'Pressure is a privilege': López eyeing October wins

September 28th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- The next time takes the mound, he’ll likely carry with him the best hopes the Twins have had in some time of busting out of their inglorious and record-setting 18-game playoff losing streak.

That’s because, on Wednesday, López put the finishing touches on the kind of season not seen from a starting pitcher in Minneapolis in quite some time, wrapping up a second consecutive full season of 32 starts with a shortened outing in the Twins’ 6-4 win over the A’s at Target Field to keep him fresh for his playoff debut, presumably in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series.

  • Games remaining (4): vs. OAK (1), at COL (3)
  • Standings update: The Twins (85-73) have clinched the American League Central and currently hold the AL’s No. 3 seed, meaning they would host a best-of-three Wild Card Series vs. the final Wild Card entrant starting on Oct. 3. Minnesota trails No. 2 seed Texas (89-69) by four games.
  • Elimination number: 1 (for No. 2 seed in AL and first-round bye)

Manager Rocco Baldelli hasn’t yet explicitly confirmed that López will get Game 1, but he’s already said López and Sonny Gray will get Games 1 and 2, calling it “pretty obvious” -- and with the way the rest of the schedule lines up, López would be on the mound for Game 1.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” López said. “It makes me really happy, because every single start, I’ve been working really hard to make sure that when I take the mound, I’m giving the team the best opportunity, and I think having that team mentality is what’s been able to keep me looking forward to the next game.”

That would be a fitting reward for López’s body of work in his first season with the organization. Following his arrival from the Marlins in a trade that sent fan favorite and reigning AL batting champion Luis Arraez to Miami, the Twins immediately showed their commitment to López by giving him a four-year, $73.5 million extension.

López finished with a 3.66 ERA in 194 innings, the most by a Twins pitcher since José Berríos in 2019. He had 234 strikeouts, most by a Twin since 2007 and tied with Dean Chance’s 1968 season for the most by any Twins pitcher not named Johan Santana or Bert Blyleven. He did that while walking only 48 batters.

It’s that innings total and the full 32-start workload that excite López most, given how he struggled with injuries for his first four seasons and how much pride he took in finally reaching 32 healthy starts last season for the Marlins.

“Really important to me to do it in my first year with the Twins,” López said. “That was one of my goals the moment I got traded and showed up to Spring Training. I made it more like a goal. I just wanted to really make sure I was the kind of guy who took the ball every five days, no matter the situation, no matter how the body felt at times.”

He did that while also taking meaningful strides forward in just about every way.

His ERA, innings and strikeout totals are better than his full-season totals from last year; his walks, FIP and WHIP are lower than last year as well. He arrived in the organization and developed a new sweeping slider, adding an east-west element to what had been a north-south arsenal in order to take his game to the next level.

It wasn’t always perfect, but López gave the Twins consistency and a workhorse level of innings, cementing his status atop the club’s rotation going forward. The Twins were victorious in eight of his final 11 starts, as he posted a 2.76 ERA from the beginning of August to the end of the season.

And what better way to announce that than by winning a playoff game -- something no Twins pitcher has done since Santana?

“Every time you get the ball handed to you, you know as a player you have the opportunity to make something cool happen,” López said. “Pressure is a privilege. That means a lot of good things can be expected from you and it’s all about embracing the opportunity, embracing the challenge and then at the same time, not trying to do too much.”

López has not shied away from acknowledging that burden he will soon bear for a fanbase searching for absolution since 2004. He knows what he represents for this franchise, not just this season, but in the years to come. 

The Twins do, too.

“He's going to be a guy that's not just happy or pleased or content or satisfied with being very good or great,” Baldelli said. “He's going to want to take it to different levels. I have a lot of respect for that. That's what great players in this game do.”