot in what is now a five-man rotation, with Josh Winder now the odd man out after being optioned to Triple-A St. Paul on Thursday following his rehab assignment.

“Being able to settle into a role, knowing that I’m starting, knowing that I’m going to get back out there every five or six days, it’s huge,” Smeltzer said. “Because I can put in my work, I can do the homework. It’s huge on the mental side of things, and recovery, rest, you know where you’re going to be. You’re not bouncing around. So it’s really big.”

But the starting pitching has been less of an issue than the bullpen in this recent stretch, and the finale against Cleveland figured to bring another unconventional road to the finish line after Minnesota had worn out the majority of its leverage arms in the close matchups on Tuesday and Wednesday.

With Smeltzer having needed 92 pitches to get through six innings, the Twins had to navigate the final three innings with some combination of Smith, Thielbar and Jhoan Duran -- and at last, they got it done.

Not that it went completely smoothly.

Smith began the seventh by loading the bases on a walk, a Franmil Reyes double and a hit-by-pitch, a continuation of the recent struggles that led to a 7.88 ERA across his past 11 appearances and a 1.43 WHIP that marked his highest since his rookie season in 2007.

But the veteran has shown that he’s capable of getting ground balls in big situations, and he did so twice for a pair of forceouts at home before he induced an inning-ending flyout off the bat of Myles Straw.

And though the Twins have often allowed Duran to pitch two-inning stints to finish out games, they didn’t let the rookie do so on Thursday, even after he had thrown a scoreless eighth and blown Reyes away on three pitches to begin the ninth. With the right-hander’s pitch count at 17, Baldelli instead turned to Thielbar, who allowed a double to Andrés Giménez but induced a groundout and a strikeout for his first Major League save.

“[Duran] threw two innings two days ago,” Baldelli said. “And you don't know what happens if you start leaving a guy in there in a second inning of work. We realistically can't let his pitch count get [near] the 30s for the second time in three days. We're going to need this guy all year long.”

There are 13 more of these matchups this season -- and if these games have been any indication, it’s going to be quite the fight for the division.

“These games are always tough,” Thielbar said. “They play us well, regardless of who’s a better team in a given year. Every year I’ve been up … they’ve always played us well.”