Minnesota's bullpen bends, but won't break

August 27th, 2020

The Twins’ bullpen is an underrated-yet-undeniable team strength. But as we saw in the final two games of a key three-game series in Cleveland, bullpens pushed to the brink are going to bend from time to time.

One night after rookie reliever Jorge Alcala served up a game-changing home run to Francisco Lindor in the sixth inning, it was the veteran Sergio Romo who labored in the eighth inning of a 6-3 defeat at Progressive Field on Wednesday night that cut the first-place Twins’ lead on the Tribe and White Sox in the American League Central down to half a game.

Wednesday’s game was No. 29 for the Twins in a taxing 36-games-in-37-days stretch. And at this point, it’s fair to wonder if that stretch is rearing its ugly head in some relief results.

“We’ve found good ways to get our guys out there in different combinations,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We’re going to take advantage of rest every way we can. It hasn’t been the easiest to do when we’ve played this many games in a row, but we’re still going to continue to do that.”

There were certainly other factors that lent a hand in this loss, such as Max Kepler fouling a ball off his foot and exiting just an inning after belting a leadoff home run, the offense serving as an unwilling foil in Mike Clevinger’s successful return to the Tribe rotation and José Berríos giving up a three-run homer to José Ramírez that was fair and clear by mere inches.

But it was the inability of the bullpen to maintain a 3-3 tie one night after it was unable to maintain a 2-1 lead that bring up the two factors worth keeping an eye on.

The first is the schedule itself. As Baldelli said, it is difficult to navigate. The Minnesota ‘pen is effective enough to rank in MLB’s top 10 in ERA (3.67), WHIP (1.25), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.36), strand rate (82.2%) and other key categories. But days off have been precious few, and bullpen games have also been necessary along the way.

Related

It adds up.

“This has been a run of games unlike anything that I’ve been a part of,” Baldelli said prior to Wednesday’s game.

Compounding the issue is the Twins’ struggle to get length from their starters. Some of that is attributable to injury, some to ineffectiveness. Minnesota's starters have averaged just 4.6 innings per outing.

Use the Indians as a comparable. They’ve gotten 182 1/3 innings pitched from their starters, versus the Twins’ 146. As a result, Cleveland has needed 94 2/3 innings from its relievers versus Minnesota's 132 1/3.

Again, it adds up.

On Tuesday, Baldelli had to turn to the fresh-faced Alcala in a tight spot because he didn’t have his full complement of relief arms available.

On Wednesday, the ‘pen was at full strength, but Romo, who had noticeable trouble getting a proper grip on the ball, didn’t deliver in the eighth. He gave up a leadoff single to Carlos Santana and walked Franmil Reyes with nobody out. Tyler Naquin sliced a double to the opposite field in left to score Santana, and Greg Allen’s sacrifice fly brought Reyes home to make it 5-3. The Tribe continued to pile on with Cesar Hernandez’s RBI single off Danny Coulombe.

While these games obviously carry added weight in what has been a fun and fascinating division race, they don’t carry so much weight that anybody should suddenly be fretting about the state of the Twins’ bullpen. It remains a strength.

“The luxury that we have on this team is we have a lot of good arms in the bullpen,” Tyler Clippard said. “With the additions of Caleb [Thielbar] and Alcala and [Sean] Poppen -- and I really liked what I saw from Danny the other day in Kansas City -- now you’re talking about, instead of five guys, we have nine bullpen arms that we really can rely on in any situation. That’s a very rare thing to have in a big league bullpen.”

The problem is that bullpen is facing a very rare schedule. It’s a group that could use a day off. Alas, one won’t arrive until Sept. 3.

In the meantime, there’s something else on the Twins’ schedule Friday in Detroit:

Another bullpen day.