Maeda's near no-no precedes WILD walk-off

August 19th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- Long before took the mound to start the ninth inning, already having thrown the most pitches in his Major League career, more than any other pitcher in MLB had this season, he'd already written himself into the Minnesota Twins' record books.

That wasn't enough. He had his eyes on the Major League record books, too.

It was simply that kind of dominant start under the lights of an empty Target Field for Maeda, one befitting of a double dose of history. He didn’t get it, as Eric Sogard’s weak line drive snuck just over the glove of a leaping Jorge Polanco and bounced harmlessly into center field to break up his no-hit bid with three outs to go.

Maeda grinned over at first base as he stooped on the mound, hands on his knees, as the entire Twins dugout and club employees scattered around the empty ballpark clapped hard during his long walk off the field. The no-hitter gone, he had to settle for a Twins record with eight consecutive strikeouts and his most dominant outing of the season. But he couldn’t even get a win for his effort as the Brewers raced back before the Twins finally punched through a 4-3 win in 12 innings.

“That was one of the best games I've ever seen pitched in baseball,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He's facing a team that he just faced last week with good hitters. He dominated. He did everything you can possibly do. He was in total control. He's showing us all of the different dimensions to what he can do out on the mound. Even for people who are in baseball, to watch a performance like that does put you a little bit in awe. I don't even know what else to say.”

Maeda didn’t get the win, though, because, with his domination out of the game, things got very messy -- and weird -- in a big, big hurry.

Closer Taylor Rogers loaded the bases in the ninth with none out in a 3-0 game, allowed an RBI single to Keston Hiura and saw the tying run score when newly acquired infielder Ildemaro Vargas threw wide of first base on a potential double-play ball.

That led to the Twins’ first extra-innings contest of 2020 under the new rules, during which the chaos steadily escalated.

The Brewers lost their designated hitter, Mitch Garver had to make his first appearance at first base since last July as the Twins depleted their bench due to an ejection, Minnesota sent only two batters to the plate in an inning and Max Kepler saved the game in the 12th with a diving catch.

Finally, Byron Buxton raced home with the winning run against a five-man infield (with starting designated hitter Ryan Braun playing third base; it was that kind of game) on a Polanco grounder to end things without a hit in the bottom of the 12th, four hours and 28 minutes after first pitch.

“Things were flying in every direction throughout the game,” Baldelli said. “I even looked at [bench coach] Mike Bell next to me and a couple of the other guys in the dugout and I kind of said just that. 'There's a lot going on right now. It's going on pretty fast.' But our guys, regardless of all the craziness, they were very calm and focused and were able to keep playing and making the plays.”

“Anyone other than Buxton [running home], I think we’re still playing,” Sogard said.

Maeda had long stretches of dominance in each of his four previous starts entering Tuesday night, but nothing quite like this. He issued a four-pitch walk to Christian Yelich in the first inning and another free pass to Omar Narváez in the eighth -- and that was it. The Brewers only mustered one ball out of the infield all evening against the right-hander until Sogard’s 66.8 mph bloop trickled into center field in the ninth.

“Watching Kenta pitch, you’re kind of looking around, having conversations with each other, saying, ‘Wow,’” Baldelli said. “You can feel it, inning after inning. He just is going out there and it’s a combination of a lot of different things, but he has it. He has it and he’s showing it to us every time out.”

The veteran right-hander’s 12 strikeouts over eight-plus innings fell one shy of his career-high set back in 2016, when he was with the Dodgers. His 115 pitches also marked the most of his career. Still, there was no question as to whether Maeda would go out for the ninth. Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson let him be between innings, and Baldelli was more than happy to watch the right-hander work.

Eight of those 12 strikeouts came consecutively from the third to the fifth innings in a stretch of dominance that highlighted just how unhittable Maeda’s stuff was for most of the game. The eight straight punchouts fell one short of the American League record.

The streak began with a foul-tip strikeout of No. 9 hitter Sogard with one out in the third and continued with swinging strikeouts by Avisaíl García, Yelich and Hiura. Justin Smoak struck out looking to end the fourth before Maeda got Braun, Narváez and Ben Gamel swinging in the fifth to write himself into Twins history. The Brewers entered the game with the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the Majors.

The unfortunate part? Maeda had no idea he was even going for history. When he got on the mound for the sixth, he thought he had only six strikeouts in a row, not eight. He might otherwise have approached that at-bat against Luis Urías a bit differently.

“I mean, for sure, I would have definitely gone for the ninth, and if I had known, I’d probably throw a lot of balls out of the zone to keep it going,” Maeda said.

The previous club record for consecutive strikeouts -- seven -- had been shared by Jim Merritt (July 21, 1966) and Francisco Liriano (June 11, 2010).

Even without a Major League record, Maeda almost soared into rarefied air on Tuesday night anyway, when he came three outs away from becoming the third Japanese pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Major Leagues.

By the way, he didn’t intend to tip his cap to the empty stadium as he walked off the mound, though it may have appeared that way. If he keeps pitching this way, he’ll certainly have more chances to do that in the coming years.

“I just kind of adjusted my hat, to be honest,” Maeda said. “That’s what it was. But tipping a hat to a stadium full of fans is one of my dreams, so hopefully I can throw another great outing and then do it in front of fans next time.”