When it was over, Aaron Slegers said, the emotion became almost overwhelming. As he walked off the field, having pitched one of the best big-league debuts in Twins history, “I was about as close as you can cry without crying,” the rookie righthander said. “Walking off the mound, and the crowd was standing up and applauding. That was pretty special.”
His teammates probably felt something similar. Just when the Twins’ pursuit of the AL Central leaders appeared entirely futile, just when they stood on the verge of being swept in all 10 home games against first-place Cleveland, Slegers arrived to keep hope, however faint and illogical, alive. The rookie righthander, the fourth starting pitcher to make his major-league debut with the Twins this summer, faced 22 batters and recorded 19 outs Thursday, allowing only two hits and two runs in 6⅓ innings as the Twins held on for a 4-2 victory — their one and only victory at Target Field against the Indians this summer.
“It’s the old, 1-9 is better than 0-10 kind of deal,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “To go as long as he did and pitch as effectively as he did, it was a big boost for everybody.”
Came in handy in the standings, too, since the Twins lost the day’s first game 9-3 to fall seven games out of first place. But by recovering in the evening’s makeup of Wednesday’s rainout, Minnesota moved back above .500 (60-59), surpassed their victory total of 2016, cut the AL Central deficit to six games and retained their spot one game out of an AL wild-card invitation. All largely because of Slegers, the Twins’ fifth-round draft pick in 2013.
“It was much-needed,” Molitor said. “He gained a lot of respect from a lot of people in that clubhouse tonight.”
Probably a lot in the other dugout, too. Cleveland had outscored the Twins 65-19 in their first nine matchups in Minneapolis, but Slegers silenced that lineup abruptly, getting 11 outs from the first 11 hitters before making a mistake that Jay Bruce plastered into the right-field stands. But Slegers ignored the hiccup, and didn’t give up another hit until the final batter he faced, Edwin Encarnacion, who singled in the seventh.
“I give credit to [catcher Chris] Gimenez. He made me feel totally comfortable, from an hour and a half before the game when we went over the lineup,” Slegers said. “He just instilled confidence from the get-go.”
The victory came courtesy of a tie-breaking Max Kepler home run in the seventh inning, redeeming himself for a misplay that kept Slegers from being the winning pitcher. Carlos Santana greeted reliever Trevor Hildenberger with a line drive into the right-field corner and Kepler slipped as he tried to field it, allowing it to reach the wall for a game-tying triple.
But Kepler took the lead right back, blasting a pitch from Mike Clevinger into the right-field stands, the eighth time among his 32 career homers that he’s connected against Cleveland. “Give one, get one back, I guess,” Molitor said.
There was no getting one in the first game, not when it mattered. The Twins had eight at-bats in that game with a runner on third base and went 0-for-8, with six strikeouts. That doomed Kyle Gibson, who allowed three runs over four innings, to his 10th loss of the season, though the Indians’ big hit came later: Yan Gomes’ three-run homer off Ryan Pressly that turned a tight game into yet another Cleveland blowout.
Slegers watched all that as a nervous fan, hardly believing he would be on the same mound later in the day. He arrived on a morning flight from Ohio, the designated 26th man for the day’s second game, and dropped his bags at a hotel. “I knew if I stayed at the hotel by myself, I’d be a nervous wreck,” he said. “So I decided to be extremely early.”
He climbed to the top of the stands at Target Field, watching fans file in. “Then I walked out on the field in my uniform, a half-hour before the game, and soaked it in a little bit more.”
And then, with roughly two dozen family members in the stands, he proceeded to match Pat Mahomes in 1992 and Brad Havens in 1981, the only Twins to allow only two hits in their MLB debut. “Once the game actually started, I was able to control my heart rate, control my emotions pretty well,” Slegers said. “But it just about all spilled over when I came out of the game.”