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Zulgad: Stage fright: Twins get no relief from young bullpen arms

NEW YORK — The Twins entered the American League Division Series knowing exactly what the recipe needed to be if they were going to beat the New York Yankees. They would need plenty of home runs and their bullpen could not let them down.

That plan got off to a good start in the opening game Friday night at Yankee Stadium as the second hitter of the game, Jorge Polanco, drove a homer to left off starter James Paxton. It continued to be successful in the third when Nelson Cruz homered to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.

The problem was the bullpen did not hold up its end of the deal, in part because Zack Littell and Cody Stashak both looked like the Yankee Stadium stage was far too big for them. That played a large part in the Twins’ undoing in a 10-4 loss to the Yankees.

Jose Berrios started and gave up three runs, only one earned, in four innings because C.J. Cron couldn’t handle Luis Arraez’s throw for what would have been an innind-ending double play in the third. Berrios departed having thrown 88 pitches — his start was far from flawless but should have been good enough — and righthander Zack Littell was the first reliever out of the bullpen. Littell had a 1.01 ERA in 24 appearances since the beginning of July and was a shoe-in for the Twins’ 25-man ALDS roster.

He walked Aaron Judge to open the fifth, bringing out pitching coach Wes Johnson for a visit. If the purpose was to calm Littell’s nerves it didn’t work. Littell proceeded to hit Brett Gardner with a pitch and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli had seen enough. The Twins had just rallied to tie the score at 3 in the top of the inning when Polanco’s masterful nine-pitch at-bat ended with a single to left that scored Arraez from second.

The last thing Baldelli wanted to do was give the Yankees and the 49,233 in attendance reason to make noise. But that’s exactly what happened. Tyler Duffey struck out Edwin Encarnacion for the first out but he walked Giancarlo Stanton to load the bases and Gleyber Torres smoked a 3-2 fastball off the glove of a diving Miguel Sano for a two-run double.

The Twins’ always resilient bats immediately responded with Sano’s opposite field home run off Tommy Kahnle leading off the sixth to cut New York’s lead to 5-4. What the Twins had to get was a stop from their bullpen. No different than a big third-down stop in football, right?

Enter righthander Cody Stashak and his 1.93 ERA in September that the Twins hoped would carry over into October. Stashak took one look at the bright lights of the Bronx and was in trouble. DJ LeMahieu belted a 93-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball into the New York night that landed in the Twins bullpen in left-center field. After Judge flew out to left, Gardner smashed an 0-1 pitch into the right-field seats for a three-run cushion.

“There’s no way to really know that,” Baldelli said when asked if Littell and Stashak’s struggles were tied to their inexperience. “These are guys that we have leaned on heavily throughout the year. We’re going to continue to lean on them heavily. We’re going to see them back out there and throwing in important situations.

“Because of the way the game played out, one or both of those guys was going to end up in this game pitching in probably an important spot at some point. … Our guys are resilient. Our guys have had outings here and there over the course of the year that didn’t go as planned and they come right back and they’re ready to go.”

Baldelli will have to hope that’s the case this time as well. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the young bullpen arms that let the manager down.

Veteran righthander Kyle Gibson appeared to be a candidate not to make the Twins’ ALDS roster, considering he would not be used as a starter and he has limited experience in relief. But the Twins decided to go with Gibson and they paid for it.

Gibson was used in the seventh inning and asked to hold the Twins’ deficit at three runs. Keep in mind, three runs is nothing for this team, especially in a ballpark where the left-field corner is only 318 feet away and the right-field corners is 4 feet closer. But Gibson, never one known for embracing the big moment, walked three of the first four hitters he faced before LeMahieu cleared the bases with a line shot to left.

The Twins were down 10-4 in the top of the eighth inning when fans in the left-field corner began serenading the visiting club with “Na, Na, Na … Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Hey Goodbye.” This seemed rather premature considering the Yankees will have to win two more games to take the series and the opening game wasn’t even complete at that point.

Then again, this is the Twins and Yankees fans have no real reason to respect them.

The loss was the Twins’ 11th in a row to the Yankees in the postseason and gave New York a 14-2 playoff record against Minnesota. What was disappointing about Friday was these Twins were supposed to be different. They weren’t supposed to be intimidated by the Yankees pinstripes or New Yorks fans or Yankee Stadium.

Maybe some of them weren’t, but there was no doubt that Littell and Stashak were overwhelmed by the moment. “I was just trying to be perfect,” Littell said. “They took good pitches and it kind of made me feel like I needed to make perfect pitches. … Tonight I beat myself. I walked a guy, hit a guy. It’s just not the way anybody wants to pitch.”

So what’s the plan for Game 2? Baldelli will start righthander Randy Dobnak on Saturday and hold his breath that this time a rookie doesn’t get rattled by pitching in Yankee Stadium. It’s surprising given that Jake Odorizzi is available to start.  While he doesn’t have postseason experience, Odorizzi has been pitching in the big leagues a lot longer than Dobnak.

Dobnak’s ability to get ground balls — Odorizzi is a fly ball pitcher — is why he’s likely the choice in this bandbox of a stadium but if Baldelli is wrong he will open himself up for some big-time second guessing.

Meanwhile, the Twins again will hope they can overpower the Yankees — that means three solo home runs won’t do the trick — while banking on the fact a bullpen that had become a second-half strength won’t be a liability for the second night in a row. If that doesn’t happen, the Twins’ season could be done by late Monday night and all of the talk about this team being different will have been nothing more than lip service.


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