Free t-shirts are one of the great unspoken perks of playing Major League Baseball. Stick around long enough, and every few weeks someone drapes a fresh freebie on the chair at your clubhouse locker, suitable for game use or lounging around. The best ones last. Some Twins still wear the La Tortuga Night giveaway t-shirts from late April.
Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of the Yankees-Twins Seamageddon series, Twins relievers arrived to find Columbia blue T-shirts with a fire extinguisher design awaiting them. Putting out fires is Job 1 for any relief corps, hence the time-honored symbol. But lately it’s been a major problem for the Twins. So Trevor May, the reliever struggling the most, ordered the shirts through Amazon as a group pick-me-up.
“We’ve had some bad karma in here, especially involving me,” May said. “We decided we need to change the karma and get some good karma in here.”
According to the notification on May’s phone, the shipment arrived at Target Field on Monday at 9:05 p.m. — five minutes, he said, before rookie Lewis Thorpe took the mound and held the slugging Yankees to one run over 2 2/3 innings for his first major-league victory, 8-6. May didn’t see the alert or open the package until after the game. But just having the merchandise on the grounds seemed to bring better luck.
“You can make the connection pretty easily,” he said.
The next night it continued with Cody Stashak, another callup. A 13th-round draftee from 2015 whom manager Rocco Baldelli never saw pitch until he handed him the ball, Stashak tossed two scoreless innings behind Kyle Gibson in his major-league debut. But bad karma can be stubborn, and it resurfaced once the fidgety Blake Parker took the mound in the eighth.
Parker and four cohorts surrendered eight earned runs over the final three innings of a wild 10-inning, 14-12 loss, the one that ended with former Twin Aaron Hicks’ spectacular game-saving layout catch in left-center. Parker was designated for assignment the next day.
It’s no revelation that the Twins seek bullpen help. So do nineteen other teams that fancy themselves postseason contenders. Losing two of three to Yankees to finish a 3-6 homestand emphasized the need, though it’s not clear whether Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey will get anything done before the July 31 trade deadline.
“Are there pieces that could potentially help that are external? Yeah,” Falvey said. “But I think by and large, most of the production is going to come from the team that is already here.”
Hitting, of course, isn’t an issue. Twins fans fed up with the Yankees repeatedly crushing their hopes the last two decades saw plenty of fight from this lineup.
The Twins blasted four homers Monday night off CC Sabathia and three more Tuesday off 12-game winner Domingo German. Reliever Tyler Duffey called Tuesday night’s five-hour slugfest “a brawl,” with six home runs, dramatic lead changes, bullpen failures on both sides and a ball/strike dispute that saw Baldelli and hitting coach James Rowson ejected. The Twins matched swings with one of baseball’s most feared lineups, and with only Hicks’ catch prevented a milestone, post-midnight victory by the home team.
“If that’s not the game of the year, it’s hard to know what would be,” said Gibson, the starter that night. “Two really, really good offenses, and two teams that never think they’re out of the game. That’s what playoff baseball looks like.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he and his coaches hung around the clubhouse after the game, still in their uniforms, marveling at what just happened. Boone expects to see the Twins in postseason. “They’re really good,” said Boone. “The team we’re looking at is not a surprise. They could eventually be the team we’re going to have to get through to get to where we want to go.”
One telling detail: While praising Twins hitters, Boone called the starting rotation “capable.” Not dominant. Not scary. Capable. That’s not a term one uses for a staff you fear.
Either way, the Twins need help. The everyday lineup is banged up, though Byron Buxton’s return Thursday from a concussion and extracted wisdom teeth helped. The Twins are 9-17 when the speedy Buxton, one of baseball’s best defensive center fielders, isn’t in the lineup.
Pitching is the bigger concern. Two bad turns through the rotation can tax your bullpen into ineffectiveness, and that’s what befell the Twins this month.
The rotation performed splendidly while the Twins built to an 11 1/2 game lead in the American League Central, averaging nearly six innings per start in May (5.95) and June (5.89), with ERAs below 4.00 in each month, per FanGraphs. Jake Odorizzi was an All-Star, and MLB added Jose Berrios to the team when Odorizzi rubbed up a blister and couldn’t pitch.
But the starters faltered in July, averaging only 4.9 innings per start through Wednesday with a 5.06 ERA. (Berrios boosted that Thursday night, going seven innings to win 10-3 in Chicago.) Shorter starts prompted heavier bullpen use, and the results were ugly.
Parker struggled. May blew a tie or a lead in three consecutive appearances, twice giving up homers on two-strike curves. In a five-game stretch before the Yankees arrived, relievers allowed 19 runs, 12 of them earned, not including a three-run mop-up appearance by infielder Ehire Adrianza. Adalberto Mejia, Mike Morin, Matt Magill and Parker were designated for assignment between July 13 and Wednesday, with the Twins losing the first three to other teams. Going into Thursday, the division lead over Cleveland was down to two games.
The Twins dumped Parker because velocity on all his pitches dipped since 2017, and nearly half of all balls batters put in play this season were hit hard, 10 percent more than last season. (Source: fangraphs.com.) Parker had eight saves and a 1.96 ERA through May 31, but lost the closer’s role and ultimately his job over the last seven weeks, giving up 13 earned runs and 22 hits in 18 innings as his ERA soared to 4.21.
By Wednesday the bullpen was so gassed that Baldelli left an ineffective Odorizzi out there for four innings in a 10-7 loss, the Yankees hammering him for nine earned runs. Then Baldelli ceded the rest of the game to callup Devin Smeltzer, who threw four scoreless innings before allowing a solo homer to Edwin Encarnacion in the ninth. That followed a series-wide pattern. Three rookies the Yankees never faced before — Thorpe, Smeltzer and Stashak — pitched effectively. Nearly everyone else got raked.
“What Devin did was a big lift to everybody in the bullpen,” Odorizzi said. “If I could have thrown 130 pitches, I would have done it. It was one of those points where it already sucks, and at this point in my career I might as well save pitches for the guys in the bullpen.
“It wasn’t my intention to do bad tonight. Hell no. Who would have wanted to go out there and get their ass kicked, and then wear it? Not me. Sometimes that’s how it goes….It’s one game that sucked for me, and I’ll move on from it. I’m responsible for the loss, and I can atone for that. I can pitch better. Simple as that.”
If the Yankees and Twins meet in the playoffs, the Twins can expect the usual questions about the four consecutive Division Series losses to the Yankees since 2003, plus the blown first-inning lead in the 2017 wild card game. Veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz went through something similar with Texas in 2010, regularly hearing about the Rangers woeful postseason history as if he were somehow responsible. Long before he joined the club, the Rangers lost three Division Series to the Yankees from 1996 to 1999, winning only one of ten games. (Sound familiar?)
This week, he imparted to the young Twins that the same message he spread in Texas: Ignore the negativity and believe in yourselves. The Rangers did, reaching back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.
“We want to say, that’s all in the past,” said Cruz, who had his first career three-homer game Thursday night in Chicago. “Don’t get caught up in all that. Go out and play to the best of your ability, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I’m telling the guys here. It’s not about what happened in the past. It’s about us, this group of guys, right now.”
Right now, they need something more than free t-shirts.