In a season where he's largely stayed in the good graces of the fan base, Ron Gardenhire finally awakened the critics on Monday night.
With the Twins leading Detroit 3-1 and angling for a big win to kick off their treacherous road trip, Gardenhire sent Mike Pelfrey out to pitch the sixth inning despite the fact that the starter had pretty clearly been surviving on smoke and mirrors all night. Pelfrey had not struck out a single hitter and, in the previous inning, had only managed to work around a single and triple by inducing a hard-hit ground ball double play.
Pelfrey took the mound in the sixth and imploded against the middle of the Detroit lineup, allowing an infield single, a walk and then a go-ahead three-run homer to Prince Fielder.
Finally the bullpen took over and did its thing, holding the Tigers scoreless the rest of the way, but the damage was done and the Twins sustained one of their toughest losses of the season.
Pelfrey's meltdown seemed all too inevitable given the way he's pitched this year. He has failed to complete six innings in any of his five starts, he is allowing nearly two base runners per inning on average with opponents hitting .356 against him, and he has a 7.66 ERA. Pelfrey was never a huge strikeout guy, but he has managed to fan only seven of the 108 batters he has faced this season, giving him the lowest rate in the majors by a fairly wide margin.
In light of those numbers, it strikes me that the issue isn't Gardenhire crossing his fingers and trying to squeeze another inning out of the right-hander. The issue is that Pelfrey is on the big-league roster to begin with.
When the veteran returned to the mound back on April 4th, just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery, I marveled at the accomplishment, even if he didn't look very good. It was a great story. It still is a great story; after rocketing through his recovery, Pelfrey has taken the mound every five days, battling and throwing strikes. He claims to feel fine and his velocity is back close to where it was prior to surgery. Those are real positives.
But those positives don't mask the fact that Pelfrey clearly does not have what it takes to consistently retire major-league hitters right now. He can't throw past anybody and opponents are putting the ball in the air against him more at an unprecedented rate. Many of his outs are hard-hit liners. Parker pointed out last week the numerous issues present in the righty's game.
Surely the Twins are aware of these issues, and they can't be thrilled with the signs of progression on Monday night even if Pelfrey managed to dance through five innings before falling apart. I have faith that Pelf will improve and sharpen up the lacking aspects of his game over time as he moves further away from the surgery (which took place one year ago today, officially), but letting that process play out in the majors, where it's costing the team games, is not acceptable.
With Liam Hendriks and Kyle Gibson waiting for a chance in Triple-A while Samuel Deduno inches closer to returning from a groin injury, the Twins have options available that make a lot more sense at the moment, whether the goal is to win now or cultivate for the future.
A demotion to Triple-A until Pelfrey proves ready is a seemingly obvious baseball decision. The fact that he's a good story (and, by all accounts, a good guy) shouldn't cloud that.