The second series against the Baltimore Orioles might be the weirdest one to date. The Minnesota Twins built a 6-0 lead in Game 1, but the bullpen—the team’s strength all season—gave it away. Vance Worley relinquished a 3-0 lead to Baltimore in Game 2 and got his first win in an 8-5 victory. In the final game, Scott Diamond had an uncharacteristically poor start and the Twins ended up losing 6-0.
There was a lot of funkiness in this series following three straight wins in Boston. The Twins remain at .500, however, and continue to exceed expectations.
And, unlike in years past, there is no shame in losing to Baltimore. The O’s are competing with the Yankees for the best record in the AL East.
The starters need to go deeper into the game
Nobody went seven innings for Minnesota against Baltimore. Mike Pelfrey lasted the longest, giving up only three runs in six innings. In fact, it was arguably his best outing of the year. Worley (5.1) and Diamond (5.2) couldn’t make it to six, however, and the bullpen continues to be overused.
Game 1 was a glaring example of why the Twins have to stop relying on their bullpen so much.
Leading up to the first contest against the Orioles, Worley had gone 5.0 innings against Boston, Diamond went 7.0, Hernandez went 2.0 and Correia went 5.1. This is not atypical of Minnesota’s starters: You get a quality start here and there (usually from Diamond or Correia), but most of the guys only go five innings. Sometimes less.
This means that the bullpen ends up getting overused.
In the Boston series, Josh Roenicke pitched two innings, Casey Fien pitched two innings, Jared Burton pitched 1.2 and Anthony Swarzak went three. All four pitchers had to be used in Game 1 against Baltimore. They ended up giving up a 6-3 lead. Granted, Pelfrey could have finished stronger—he gave up all three runs in the sixth inning—but the relievers gave it right back in the seventh.
There are great arms in the bullpen, no doubt, but they cannot be overused. Ryan Pressly and Brian Duensing were unavailable in Game 1 against Baltimore because they too had to pick up a lot of slack at Fenway.
Make no mistake, Diamond and Correia usually pitch well, Worley and Pelfrey appear to be turning things around (at least a little bit) and Hernandez is young yet. But there’s no reason that the Twins shouldn’t give Kyle Gibson and Cole De Vries a chance to crack this rotation with how poorly the starters have pitched recently.
Is Wilkin Ramirez a bona fide center fielder?
Here’s the skinny: Center fielder Aaron Hicks is a first-round pick from 2008 that jumped directly from Double-A to the majors this season and has stuck around despite hitting under .200 all year. While there was some thought that he would bat leadoff, he has found a home behind the big bats in the lineup.
That’s no problem, however, because he’s proven to be a pretty solid defensive player. He is also starting to hit the ball better and, frankly, the team traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere, two center fielders, and had a giant void to fill there.
I thought maybe that Minnesota wasn’t sending Hicks down because they didn’t really have a replacement in center field. Joe Benson came up directly from Double-A in 2011 (at the same time as Chris Parmelee) but struggled with injury last year and hit below .200 in Double-A and Triple-A.
This year, Benson is barely hitting above .200. His .205/.262/.307 line hardly makes anyone feel he’ll fare better against major league pitching than Hicks has, making it unlikely that Benson will get the call.
The most surprising development here is that Ramirez appears to a legitimate replacement for Hicks in center. No, he's probably not a permanent starter—more of a guy to give Hicks a day off or two—but it's still more than anybody expected.
Ramirez signed with the Detroit Tigers as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He played 15 games in Motown in 2009 and 20 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2011. He surprised everyone by hitting over .400 in spring training and found himself on Minnesota’s Opening Day roster as a reserve outfielder.
“[The] surprise addition to the bench will be outfielder Wilkin Ramirez,” wrote Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse back in March. “Two extra outfielders—Ramirez and Mastroianni—tell me this: Josh Willingham is going to serve as the designated hitter in a good hunk of games this season, with Ramirez or Mastroianni in left field.”
Mastroianni got hurt, of course, but Reusse was correct in asserting that Willingham would DH more frequently; it’s just that Oswaldo Arcia is the man replacing him in left field.
Star Tribune beat writer La Velle E. Neal framed Ramirez more as a mentor than anything.
“[As] soon as he was named to the Twins roster,” he wrote in March, “many spoke of how great an influence Ramirez will be.”
Neal said that he would primarily be a corner outfielder but mentioned that he was playing the next game, an exhibition against Boston, in center field.
In the team’s most recent series in Boston (in the games that actually count), Gardenhire replaced Hicks with Ramirez in extra innings to get the latter’s hot bat (.290/.303/.355) into the lineup in extra innings. It left the outfield looking a little scary. Ryan Doumit had replaced Willingham in left, meaning the outfield consisted of Doumit, Ramirez and Parmelee.
It looked like an odd managing move, more than anything.
In the next game, Hicks drew the ire of manager Ron Gardenhire by flipping a ball that he had borderline possession of to second baseman Brian Dozier during a 6-1 route of the Red Sox. At the time, I barely noticed the action and it looked like Hicks had clearly caught the ball anyways, but Gardenhire let Hicks have it in the dugout.
It’s all captured here in my favorite GIF story ever. (Well, it’s the only GIF story I have ready, but who’s counting?)
Gardenhire insisted that it was an isolated incident and that there were no hard feelings. Hicks started the next game, but Ramirez was the center fielder in two games against Baltimore. Part of it is because Hicks isn’t batting above .200 yet and part of it is because Ramirez is playing so well, but right now we know that Hicks’ defense doesn’t guarantee him a spot in the lineup everyday.
In years past, losing to the Baltimore Orioles would be a big problem, but this year’s team is looking awfully good and appears ready to compete for a division title in the AL East.
Minnesota remains above .500 entering a series against the rival Chicago White Sox with a chance to earn a winning record playing against a struggling team.