Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez and Michael Pineda combined to make 105 of 110 starts before Sunday, so there haven’t been many opportunities for someone to force his way into the mix.
But Devin Smeltzer, the meditating, spot-hitting, 23-year-old lefthander, might be making a case to play a role in the Twins’ playoff push.
Smeltzer, promoted Sunday from Class AAA Rochester, tossed six shutout innings for his first major league victory as the Twins beat Kansas City 3-0, completing a three-game sweep of the Royals. He gave up just two hits and walked one — and that came to Alex Gordon to open the seventh inning, the final batter he faced.
With Pineda placed on the injured list Saturday, the Twins need a starter Friday to face second-place Cleveland. Smeltzer didn’t hurt his chances with Sunday’s outing. The sweep kept the Twins three games in front of Cleveland, which swept the Angels in a weekend series,
“He’s going to help us win games from here on out, and he’s helped us even to this point,” said manager Rocco Baldelli, who wouldn’t confirm Friday’s starter. “Smeltz is a very important part of what we’re doing here. There’s no way to know as we sit here how exactly and when exactly he fits in. But I don’t foresee many scenarios where he doesn’t fit in. I see him certainly playing a big role going forward one way or the other.”
In five major league outings, including three starts, Smeltzer has a 2.28 ERA. That includes holding the Yankees to one run in five innings of relief July 24. On Sunday, his fastball averaged only 89.1 miles per hour, but Royals batters hit just three of his pitches over 100 mph — in other words, he avoided hard contact.
“He attacks the zone really well. I think that is one thing that works for him,” said catcher Jason Castro, whose seventh-inning solo home run put the Twins ahead 2-0. “He mixes speeds well. He’s got good carry on his fastball. He’s not going to light up the radar gun, velocity-wise, but his fastball plays a little bit harder than what you see on the board just because of the carry that he gets at the top of the zone. And his changeup is outstanding. That complements the fastball really well.”
Smeltzer gave up one hit the first time through the batting order and retired eight batters in a row before walking Gordon. He was removed at that point, but he received a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 30,171 as he left the field.
It was that same crowd that Smeltzer sought out before the game, as he went to the bullpen for a meditation session.
“I do it out in the bullpen with the fans, because I’ve said in the past that anybody can get in a quiet room and slow their heart rate down,” he said. “But where I’m going to make my money is in front of all of the people. So if I can get my heart rate down with the music and pregame stuff going on, I’m going to be in a good place and making sure I can control my breathing there.”
And he didn’t let the Royals up for air.
But Twins hitters had their own problems with Kansas City righthander Brad Keller. They finally broke through when Luis Arraez scored on a sixth-inning sacrifice fly by Eddie Rosario. Castro doubled the lead in the seventh with his 11th homer and Rosario made it 3-0 with an eighth-inning RBI single.
Smeltzer had the ball and the lineup card from his first big-league victory in his stall after the game. He shouldn’t have to wait long for a chance for victory No. 2.
“It feels great,” he said. “I’ve been getting after it every time I come up here, and it was only a matter of time. It’s a lot of fun. It was a good team win. We won it late and we added on at the end.”