CLEVELAND – Vance Worley was buttoning up his shirt at his locker Sunday, a few feet away from where Mike Pelfrey was describing his relief over having pitched, finally, the way the Twins expected him to when he signed with them. “Was today a breakthrough?” Pelfrey was asked. As the righthander considered the question, Worley slowly nodded his head in agreement.
Worley knows a turning point when he sees one, and Pelfrey’s six-inning, one-run performance in the Twins’ 4-2 victory over the Indians had that look about it. Felt like it in the Twins clubhouse, too, where the sense of relief — hey, he really does have the stuff to shut down a good offense — was hard to miss.
“You hope you’re getting a good pitcher” when you sign him to a free-agent contract, as the Twins did with Pelfrey, manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We think we have a good pitcher who knows what he’s doing. … Hopefully, he’ll keep progressing.”
He meant Pelfrey, but the Twins need similar progress from Worley, too. General Manager Terry Ryan believed he had addressed the biggest reason for last season’s collapse, starting pitching, by signing Pelfrey and Kevin Correia and trading for Worley, to go alongside Scott Diamond and a fifth starter, currently Pedro Hernandez. This season will look a lot different for the Twins if all the newcomers pitch like they have in the past.
That’s why Sunday felt so important. The Twins entered the day with a 5.01 ERA from their starting pitchers, ranking 27th in the majors and ahead of only three last-place teams: Toronto, San Diego and Houston. Their bullpen has been the American League’s best, but the Twins aren’t even a .500 team at the moment, in part because Worley (a 7.22 ERA) and Pelfrey (7.66 entering Sunday) have disappointed.
But Gardenhire, Ryan and pitching coach Rick Anderson always believed Pelfrey — who last Wednesday celebrated the one-year anniversary of his elbow reconstruction surgery — had this sort of ability in him, and Sunday he proved them right. The 6-foot-7 righthander had the Indians flailing at diving fastballs and sharp sliders.
“I feel good. I kept telling myself I didn’t think this could last the whole season,” Pelfrey said. “It definitely feels better than the ... first five starts.”
His fastball was livelier than it had been in April, hitting 94 miles per hour occasionally, and he struck out as many batters in one game (seven) as he had in the entire season.
“The velocity is starting to get closer to what it was last year before I got hurt. That’s a good sign,” Pelfrey said. “I feel like I’m making progress. I don’t want to get carried away — this is one outing.”
It comes six days after a relatively positive start in Detroit, too, at least until he gave away the game by serving up a three-run homer to Prince Fielder. Pelfrey sensed he was improving.
“This has been a heck of a comeback. He’s still just a year out of surgery, so we’re kind of taking small steps,” Gardenhire said, explaining why Pelfrey was removed after throwing only 92 pitches. “He threw the ball great.”
Plouffe provided all the support Pelfrey needed, driving a 2-2 curveball from Cleveland starter Corey Kluber into the left-field bleachers, his second home run of the series and fourth of the season. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau also drove in runs as the Twins ended Cleveland’s streak of scoring six or more runs in six consecutive games, all victories.
Some observers wondered if Pelfrey had come back too quickly, but Gardenhire said he trusted Pelfrey and his doctors to make that call. A one-year rehab process is common, but Pelfrey was pitching again in February.
Hey, maybe he really should have waited a year.
“I wish somebody would have told me April was going to go like that,” he joked. “Maybe I would have taken the first month off.”
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org