CLEVELAND -- One figured that runs might be tough to come by for the Twins on Tuesday night with Aaron Civale’s return to the mound -- but John Gant made it even tougher for Cleveland’s hitters.
Gant has shown a steady improvement, start over start, since moving from the Twins’ bullpen to the rotation out of necessity in mid-August, and this outing produced the best results of them all, as the right-hander turned in five scoreless innings to head a shutout effort by Minnesota’s pitching staff in a 3-0 stifling of Cleveland at Progressive Field.
As Jorge Alcala, Juan Minaya, Caleb Thielbar and Alex Colomé followed Gant with zero after zero, Minnesota’s new-look pitching staff continued to dig deep for its fourth shutout effort since the July 30 Trade Deadline, as compared to three shutouts before the pitching staff entered this transitional period. Minnesota’s only runs came on an Andrelton Simmons RBI single, a Brent Rooker solo homer and a Luis Arraez RBI triple -- but the pitching staff made them stand.
“I think guys are starting to feel a little more comfortable being here,” acting manager Bill Evers said. “I think they’re settling into the situations and getting used to being around one another, understanding what Wes [Johnson] and Pete [Maki] are trying to instill in them and using their best pitches to get outs.”
As part of that surge, Gant has continued to find the strike zone more effectively than he did in St. Louis before the Cardinals moved him in a package for J.A. Happ at the Deadline, as his seven strikeouts and four walks brought his Twins totals to 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 26 innings -- as compared to his 56 strikeouts and 56 walks in 76 1/3 innings for St. Louis.
Though Gant walked four and allowed three hits, they were scattered enough that he only ran into serious trouble in the third inning, when Cleveland loaded the bases with two outs on singles by Myles Straw and Andrés Giménez and an 11-pitch walk by José Ramírez -- but Gant got Franmil Reyes to fly out to the warning track in left-center, exchanging a high-five with catcher Ben Rortvedt as he walked back to the dugout.
"I didn't think he got it full-on, but ... he doesn't really have to get it full-on for it to go," Gant said. "I didn't really know what was going to happen. I was hanging on the edge of my feet, if you will."
And as Evers mentioned pitchers using their best pitches to get outs, Gant and the Twins have emphasized that better usage of his changeup has been a key in his improved control following the trade, with the aim to throw fewer non-competitive pitches that hitters could easily lay off, and indeed, that offering was his best weapon on Tuesday, as he threw 30 changeups, four shy of his career high, and generated eight whiffs with the pitch, his most in an outing since 2018.
Five of his seven strikeouts came on the changeup to hitters from both sides of the plate: Reyes, Yu Chang and Straw from the right side and Bradley Zimmer and Ramírez from the left side.
That isn’t necessarily a wholesale change in his approach, as the changeup has been an important part of Gant’s arsenal since he entered the league in 2016, resulting in whiff rates as high as 51.6 percent last season. With a change in his sights in throwing the pitch and some mechanical tweaks -- things that he said have been emphasized to him for the first time when he came to Minnesota -- he feels all of his pitches are playing up as a result.
“I've worked on a couple of things with Wes and I've been feeling a little better with it lately,” Gant said. “I felt good with it tonight. I felt real confident throwing it. I felt like it made all of my pitches better.”
Gant, who is under club control for next season, expressed the desire to start when he first arrived in Minnesota, and he’s now getting that extended opportunity after the Twins initially said they’d keep him in the bullpen. He hasn’t allowed more than three hits in any of his four starts, and won the first of those on Tuesday, stretched out to 96 pitches.
How does he feel about the body of work he’s put up in this audition?
“I would say definitely got to cut down on the free passes,” Gant said. “Walked a few too many guys out there tonight.”
He’s already done that more effectively in Minnesota than at any other stop of his career -- and he’ll have a chance to build on that in additional work with Johnson and the Twins’ staff.