López’s run as one of the best closers in the Major Leagues isn’t over, but it was interrupted on Friday night when he surrendered a two-run, walk-off homer to Byron Buxton in the Orioles’ 3-2 loss to the Twins at Target Field.
“He's not going to be perfect, but he’s been close to that so far this year,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
López inherited a 2-1 lead to start the ninth after Spenser Watkins, Cionel Pérez and Félix Bautista had retired 21 straight Twins batters. But leadoff hitter Luis Arraez, who leads the American League with a .343 batting average, fouled off three full-count pitches before lacing a 99-mph fastball into center field for a base hit.
That brought up Buxton, the Twins’ leader in home runs and RBIs and a virtual lock to earn his first career All-Star nomination later this month. He certainly helped his candidacy when he reached across the plate at a López slider and launched it into the left-field seats 399 feet away for his 21st homer of the season.
Still, Hyde had a hard time being upset at his closer’s performance.
“The leadoff hitter put a great at-bat against him, he gets on top of 99 [mph] for a base hit up the middle," Hyde said, "and then [López] just leaves a two-strike slider to a great player, a little too much of the plate there. The majority of those guys would probably roll that over for a double play, but Buxton put a good swing on it.”
Buxton also credited Arraez for setting the tone with his at-bat leading off the inning.
“It helps a lot, especially when you see a guy like that battle and foul off tough pitches, especially from a closer like that,” Buxton said. “I don’t know what feeling I could have felt other than getting in there and competing and try to get him in.”
Even though López has been a closer for just three months, he already has a handle on the roller-coaster of emotions and the need for resilience that accompanies the role.
”The team doesn’t deserve this," López said. "I just feel I’ve let them down. It’s only one pitch I missed, and those are good hitters. You’ve just got to keep going and forget this day, and come back tomorrow and get the win.”
The white-knuckle ending overshadowed an outstanding outing by Watkins, who pitched six innings for the first time this season and has allowed just one earned run over 11 innings in his past two starts. He credits a change in his mental approach for his recent success.
“End of the year last year and the beginning of this year, the mental loop seemed to be pretty big,” Watkins said. “So just simplifying the mental loop and keeping my focus pretty small, so I’m not trying to process too many things at once … has been a pretty big piece.”
As for the surprise of López blowing just his third save in 16 chances this season, Watkins and his teammates aren’t going to let it shake their confidence in their closer.
“Anything can happen in this game,” Watkins said. “Jorge is incredibly professional and he’ll bounce back really well. We have every bit of faith in that guy every time he goes out. We’ve got our trust in him every time he grabs the ball.”
Hyde’s early exit
Hyde wasn’t around to experience most of the drama as home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus ejected him in the middle of the third inning as the Twins were preparing to bat. Hyde indicated the issue stemmed from something that happened when Cedric Mullins was batting in the top of the frame.
“During the Mullins at-bat there was a disrespectful exchange between the home plate umpire and our dugout,” Hyde explained. “I felt it was more on me to go out there and see what was going on and it got heated from there. We’ll go through the proper channels with it.”