CLEVELAND – Shane Bieber might be the best pitcher in baseball, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. Rich Hill is the oldest pitcher in the game. But for five innings at Progressive Field, the grunting, grumbling, cussing veteran lefthander outpitched Cleveland’s star righthander.
Too bad they play more than five.
Hill’s masterful command of speed and location, not to mention a 74-mph curveball that drove hitters crazy, earned the Twins a rare lead against the major leagues’ ERA leader. But once Baldelli determined that 78 full-effort pitches was enough from the 40-year-old Hill, he turned to the youngest and hardest-throwing pitcher in his bullpen, Jorge Alcala.
And Cleveland made him pay.
Jose Ramirez singled, Francisco Lindor crushed a 400-foot home run, and Cleveland took advantage of the Twins’ depleted bullpen to rally for a 4-2 victory, ending Minnesota’s three-game winning streak.
“Hindsight is one thing, but at the time — and still at this point — I feel really confident that [removing Hill] was the right thing,” Baldelli said after Cleveland beat the Twins for only the second time in six games this season. “Rich has thrown about three innings this month [because of shoulder soreness], and we wanted to make sure that as he builds up, he’s fully ready to do it. And sending him out there simply to face a few more hitters, we weren’t going to let him go that much further. I think it was the wise thing, long-term.”
Hill understood, but only after he asked the Twins manager “seven or eight times in the dugout if we’d let him keep going,” Baldelli said. “Feeling very good about the decision.”
Bieber, after briefly falling behind for only the third time this season, seized the opportunity to become the first pitcher in the majors to record six wins, while protecting his AL-best 1.35 ERA.
“I will openly say that last time we faced him, I certainly shortchanged him by saying he was one of the best young pitchers in baseball,” Baldelli said. “This guy might be the best pitcher in baseball.”
But Bieber was vulnerable, at least for one troublesome inning. Walks to Miguel Sano and Marwin Gonzalez in the second inning proved costly when Luis Arraez followed with a double to left-center, scoring one. And even after Gonzalez was caught in a rundown on a Ryan Jeffers ground ball, the Twins weren’t done: Max Kepler pulled a line drive into right field, scoring Arraez and giving the Twins, who have never hung a loss on Bieber in nine career starts, a rare lead.
Hill, after allowing a first-inning run on three singles, seemed to rise to the challenge of protecting it. He allowed only one more hit in his five-inning start, and struck out the last four hitters he faced — three of them swinging at that slow, tumbling curveball.
On a humid 80-degree night, though, Baldelli decided to cut Hill’s outing short at five innings, even though his best lead-protecting relievers had been used extensively over the past three days. The manager chose Alcala, whose 98-mph fastball figured to be a difficult contrast for Cleveland’s lineup.
It wasn’t. After Lindor slugged a middle-of-the-plate slider into the seats, a rattled Alcala walked Carlos Santana and gave up a double to pinch hitter Tyler Naquin, extending the lead to two runs — more than enough for Bieber, who struck out 10 Twins and narrowed their AL Central lead to 1½ games.
Alcala will learn from it, Baldelli said.
“What Jorge has been able to do is grow. It doesn’t mean every outing is going to be pretty. No one goes out there and has a zero ERA and executes every pitch,” the manager counseled. “Some of those guys put swings on [his pitches]. That’s going to happen.”