MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins’ bullpen has been nails for the better part of a month, but six innings of relief against the Blue Jays’ potent offense proved too tall of a task.
Minnesota relievers didn’t allow a run across the first two games of this four-game series, but after the bullpen was pressed into early action due to John Gant’s limited pitch count in his return from the injured list, Luke Farrell and Kyle Barraclough both allowed late home runs in a 6-1 loss at Target Field that snapped the Twins' four-game winning streak.
The Twins’ lineup did look to have Blue Jays left-hander Robbie Ray, an AL Cy Young Award front-runner, on the ropes early with four baserunners and several hard-hit balls in the first two innings. But the southpaw collected some timely strikeouts, and line drives found outfield mitts to limit the damage before Ray settled in.
“When you're facing a guy like this, you definitely have to capitalize [on] every opportunity you can because you're only going to get so many,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He misses a lot of bats. It may not be a typical start that he's had this year … but, ultimately, when he needed to get some outs, he pulled it together.”
Meanwhile, Toronto’s bats took advantage of shaky Minnesota defense in the second inning, when a botched double play turn and error by right fielder Brent Rooker allowed the Jays to plate a second run to take an early 2-1 lead. And once Gant exited after three innings, having allowed two runs (one earned), the power bats started to pack a punch.
Farrell got the sixth inning and allowed a solo homer to Marcus Semien before avoiding further damage thanks to a diving catch in left field by Nick Gordon, while Barraclough allowed the Blue Jays to bust the game open on a two-run blast by George Springer in the seventh, his first hit in 23 at-bats against the Twins this season. Danny Coulombe allowed three more hits and another run in the eighth.
"It's not an easy task any time when you're facing a lineup like this,” Baldelli said. “I know there's a traditional thought that maybe [bullpen days are] not as effective as maybe putting a good starter out there … but I have confidence in our guys in the bullpen to go out there and do a good job, even against a good lineup like this.”
Considering the talent in Toronto’s lineup, it’s tough to fault Minnesota’s bullpen for having an off night after holding the Jays to three runs in the first two games of the series, especially considering these teams have now matched up six times since last Friday.
In fact, entering Saturday, Twins relievers had held opponents to a 2.32 ERA (29 earned runs in 112 2/3 innings) since Aug. 27, even after scraping together a bullpen, including several Minor League free agents and waiver-wire acquisitions, following a season-ending injury to closer Taylor Rogers.
In that time, it’s been an all-out fact-finding mission for Baldelli and the coaching staff to figure out what kind of talent they have remaining and who they might be able to build around for a 2022 pitching staff that could barely look like the Opening Day group the Twins brought north from Spring Training in April.
There have been bright spots in there as well, something Baldelli noted before the game. From Juan Minaya’s emergence as a reliable option to Jorge Alcala’s steady improvement against left-handed hitters and maturation into a leverage option to the success of waiver pickup Ralph Garza Jr., who could be forging a future in Minnesota.
A newer arm also showed his upside in an otherwise tough night for the bullpen, when rookie left-hander Jovani Moran rebounded from a wild outing in Toronto a week ago to strike out four batters in two perfect innings, generating 10 whiffs on 19 pitches. He could also enter that fray to help the Twins set up for this offseason -- and with time running out for evaluation, the Twins are fortunate that many of their late-season returns have been promising, Saturday night notwithstanding.
“You want to know as much as you can,” Baldelli said. “You want to feel as good as you can with as many guys as possible, and that’s what this has been about. But I think our pitching staff, especially in the second half, has definitely been a bright spot.”