'One of those days': Ober looking past rare rough start

March 31st, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- The Twins made an uncharacteristic show of doing on-field workouts before Sunday’s game as part of a renewed effort to improve their poor performance in day games from seasons past -- but the new sample didn’t look all too pretty, either.

They still emerged from Kansas City having won their first series of the season, but any hopes for a sweep had been dashed before many fans had even settled into their seats, as the Royals’ lineup dealt starter the worst result of his four-year career for an 11-0 Twins loss in Sunday’s finale at Kauffman Stadium.

“Getting punched in the mouth in Game 3, you can't really put a bright spin on that at all,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “Yeah, we won two games, but we can't lose like that.”

Ober’s stat line -- a career-high eight runs on nine hits in 1 1/3 innings -- essentially did tell the whole story, as the Royals teed off against much of his arsenal and tagged him for three homers, matching a career high for Ober set all the way back on June 30, 2021.

“It's over with,” Ober said. “I can't really do anything about it. I just need to get ready to go face whoever I'm throwing against next and have a short-term memory and put it behind me.”

The 28-year-old right-hander allowed three runs in the first inning on a Salvador Perez homer, then was pulled in the midst of a six-run second inning, during which five of the six Royals hitters he faced reached base, including two homers, a triple, a double and a single.

As for why? He had no real answers after the game -- and neither did Jeffers, and neither did manager Rocco Baldelli. The Royals mostly hit his fastball and changeup, with Kansas City manager Matt Quatraro noting that his hitters were ready to not let Ober’s pitches get above their barrels -- but Ober didn’t even necessarily think he mis-executed some of those.

The outcome was even more unusual because, well, this never really happens to Ober.

Ober has arguably been the Twins’ most consistent starter since he debuted in ‘21, having allowed three or fewer earned runs in 46 of his 57 career starts entering Sunday. Only once in Ober’s 104 career appearances as a professional had he lasted less than two innings, an April 26, 2018 outing in Class A.

It’s one outing in a stadium in which Ober traditionally hasn’t found much success, so Ober’s track record of consistency gives reason to believe he’ll bounce back -- and the Twins will be counting on that.

“Executed some, they hit them,” Ober said. “Didn't execute some, they hit them. Just one of those days.”

The Twins weren’t going to make up for the lost production of Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda -- both gone in free agency -- through any one addition, and will instead need to recoup that with improvement from the rest of their group in Joe Ryan, Ober, Louie Varland and Chris Paddack.

Ober’s typical consistency has set a relatively high bar -- but his floor in avoiding blow-up starts like this one has been equally significant, especially given the relatively shallow state of the bullpen depth due to the injuries to Justin Topa, Caleb Thielbar and Jhoan Duran.

If there was ever a time for a blow-up start, it was today, given the off-day two days ago and another tomorrow that will help keep the bullpen fresh -- and even this short-handed ‘pen did well, holding the Royals to two earned runs across 12 1/3 innings in this series, including at least one appearance from every reliever.

The Twins need either Ober or Joe Ryan -- or, preferably, both -- to step up alongside Pablo López as a reliable option to stabilize the pitching staff in Gray’s absence. It’s even more significant in light of the news earlier this week of Anthony DeSclafani’s season-ending elbow flexor surgery, further shortening Minnesota’s already shaky starting depth.

The good news was that Ober’s higher-quality stuff from a productive spring was still there, with his 92.4 mph fastball average up more than a mile an hour from that of last season. He felt physically fine, he said, and will now do something he’s essentially never had to do before as a big leaguer: Put a complete clunker behind him.

“He’ll be ready for his next start,” Baldelli said. “This is something that he’ll definitely learn something from and take something from, even though it was a tough day.”