Bullpen issues a troubling sign for Twins

May 24th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Last homestand, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli remarked that it seemed the Twins were playing different iterations of the same game, over and over again -- that of a strong starting staff offset by poor offensive approach. And now, the recent struggles of the bullpen have emerged as another counterbalance.

The Twins’ once-formidable, high-leverage relief corps was first thinned by ’s oblique strain, then by the prolonged struggles of . And on Tuesday, a rough patch for setup man continued when he allowed a go-ahead, two-run homer to Giants outfielder Michael Conforto. That blast sealed a four-run comeback, and dealt the Twins a 4-3 loss, their third in a row and sixth in their last eight games.

In five of those losses, the Twins were tied or led in the seventh inning or later. The Twins have now dropped three consecutive series since finding positive momentum with consecutive blowout wins over the Cubs to end their last homestand.

“It becomes a little more painful when you are in every game; you have control of almost every game if you go out there and play the baseball you've seen your team play before,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I've seen us play really good in these exact situations and win a bunch of games in a row the exact same way. When you're losing those games in bunches, it bothers you.”

The path to the end of a close game has grown more fraught for the Twins, and particularly so on a night like Tuesday, when started the sixth inning at 87 pitches with a 3-0 lead and lost his command, allowing a walk, double and another walk to begin the frame.

Ordinarily, the Twins would have had Thielbar pitch in the ensuing situation, but with the veteran injured, they turned to , who has had to step into the leverage left-hander role despite inconsistent control for much of the season. He started strong, attacking the zone as he induced a shallow fly ball and a strikeout for the first two outs -- but he walked No. 8 hitter Patrick Bailey to force in a run.

“Maybe the release point just felt a little bit different as I started thinking a little bit more,” Moran said. “But I should have gone with the changeup instead of the fastball. Too late.”

That brought in , who has also had to backfill into leverage situations, and he walked the light-hitting Bryce Johnson to force in another run.

And all the attrition behind López has increased the Twins’ reliance on the right-hander, who faltered for a second consecutive outing when he entered for the seventh and allowed a double to Thairo Estrada and the two-run, opposite-field blast to Conforto.

It’s a stretch that’s growing more and more reminiscent of the high-leverage bullpen struggles that sank the Twins in ‘21 and ‘22 -- especially after the Twins did not make an external addition to their relief corps during the offseason. They were counting on , López, Jax and Thielbar holding late leads and that one or more of Moran, , or some youngster would grow into that level of role, too.

Moran’s confidence has grown with his increased exposure to high-leverage situations -- he now has nine strikeouts and three walks in 8 2/3 frames this month -- and the Twins have found success from an expected contributor in Stewart, but the combination of injury and a teamwide slump have been accentuated by this rash of close games.

“We’re playing really good baseball for seven, seven-and-a-half innings every game,” Gray said. “Just not finding ways to win those. The seven, seven-and-a half innings. For me, five innings. It’s just not good enough. It takes consistent baseball through all nine innings to win in this league. And we -- and myself -- just haven’t put the full nine innings together.”

There’s added frustration when it seems that every loss in this stretch has been a winnable game for the Twins, especially late -- but that’s also a reason why the Twins feel they could be in good shape when they get some contributors back and these close games start swinging in their favor again, as they did at the start of the season.

“Pretty sure everybody in here feels like we should be winning,” said. “Everybody's on the same page. A couple of games haven't gone our way. Nothing we can do about it.”