MINNEAPOLIS -- Byron Buxton knew that he simply did not want to face Jorge López’s nasty stuff again -- and so, when they were locker mates at the All-Star Game two weeks ago, the Twins’ center fielder joked with the then-Baltimore closer: “We’re going to get you.”
Boy, is he glad the Twins followed through on his prediction -- and López’s stuff will now be a problem for Minnesota’s future opponents.
The true impact and success of the Twins’ four trades ahead of Tuesday’s 5 p.m. CT deadline will be determined in the weeks and months to come, with the real test still looming far on the horizon, they hope, in October. But it certainly didn't hurt when three of their four acquisitions – Sandy León, Michael Fulmer and López – paved the way to a 4-1 win over the Tigers at Target Field on Wednesday, securing a series victory in their first test as a new-look unit.
The triumph featured the elements that the Twins have seemingly lacked in many games over a flat stretch of weeks leading into the Deadline -- namely, timely hitting and lockdown bullpen performances. The new guys were right in the middle of that.
“We saw some guys with some electric stuff,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Before the Trade Deadline, a game like Wednesday's would have posed a precarious challenge for Baldelli and pitching coach Pete Maki, who would have had to navigate four innings of relief without Griffin Jax, who had pitched both Monday and Tuesday. With Fulmer and López now in the mix, the bullpen has much more length – and the Twins could hardly have had a more painless path to the finish.
“It was like having a cheat code coming in with some video game players, and they got it done,” said Twins starter Ryan, who fanned nine Tigers in five innings. “Pretty electric.”
Fulmer entered for the sixth inning following Ryan’s exit and allowed a single to former teammate Harold Castro before picking him off to face the minimum in the inning. Caleb Thielbar, fresh off the injured list, blew away three right-handed hitters in the seventh. Jhoan Duran, bumped back to the eighth, pitched around a leadoff walk for a scoreless frame.
Then, enter López, who gave the Twins one of their smoothest ninth innings in some time by nabbing two groundouts and a strikeout on a breezy seven pitches, his sinker touching 98.2 mph. It’s been almost unheard of in four seasons to see Baldelli say outright that a certain reliever will get the ninth inning – but he said that of López following Tuesday’s trade. It’s easy to see why.
“We saw some elite sliders from Fulmer,” Baldelli said. “We saw López go out and have as dominant and clean of an inning as you want to see. It's exciting to turn the ball over to those guys, let them do their thing out there.”
“They were back-end guys on their team, so they know how to get down and dirty when crunch time comes,” Buxton said.
And perhaps the Twins’ least heralded move amid their Tuesday flurry was their Minor League swap with the Guardians, of all teams, that brought León to the Twin Cities in exchange for Triple-A right-hander Ian Hamilton -- and that, too, paid immediate dividends when the light-hitting veteran cracked an RBI double down the left-field line in his first plate appearance for his new club, putting the Twins ahead for good in the second inning.
León is likely a stopgap until Ryan Jeffers heals his broken right thumb and returns to the catching rotation, perhaps sometime in September. And though the 33-year-old only had eight MLB appearances in ‘22 before his arrival to the Twins, he served as one of the backstops during Boston’s 2018 World Series championship run and should provide a steady hand for the pitching staff.
Clutch doubles will help, too.
“I’m going to do anything I can to help the team win, hitting or catching,” León said. “I know catching’s my strong point, but I feel good hitting. I’ll stick with my approach, get a good pitch to hit and try to help my team there, too.”
The Twins had hoped they’d pushed all the right buttons in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s Trade Deadline – and it’s always nice to get some immediate validation.
“I love to go out there, be quick,” López said. “If it's not, we battle. We had the chance to get our first one. Tomorrow is another one."