'It's frustrating:' Pagán experiences late meltdown

June 30th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- A sad laugh escaped Emilio Pagán’s lips as he sat, hunched, on a black equipment box in the hallway of the visitor’s clubhouse at Progressive Field, when asked if he’d ever experienced a stretch quite like this in his career.

“Yeah, I have,” Pagán said. “It’s part of the game.”

Such is the life of a high-leverage Major League reliever. Your failures, often coming in the most pivotal moments of close games, are magnified. It’s even tougher when those struggles string together in a bona fide slump -- and more brutal still when it lines up with a particularly consequential stretch of the schedule.

Four times in the last 10 games, Pagán has entered with a lead in the eighth inning or later against the Guardians, the second-place team in the American League Central. The Twins lost all four. The latest installment on Wednesday saw Minnesota carry a three-run lead into the bottom of the 10th inning, before Josh Naylor completed a four-run Cleveland rally with a walk-off, two-run blast that sent the Guardians to an improbable 7-6 victory in extras.

Of late, that sort of drama hasn’t been as improbable as the Twins would like.

The Twins also blew a 2-1 lead in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, when Pagán entered for the eighth and issued a pair of walks, a wild pitch and a two-run, go-ahead single. Last Wednesday, Cleveland had another game-winning, four-run rally, when Pagán pitched a shutdown eighth before allowing two singles and an RBI double to begin the ninth, ultimately charged with three runs. The day before that, Franmil Reyes had crushed a game-tying, two-run blast off Pagán in the eighth.

And on Wednesday, Pagán entered for the 10th following a three-run Twins rally. The first out came quickly, a groundout by Owen Miller. Steven Kwan worked a walk, Amed Rosario clubbed an RBI double -- and in an indication of Pagán’s recent performance, he didn’t get a chance to work out of the jam. Jharel Cotton was asked to finish the game, and he allowed the two-out homer to Naylor, who hurled his bat 30 feet in the air and headbutted his manager, Terry Francona, in a manic celebration.

In a stretch like this, with the top two teams in the division duking it out eight times in 10 days, those differences in outcomes are particularly consequential, with each constituting a two-game swing in the gap between the clubs. Following Thursday’s loss, the Twins still led by two games -- but it could have been 10.

“I’m pretty angry,” Pagán said. “They’re a good team, but it’s frustrating. I feel like I’m throwing the ball good enough to get outs, and it’s just not going my way right now.”

With all this in mind, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli had already acknowledged on Tuesday that the club was looking to be more flexible with Pagán’s usage as the 31-year-old figured things out, noting that they “rethink everything every day.” Pagán had been used in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game against the Rockies, for example, only the second time this season he’d been used earlier than the eighth.

“It's not just like an eighth- or ninth-inning deal for him,” Baldelli said. “If he needs a different spot, too, for his own kind of pitching well-being and getting him in the right frame of mind, then we'll do that, too.”

The Twins have already done that with Tyler Duffey, whose intense early struggles led to his demotion to low-leverage situations for a two-week stretch, from which he has steadily worked his way back into the fold.

But that was simply not a luxury the Twins had on Wednesday, when the game stretched into extra innings following Tuesday’s doubleheader, with Griffin Jax already having thrown 16 pitches and Jhoan Duran having been used for two frames. It was either Duffey, Pagán or Tyler Thornburg in the 10th, with the bullpen’s depth having been exhausted. It wasn’t an ideal situation for the Twins to use a struggling Pagán -- of which the quick hook was another indication.

But they need Pagán to return to form. They don’t have many late-inning options in this bullpen, otherwise -- at least, until the trade market heats up.

“There's something there, obviously, to work with going forward,” Baldelli said. “But we need to also look at ourselves in the mirror and be accountable and know that right now, he's not getting the job done the way we know we can. But we're going to keep working.”

The frustrating part for Pagán is that both he and Baldelli acknowledged that they feel the quality of his stuff is as good as it has been in his career -- and it just comes down to execution. There’s some agreement that there’s no magic solution; he might just have to pitch out of it.

"Keep grinding,” Twins starter Dylan Bundy said. “It's baseball. It happens. Sometimes, it happens for more than a week, more than two weeks, more than a month. I've had it happen to me, so I know the feeling.”

"Emilio's got this,” Cotton said. “He's been through it a lot. He has a lot of show time in the big leagues. He's great at what he does. He is just like me. We're going to bounce back and move forward.”