The Orioles and Twins both got their money’s worth out of their pricey free-agent pitcher signings Friday night. So maybe the Twins should have given Ricky Nolasco $1 million more.
Nolasco threw a complete game, rescuing a weary bullpen and turning in the sort of performance the Twins envisioned when they signed the righthander to a $49 million contract. But Ubaldo Jimenez got $50 million from the Orioles last winter, and sure enough, he was just a little bit better in a 3-0 Baltimore victory, the Twins’ fourth loss in a row.
“Ricky pitched great,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But against Jimenez tonight, just not enough.”
The Twins got sharp pitching, aggressive baserunning and solid defense, particularly by Sam Fuld, who crashed into the wall to snag Manny Machado’s deep fly ball. “You won’t see too many catches as good as that one, as far as he had to run,” Gardenhire said. “[He] completely turned around a couple of different times, still made a great play.”
And paid a price for it. “It rang my bell a little bit,” Fuld said. The wall “is a little harder than I thought it’d be.”
Nobody could catch Nelson Cruz’s rocket, though, a sixth-inning homer that essentially decided the game. Nolasco had quieted the Orioles with a sharp-breaking slider to that point, giving up one run on four hits. But with Manny Machado on first, Nolasco tried a two-seam fastball on a 1-1 count, but he left it over the plate. Cruz — another Baltimore free-agent pickup — bounced it off the concrete facing of Target Field third deck in left for his eighth home run, giving Baltimore a 3-0 lead.
“That was a tough one to swallow, with the slider I had going tonight,” said Nolasco, whose previous complete game came on Sept. 9, 2012. “But that’s what separates Nelson Cruz from some other guys.”
Not much has separated Nolasco and Jimenez this season; each came in with a bloated ERA (6.59 for Jimenez, 6.67 for Nolasco), a vague sense of disappointment so far about the first month with their new team — and a history, albeit brief, of pitching well in Target Field. Both of Nolasco’s quality starts this year have come in his new home ballpark, where his ERA stands at 2.12 with the Twins.
But Jimenez’s is better. The righthander — whose four-year contract, like Nolasco’s, is his new team’s biggest free-agent investment ever — owns a 2.08 ERA in five starts at Target Field, and this might have been his best yet. The Twins went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and a third-inning rally, when the first two batters reached, showed the Jimenez they remember well.
Fuld singled and Eduardo Escobar walked to open the frame, and a double steal put the Twins in position to score a couple of runs. But Jimenez wouldn’t allow it. Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer swung at strike three, and Trevor Plouffe watched it go by.
It was five more innings before another Twins hitter collected a hit. Jimenez’s night ended after 118 pitches and 10 strikeouts — the most he has collected since, well, striking out 13 Twins last Sept. 29 with Cleveland.
“There really wasn’t much we could do against him,” Gardenhire said.