Rocco Baldelli was managing his 115th game for the Twins on Thursday night. Nelson Cruz, baseball’s best free agent signing in the winter of 2018-19, took a fierce swing at a 96 mile-per-hour pitch from Cleveland’s Mike Clevenger.
Cruz missed it, then stepped out of the batter’s box, realizing there was an issue with his left wrist. Baldelli and trainer Matt Biancuzzo came out to discuss this. After a couple of minutes, Cruz headed toward the dugout and was replaced by C.J. Cron.
It was at this point, the fourth inning of Game 1 of a first-place series against the Indians, that Baldelli was being sent headlong into the first crisis of his managerial tenure.
He was already missing the key to his team’s fielding in center fielder Byron Buxton, and he now would be missing the key to his team’s robust hitting in Cruz. And when he returned to the dugout, he was stuck watching a horrendous effort from veteran Kyle Gibson that continued a meltdown of the starting rotation.
A couple of hours later, Cleveland had held on for 7-5 victory, reducing the Twins lead to 1 game in the AL Central. And that became zero, a first-place tie, when the Indians won again Friday 6-2.
The lead was 11½ on the morning of June 4, and in truth, it has been the Indians’ amazing play — 41-16 since then — more than a Twins collapse (30-28) that has created this predicament.
The Twins were at season-high of 28 games over .500 as recently as Tuesday, before Jose Berrios threw up a clunker vs. Atlanta, and then Martin Perez continued a streak of imitating Pete Alonso’s second cousin in the Home Run Derby on Wednesday.
Gibson made it three disasters in a row — fueled by a career-high six walks — on Thursday, and then came the postgame information on Cruz’s injury.
The good news is that Cruz might be able to play in a couple of weeks. The bad news is that Cruz often swings from his shoes and he has a torn tendon in his left wrist.
Justin Morneau, now in the Twins’ TV booth, tore a tendon in his left wrist for the Twins in 2012 and resumed playing.
“That was my top hand on a swing,” Morneau said. “This is Nelson’s bottom hand. That could make a difference. I don’t know.”
Whatever the timeline, this was not a trade that a manager wanted to make as his team was trying to defend first place against righthander Shane Bieber, Cleveland’s All-Star MVP:
Cruz, his season-long third hitter, for Cody Stashak, as an eighth reliever.
The Bieber-Devin Smeltzer pairing proved to be an unsurprising mismatch. Bieber went seven-plus innings, giving up with two runs and striking out 11 for his 12th victory.
Smeltzer had sneaked into the Twins rotation vs. Kansas City last Sunday and given up two hits in six scoreless innings.
He had arrived late on Saturday night, arrived at the ballpark the next morning, and dazzled a struggling team with the assortment of a traditional crafty lefthander.
The challenge Friday was completely different. Smeltzer was facing a Cleveland team that hit four home runs against him in his second career start on June 4.
And he was being asked by the Twins to slow Cleveland’s charge while facing a better lineup than in early June.
Smeltzer had six three-ball counts in the first four innings, yet was able to tightrope his way through it giving up one run. Then, he was thumped in the fifth, charged with five runs and the Twins were in familiar territory:
Down big halfway through a game.
That turned into the first four-game losing streak for both the Twins and manager Baldelli. With that, the solo lead in the AL Central was gone for the first time since April 27.
Here’s the fabulous stat on the losing streak: The Twins have been outscored 28-0 to start the four games (11-0, 7-0, 4-0 and 6-0 on Friday).
There were a pair of home runs — one from Jason Castro in the fifth that landed in the flowers in left, another from Eddie Rosario on a 409-foot blast in the sixth. Those solo shots sent the Twins past their all-time record for home runs in season: 226 in the year of the baseball with a spec of plutonium in its core, surpassing 225 by Killebrew and Co. in 1963.
That was the definition of small consolation.
Cleveland’s lineup has gotten better this month with the warm bat of Jose Ramirez and the acquisitions of Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes.
As of the fourth inning Thursday, the Twins lineup became much worse, with the departure of Nelson Cruz, with his team-leading 32 home runs and 77 RBI.
Throw in a rotation facing carnage, plus no Buxton, and Rocco has himself crisis No. 1.