Late heroics not enough as Twins' bullpen collapses

June 23rd, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- There’s no good way for a team to drop out of first place. If there’s a particularly bad way for that to happen, though, it looks something like the instant classic that transpired between the Twins and Guardians on Wednesday night at Target Field.

Gio Urshela’s go-ahead, three-run blast in the seventh inning gave the Twins a three-run lead. One frame later, they had a 98 percent chance of winning the game. They still lost, 11-10, after the Guardians rallied for four runs in the ninth.

It came on the heels of another late bullpen collapse in Tuesday’s series opener, with the consecutive defeats pushing Minnesota to second place in the AL Central for the first time since April 23.

“There's no one in our clubhouse that's not [ticked] off right now, so that's fine,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I mean, we should be a little [ticked] off based on the way we've played over the last couple of days and just the inability to get the job done.”

Carlos Correa had his first multi-homer game as a Twin, with Minnesota scoring in each of the first five innings off Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie. Even after the Guardians pulled ahead by a run in the seventh, Minnesota rallied for four runs with two outs, capped by Urshela’s clutch shot off reliever Anthony Castro, which gave the Twins a 10-7 lead with six outs to go.

This is where their already-thin proven bullpen depth combined with Tuesday’s 11-inning marathon and a short start from Sonny Gray made way for a rocky final six outs – and again, they couldn’t get across the finish line. Here’s a look at the situations Baldelli faced:

The seventh inning
Start: Twins lead, 6-4 (win probability: 82 percent)
Finish: Guardians lead, 7-6 (win probability: 35 percent)

The Twins’ leverage depth is particularly fraught. Caleb Thielbar and Joe Smith had already pitched in the leadup, and Tyler Duffey has pitched himself out of leverage situations due to his struggles. Meanwhile, Jorge Alcala has been on the IL for two months, Cody Stashak is out for the season and Taylor Rogers was traded on Opening Day.

That meant that the Twins had to again turn to Jharel Cotton, whom they’ve already designated for assignment twice this season, in another late-and-close situation. Cotton had pitched well to that point, entering with a 1.76 ERA, but faltered at a bad time on Wednesday.

Amed Rosario led off with his second homer of the season before Cotton plunked José Ramírez and allowed a go-ahead, two-run blast to Oscar Gonzalez two batters later. That gave Cleveland its first lead of the game.

The eighth inning
Start: Twins lead, 10-7 (win probability: 94 percent)
Finish: Twins lead, 10-7 (win probability: 98 percent)

Following Urshela’s heroics, the Twins had another lead to protect.

With Jhoan Duran unavailable after throwing two innings in Tuesday’s loss, the Twins only had Emilio Pagán and Griffin Jax available for leverage -- and wanting to stay away from Jax, who had thrown two out of the last three days, including 27 pitches on Tuesday, they went with Pagán, who had also pitched Tuesday and had allowed a game-tying, two-run blast to Franmil Reyes in the eighth inning of that game.

This time, he executed much more effectively, striking out Austin Hedges, Myles Straw and Steven Kwan in order to push the Twins to the precipice of victory.

The ninth inning
Start: Twins lead, 10-7 (win probability: 97 percent)
Finish: Guardians lead, 11-10 (win probability: 19 percent)

Still wanting to stay away from Jax and with only Duffey and Tyler Thornburg available in the bullpen otherwise, the Twins had little choice but send Pagán out for a second frame.

Rosario and Ramírez promptly lined singles through the infield, just out of the reach of Twins infielders. Josh Naylor’s RBI double to the wall in left-center put the tying run on second and pushed the Twins to the exact scenario they wanted to avoid: having to pitch Jax anyway.

“I felt equally as good in the second inning,” Pagán said. “Sometimes, this game is brutal. … Those two ground balls are a half a foot in either direction, and we've got two outs, nobody on.”

Jax allowed the game-tying, two-run single to Gonzalez, and Owen Miller’s deep sacrifice fly gave Cleveland the lead.

“Pitching in a Major League bullpen is not an easy thing to do,” Baldelli said. “I’m going to be the first one to say that, but we have to find a way to not give up a bunch of runs every time we come back and score some runs. We’ve just got to finish out some innings.”

As many Twins pointed out, there are still 92 games to go in the season, with 14 remaining against Cleveland. It’s still far too early to panic -- but they’ll have to get past the frustration of two tough losses and come back anew for their next opportunity on Thursday, with the bullpen continuing to come into focus as a need to be addressed at the Trade Deadline, now little more than a month away.

“I don't think it's deflating because we're confident in our ability,” Pagán said. “If this kind of felt like a fluke of a start to a season, then maybe it would be deflating. … But that's not the feeling that we have at all. We know we're a good team.”