MINNEAPOLIS -- Kenta Maeda has been waiting a long time for his chance to once again pitch as a starter in the postseason. Four years, to be exact.
Year after year, as the calendar turned to September, then to October, the Dodgers pushed Maeda into the bullpen when the games mattered most. A crowded Los Angeles rotation, an incentive-laden contract and Maeda’s exemplary numbers against right-handed hitters in particular likely worked against him as he was pushed into a relief specialist role.
In Minnesota, though? There’s little question that Maeda is the ace of this rotation as the Twins eye a deep run into the playoffs. He pitched like it again in his final tuneup of the regular season, a 7-6 win over Detroit that propelled the Twins back into first place in the American League Central. He got some help from a Cleveland walk-off win over Chicago, two Jake Cave homers and an Eddie Rosario blast, gifts from the newly robe-clad Bomba Squad.
"Enjoying the Twins' organization as a starter was a great thing right off the bat,” Maeda said. “And to finish strong in the regular season with another good night, it certainly boosted my confidence as a pitcher. We still have the postseason to go.”
When the Twins wake up Thursday morning, they’ll own sole possession of first place in the AL Central for the first time since Aug. 27. They will own the No. 3 spot in the AL playoffs.
Maeda is likely looking at a start in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series next Tuesday. This performance was another reminder that he’s earned it.
"I would say our group has tremendous, supreme confidence when he has the ball in his hand,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It's hard not to feel really, really good about our chances any time Kenta's taking the mound. From Day One, he's been dominant.”
The version of Maeda that baffled the Tigers for the first five innings on Wednesday should play against any lineup in the playoffs, whether it belongs to New York, Cleveland, Houston or Chicago. Victor Reyes led off the game with an infield single to shortstop, but the only other baserunner that Maeda allowed through five came on a Miguel Sanó error in the second inning.
Sure, he labored a bit in the sixth, when he allowed a pair of singles and made a mistake to future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, who crushed a three-run homer into the bullpens. But Maeda buckled down and turned Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum into his eighth and ninth strikeout victims of the evening to end his outing with a flourish.
“Other than that one swing, he was dominant,” Cave said. “He’s having a great season. To be able to help him out like that was good.”
“He's pitched us to where we're at right now,” Baldelli said. “You need guys to go out there and lead and just pick the team up continually. He's done it.”
Maeda’s opponents have made him pay for those momentary lapses with homers throughout the season, but those have been few and far between.
Put another way, Maeda allowed four baserunners in six innings -- four hits, no walks and nine strikeouts. That will again lower his MLB-leading WHIP, which entered the night at 0.76. In the expansion era (since 1961), only 2016 Clayton Kershaw and 2000 Pedro Martinez pitched at least 60 innings as a starter with a lower WHIP.
It’s not like Wednesday’s dominance over the Tigers was an outlier, either. Maeda retired 12 of his first 14 against the White Sox in his Twins debut. He followed that up by retiring 18 of 20 against Cleveland. Then came 15 of 16 against both Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. There was the no-hit bid into the ninth against the Brewers.
In Maeda’s 11 starts this regular season, he never allowed more than three earned runs. He never allowed more than six hits. Seven of those starts came against teams competing for playoff spots. If Shane Bieber weren’t a runaway favorite for the AL Cy Young Award this season, it’s safe to say Maeda would be near the top of the discussion.
“He's gone out there and done it, no matter which way you slice it up, no matter which way you want to look at it,” Baldelli said. “Objective, emotional, subjective, the way it's felt -- it's all at the top of the scale.”
Maeda is eager to take that into the postseason, because there’s a personal stake here, too. The Dodgers lost all three of those playoff games with him on the mound. He’s ready to strike that from the record -- and the Twins are finally giving him the chance to turn the page.
"In 2016, that was my first year in the big leagues, and everything was a first -- first year, first time -- for me,” Maeda said. “The postseason as well. Pitching-wise, it didn't go real well back then. Everything ended so quickly. But this year, four years since then, I think I'm a different pitcher. I'm more well-rounded. I feel more comfortable starting in the postseason."
The Twins feel comfortable behind him, too.