CHICAGO -- The Twins almost got no-hit for the first time in a decade -- and somehow, that wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to them on Saturday.
The ignominy of nearly putting up a zero in the hits column against a division rival was considerable in the moment, to be sure, but it’ll soon fade, especially considering that the pitcher who put forth that titanic effort was Dylan Cease, one of the leading candidates for the American League Cy Young Award, and all the more so because, with the Twins down to their final out, Luis Arraez punched a single to right field to end the bid for history.
But the impact of again losing Tyler Mahle, the club’s biggest acquisition at the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, won’t fade quickly at all. In fact, Mahle’s exit after two innings of Saturday’s game with a recurrence of right shoulder inflammation in the start that marked his return from the injured list could be a defining moment in the race for the AL Central down the stretch, which saw the Guardians, Twins and White Sox all within two games of each other following Cease’s gem in a 13-0 pasting at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“[Mahle] deserves to pitch healthy,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He shouldn't have to go out there and pitch with the way he's feeling. So losing him, obviously, difficult. And their pitcher, obviously, pitched a good game. That kind of boils it down.”
Mahle was supposed to be the key to bolstering the top of what the Twins hoped would become a playoff-caliber rotation with his addition to the group headlined by Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan, and that’s why the Twins traded away a trio of top-30 prospects to the Reds to get the right-hander to Minneapolis. Mahle has now made four starts since that trade -- and Baldelli couldn’t say with certainty after Saturday’s game if Mahle would pitch again in 2022.
“I'd like to allow things to settle down a little bit and for us to hear how he is tomorrow, but I'm going to go in under the premise that he's not going to throw for a little while,” Baldelli said. “What that means going forward? No one knows the answer to that yet. I'm not closing the book on him, this season, pitching for us.”
As was the case when Mahle suffered from what appeared to be the same issue of shoulder soreness and fatigue in his last start on Aug. 17, the right-hander’s velocity was noticeably down, with his four-seam fastball topping out at 88.7 mph in the second inning, well below his season average of 93.3 mph on that pitch.
Mahle had been back up to 93.7 mph in the first inning, when he was tagged for four runs, which appeared to be an encouraging sign -- but when he came out for the second inning, something was clearly wrong. He was pulled after 37 pitches, an early departure from a second straight start.
“I'm pretty frustrated,” Mahle said. “I wanted to go out there and compete and win a big game.”
Neither Baldelli nor Mahle could offer specifics on what will come next for the right-hander, as the Twins will continue evaluating the situation with their training staff in the coming days while Mahle will once again be shut down from throwing. But even if they did exactly the same thing as they did last time, with Mahle down for a matter of days before ramping back up, they wouldn’t get him back until the penultimate week of September -- and clearly, that wasn’t even effective the first time.
The Twins are fortunate that they’re still within a game of the Guardians for the division lead and that rookie Josh Winder could be nearly ready to return from a shoulder impingement after having thrown a four-inning rehab start for Triple-A St. Paul on Tuesday. But it won’t be easy to replace Mahle’s caliber of production as the Twins try to figure out, once again, what’s going wrong with his right shoulder -- and figure out if it’s fixable before the end of the season.
“People are going to have to come up big and step up and fill roles,” Baldelli said. “If we don't have Tyler for a period of time, someone else is going to have to be a new Tyler and go out there and do the job like he was going to do it. We start there and maybe we get him back this year, later on.”