López, Gray to open postseason for Twins on the bump

September 28th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- It has seemed obvious for quite some time, so Twins manager Rocco Baldelli figured he’d just come out and say it, well in advance of the playoffs: will start Game 1 and will start Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series for Minnesota.

With the Twins all but locked into the AL’s No. 3 seed, those postseason games are expected to come in the AL Wild Card Series against the No. 6 seed, which the Twins are lined up to host at Target Field from Oct. 3-5.

“Pablo and Sonny are going to throw the first two games for us in the playoffs,” Baldelli said. “I don’t think there is any reason to not say that. I think it’s pretty obvious one way or another. Every single thing beyond that, all those things, we’re evaluating all those things still. We have to. There is no way around it.”

Beyond that, the Twins still have a decision to make regarding their Game 3 starter, if needed. Joe Ryan is currently lined up for that spot in the rotation order, but as Baldelli noted, everything beyond López and Gray is still being evaluated, with additional decisions likely to come down the line.

This announcement comes as no surprise, considering both veterans’ stature and 2023 performance.

After López started Opening Day for the Twins following his arrival in an offseason trade from Miami, the Twins locked him in as their ace of the future with a four-year, $73.5 million extension that will keep him in the Twin Cities through the end of the 2027 season.

He has responded with a 3.66 ERA and 234 strikeouts, the second-most in the AL behind Kevin Gausman of the Blue Jays. It marked the Twins’ first 200-strikeout season since José Berríos in ’18, and the most strikeouts in a season by a Minnesota pitcher since Johan Santana -- López’s childhood pitching idol -- struck out 235 in ’07.

His consistency and top-tier ceiling have been on display on several occasions this year -- most notably with his complete-game shutout against the Royals on July 5 and his eight-inning, 14-strikeout gem against the Mets on Sept. 10.

“When I walked into Spring Training, I fell in love with the philosophy,” López said after his start in Friday’s AL Central clincher. “I fell in love with the plan the Twins had for this year. I was ready from the get-go. I bought into the culture. It was about coming to the ballpark, doing what you can and not trying to be anyone else and executing plans to win ballgames.”

Gray has been just as good -- if not better. In his final season before hitting free agency, Gray has been locked in a tight battle with Cy Young frontrunner Gerrit Cole for the AL’s ERA title all season and leads all AL starting pitchers in WAR, per FanGraphs, with 5.2 WAR heading into his final start of the regular season.

His 2.80 ERA and 180 innings pitched are both his best since 2015, and though he dealt with some inconsistency through the summer, he’s peaking at the right time. In August, he posted a 2.04 ERA with 41 strikeouts and seven walks; in September, he owns a 1.96 ERA with 23 strikeouts and three walks.

“[The playoffs are] just something that I've really, really wanted to get back to,” Gray said after his Saturday start. “I've really wanted to get back to that, so I look forward to the opportunity, knowing that you're going to get another opportunity to do that.”