CLEVELAND – The weird part, the infuriating part, the worrisome part of Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Indians is that even Mike Pelfrey doesn’t know what changed.
The tall righthander was as dominating as he’s ever been in a Twins uniform, dispatching hitters with ease — and with only one pitch, really, a sinking fastball that Cleveland hitters flailed at. In five innings, Pelfrey retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced, and he did it in a way, with a pitch so nasty, second baseman Brian Dozier said, that he “made people look bad.”
Then the Indians did the same to him.
Pelfrey fell apart with an abruptness that Dozier can’t believe, that manager Ron Gardenhire can’t predict, that Pelfrey himself can’t figure out. He hadn’t allowed a hit, or even a particularly sharply hit ball, until Carlos Santana led off the fifth inning with a double. But Santana advanced no further, and when Pelfrey took the mound in the sixth inning, having thrown an efficient 57 pitches to that point and owning a 2-0 lead, “we’re thinking [he can go] seven, eight, nine innings here, maybe save our bullpen,” Gardenhire said. “But once the next inning started, he wasn’t the same pitcher. ... All of a sudden, it fell apart.”
Pelfrey went to a full count against Yan Gomes, then tried the same sinker that produced a tap-out to third his previous time up. “Right down the middle,” Pelfrey said, and Gomes deposited it in the Indians’ bullpen beyond the center field fence. Moments later, another full count, and Lonnie Chisenhall walked.
After a sacrifice bunt, Pelfrey tried to come inside on Nick Swisher. Next thing he knew, he was crouched on the mound, muttering to himself “in anger, frustration,” he said, as Swisher’s ball landed 418 feet away, deep in the right-field stands. “You throw the ball down the middle, belt-high, and that’s what’s going to happen,” Pelfrey said.
He tried to gather himself, but his command was gone. Eight pitches to Jason Kipnis and Santana, all of them well out of the strike zone, and he was done.
“Goodness gracious,” Gardenhire said, “that was quick.”
Casey Fien was summoned, and he ended the inning without further damage. Fien, however, surrendered three runs of his own in the seventh, the last two of them scoring on a Swisher double off Caleb Thielbar.
“They got on a roll, “ Gardenhire said, “and they’re hard to stop when they start swinging.”
The Twins couldn’t say the same. They scored twice in the first inning, using a Brian Dozier double, a Josh Willingham sacrifice fly and a Chris Colabello home run to make Cleveland starter Danny Salazar appear vulnerable. But they never scored again, twice leaving runners on third and once ending an inning with Kurt Suzuki being thrown out at the plate.
Minnesota dropped to 1-3, and the way the Twins are losing is most discouraging. The Twins’ starting pitching, buttressed by more than $80 million in spending last winter, has been so-so at best, and their bullpen, the standout strength of their 96-loss 2013 club, owns an 8.76 ERA. It’s only four games, still months too early to draw any conclusions, obviously. But that doesn’t make this start, in which they’ve blown leads in each of the past three games, any less painful.
“We’re not making any pitches,” Gardenhire said. “Bad couple of days for the bullpen.”
And a bad 10 minutes for Pelfrey, undoing more than an hour of domination with his fastball.
“I was efficient. But the way it unraveled, who cares about the first four [innings]?” Pelfrey said. “It kind of ruined the whole day.”