MINNESOTA -- In back-to-back games against the Cleveland Guardians last week, the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen crumbled. The offense supplied its relievers with a two-run lead heading into the eighth inning on Tuesday and a three-run lead entering the ninth inning on Wednesday. The Twins lost both games, and the AL Central lead in the process.
That naturally left questions about how far an unstable bullpen would allow these playoff hopefuls to go. And while no week-long stretch following those losses will provide any definitive answers or erase all concern, the Twins have answered the bell about as well as they could have. Sunday's 6-3 win over the Rockies was just the latest entry in a series of stellar bullpen outings.
“I’ve seen some fortitude and some unwillingness to break in some very challenging spots,” twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the bullpen’s response to the tough stretch. “...There was no giv[ing] in.”
Since Wednesday’s 11-10 loss to the Guardians, Minnesota’s bullpen has not allowed a run, spanning four games and 14 innings. Each time, relievers have either held leads or not allowed deficits to get worse.
Starter Joe Ryan left the game after a shaky but resilient five innings with a 5-3 lead. From there, it was up to the bullpen. Let’s take a deeper look at how they finished it off:
Caleb Thielbar was the first reliever from the 'pen. He immediately loaded the bases with back-to-back singles from Brian Serven and Garrett Hampson and a walk to Connor Joe.
From there, facing the Rockies’ 2-3-4 hitters, Thielbar squeezed out two outs, catching a Yonathan Daza comebacker and forcing Charlie Blackmon to ground out to third baseman Gio Urshela, who threw home to stop a run from scoring.
To get the final out against C.J. Cron, Baldelli called on Emilio Pagán.
“I think I've predominantly started him off first pitch off-speed in the handful of at-bats I've had with him, so I wanted to show him fastball early,” Pagán said.
Cron fouled off two inside fastballs to begin the at-bat.
“Then I felt like I had him sped up enough that if I got a breaking ball off the plate, that I would get weak contact,” Pagán said.
He did one better, striking him out to end the inning.
Pagán returned in the 7th for his second inning of work. Unlike Wednesday’s loss, when Pagán returned for the ninth inning after pitching the eighth and proceeded to give up four runs, Pagán made quick work of the Rockies. Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon grounded out and Elehuris Montero struck out to end the inning.
“To come in, be ready, focus, and get those outs was huge,” Baldelli said.
Pagán has tried not to be too results-based. Statistics can become inflated in the bullpen with a single bad outing, he explained, and not reflect the truth of how a pitcher is throwing.
“It's easy to look at results sometimes and fall into the trap that you're not throwing the ball well," Pagán said. "I know that it can kind of be cliché, but it's cliché because it's true. You can throw the ball great and have bad results. You can throw terrible and punch out the side.”
Minnesota turned the eighth inning over to Tyler Duffey. He quickly gave up two singles, but maneuvered his way through, striking out Joe and then forcing Daza to ground into a double play to end the inning.
It was Duffey’s fourth consecutive scoreless outing, and welcome progress after several rough appearances in a row in what has been a rough season overall.
“It's sucked,” Duffey said of his struggles. “You go out and work every day to try and get better, and the results weren't there.”
But now, they’re starting to come.
“I think he’s really kind of crafting and honing these things in on how to use them best,” Baldelli said. “But I like his current combinations that he’s working with. His stuff looks really good right now.”
Seemingly the only reliever in the ’pen who hasn’t struggled is Jhoan Duran -- and he put together another solid appearance, striking out Blackmon and Cron. He then threw his four fastest pitches of the game to Rodgers, including a 100 mph splitter and a 102 mph fastball that forced Rodgers to fly out.
“We were sitting in there working out after [the game] and looking at that,” Ryan said. “That has to be the hardest splitter of all time. The bullpen’s been huge and they’re working hard, and it’s good.”
Now, the team heads to Cleveland for five games in four days, looking for redemption.
“It's going to be a hell of a series,” Duffey said.