MINNEAPOLIS — The challenge facing Twins starter Kenta Maeda on Friday night at Target Field wasn’t the Cleveland Indians’ lineup. That listless collection of hitters ranked second-to-last in the American League in batting average (.225) and home runs (43) and had scored one run over its previous two games against Kansas City.
Maeda’s biggest challenge on a rainy, chilly night in downtown Minneapolis was outdueling the Indians’ starting pitcher, Shane Bieber. Bieber isn’t just Cleveland’s ace, he is MLB’s ace of 2020. He entered the start with a 7-0 record and an MLB-best 1.53 ERA and 102 strikeouts. This was the righthander’s third start of the season against the Twins.
In his first, he baffled Minnesota for eight innings, giving up no runs, three hits and striking out 13 in a 2-0 victory on July 30 at Target Field. Bieber then started on Aug. 25 against the Twins in Cleveland, and although he wasn’t as sharp, he got the win in a 4-2 victory, giving up two runs and four hits with three walks and 10 strikeouts in six innings. Bieber has been so good this season that there has been talk of him winning the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.
So how did Maeda do in the face of this pressure? Let’s allow Twins manager Rocco Baldelli to summarize things. “On a night where we knew we were facing maybe one of the best pitchers in the world, we sent one of the best pitchers out there to face him,” Baldelli said. “Our guy won the battle and basically outpitched him. No matter who he was facing, Kenta was going to outpitch him tonight.”
Maeda’s final line: No runs, four hits, two walks and seven strikeouts with 94 pitches thrown over seven innings. Bieber’s final line: Three runs, five hits, two walks and eight strikeouts with 109 pitches thrown in seven innings. The Twins came away with a 3-1 victory to improve to 28-18, putting them a game behind the White Sox in the AL Central and 1.5 games ahead of slumping Cleveland (four consecutive losses). Bieber left Target Field with his first loss of the season.
Maeda broke a two-start string (both against the Tigers) without a victory, improving his record to 5-1 and lowering his ERA to 2.43. He is now 3-0 against Cleveland this season, giving up one run and 10 hits with four walks and 20 strikeouts in 18 innings. Maeda’s dominance on Friday — Cleveland didn’t get a runner as far as second base against him — served as the latest reminder of just how good he has been in his first season with Minnesota.
The Twins certainly had expectations that the righthander would become an important part of the rotation when they acquired him from the Dodgers in February in a trade that sent hard-throwing pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to Los Angeles, but his success in this shortened season has far exceeded what anyone could have imagined. Maeda isn’t just an important part of the rotation, he has been the Twins’ ace. There were some Twins followers who were relieved when it appeared a three-team deal that also included the Red Sox, and would have sent Graterol to Boston, fell through.
But Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, spent long hours making sure the trade got done to acquire Maeda. It now makes sense why he felt that a guy the Dodgers had used as a starter and out of the bullpen deserved the security of a starting spot in the upper end of a rotation.
On Friday, Maeda was given offensive support by Byron Buxton, who hit a line-drive, two-run homer to left on the first pitch he saw from Bieber in the second inning, and by rookie catcher Ryan Jeffers, who belted a solo homer to left in the seventh inning with two outs to make it 3-0. Twins closer Taylor Rodgers gave up a solo homer to Jose Ramirez in the ninth for Cleveland’s only run.
Maeda didn’t just pitch a fantastic game, he also contributed by picking off Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor in the sixth after the shortstop had opened the inning with a single to right. An inning earlier, Maeda made a nice flip throw to first baseman Miguel Sano to get Tyler Naquin leading off.
“I’m trying to fulfill the expectations that the team has for me,” said Maeda, who entered Friday as the MLB leader in WHIP at 0.74. “I think I’ve been doing that pretty well.”
Yeah, that’s probably safe to say, right Rocco?
“When we acquired Kenta we thought in a lot of ways, objectively and simply just watching him, subjectively too, that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Baldelli said. “We thought he had the stuff and the different weapons. We know he can get right-handed hitters out as well as anyone in the game. But we also knew he had the weapons to do the same against left-handed hitters. Watching, I don’t even know if it’s development.
“I obviously didn’t know him as well coming into the season. But watching him pitch with that change-split, it’s a pretty devastating pitch and he has great feel for it and he throws it in the zone and out of the zone in different ways. I think he finds ways to play with it against left-handed hitters, that’s led to a lot of success. He’s just a very well-rounded guy and again guys like that continue to make adjustments as time goes on. I wouldn’t be surprised if anything further advanced or he found something new at some point in the future.”
Of course, if Maeda simply continues to pitch as he has so far this season, no one drawing a paycheck from the Twins is going to complain.