Familiar pitching issues seal last-place finish

October 2nd, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- As far as the Twins’ 2021 fortunes are concerned, the standings stopped being significant a long time ago, once it became clear that this Minnesota team would fall well short of contending for the postseason.

Still, Friday’s series-opening loss in Kansas City had meaning in that it officially sealed the Twins into last place in the American League Central for the first time since 2016. And the manner of the club’s 11-6 defeat to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium -- production from its offensive stars amid pitching struggles -- was emblematic of the issues that plagued the team in what it had hoped would be a bid for a third straight division title.

Byron Buxton reached base multiple times for the fifth straight game and collected his second straight three-hit game with a pair of doubles, a single and two runs scored, highlighting his MVP-caliber production when he’s been on the field. Josh Donaldson’s RBI double continued a largely healthy and productive season for the once-cornerstone free agent signing. Miguel Sanó’s three hits exemplified his turnaround from a brutal start to the season.

“It’s a treat to watch,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Buxton. “It’s one thing to hit the ball hard. There’s a lot of guys in this league who have some snap in their bat, and can really drive the ball and hit the ball hard. It’s another thing to go out there against Major League pitching and be on the fastball, be on the breaking balls. Today, even on the changeups.”

All that wasn’t enough as Twins pitchers gave up multiple runs in the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, resulting in the team’s 20th game this season in which an opponent reached double digits on the scoreboard -- two shy of the club record set in 1997.

This performance certainly wasn’t indicative of the Twins’ pitching turnaround following the Trade Deadline, with the bullpen in particular coalescing to a 3.51 ERA since July 30, but starter John Gant’s six runs allowed through four innings and the five more yielded by the bullpen were emblematic of all too many pitching performances in the first four months of the season that brought the club to this point.

"Our pitching, in aggregate, early on, guys didn't throw the ball,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said on Thursday. “Even Kenta [Maeda], the first month of the season, wasn't throwing the ball the way he wanted to. We just weren't able to get some of our guys going.”

Falvey reiterated the club’s desire to improve in the short-term on Thursday, and the offensive production and pitching shortcomings of Friday night showed, again, the path that will likely take.

Ryan Jeffers, who hit his 14th homer on Friday night, will be back with another year of experience under his belt. Sanó will be under contract, having vowed to work harder than ever before this coming offseason -- as will Donaldson. The questions will still linger as to Buxton’s future, as has been evident throughout the second half of the season, and especially if he’s back, the talent on the offense is apparent, featuring many of the pieces that got the club to consecutive postseasons in 2019 and ‘20.

And alongside that, the Twins have made no secret of the fact that this post-Trade Deadline period has been a fact-finding mission on the pitching side to assess and identify the existing talent, with several encouraging developments for the future in the emergence of Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan and Juan Minaya. Gant, a Deadline acquisition, could be part of that, too, on the heels of an unexpected stint in the starting rotation born of necessity.

“I think it's going to depend on the situation that [Gant] finds himself in -- obviously, the rest of the staff around him and what that staff is going to be looking like,” Baldelli said. “I think when you stretch him out, I think he offers some things that lend themselves to starting. I think he also likes the challenge of starting.”

Whatever the case, the pitching staff will need help -- and Friday served as another reminder of how much of a difference that made in 2021.

“It's an area we are going to spend a lot of time focusing on and trying to be creative and think about ways, via free agency or trade, ways we can impact there,” Falvey said. “But we don't have a clear-cut answer to that today."