MINNEAPOLIS — Back-to-back poor starts from Jose Berrios and Martin Perez in losses to Atlanta, meant the Twins were very much in need of a quality performance from Kyle Gibson on Thursday night at Target Field.
The Twins had given up 23 runs to the Braves in losing on Tuesday and Wednesday and Cleveland arrived in Minneapolis for a key four-game series having swept a doubleheader from Texas and only two games behind the Twins in the American League Central. The Indians had gone 39-16 since June 4, giving them the best winning percentage and the most victories in the big leagues in that span.
Unfortunately for the Twins, Gibson did nothing to cool off the Indians or halt the Twins’ lack of poor starts. What he did do was provide the latest example of why the front office needed to get a front-line starter at the trade deadline, if it was serious about this franchise and its record-setting offense making a playoff run.
Cleveland jumped to a 4-0 lead against Gibson en route to a 7-5 victory that put the Twins only one game up in the division.
Gibson followed an eight-pitch first inning by giving up a triple to Yasiel Puig to open the second. He then walked Jose Ramirez and became obsessed with Ramirez’s presence at first base. Constant throws over to Ehire Adrianza, who only occasionally plays first base, led to a throwing error that scored Puig.
Gibson retired the next five hitters but came apart in the fourth after walking Oscar Mercado and Carlos Santana to open the inning. The Indians scored three runs in the fourth, including two on Jason Kipnis’ double, and two more in the fifth that led to Gibson hearing a chorus of boos from the crowd of 32,517.
Gibson was lifted in that inning having surrendered six runs (five earned because one scored on his throwing error) and four hits with two strikeouts in 4.1 innings. Gibson walked a career-high six and threw 42 of his 85 pitches for strikes. How eye-popping was Gibson’s walk total? It matched the amount of walks he surrendered in five starts in the month of May.
“Anyone watching Gibby tonight would probably just say he’s definitely not himself,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That’s generally not an issue for him. I don’t have any insight as far as exactly why any of that was going on or taking place. It’s hard to hold another team down when you issue that many free passes.”
Gibson’s poor outing increased the ERA of Twins’ starters in the past three games to 11.25 (20 earned runs in 15 innings) with 12 walks and dropped their record in that time to 0-3. Opponents’ have an OPS of 1.097 in that time against Berrios, Perez and Gibson.
“… I think we’re in a little bit of a rut, just starting pitching wise,” said Baldelli, in what amounts to a massive understatement. “It’s just a little run of pitching not going your way and you’re not throwing the ball the way you want to. That is going to happen. We are playing against some pretty good teams as well and they make you pay when you are not on your game. But I have full confidence that our guys will be back and get back to what they have been doing and throw the ball well while going forward. There’s really no reason to think that won’t happen.”
There is no debating that the price on most starting pitchers available at the July 31 trade deadline (the only trade deadline that exists) was exorbitant, but after seeing their starters get knocked around by the Yankees in a three-game series only days earlier it was clear what the Twins’ brain trust needed to do. They, along with other teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, balked at the idea of paying a steep price, deciding the future was more important than the present.
Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey did acquire a couple of bullpen pieces — the so-far-effective Sergio Romo and the arrived-as-damaged-goods Sam Dyson — but the starting staff received no help. That might be OK when you are playing bottom-feeders such as Kansas City or Detroit but it’s going to cost you when you are playing clubs that likely are headed to the playoffs.
The shame of it was the Twins’ never-say-die offense again attempted to rally against a Cleveland bullpen that entered leading the majors in ERA at 3.22.
Trailing 6-2 entering the eighth, Jorge Polanco contributed a two-run double with nobody out and Miguel Sano crushed a double to left-center with two outs to score Eddie Rosario. That cut the Indians lead to one but Tyler Naquin got one of those runs back when he homered to right off reliever Trevor May. The Twins then loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth before Rosario flied to left to end the game.
“We know our job because of this offense is a whole lot easier than it could be,” said Gibson, who had battled an illness for the better part of a week but said he felt good on Thursday. “You look at the fifth inning alone, those two runs end up being the difference-maker. We take it really seriously (as a starting staff) trying to keep the team in the ballgame and we know that if we leave the game within one, two runs either way, we’ve done a pretty good job.
“When you’re not able to do that it’s pretty frustrating, especially knowing that seventh, eighth, ninth inning, you never know what’s going to happen with this team. We’ve got a chance to put up a lot of runs. That’s probably one of the more frustrating things as a staff when you leave fourth, fifth inning, you really just don’t keep your team in the game and you’re just making it harder for them.”
Starting pitching isn’t the Twins’ only issue these days. Already without center fielder Byron Buxton because of a left shoulder injury, the Twins lost hot-hitting DH Nelson Cuz in the fourth inning because of a left wrist strain. That’s the same injury that landed Cruz on the injured list for 15 games earlier this season.
Buxton’s absence was felt again Thursday when Puig’s triple to right was just out of the reach of Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez does a fantastic job playing all over the place for the Twins, but Puig’s hit was the type of ball that Max Kepler likely would have caught had he been playing in his normal spot in right field. Kepler was in center because Buxton is out.
As for Cruz, he entered Thursday with 32 home runs, the fifth-most in the big leagues, and had 16 since the All-Star break, the most in baseball. Cruz was on pace to hit 45 RBIs and drive in 108 runs. That production is now lost for a yet-to-be determined amount of time, although the Twins announced he would be day-to-day.
The Indians are now a game back and the Twins could have company atop the AL Central standings by late Friday. That hasn’t been the case since April 26 when the Twins shared the division lead.
It will be lefty Devin Smeltzer (1-1, 2.28 ERA) against Indians All-Star righty Shane Bieber (11-3, 3.31) in the second game of this series. Smeltzer, who has shuttled between Triple-A Rochester and Minnesota a few times this season, is coming off an impressive performance in which he gave up no runs and two hits in six innings last Sunday. The Twins beat the Royals, 3-0, in that game to sweep Kansas City.
The Royals are 41-75 and among the worst teams in baseball. The Indians are now 69-46 — the Twins are 70-45– and are looking to win their fourth consecutive AL Central title. A few months ago, that seemed like a long shot as the Twins were up by 11.5 games and in complete control.
But these days, with the Twins’ starters continuing to look shaky when facing quality foes, it’s looking more and more like the Indians could be the primary beneficiary of Minnesota’s decision not to make a significant move for a starter at the deadline.