López shows off 'ridiculous' control in first career shutout

July 6th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s been a long time since Twins fans have had a chance to enjoy a season of starting pitching like this -- and that’s why the 19,692 fans at Target Field on Wednesday sprang to their feet and roared in appreciation of Pablo López when he emerged from the dugout alone ahead of the ninth inning, just as they did for Joe Ryan two weeks ago.

And the Twins’ Opening Day starter just wanted to give that energy back to his team and the fans, having the most fun of his life as he mowed down hitter after hitter on one of those rare nights where a pitcher feels good about all of his pitches, in total command of the game plan. That effort ended with López saluting the crowd in triumph after he set a new career-high with 12 strikeouts in his first career shutout, a 5-0 Twins victory over Kansas City.

“Every little milestone that all of us as players get to achieve, we need to soak it in,” López said. “Because as players, as people, we spend so much time dwelling on failure that I think we don’t cherish the good times as much. … But when good moments like this come, I think it’s very, very important to enjoy.”

After the Twins went 1,909 days without experiencing the exhilaration of a complete-game shutout, they’ve now seen two in 14 days, between Wednesday and Ryan’s effort against the Red Sox on June 22. It’s the first time since ‘11 that they’ve had multiple pitchers throw shutouts in the same season.

The Twins’ acquisition of López in an offseason trade that sent reigning batting champion Luis Arraez to the Marlins completed a pitching staff that has been the Majors’ best in most major categories, from ERA to strikeout rate to OPS against to innings per start to quality starts. And this is the upside of that staff’s Opening Day starter when he’s at his best.

“He carried it from the first pitch to the last,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “An incredible night for everybody involved here, just ridiculous. I mean, he was just ridiculous, the way every pitch was, I think, almost precisely what he was looking for.”

López threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of 30 batters, retired 15 in a row from the third to eighth innings and struck out six in a row in the fifth and sixth innings. He needed only 13 pitches to complete the final two frames to finish the game at exactly 100, aided by an inning-ending, run-saving diving catch from Max Kepler in the eighth.

“It’s just a lot of fun, because you know you don’t have to give in, in any situations,” López said. “You have the weapons, you have the feel to throw them in any count, to challenge the batters. That was a good feeling.”

Though López entered the game with a 4.24 ERA, that has been misleading in some ways and not indicative of the dazzling underlying metrics that suggested an expected ERA of 3.10, spurred by the soaring strikeout total that pushed López past Shohei Ohtani to second in the American League.

López’s 138 strikeouts are tied for fourth-most in a first half in Twins history behind two Bert Blyleven seasons and a Johan Santana season.

“You’ve got to celebrate the successes in this game,” said catcher Ryan Jeffers, who caught both shutouts. “This game is so hard. We put in so much work, so much effort into the game prep and they put in so much work into getting themselves ready for the start. To see it all kind of come together and come to fruition is awesome.”

And it’s fitting that López got to celebrate by wearing the Twins’ “Land of 10,000 Rakes” fishing vest given to hitters after home runs -- because López is the one who brought that to the clubhouse, and he joked that, since pitchers won’t get a chance to homer, they should be able to don it if they throw a shutout.

That was fun for him. The Twins are having fun again. And López just wanted to embody that for everyone to see.

“He’s been great for us all year, but to see a guy do it on one night, that’s kind of bright, it’s really noticeable, it’s neon lights,” Baldelli said. “It’s ‘Here I am,’ and that was a ‘Here I am’ performance.”