ARLINGTON, TEXAS – When the Twins left on their weeklong road trip, their roster didn't include Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Luis Arraez or Kenta Maeda, and they hadn't won a series in nearly a month. It's no coincidence that Sunday, that foursome combined to finish off a sweep of the Rangers.
Arraez's leadoff hit, one of his three for the day, put him on base for Buxton's two-run first-inning homer, which staked Maeda to an early lead. Kepler's third-inning single increased that cushion to four runs, and the Twins' Opening Day starter took a shutout into the sixth inning. That and more strong support from the bullpen delivered a 4-2 victory over Texas and kept the Twins unbeaten at Globe Life Field.
"The addition of those guys, when that happens, you feel the vibe," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the injury-list refugees. "You feel the strength that those guys bring. They go in the game and they bring it, and they produce. Your suspicions that good things are coming, they start to happen. It's a really nice feeling."
They'll take that feeling home now, a different team with a different outlook, after matching their season-best four-game winning streak. It's difficult to tell which has been the biggest transformation this weekend, a lineup slowly returning to health, or a bullpen slowly returning to competence.
The winning streak was built on pitching, and especially relief pitching; Minnesota's relievers contributed 16⅔ innings of work during the streak, and allowed only three earned runs, including 7⅔ consecutive shutout innings the past two days. They struck out 16 batters and walked only two.
"Thank God things are turning around for good," said Hansel Robles, who pitched a scoreless inning in all three games in Texas, retiring the Rangers in order in the ninth inning Sunday to earn his sixth save. "Right now, we're working as a team, and individually, each of us are executing our pitches and throwing the ball where we want to."
No telling if it will last, of course, but for a relief staff ranked 13th in the American League with a 4.82 ERA, posting a 1.62 ERA over the past four games — and just 0.77 against the Rangers — removes the feeling of dread that so often accompanied the bullpen door opening.
"Guys are hitting their strides. Guys like [Jorge] Alcala, it's fun to watch him come into his role and really get the job done," said Tyler Duffey, who got five outs without allowing a hit on Sunday. "It's fun. It's fun to know you're getting called on to get the job done, and then get it done."
After a week of uncertainty about his status, Buxton is clearly having fun again, too. After Arraez led off the game with a single, Buxton fought off a tough two-strike slider from the Rangers' Dane Dunning, then waited for another one. When he got it, he lofted it into the second deck of seats in left field, his first home run since May 9. Buxton later doubled, too, giving him three hits in his first two games after a six-week layoff.
"Byron just picks back up where he left off. He hasn't had many at-bats in I don't know how many weeks, and he comes out banging," Baldelli said. "It's not really normal. Some people come back maybe doubting themselves or taking things slowly, playing passively at the beginning. Buck doesn't do any of that. He just goes out there, no fear."
Kepler, too, though he hasn't racked up the big hits since returning from a hamstring injury Friday. But with two runners on base, he lined a two-out single into right field in the third inning, and when Joey Gallo overran the ball, both runners scored. That was enough for Maeda, who departed in the sixth after allowing back-to-back solo home runs to Adolis Garcia and Gallo, especially with Duffey, Alcala and Robles behind him. Texas managed one hit off that trio.
"We talked [before the season] about our bullpen being a strength, and needing to be a strength. This is what it looks like," Baldelli said.
"This is what a good, deep, talented bullpen looks like, the way we've been throwing the ball lately."