Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said over the weekend that he would count on several of his more inexperienced relievers to step up in big spots during this stretch of the schedule, due to injuries and usage of his high-leverage arms.
It worked with Sean Poppen and Caleb Thielbar, who successfully protected narrow leads on Sunday and Monday, respectively. It didn’t work out on Tuesday with Jorge Alcala, who allowed three runs in the sixth inning, including a go-ahead homer to Francisco Lindor. That erased a narrow lead that the Twins had built against Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, sending Minnesota to a 4-2 loss at Progressive Field.
"Jorge went out there, and we brought him into a very tight spot -- a spot where any one of those innings are going to be the ballgame, one way or the other, when you're playing that type of a ballgame,” Baldelli said. “Some of the pitches he probably wanted to throw and maybe bury some of them ... didn't get underneath the zone. Some of those guys put swings on them. That's going to happen.”
The loss cut Minnesota’s lead in the American League Central to 1 1/2 games over the Indians and White Sox, though the Twins are guaranteed to leave Cleveland in first place regardless of the result in Wednesday’s rubber match.
A patient Twins lineup actually looked to have the edge against Bieber for much of his early outing, as Minnesota cashed in a pair of walks in the second inning with a Luis Arraez RBI double and a Max Kepler RBI single. The Twins put a man on base in each of the first four innings and took lengthy at-bats against the Majors’ strikeout leader as they worked hard for a 2-1 lead.
The offense did its job, chasing Bieber from the game without a lead for only the second time this season. But the depletion of the bullpen bit the Twins.
Once Rich Hill was pulled after five mostly effective innings -- during which he introduced a new cutter -- Baldelli didn’t have too many of his high-leverage relief options available. Sergio Romo, Taylor Rogers and Trevor May had pitched in back-to-back games, while Tyler Clippard was still on the mend from a right elbow contusion. Zack Littell and Cody Stashak also remained unavailable due to injuries.
So, Baldelli turned to Alcala, the rookie right-hander who entered with a 1.50 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12 innings and had recently pitched the best outing of his career -- three innings of scoreless relief in Kansas City, with six strikeouts.
This time, Alcala allowed a leadoff single to José Ramírez and the go-ahead, two-run blast to Lindor, and he also walked Carlos Santana before recording an out. Santana, too, later scored on a Tyler Naquin RBI double as Alcala was chased after 24 pitches in only one inning.
"What Jorge has been able to do is grow,” Baldelli said. “It doesn't mean every outing is going to be pretty. No one goes out there and has a zero ERA and executes every pitch. But what he's done is he's taken different outings, whether that be in Spring Training or Summer Camp or some of these outings in the first half of the season, and build off them.”
Baldelli had spoken throughout the season of how Alcala’s confidence had continued to grow following his success in camp and his increased exposure throughout the 2020 season. The results weren’t there on Tuesday night, but Baldelli remains confident in his process.
“We’re not sitting here in the spot we’re in, we’re not sitting here winning a game [Monday] if we can’t lean on Caleb Thielbar, if we can’t lean on Alcala, if we can’t lean on Poppen and others in these times,” Baldelli said Monday. “In a normal year, you’re going to need a lot of different people to step up, and I think in a year like this, with this 2020 abbreviated season and everything that goes along with it, you need everybody even more.
“You’re going to have to lean on every speck of quality depth that you have and look at a lot of different names besides the guys you started the season out with.”