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Notes from KC: Twins bounce back again; Wes Johnson on Perez, Littell

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thanks to a frantic late-inning rally, the Twins once again fended off their first three-game losing streak of the season.  Three nights ago, they managed to fight off a three-game skid, defeating Boston in a dramatic 17-inning game at Target Field. On Friday, they scored two runs in the seventh and three more in the eighth to pull out an 8-7 win.

Tuesday’s epic win over Boston was memorable, but it also left the Twins reeling a bit. On Wednesday they lost 9-4 to Boston, then managed just one run against Kansas City starter Glenn Sparkman on Thursday. Friday, it looked like more of the same, but the Twins’ offense did what they’ve done so often this season, and proved once again this team is never out of a game.

Injuries taking a toll 

Mitch Garver, who caught all 17 innings Tuesday, left Thursday’s loss early with a heel injury. It’s unclear whether the injury had anything to do with Tuesday’s marathon, but any time a catcher is behind the plate that long it’s safe to assume he’s going to be a little beat up over the next few days. Garver did pinch-hit Friday, taking a walk before being lifted for pinch-runner Willians Astudillo (!). That’s both good and bad news for the Twins, in that it suggests Garver is good enough to play but still not quite ready to run.

The Twins also lost Marwin Gonzalez to a hamstring injury Tuesday; Max Kepler replaced him in the middle innings, setting the stage for his heroics. Gonzalez was placed on the IL immediately following the game and didn’t make the trip to Kansas City. It’s reportedly a mild strain, but with the need for healthy and rested position players at a premium, they didn’t have the luxury of giving him a few days to see if it could heal.

Gonzalez’s loss is a big one. He’s been really good since May 1, slashing .301/.363/.503 and playing strong defense in both the infield and outfield. Willians Astudillo—called up to replace Gonzalez—has the same kind of defensive versatility, though neither his offense nor glove is on par with Gonzalez, and he committed what could have been a critical error in the ninth inning Friday.

Sano shakes off four more strikeouts to hit a key home run

Miguel Sano was 0 for his last 15 with 10 strikeouts coming into the game, then struck out three more times before launching a ball deep to the opposite field for a game-tying home run in the eighth. He struck out again later in the game. Still, it may only take one good at-bat to snap him out of it, and the Twins need his bat now more than they have at any point this season. If he can get hot again, it would go a long way towards helping ease the burden of losing Gonzalez and Buxton.

Stewart provides lift, then gets sent down

Minnesota badly needed long starts from Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi on Wednesday and Thursday with the battered bullpen, and unfortunately for the Twins, neither provided that. Gibson’s been much better of late, but he lasted just 4.1 innings Wednesday, forcing the Twins to use new call-up Sean Poppen for four innings. Poppen was put in a tough spot against a really good offense and pitched fairly well in his MLB debut, though he did surrender three earned runs before being sent back to Rochester. Kohl Stewart was called up in his place and was very effective, pitching four shutout innings in yesterday’s loss after Odorizzi exited. With Blake Parker activated off the Family Emergency list, Stewart was optioned down to Rochester after the game Friday.

The contributions of Poppen and Stewart aren’t fully measurable, but they are important. All teams are going to have difficult stretches where the bullpen is taxed and they need to call in reinforcements from Triple-A.  Poppen and Stewart allowed the Twins to give two days of much needed rest to nearly every member of the ‘pen (Ryne Harper threw 12 pitches on Wednesday), and they were fully rested and effective Friday, allowing just one run over four innings.

Wes Johnson on Martin Perez

Some regression for Martin Perez was inevitable after his incredible start to the season. With a delivery that looks eerily like Johan Santana and a fastball touching 96, Perez had a 2.17 ERA in his first eight starts. Since then, he’s scuffled. In four starts coming into Friday, he had a 7.58 ERA, then gave up six runs (four earned) against the Royals in five innings.

The Royals’ bats have been better of late, but they’re without one of their best hitters—Adalberto Mondesi. This was a good opportunity for Perez to put up a strong start, but he wasn’t able to deliver.

Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson was complimentary of Perez before the game, noting that the cutter he’s been using successfully is a new pitch and he’s still making adjustments.

“When you make changes to a guy, and add some different things to what they throw, you’re going to see some roller coasters, you’re going to see some up and down,” Johnson said. “Because, let’s not forget Perez learned the cutter less than three months ago. So to think he’s just going to come out every time and have impeccable command of it and know how to make an adjustment when he doesn’t, to me is a little crazy.”

“All you’re seeing right now is, the cutter’s good, he likes the shape of it, but how can [he] use it, and when it is a little flatter and [he] doesn’t feel it, what can he do to get that feeling. So you’re seeing him fight that a little right now, and it’s just part of the process.”

Johnson said in watching film of Perez in the offseason, he could see the opportunity to add velocity.

“I wanted him to get back to when he was 16, 18, 20, when he was a young kid, extremely athletic. His hip rotation [was good], we worked a lot with his hips, I wanted him to get back to that. So I don’t know that there’s anything we did, other than unlock what was already in there when he was young.”

Friday was another setback for Perez, but it’s clear the Twins are willing to be patient with the lefty as he continues to tweak the cutter.

Is Zack Littell part of the solution at the front end of the ‘pen?

Long-time reader(s) of Mining the Minors know I’ve been big on Littell since he was acquired from the Yankees at the deadline in 2017. In his age-21 season, Littell had a fanstastic year in High-A and Double-A in 2017. In 157 innings, Littell went 19-1 with a 2.12 ERA.

Last season, he was good, though not spectacular in Triple-A, pitching to a 3.57 ERA, with a 27.5 % strikeout rate and 8.1% walk rate. The front office had enough confidence in what he could do to give him three big league callups last year, and though he struggled with nerves in his first couple of outings, he pitched fairly effectively last September (3.71 ERA).

The reason Littell hasn’t been ranked higher in prospect rankings is his lack of velocity. Though he can throw four pitches, his fastball has typically topped out in the low-90s. For that reason, most projected him as a back-end starter in the big leagues. Littell started out as a starter in Triple-A this year, but the Twins converted him to a reliever recently, perhaps recognizing he could fill a need at the big league level. There’s been a noticeable change. It’s a small sample size, but at Triple-A Littell had a 2.35 ERA as a reliever and struck out 13 batters in 7.2 innings.

Reports from Rochester were that his velocity was up, and he certainly showed that on Tuesday. Pitching innings 16 and 17 against Boston, the righty flashed a mid-90s fastball and nasty breaking ball we hadn’t before seen in the big leagues. He struck out two Boston batters and induced a lot of weak contact, including three straight outs in his final inning after a runner got to third with no outs. That high-wire act set the stage for Max Kepler’s heroics in the bottom half of the inning, and earned Littell his first big league win.

 “I’ve always since I got this job liked his delivery,” said Johnson. “We got him to be a little more violent, rotational. You’re seeing that now. When we talked to him about going to the pen, we talked about some different usage, and how he uses his stuff, and how if he would do this we’d probably see an uptick. Hopefully we’ll see it more.”

It was only one game, but if Littell can keep pitching like that, he could be the arm the Twins have been searching for at the front end of the ‘pen as they look to bridge the gap to the trade deadline, where they almost certainly will add at least one impact relief arm. With Fernando Romero really struggling and Matt Magill, Trevor May, and Blake Parker pitching well at times and struggling at others, the Twins have cycled through the likes of Chase De Jong, Andrew Vazquez, Austin Adams and Ryan Eades in an attempt to patch up the ‘pen. There just isn’t a lot of pitching depth in the high-minors right now, with Stephen Gonsalves and Brusdar Graterol hurt, and Romero, Gabriel Moya and Lewis Thorpe struggling. Perhaps Littell is the answer.


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