Maeda bounces back with scoreless 8-K start

May 4th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins’ offense continued its recent roll on Monday, which was an encouraging development. bouncing back from the roughest stretch of his Minnesota career was an even more welcome sight for those on hand at Target Field.

Maeda’s 5 1/3 innings weren’t the most efficient, as a patient Rangers lineup worked the right-hander for deep counts, but the most important number at the end of his outing was the zero in the runs column after he’d allowed 12 runs in his past two starts. Maeda’s scoreless start held up thanks to RBI knocks from four different hitters, including Alex Kirilloff, as Minnesota claimed a 6-5 victory over Texas, its fourth win in the last five games.

“I didn’t have the best of my stuff the past two outings, and I got better during the last outing, but tonight I think everything worked out pretty well,” Maeda said through interpreter Dai Sekizaki. “We went over some stuff with [pitching coach Wes Johnson]. I made some adjustments and kept the zeros on the scoreboard, which is really good.”

The two doubles and three runs from Kirilloff, the Twins’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, gave him six extra-base hits over his last four games. Josh Donaldson also drove an RBI double, while Jorge Polanco tripled and Max Kepler plated a run with a single as Minnesota tallied enough insurance with a three-run sixth and another in the eighth to hold off a Texas rally.

“We didn't have a homer, but I almost feel we did have a homer, the way we swung the bats,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think we drove the ball, I think we hit the ball hard, and I think our guys looked really good at the plate."

Though eight of the 20 batters to face Maeda worked three-ball counts and 12 worked plate appearances of five or more pitches, he had payoff pitches when he needed them, picking up a season-high eight strikeouts while walking only two and allowing two singles in his 94-pitch outing.

Significantly, he also kept the ball in the ballpark after allowing three homers apiece in each of his past two outings -- the first time he had done that in his six-year career.

Baldelli noted that Maeda’s struggles stemmed from the execution of his secondary pitches, which he leaned on more than any other starting pitcher during his Cy Young runner-up campaign in 2020. He’d allowed four of his seven homers on his slider, with hitters slugging .773 against the pitch. The whiff rate on his split changeup had dropped from 45.6 percent a year ago to 19.1 percent this season.

But following continued work on mechanical adjustments with Johnson, Maeda was finally happier with the break of his slider, which got six of his 13 swings and misses on Monday.

“The breaking ball shape was there tonight,” Maeda said. “When I don’t have that stuff, it usually kind of ends up being flat, especially the sliders. But the shape and depth and movement of my breaking balls were pretty consistent tonight. However, I did miss some locations that led up to the pitch count.”

The command of those pitches still appeared erratic at times on Monday, with the slider in particular getting yanked to his glove side, but he still picked up two of his strikeouts with the slider and three with the changeup.

“Instead of giving in and just saying, ‘You know what? I missed on a couple pitches. I’ve got to find the fat part of the plate, and I’ve got to throw a strike here,’ I think what he did was he still stayed tough, and he still stayed intent on making a very good pitch,” Baldelli said.

Getting Maeda back in form is crucial for the Twins if they're going to dig out of the hole they created with their 7-15 start, a skid during which Maeda started three of the Twins’ 13 losses in a span of 15 games.

With Matt Shoemaker struggling and Michael Pineda’s status uncertain after taking a comebacker off his wrist, the Twins need their Opening Day starter more than ever -- and he’s ready to shrug off his challenging start.

“It’s about getting wins, like we have been in May so far,” Maeda said. “Just continue to rack up those wins, and hopefully we can continue to tick it up in the right direction.”