López trying to find release point as struggles continue

June 4th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering the number of close games these Twins have been playing all season, there are going to be swings of momentum all season like the sequence that played out in the sixth and seventh innings of Saturday’s game, when lined into a tough-luck double play with a pair in scoring position before yielded his first homer of the year.

That will happen -- and it did, to sink the Twins in a 4-2, come-from-behind loss to the Guardians at Target Field, spurred by outfielder Will Brennan’s two-run blast off Gray in the seventh inning that erased a one-run Minnesota lead, snapping the longest homerless streak to begin a season in club history.

But if the Twins will continue to win such close games, they need to get right, because the right-hander occupied a crucial leverage role in the Minnesota bullpen to begin the season -- but he has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 12 innings, going back to the start of May, and those struggles continued with another tough outing late in Saturday’s contest.

“He's working, and he's doing what he can right now,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It's not coming easily. It's also why it's important to get him out there and let him keep pitching and continue to try and find himself on the mound.

"We could have taken him out and just gotten him off the mound, but he has to go out there and get some outs for the team, but also for himself to work on these things.”

When the season began, the Twins used López as one of their highest-leverage arms alongside Jhoan Duran. López was every bit as dominant as he was as an All-Star for the Orioles ahead of last season’s trade to Minnesota, allowing no earned runs through his first 13 appearances through the end of April, picking up two saves and five holds along the way.

But things have gotten very tough since then, as he has been scored upon in eight of his last 14 appearances, a 12-inning stretch in which he has allowed nine walks, four hit batters and six home runs -- including five long balls in his last five appearances. He only allowed four homers during the entire 2022 season.

“I've been not commanding my fastballs as I've tried to be,” López said. “Sinker has been awful. It's been that type of sinker where it doesn't get any vertical [movement] or anything like that.”

Considering the depletion of the leverage corps of the bullpen due to Griffin Jax’s early struggles and Caleb Thielbar’s oblique injury, the Twins have had little choice but to hope that López would pitch his way out of the struggles -- and recently, they’ve tried to get him into lower-leverage situations to help with that.

That has not helped, as López allowed three runs without recording an out in the ninth inning of what had been a blowout victory against the Blue Jays last Saturday, then allowed two runs without recording an out in a blowout win against the Astros on Wednesday.

With the Twins down a run late on Saturday, he struck out Mike Zunino to escape an inherited eighth-inning jam, but allowed a solo homer to the light-hitting Steven Kwan and issued two walks and a hit-by-pitch among the next four batters he faced before the Twins lifted him for Emilio Pagán.

Baldelli said that López was experimenting with a different warm-up and a slightly more athletic delivery to try and find his release point on Saturday -- and even if it costs them a few runs in the present, getting López to figure out these issues is far more important for this club’s hopes in the long run, because this roster, as presently constructed, simply needs López to occupy that role.

That’s because the stuff appears to still be there with the exemplary velocity and movement on his sinker -- and that’s why the Twins traded for him at last season’s Trade Deadline and why they viewed him so staunchly as one of the most important pieces of this bullpen.

“That's all part of the situation that we're trying to narrow in on and solve,” Baldelli said. “He does get a lot of movement on his pitches. Maybe we're looking for a certain type of movement and less of another type of movement, because some are much more effective to have than others. We're going to keep grinding on it.”