For Twins to win, 'pen needs to be 'a strength'

August 5th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- When this season began, the Twins had Jorge Alcala, Tyler Duffey and Emilio Pagán slotted into important back-end roles in their bullpen. Four months later, things haven't quite worked out that way.

The organization spent the hours leading up to Tuesday’s Trade Deadline adding to the leverage corps of its bullpen by acquiring Jorge López from the Orioles and Michael Fulmer from the Tigers. Wednesday’s game against Detroit went swimmingly, with the newcomers factoring into an easy final few innings to finish out a close victory.

But things don’t always go according to plan -- and especially not in the postseason, when starters have shorter leashes than ever and tense game after tense game comes at teams in rapid-fire succession. If the Twins get that far -- and they certainly hope they will -- their bullpen will have to be ready for those moments, even beyond the most trusted high-leverage arms.

Things can’t go the way they did in Thursday night's 9-3 loss to the Blue Jays at Target Field, when the bullpen took over after a five-inning start from Sonny Gray and allowed nine runs in the final four innings against a solid playoff-caliber lineup to turn a close game into blowout defeat, with Pagán and Duffey responsible for six of those runs.

Even after such a demoralizing loss, the Twins believe that their recent bullpen acquisitions will turn this sort of performance into an aberration -- and that their relief corps will emerge from this as a strength.

“We're going to mix and match all of those guys,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think our bullpen is full and deep. … We have enough to work with. I'll say it again -- this is going to be a strength, going forward, in tight games. We're going to win tight games going forward."

On Thursday, the Twins learned that they’ll have to do that without the services of Alcala, who underwent season-ending arthroscopic debridement surgery in his right elbow on Wednesday, ending any even remote hope that he could serve as another impact addition to this ‘pen for the stretch run.

“Replacing Alcala is not going to be the easiest thing to do,” Baldelli said. “We just actually did bring in some arms that have that kind of stuff, that have that kind of impact. It took some creativity and some work, but I think we've filled some of those spots in the bullpen.”

The Twins have also had to replace late-inning production they’d hoped for from Duffey and Pagán, who have both struggled in leverage situations throughout the season. Minnesota’s recent bullpen acquisitions have pushed both veterans into lower-leverage roles, but those still carry significance in meaningful games.

After having pitched in the ninth inning to begin the season and in the late innings through his struggles, Pagán was tasked with the sixth inning of Thursday’s game, allowing four hits and three runs (two earned), putting the Twins behind for good. Duffey entered with runners on first and second base and Minnesota down, 4-2. He allowed both inherited runners to score, as well as three more of his own on a 115.4-mph homer from Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

In regular-season games, those aren’t the highest-leverage situations. In meaningful games, those occasions are just as important, helping bridge the gap to the leverage corps or giving the offense a chance to rally.

Following the series opener, Baldelli offered a vote of confidence in Pagán, whose frustrating season has offered the odd dichotomy of the sixth-highest strikeout rate of all qualified American League relievers entering play Thursday -- but he is also tied for the most home runs allowed among those relievers, too.

“It's a hard one to fathom that the same guy has done both of those things this year,” Baldelli said. “The swing-and-miss, the missed bats, again, a really good sign for any pitcher at this level to miss that many bats. … He's a guy that's been a good Major League reliever. EP is still going to play a meaningful role going forward, and he's going to pitch in tight games going forward.”

The Twins hope that their starters will have the opportunity to go deeper into games as well, which would put less pressure on the bullpen as a whole. But the entire group will have to be ready to contribute, lest more games like Thursday’s get away from them.