Maeda fans 9 in Tommy John return, showing ace upside

April 5th, 2023

MIAMI -- Twins right-hander enjoyed a triumphant return from Tommy John surgery on Tuesday night, but the 34-year-old was too exhausted to truly savor the outing. 

Locked in a swiftly played pitching duel with Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, Maeda was brilliant, striking out nine, while allowing one run on three hits. 

Maeda’s lone mistake, a slider that caught too much of the plate, was crushed for a home run by Avisaíl García that was the difference in the Twins’ 1-0 loss. 

Garcia’s second-inning shot was the lone run Alcantara needed, as the 2022 National League Cy Young Award winner tossed a complete game that concluded in just one hour and 57 minutes.

Otherwise, Maeda’s season debut exceeded expectations, as the veteran showed no signs of rust in five-plus innings.

“I was very thankful for everyone who has supported me through this long journey,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “Just pitching on the mound, it’s been a while. So I really enjoyed the moment. I just wanted to concentrate on getting the guys out, because there’s nerves building up, getting on the mound for the first time in a while.”

The loss was the Twins' first of the season, dropping their record to 4-1. But in terms of an uplifting night, Maeda showed what he’s capable of adding to the rotation. Additionally, the organization is relieved by the fact the veteran came out of the game healthy, albeit, he was fatigued.

Maeda, who had his surgery on Sept. 1, 2021, ran out of gas after Jon Berti’s leadoff single in the sixth inning.

“Kenta is fine,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He pitched really well. I think he was gassed in a lot of ways. He had to work and then come into the dugout. And truthfully he was not in the dugout very long, because the guy on the other side of the field was having some very, very quick innings.”

At the pace Alcantara was breezing to his fourth career shutout and 10th complete game, Maeda had little time to catch his breath between innings.

With the new MLB rules to pick up the pace, pitchers getting fatigued could be an issue.

“That is going to be one major adjustment in our game for the pitchers who are going to have to find ways to still go out there and pitch when they’re really only in the dugout sometimes [a few minutes],” Baldelli said. “That’s a change in our game, but ultimately Kenta’s doing fine and he will be ready to go next time around, I believe almost with certainty.”

The question of Maeda’s health was raised in the sixth inning after Berti’s hit. Maeda was seen shaking his arm, which drew the attention of the Twins’ dugout.   

“Getting pulled out of the game wasn’t scheduled,” Maeda said. “But I think Rocco saw some fatigue build up in me.”

 Reliever Emilio Pagán took over for Maeda, and he got out of the inning by inducing a double-play ground ball from Garrett Cooper.

What does a healthy Maeda mean for the Twins? 

“Oof, a lot,” catcher Christian Vázquez said. “Great slider. You saw him. I think he’s going to help us to win a lot of games.” 

Until the sixth inning, Maeda was nothing short of spectacular. 

The Marlins managed a García home run off Maeda, but not much else. Of his 79 pitches, 54 were for strikes.

The Twins couldn’t get anything going against Alcantara. Trevor Larnach had an infield single in the fourth inning, and in the seventh, he walked and advanced to second. That was Minnesota’s lone runner in scoring position. Carlos Correa singled with one out in the ninth, but Alcantara ended it by getting Larnach to tap into a double play.

“I don’t know if there’s a plan that you’re really shooting for against him that you’re confident is going to work,” Baldelli said. “His track record kind of speaks for itself. So you have to have some ideas and you have to be willing to try some different things when you face him.”

Maeda started his night off with a 90.2 mph four-seam fastball, taken for a strike by Miami's leadoff hitter and former Twin, Luis Arraez. He logged his first strikeout of the season by getting Jorge Soler to swing through an 83.1 mph slider.

“[Maeda's] a very important piece of this team, and I think he can be as good as any pitcher we have,” Baldelli said. “If he’s at his best and he’s out there throwing the ball like he did today, he’s capable of virtually anything.”