Though it's early, pressure mounting for slumping Twins

April 17th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- Though third-base coach Tommy Watkins claimed that the Twins’ offensive struggles weren’t on his mind when he made an aggressive send home of Manuel Margot in the seventh inning on Wednesday, it was still representative of the urgency that already continues to mount for this team.

Absolutely nothing is coming easily for the 2024 Minnesota Twins.

They’re down two stars in their lineup. The hitting has been absent all season in what seems to be an annual habit of slow starts at the plate. When they have hit a bit, their starting pitching has gotten blown away. When the offense has scraped together a late lead, the defense or the bullpen has given way.

The latter was the case on Wednesday afternoon, when not even a dominant, right-the-ship-type start from ace Pablo López could pull the Twins out of their skid, which continued with a 4-2, walk-off loss to the Orioles that secured a series sweep when Cedric Mullins crushed the game-winning blast off Griffin Jax in the ninth.

“It feels like no matter what you try, nothing is smooth, nothing is working like you want,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s tough to play the game with confidence and with an air of anything when it’s so difficult. Even when we do things well, we’re not getting the results.”

It’s still early, they say, and there’s truth to that, with nearly 90 percent of the regular-season schedule still remaining. But even this early, there’s not a ton of precedent for pushing all the way back from a start like this -- and, as Baldelli frankly noted, the confidence has taken a hit.

Only once in club history have the Twins started 6-11 and even finished the season above .500, and that was all the way back in 1988, when they went from 6-11 to 91-71. Otherwise, the last five times the club has started a campaign with such a slump, it has finished as the last-place team in the division -- most recently, when it went from 6-11 to 73-89 in 2021.

“Unfortunately, it’s not just one thing that we have to do,” Baldelli said. “We have to pitch better, we have to play better defensively and play crisper, sharper baseball, and we have to have better at-bats.”

Even in getting to this point, the Twins seemed to have felt the importance of avoiding this kind of hole at all. Carlos Correa, before going down with a right intercostal strain, stressed the importance of the bats figuring things out before the season-opening slump reached half a season, like it did last year.

But improvement has still been hard to find, with Baltimore emergency starter Albert Suárez throwing 5 2/3 scoreless in his first MLB outing since 2017 on Wednesday, further pushing down an offense that entered the day ranked last in the Majors in average, 25th in slugging percentage, 24th in wRC+ and last by a significant margin in wRC+ with runners in scoring position.

“It's always tough with these slow starts,” hitting coach David Popkins said. “I feel like we've gotten kind of a habit to them the last couple of years. I think you just remind them that we've been in this situation before, this exact situation before, except it was more the first half of struggles. This team was able to be resilient and overcome adversity before.”

The eventual returns of Correa and Royce Lewis (quad strain) should help, but Lewis is nowhere close to returning, and there’s acknowledgement that guys are pressing in their absences -- and the compounding losses are only making things worse.

“I just think there’s a lot of tension and pressure that everybody’s put on themselves right now,” said Jax, who himself is filling in for the injured Jhoan Duran.

A disastrous accumulation of injuries to two of the club’s best hitters and three of its best bullpen arms -- and a bevy of key Triple-A injuries -- has gotten the Twins to this point in just mid-April.

They have no choice but to just play themselves back into it -- and with the Dodgers and Orioles in the rearview mirror, the Tigers, White Sox, Angels and White Sox again might offer a better opportunity coming up to right the ship, which the Twins still believe they will, as they did last season.

But they know it’s got to happen really soon -- before it does, indeed, become too late.

“If you keep telling yourself, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,’ then you wake up and it’s July, it’s June, and then it might be too late,” López said.