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Randy Dobnak dazzles in return to Pittsburgh as Twins start season 10-2 for first time

PITTSBURGH  — Randy Dobnak’s homecoming couldn’t have gone much better.

Dobnak, who was raised in the Pittsburgh suburb of South Park, grew up a Pirates fan. On Wednesday, he returned to PNC Park as a visiting player and put on a show, even if it wasn’t in front of the many friends and family who would otherwise have been in attendance. Dobnak did not surrender a run, gave up only three hits, struck out one and got 11 ground ball outs in the Twins’ 5-2 victory.

The Twins won their sixth in a row and improved to 10-2, the best start for the franchise since it moved from Washington to Minnesota in 1961. The Twins’ .833 winning percentage is tied with the Marlins for the best in baseball, but Miami has played only six games because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

In many ways, Dobnak is a throwback to the pitchers the Twins organization developed in the early 2000s, when the club prioritized a “pitch to contact” approach that largely has become outdated in modern baseball. The Twins now prioritize strikeouts, like every other organization, but they will happily make an exception for Dobnak, who has used his elite ability to induce weak contact to become one of the Twins’ most reliable pitchers.

He’s not flashy and doesn’t blow you away with velocity, but he is highly effective. His ERA is now 0.60 in three starts this season (15 innings pitched), after posting a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings pitched last season. It remains a relatively small sample size, but those are awfully impressive numbers for a pitcher who went undrafted and started last season in High-A.

At this point, there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made for Dobnak to do anything but pitch every fifth day. That’s an easy decision now, when 60% of the rotation is on the IL and another future member (Michael Pineda) is suspended. But even when they return, it will be hard to kick the sinkerballer out of the rotation, if he keeps pitching like this.

What will the Twins do with Dobnak once Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey, Rich Hill and Pineda return? That’s a good “problem” to have, if you’re Derek Falvey, Rocco Baldelli and Co.

TWINS’ BATS HAVE SLOW START BUT BIG FINISH

The first eight innings weren’t much to write home about for the Twins’ offense. The Bomba Squad was shut down by Pirates starter Trevor Williams, who gave up only one run (a Marwin Gonzalez bloop single that landed right on the foul line) in seven innings and struck out five. Twins hitters worked favorable counts in a number of at-bats, but weren’t able to square up many center-cut fastballs.

In the ninth, though, the offense finally broke out. After Byron Buxton led with a double, Gonzalez singled to score him. Two batters later, Max Kepler squared up a 2-0 fastball and blasted it into the right-center field seats for a three-run home run, effectively putting the game out of reach.

It’s not surprising that the offense has been a bit hit-and-miss (terrible pun intended) early in the season. To be fair, they’ve still scored plenty of runs, but it hasn’t quite been the Bomba Squad we became accustomed to throughout 2019. Pitchers are typically ahead of hitters early in a normal camp, and a three-week ramp-up after a four-month shutdown means it’s going to take time for hitters to get their timing (Nelson Cruz not withstanding).

Miguel Sano has shown signs of breaking out of his slump, and Buxton’s sharp double down the line might have been the most encouraging development of the night for the Twins. Buxton, who missed much of summer camp because of a foot injury,  hasn’t looked locked in at the plate as he tries to rediscover his timing after nearly a year between regular season at-bats. If he’s able to eventually find the swing he had through most of last season, when he slashed .264/.314/.513, he will again become one of the most valuable players on the team.

That the Twins have started 10-2 (or 27.0-5.4) despite Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Sano and Buxton still searching for their timing, and Josh Donaldson out with an injury, tells you just how just how much of a super team the 2020 Twins might become. Yes, their pitching won’t be able to sustain this level of excellence, but it’s fair to assume their bullpen is one of the best in the league, and their starting rotation is vastly improved.

Simply put, the Twins are legitimate World Series contenders and without a clear weakness at this point in the season.

DONALDSON SITS AGAIN

Third baseman Josh Donaldson hasn’t seen the field since leaving the Twins’ July 31 game against Cleveland because of right calf tightness. Wednesday marked the fifth consecutive game in which Donaldson hasn’t appeared, but the Twins appear reluctant to put him on the injured list, at least for now. That would seem to be good news for Donaldson and Minnesota, as it suggests the Twins think he can return before a 10-day IL stint would be up.

If rosters were at 26 the Twins might not have the luxury of nursing him back to health on the active roster, but with rosters still at 30, they can make it work. Rosters will go down to 28 after Thursday’s game, and they will remain at that number for the rest of the season. (MLB’s original plan of reducing rosters to 26 after the season’s first month was changed after COVID-19 outbreaks ravaged Miami and St. Louis in the season’s first two weeks.)

Given Donaldson’s history of calf issues, it will remain an area of concern until he returns fully healthy. Expanded playoffs and the Twins’ strong start means they can take their time with Donaldson. Nothing is assured at this point (including the season finishing, of course), but the Twins’ chances of reaching the playoffs are high enough that easing along veterans like Donaldson, Hill, Odorizzi and Bailey is the smart play.





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Previous Story Zulgad: Eye on October? Twins’ decision to put Rich Hill on IL might be the smart play Next Story Twenty thoughts on the Twins with 20 percent of the season complete