López flirts with perfection in 14-K, 8-inning gem

June 24th, 2024

OAKLAND -- wasn’t quite perfect -- but he was pretty darn close.

Though the Twins’ ace lost his bid for a perfect game on a two-out single in the sixth inning, he roared back to ace form with one of the most dominant efforts of his career, matching a career high with 14 strikeouts in eight innings as he pitched the Twins to a 3-0 victory over the A’s at the Oakland Coliseum in the club’s farewell to the historic building.

And most significantly, amid a very challenging season that he described after his last start as “one step forward, two or three steps back,” he took a massive surge forward.

“I think it wakes up the monster, you know, the monster that he is,” catcher Christian Vázquez said. “He's a very, very great pitcher that's had some bad outings. I think that's going to wake him up, and I hope he's just on cruise control from now on forward.”

While López didn’t get the chance for individual glory, he was a part of history anyway: Between the final 17 outs of Bailey Ober’s complete-game gem on Saturday and the first 17 outs of López’s masterpiece on Sunday, this marked the first stretch in club history (since relocation to Minnesota in 1961) that Twins pitchers retired 34 consecutive batters.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the first time any team has retired that many consecutive batters since April 9-10, 2017, by the New York Yankees.

“If it's an all-time Twins record, it's quite amazing, so it felt good,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

All that dinged López’s line on Sunday was that two-out single by Lawrence Butler in the sixth, a one-out single by Miguel Andujar in the seventh and a two-out walk to Zack Gelof in the eighth.

Otherwise, a needed show of renewed dominance from the Twins’ struggling ace marked the second time in his career in which he fanned 14 batters (also done last Sept. 10 against the Mets), putting him in a very elite echelon alongside Bert Blyleven, Johan Santana and Camilo Pascual as the only pitchers in Twins history with multiple 14-strikeout games for the team.

It’s the type of dominance not seen in a Twins uniform since the days of Santana -- López’s childhood idol -- who had been the last Minnesota pitcher with at least 14 strikeouts in a scoreless effort (Santana’s legendary 17-strikeout game on Aug. 19, 2007). Since then, López is the only Twins pitcher with such an outing -- and he’s now done it twice.

But López isn’t savoring this outing so much as he’s already looking ahead to figuring out how he can sustain this and turn around the inconsistencies that have led to his ERA being 5.11 this season, even after these eight scoreless frames.

“It feels really good, but now, it’s like, ‘How can we make it happen again? If I did it once, I can do it again,’” López said. “Just keeping that mentality. Obviously, a game where things went the way they went today allows me to be like, ‘You know what? My confidence should … stay up for most of the time.’”

After a conversation with one of his teammates -- López wouldn’t reveal who -- the right-hander went back to stirrup socks, much like how he mixed things up by shaving his facial hair before a strong start in Houston on May 31.

Baldelli had coyly hinted at the idea that López had found some specific mechanical adjustments, and that it would be on the pitcher himself to reveal them if he wished -- but López mostly stayed away from the details of what helped him find this renewed form.

“Obviously, there was time to find some changes, there was time to look at some things going back to when things were going the best, when the body was feeling the best, when the mind was feeling the best,” López said.

Vázquez noted that execution of two-strike pitches was a particular emphasis, with López having been in the zone too often with those pitches in the past. Vázquez helped with better targeting setups, and López executed, starting his outing by fanning seven of the first nine batters.

All that left little work for center fielder Byron Buxton, who didn’t even get to field a ball while López was on the mound with all those strikeouts -- but he’s not complaining.

“Boring, but not, because I got to watch Pablo,” Buxton said with a grin.