Zulgad: Who should start the Twins’ playoff opener? Right now, it’s an easy choice

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins dropped to 6-8 this season against AL Central-rival Cleveland with a 6-2, 11-inning loss on Friday night at Target Field in which Lewis Thorpe, young hard-throwing rookie Brusdar Graterol and Trevor Hildenberger ran into trouble.

The one person who couldn’t be blamed was the guy they call Big Mike.

Michael Pineda gave up one run and four hits, with two walks and a season-high 10 strikeouts in six innings. When he departed, having only given up a solo home run to Francisco Lindor in the third inning, the Twins held a 2-1 lead and Pineda had his 13th quality start of the season.

Despite the loss, the Twins’ lead on the second-place Indians remains at 5.5 games with 21 games to play in the regular season. This means that barring an epic collapse, the Twins aren’t just going to the playoffs, they are going to win the AL Central for the first time since 2010.

There is little doubt the organization’s first choice would be to start righthander Jose Berrios in Game 1 of the Division Series. The Twins consider the 25-year-old Berrios to be their ace and, when he’s going well, he can be a fantastic pitcher. But Berrios hasn’t been anywhere near fantastic since the All-Star break, posting a 5.37 earned-run average in 10 starts. Far too often, Berrios has looked lost.

Unless that changes in the coming weeks, the Twins need to accept that the 30-year-old Pineda is the pitcher who should start the opening game of any playoff series. Is this ideal? No. If Berrios continues to struggle in October, the Twins’ postseason chances figure to be slim. Everyone knows that Berrios should be the guy we are all talking about taking the ball in Game 1. But starting a struggling Berrios for the sake of it would be foolish.

Especially with how Pineda has been pitching.

Pineda entered Friday with a 6-1 record and 3.04 ERA in nine starts since July 6. He hasn’t given up as many as five earned runs in a start since he did so in a 6-1 loss on June 23 in Kansas City. Pineda has surrendered three earned runs or fewer in 10 of his past 11 starts, including six in which he has given up one earned run.

“Mike was a great again,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said Friday. “Just top to bottom it was just another really good start for him. He’s done nothing but compete exceptionally well. This run of starts has been fantastic. To call it consistent doesn’t really give him enough credit. He’s been great.”

This comes after Pineda missed all of last season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and then was shut down late in the season because of right knee discomfort he experienced while working in the bullpen.

The 6-7, 280-pound Pineda got off to a rough start this year, posting a 6.21 ERA in his first six starts. Since then, his ERA by month has been 4.50 in five starts in May; 3.58 in five starts in June; 2.59 in four starts in July; and 3.52 in four starts in August. He has given up three earned runs in 12 innings in two starts this month.

Pineda struck out two Cleveland hitters in the first, second and fourth innings on Friday and then struck out the side in the sixth (Yasiel Puig, Jason Kipinis and Franmil Reyes) before departing. “He looked pretty close to what he’s given us for however many starts now,” Baldelli said. “He’s thrown like this for a while. We saw the (velocity) on the board. Who knows exactly how accurate the board always is? But if it’s right, he was touching some numbers you don’t always see him touch up there. … He executed really well. His slider was good. I thought his offspeed stuff tonight was really good, too.”

Pineda, who was with the Yankees before signing a two-year, $10 million contract with the Twins as he recovered from surgery prior to the 2018 season, rebounded very well after giving up Lindor’s blast. He retired 11 of the final 14 batters he faced. He has now struck out eight, nine and 10 batters in his past three outings and has his ERA at 4.01 on the season.

The Twins’ playoff rotation likely will be made up of Jake Odorizzi, who will start Saturday against Cleveland; Berrios; Pineda; and Kyle Gibson or Martin Perez. Odorizzi has had an up-and-down season in which he was named to the All-Star Game after a brilliant stretch, but he cooled off big-time in July. His ERA for the month was 7.43 in five starts. In six starts since, he has posted a 3.24 ERA.

Berrios’ struggles since July. Odorizzi’s inconsistencies. It’s Big Mike Pineda who has been the Twins’ most reliable pitcher for a long stretch of time and, for that reason, right now it would make the most sense to give him the ball in the opening game of the postseason.