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Zulgad: What a relief: Bullpen playing a significant role in Twins' early-season success

Sergio Romo
Minnesota Twins pitcher Sergio Romo celebrates after striking out Cleveland Indians’ Carlos Santana for the final out as the Twins beat the Indians in a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Minneapolis. Romo earned the save. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — Manager Rocco Baldelli announced late Saturday that there had been a change in the Twins’ pitching plans for Sunday and that Tyler Clippard would serve as the opener for the finale of Minnesota’s four-game series against Cleveland at Target Field. That meant that if the Twins were to win three of four from their AL Central rival they would have to do it with a bullpen game.

This might have been a source of concern at one time for the Twins but that is no longer the case. Not with Minnesota now possessing one of the better bullpens in the big leagues. The unit proved this to be true again on Sunday as Clippard opened with two hitless innings and was followed by five relievers who gave up one run.

The Twins’ 3-1 victory gave them three consecutive wins over Cleveland, after the Indians took the opener 2-0 behind Shane Bieber’s masterful performance, and put them two games ahead of the second-place White Sox in the American League Central. Minnesota (7-2) is 2.5 games up on Cleveland and Detroit and has won five of six on an eight-game homestand that will conclude with games Monday and Tuesday against Pittsburgh.

A year ago, the Twins cruised to the AL Central title under first-year manager Baldelli by relying on an explosive offense that became known as the Bomba Squad. The group smashed a big-league record 307 home runs. That wasn’t to say the Twins dismissed the importance of pitching and fielding on their way to 101 victories, but if all else failed they waited for their power-packed lineup to ignite.

The Twins had 15 home runs entering Sunday, tying them for the big-league lead, but if you look at the scores from this homestand, it doesn’t take long to realize the team’s formula for success in 2020 extends beyond what happens at the plate. A 4-1 victory on Friday came in large part because of Randy Dobnak’s excellent five-inning start and the work of the bullpen. Kent Maeda followed that with a one-hitter over six innings before Trevor May, Cody Stashak and Taylor Rogers slammed the door in a 3-0 victory on Saturday.

On Sunday, an injury to starter Homer Bailey that landed him on the 10-day injured list before the game eliminated a true starting pitching entirely and the bullpen did all of the work. Jorge Polanco’s single to left in the first scored Max Kepler, who had opened the game with a double to right; Mitch Garver homered to left to lead off the second; and Nelson Cruz knocked in Kepler, who had doubled again, in the third.

That was one more run than the Twins actually needed.

Cleveland’s only run came in the fourth inning when Francisco Lindor’s single off Devin Smeltzer scored Cesar Hernandez. Lindor tried to take second on the shot to left but Eddie Rosario’s perfect throw to second got him. Smeltzer worked 2.2 innings, giving up two hits, and was declared the winning pitcher.

In this odd 60-game season that started a week ago Friday, Baldelli has been careful not to overwork his pitchers. That means the bullpen has seen extensive work in the first nine games and only once have the relievers disappointed. That came in the second game of the season against the White Sox. Zack Littell, who was placed on the 10-day injured list on Saturday because of a left hamstring injury, Smeltzer and Matt Wisler combined to give up nine runs, 11 hits (five of them home runs) and two walks in four innings of a 10-3 loss.

That came a game after the Twins had opened the season with a 10-5 victory over the White Sox. Starter Jose Berrios had a rough outing, but the bullpen gave up no runs, two hits, two walks and struck out seven in five innings.

It turned out that performance was much more indicative of what was to come in the first week-plus of the season. If you include the poor performance by the Twins’ trio of relievers against the White Sox, the bullpen carries a 2.76 ERA (12 runs in 39 innings) over eight games. Take that out and the relief pitchers, we aren’t including Clippard’s starting numbers on Sunday, have given up three runs in 35 innings for a microscopic 0.77 ERA.

There was a time when guys like Tyler Duffey and Trevor May seemed like they might be functional big-league pitchers at best. Thanks to the work done by the Twins’ staff, and Duffey and May’s willingness to adjust and listen, these guys now look as if they could be All-Stars.

Duffey struck out two in another scoreless inning on Sunday and now has three holds and has fanned eight of 13 batters in four appearances. He has surrendered one hit in four innings. May also made his fourth appearance on Sunday and earned his second hold as he struck out the side in the eighth inning. He has given up one hit and two hits in four innings and has struck out eight of 17 hitters.

Sergio Romo, obtained near the trade deadline last season from the Marlins, earned his second save on Sunday to go along with two holds and has given up no runs and one hit in four innings. Clippard, signed as a free agent last December, has been a solid addition, giving up one run and three hits in six innings. Closer Taylor Rogers has three saves on this homestand and has fanned four of the nine hitters he has faced.

A year ago, the Twins bullpen finished 10th in the big leagues with a 4.17 ERA and there was concern for much of the season about its depth. Trades for Romo and Sam Dyson at the deadline were supposed to help but Dyson turned out to be damaged goods and is now gone. The good news is Clippard appears to be a better pitcher. It doesn’t hurt that Rogers remains dominant and guys like Duffey and May have continued to improve and there’s depth behind them.

This doesn’t mean the Twins are going to give up on being the Bomba Squad. But it might be a good idea for somebody to start working on a nickname for the relievers.