MINNEAPOLIS -- The buzz of Randy Dobnak’s Spring Training was the new slider that he started throwing on a whim, almost overnight, that he hoped would complete his arsenal and take him to the next level -- just before he signed a five-year extension with the Twins.
That’s the same slider he saw the Yankees’ offense -- struggling no more -- crush over the fence four times in the Twins’ 9-6 loss on Wednesday night at Target Field, which secured a series defeat. Aside from a four-run ninth with the game already out of hand, the Twins look no closer to righting the ship and continue to appear outmatched against their big-name opponents, and that slider might well be emblematic of all of the big expectations that have gone unrealized for the Twins this season.
“We're not playing the kind of baseball that we want to play,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “The energy that our guys bring, even to the very end of the game today, even through the lean part of the game today, our guys' energy is fine. We're just not playing the way we want to play.”
Much of the pregame buzz revolved around the potential for fireworks in the matchup between Gerrit Cole and Josh Donaldson after the Twins’ third baseman had mentioned the Yankees’ ace by name in a discussion about the use of illegal substances to improve spin rates. Instead, all the fireworks came from New York’s bats as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton (twice) and Miguel Andújar went deep off Dobnak -- while Donaldson struck out twice and flew out against Cole.
The Twins dropped to 24-37, still a game behind the Tigers for last place in the American League Central, with another game against the Yankees and a series against the Astros looming.
Just as the Twins’ depleted offense couldn’t keep up for most of Wednesday in a stark contrast to the powerful lineup they had envisioned with a healthy Donaldson, the club’s vaunted pitching depth is also running on empty -- and Dobnak’s struggles won’t help.
The right-hander was meant to be a plug-and-play depth starter to step up when needed, but his ERA ballooned to 7.36 after he allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings. He struggled with a bruised fingertip around a newly installed fake fingernail that prevented him from finishing his pitches. That included four sliders that caught too much of the strike zone, including three on two-strike counts.
“Just kind of being more consistent with it each week is something I’m always trying to work toward,” Dobnak said. “Being able to locate that, maybe backdoor to lefties and obviously to righties start it as a strike and just have it fall off the edge of the plate before it gets there.”
Minnesota’s other depth starters are on the injured list, with Devin Smeltzer recovering from left elbow inflammation and Lewis Thorpe struggling with left shoulder impingement. The Twins’ length options are depleted to the point that two-fifths of the Triple-A starting rotation was needed in the bullpen.
“We have a lot of guys that are hurt,” Baldelli said. “They're not here right now. Those are the guys who we expected to be playing. We need to look to the guys that are here now and look for them to step up into roles and prove that they belong here and can play well at the big league level.”
Even as they amassed the depth they hoped would be enough for a 162-game campaign, there’s no way the Twins could have envisioned that. By Wednesday, the only players on the 40-man roster who weren’t injured or on the MLB active roster were top pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran and outfielder Brent Rooker.
Tough as it is, that means there’s no choice but for the Twins to see this as an opportunity for their young depth players to step up and perform. There aren’t really any other options until they get healthy again -- which, fortunately, should be soon.
“I think we're in a spot where they have good opportunities in front of them with at-bats and innings up for grabs right now,” Baldelli said.