The Twins' bullpen was an unquestioned strength of this team as the offense slumbered for much of this young season and the pitching staff was tasked with protecting slim leads in close game after close game. That relief corps finally ran into a speedbump on Thursday.
After starter Kenta Maeda departed with a two-run lead, setup man Sergio Romo gave up a run in the eighth inning and closer Taylor Rogers allowed a game-winning rally in the ninth as the Pirates erased a two-run deficit and walked off on Kevin Newman's two-run single to deal the Twins a 6-5 defeat at PNC Park.
“We have a really good group down there,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Sometimes, it's the difference of one pitch or just a hitter making contact on a given play or finding some space on the field. I didn't see anything, the way our guys threw the ball, that would make me think anything other than that. If our guys go out and throw the ball like they did today, I think things are going to work out very well for our group.”
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for Minnesota, which dropped to 10-3. A win in Thursday afternoon’s series finale would have sealed the best 13-game start in franchise history; instead, the Twins’ record matches the 10-3 starts by by five teams in franchise history, most recently by the 2001 Twins.
The Twins looked to be in good shape to notch their seventh straight win for most of Thursday afternoon, as Maeda continued his strong first impression by allowing only a three-run homer in another six effective innings and Minnesota got long balls from Miguel Sanó, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario for their first multi-homer output in five games.
That could have been it as Baldelli handed a 5-3 lead to a bullpen that hadn’t blown an advantage all season and entered the game fourth among American League relief corps with a 2.88 ERA. Instead, Romo and Rogers were both tagged for their first runs of 2020.
Romo’s trouble started when he got ahead of the light-hitting Jarrod Dyson 0-2 but threw four straight balls for a leadoff walk. Considering Romo’s high leg kick and low velocity, Dyson easily stole second and third then scored on an RBI groundout by Phillip Evans. One inning later, Rogers allowed a single, double and single on a trio of weakly hit balls, capped by Newman’s chopper up the middle through a drawn-in infield.
“I don't think it was, probably, a whole lot about execution,” Baldelli said. “It wasn't like balls were getting whacked all around. He made pretty good pitches. Things just happen in this game sometimes, and there's not much we can do about it."
Bad breaks in the late innings aside, the Twins still looked every bit like division favorites for most of Thursday’s game.
Three starts into his Minnesota career, Maeda has more than delivered on the expectations set for him when the Twins traded away top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to acquire the veteran right-hander. He retired 15 of his final 16 hitters and didn’t allow a hit beyond the second, when he ran into his only roadblock with a trio of hits, including a game-tying three-run homer by Gregory Polanco.
“I definitely think that was an important outing, the inning after I gave up those three runs,” said Maeda, who felt his pitches weren’t particularly sharp on Thursday. “If I was having a bad day, I could have leaked more runs in, but I was able to shut them down, which was good.”
He has allowed eight hits in 17 innings across his first three starts of the season, and has 16 strikeouts and three walks to open his 2020 campaign.
Sanó got Minnesota off to another fast start with a three-run homer to left in the first inning, a line drive that left the bat at 114.0 mph and marked the third-hardest long ball of his career.
Buxton followed in the fourth with a solo shot to center field that carried an estimated 431 feet, his first homer of the season after he got off to a delayed start due to a left mid-foot sprain he sustained during Summer Camp. Rosario also had an impressive day at the plate that included a fifth-inning solo blast, which followed a pair of walks in tough at-bats.
“There were some home runs that were hit and they sound like and look like they're fired out of a cannon,” Baldelli said. “[Buxton] got a hold of that one very good. It must have been a really good feeling. He's been taking swings like that. I think we're seeing some of the production that's coming with those types of good, aggressive swings."