DETROIT – Baseball has a way of subverting language. Nasty? Filthy? Disgusting? In baseball, those are compliments pitchers don’t mind catching.
The Twins are in the midst of transforming another phrase. Two months ago, “bullpen game” sounded like carnage or surrender. Now it’s their secret weapon, or at least the weapon about which they can gleefully be secretive.
The arrival of Sergio Romo and the emergence of a handful of relievers who were either struggling or absent in July, combined with Michael Pineda’s suspension, Kyle Gibson’s illness and Martin Perez’s regression have created this strange-yet-true possibility:
The Twins will start Jose Berrios in Game 1 of the playoffs, then might pitch anyone at any time.
Conversations with members of the Twins organization indicate that the Twins could start Jake Odorizzi in Game 2, then resort to bullpen games in Game 3 and 4, presuming the series lasts that long.
Or they could use an “opener” in Game 2, have Odorizzi pitch second, and, if he doesn’t pitch many innings in that game, use him again later in the series.
They could start Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer in Games 3 and 4 … or bring them in second, behind just about anyone on the staff. They could use top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol in any inning from the first to the ninth, or beyond.
If they put Gibson on their playoff roster — a likelihood, given his tenure with the team — they could use him as a short-leash starter, ready to pull him at any moment. Or they could hold him out as extra-innings insurance.
The Twins are likely to face the Yankees. Last time these teams played, the Yankees narrowly won a three-game series at Target Field because Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks made one of the best non-Buxton catches in the ballpark’s history, diving toward the center field wall to rob Max Kepler of a winning hit.
That series arrived at, and exacerbated, a seeming crisis for the Twins. They hadn’t traded for help, May and Duffey were struggling, and early-season closer Blake Parker was about to be designated for assignment as part of a bullpen purge.
Surely, conventional wisdom held, the Twins, having failed to sign expensive closer Craig Kimbrel, needed to trade top prospects for a reliever like him.
Instead, they traded lower-level prospects for Romo and Sam Dyson, who arrived with arm problems, while Kimbrel helped ensure that the Cubs, the team that signed him, missed the playoffs.
The bullpen improved because of the most boring and underappreciated aspect of baseball management: Patience with young talent. The Twins became more cautious about using Taylor Rogers on short rest. They waited for May and Duffey to master their increasingly dynamic stuff. They reaped the benefits of two previously unexciting trades — landing Zack Littell for Jaime Garcia and Devin Smeltzer for Brian Dozier.
Suddenly, the Twins have a dozen useful arms and no traditional-thinking guardrails. They could throw nine pitchers in a nine-inning game, or ride a hot starter.
“These guys, I can’t say enough about them,” pitching coach Wes Johnson said. “They deserve all the credit. You look at all the guys who contributed this last week. We’ve got some weapons out there we’re going to be able to use.”
Modern hitters are adept at game-planning for opposing starters, and adapting to what they see during a game. The greatest challenge in modern pitching is surviving a third trip through the lineup.
If the Twins win the first round of the playoffs, they could do so without ever letting an opponent face one of their pitchers for a third time. They would love a nine-inning shutout from Berrios, but they are not dependent dominant starting pitching.
Their approach unconventional, but unconventional thinking is about to produce the second 100-victory season in franchise history.
“It’s just been fun,” Duffey said. “There are probably better words, but that’s the one that comes to mind. If we’re going to score 10 runs, that’s great. If not, we’ve got to pitch. And I think we’ve become a great counterbalance to our offense.”