BOSTON — The Twins used an opener for the first time this season Tuesday, then pitched five more relievers in a nail-biting 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
With 19 active pitchers (20 once Kyle Gibson returns), the Twins will likely continue to use openers and rely heavily on the bullpen throughout September, particularly with Gibson on the injured list and the starting staff struggling at times to get deep in games. Tuesday, the strategy was highly effective.
Randy Dobnak pitched one scoreless inning in his first career start, striking out two before a near-sellout crowd at Fenway Park. Dobnak has impressed in his time in the big leagues, never seeming nervous or overmatched in four scoreless appearances. Next came Lewis Thorpe, who cruised through innings two, three, and four before running into control problems in the fifth. Ultimately, he was charged with three earned runs, though two of them scored when Trevor May gave up a three-run home run to Rafael Devers on a hanging slider. Tyler Duffey, Sam Dyson, and Taylor Rogers combined to finish out the game.
Wear and tear would normally be a concern in these situations, but the Twins are doing their best to alleviate that. Among the relievers who didn’t appear Tuesday were Sergio Romo, Brusdar Graterol, Zack Littell, and Trevor Hildenberger. In other words, with a pitching staff this large, they can get away with full bullpen games and have plenty left in the tank the following day.
Hildenberger is back in the big leagues. It was a long summer for Hildenberger, who went from being one of Minnesota’s most trusted relievers to getting sent down in May. Shortly after, he suffered an injury, and spent June and July rehabbing in Fort Myers. After getting healthy, he returned to Rochester in late-August, pitching 8.1 scoreless innings, with six strikeouts.
“Long,” Hildenberger said of his summer. “I think when I went down, I just wasn’t doing well, and then I tried to work out those kinks down in Rochester and unfortunately got injured. I had to spend a couple of months in Fort Myers. The people down there, the strength coaches helped me get healthy and back on the field. I feel really good. So when I returned to Rochester, I felt much better.”
Hildenberger, who said he has been pain-free for eight weeks, attributed a lot of his early season struggles to mechanical issues, which he says he worked through in Fort Myers and Rochester.
“A lot of it had to do with my back leg,” he said. “I think earlier in the year, my arm slot was a little bit high, and I thought, mentally, I’ve got to lean over more to get my arm slot down, which was actually making me worse, because I was falling forwards towards third base, and in order to not fall over, my body would come up early. So I would fly open.
“So the more I stayed back on my back leg and really drove towards the plate and stayed linear, I was able to get my arm slot lower. It’s counterintuitive. The more upright I stayed, the lower my arm, the more I leaned over, the higher my arm slot. So it took me a while to figure that out, but (Rochester Red Wings bullpen coach) Mike McCarthy helped me out down in Rochester, and hopefully things go as well as they’ve gone in the last two weeks.”
Hildenberger says his stuff is much better since he came back from injury. Now, it’s about proving that he can be effective again in the big leagues. He understands that with the Twins’ deep bullpen, those opportunities likely won’t be as plentiful as they were at the start of the season.
“Just [want to prove] that I’m healthy, that I can throw strikes and get big league hitters out again,” he said. “Not only is everyone here trying to audition for the postseason roster, but audition for a job next year. So there’s a lot of pitchers here and not an infinite amount of innings to go around. Whenever I do get the opportunity, I hope I can capitalize.”
Hildenberger is a bit of a wild card after not pitching well and then being injured for much of the year. But if he could return to his 2017 and 2018 form, he could be a real contributor for the Twins down the stretch. It wasn’t long ago that he was the “fireman” of the Twins bullpen, coming in during high leverage situations to get big outs. In 2017, when the Twins went to the Wild Card game, he was arguably their best reliever. Now, in a bullpen that already has Dyson, Romo, and Rogers, he’ll simply look to be a contributor in the middle innings.
Miguel Sano hit an absolutely massive home run in the fifth inning. The ball landed just below the Bank of America sign in center field. Statcast measured the home run at 452 feet.
Not sure I’ve ever seen a baseball hit to this spot at Fenway
— Phil Mackey (@PhilMackey) September 4, 2019
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who grew up in Rhode Island and went to Fenway Park often, said he had never seen a ball land there. “What he did to that baseball out there…I’ve seen a lot of games there, and never seen a ball land there in my life,” Baldelli said.
Sano was sitting on Red Sox starter Rick Porcello’s fastball, and he didn’t miss it.
“I was looking for a high fastball,” Sano said. “He threw me the pitch that I wanted.”
It was a monster home run, though Sano said it wasn’t his longest of his career. Regardless, it was a huge home run for Sano and the Twins, and the two runs it produced ended up being the game-winning runs in the one-run win.