The Twins have plenty of clues to pore over, lots of evidence to examine. But even Sherlock Holmes might not be able to solve the Mystery of the Vanishing Pitchers.
Phil Hughes halted one Toronto rally after another through five innings Tuesday night, seemed to be gaining strength and confidence with every pitch, then abruptly lost the ability to get the Blue Jays out. Jared Burton got two consecutive infield dribblers in the ninth, then suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes, walking the bases loaded and giving up a grand slam.
The result was a 9-3 loss to the Jays in front of an announced 21,818 freezing fans at Target Field, a game that left Twins manager Ron Gardenhire wondering afterward how the quality pitching disappeared.
“I don’t know,” Gardenhire said of Hughes, who in his three starts with the Twins has now pitched five innings and given up four runs in each. “He was cruising before [the sixth], but all of a sudden — I don’t know what happened. He just couldn’t get the ball where he wanted to.”
And Burton, the Twins’ normally dependable setup man, who now sports a 14.40 ERA? “I don’t know what’s going on with him right now. He’s not pitching with a lot of confidence,” Gardenhire said. “I feel for him, he’s one of our best pitchers. But he’s going through a rough time right now.”
The Twins got strong pitching all weekend against the Royals, and appeared primed finally to rise above .500 on their third attempt this season. Chris Colabello doubled home a run in the first inning, just missing a home run by a foot, and Joe Mauer singled home another in the second, and it appeared that might be enough for Hughes.
The righthander never allowed a baserunner past second during the first five innings, and snuffed a two-on, no-out situation in the fourth by whiffing Edwin Encarnacion on a 93-mph low fastball and Dioner Navarro on a high curve and coaxing Moises Sierra to ground into a fielder’s choice. “I was locating pretty well, making some big pitches,” Hughes said. “It seemed like they got the leadoff hitter on every inning, but I was making pitches when I had to.”
Then in the sixth, Munenori Kawasaki hit a chopper that crossed third base for a double, his first hit of the season. Jose Bautista followed with an RBI single, and Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion lined singles of their own. Suddenly, Hughes was finished.
“Sometimes there are little spurts in games where you can’t locate a pitch,” he said. That one was particularly ill-timed, especially when Navarro greeted reliever Michael Tonkin with a single, and Sierra hit a roller to Mauer that the first baseman chose not to throw home for the force. That scored the go-ahead run, and two more scored when Brett Lawrie hit a sacrifice fly to score Encarnacion. Catcher Kurt Suzuki tried to throw out Navarro at third, but his throw sailed into left field, bringing home a fifth run.
Meanwhile, the Twins’ hitting disappeared as completely as their pitching. Despite putting runners on base in seven different innings, they went hitless for 22 consecutive batters.
“It felt like we were killing the ball,” said Colabello, who had a career-high three hits. “But I look up in the [eighth] inning, and we’ve only got four hits.”
It was a mystery. The Twins suddenly have lots of them to solve.