SEATTLE -- At long last, the Twins’ battle with pitching attrition is starting to alleviate -- but that doesn’t mean they’re all the way back.
Opening Day starter Joe Ryan returned to the mound for the first time in three weeks on Tuesday following his activation from the COVID injured list, and veteran Sonny Gray will be right behind him when he takes the mound for Wednesday’s series finale at T-Mobile Park. Though Ryan looked to be his usual stingy self for three innings, he appeared to fatigue as he allowed a pair of two-run blasts that sent the Twins to a series-evening 5-0 defeat to the Mariners.
“They’re extraordinarily important to what we do here,” manager Rocco Baldelli said of Ryan and Gray. “Getting them back and getting them up to full speed and full strength is our task right now. … Working them back in is going to be something specific that we can focus on.”
Ryan matched a season high with four earned runs allowed on the two homers -- the first by Eugenio Suárez in the fourth inning, and the second from Ty France in the fifth. It marked only Ryan’s second start allowing multiple homers among the 14 outings in his career, and the first time that had occurred this season.
Though Ryan regretted a pair of sliders that backed up on him -- resulting in Julio Rodríguez’s fourth-inning double that preceded Suárez’s swat and France’s homer into the left-field stands -- there’s a relatively apparent explanation for the uncharacteristic outing: Ryan’s fastball was down 1.3 mph over his season average, with a noticeable decline throughout his appearance.
Ryan touched 93.7 mph in the first inning, and he threw one clocked at 87.4 in his final frame, when his hardest pitch was clocked at 89.2.
“Definitely frustrating to not have that endurance that I had before this, but we've been working on it, and we'll keep building it,” Ryan said. “Shouldn't be too long."
Ryan’s average fastball velocity by inning
1st: 92.5 mph
2nd: 91.2 mph
3rd: 90.9 mph
4th: 90.4 mph
5th: 88.5 mph
This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, considering Ryan only made one rehab start in which he threw 40 pitches for Triple-A St. Paul on Thursday, and he spoke of experiencing fatigue before his buildup from his bout of COVID-19. He said he took an hour-long ride on the exercise bike following his exit to continue building his aerobic capacity, and he listed several supplements he’s taking to help with his lungs.
It is encouraging for the Twins that the old Ryan -- the one who posted a 2.28 ERA through his first eight starts -- is clearly in there, as evidenced by the three hitless innings to begin his outing. In that stretch, he allowed only a walk to Rodríguez while collecting a pair of strikeouts. He also gave up only one hard-hit ball (95 mph or harder) in those first three frames, compared to four allowed in his final 1 2/3.
It’s a process to build back up -- and the Twins are counting on him to do so by the next time he pitches.
“As the pitch count got up, after everything he’s been through, we’re really just looking for next start out, to strengthen up and to feel better and to be able to get through five or six innings and be able to do it the way he normally does,” Baldelli said.
A quick buildup is doubly important for both Ryan and Gray because of how taxed this bullpen has been during the pair’s absence. Twins starters have now failed to complete five innings in nine of the last 11 games, and MLB is expected to begin enforcing the 13-pitcher roster limit (down from 14) on Sunday, which will further stretch the relief corps.
The Twins stayed afloat in the absence of both Ryan and Gray, going 7-8 without their top two pitchers amid their toughest stretch of schedule this season, but with the Guardians approaching in the division standings and the offense’s contributions strong as a whole but sporadic, they’ll need their frontline arms back to form sooner rather than later.
“I felt good early, and I'm going to build on that positive and try to wipe that negative,” Ryan said. “It sucks. Team's been rolling, so I was kind of amped to come back and hopefully provide a good one."