There were several times when surfing channels for late-night ballgames that I ran across Kenta Maeda pitching for the Dodgers in their ballpark. The hitters would be mostly helpless against his breaking pitches for five innings, and then a base runner would reach, and the bullpen would get active.
When the news broke in early February that the Twins would be the third team in the Mookie Betts deal, and wind up with Maeda for hard-throwing Brusdar Graterol, the first reaction was:
“This is good. I’ve watched him pitch when he was great.’’
The Red Sox wound up refusing to accept Graterol for a physical reason, received other compensation from the Dodgers, and then the Twins sent Graterol directly to L.A. for Maeda.
On closer inspection, Maeda was limited in innings in L.A., and had been sent to the bullpen by the Dodgers in the stretch run of 2019. There were suggestions this was to reduce his innings and thus his bonus millions, although these were the Dodgers, where a million is pocket change.
The accusation aimed at Maeda was that he was a “nibbler.’’ And when we saw some of that in exhibitions, yours truly, self-declared baseball maven, suggested the Twins might be getting themselves a not-as-tall version of Kyle Gibson.
The pandemic shut down baseball in mid-March. Competition started in late July. And the idea Maeda was cautious going after hitters has dissipated, and then some.
He offered up one of those “no chance’’ starts to the Milwaukee hitters on Tuesday night, and this one did not lead to bullpen action at the first hint of vulnerability. A good reason for that was no sign of Maeda vulnerability arrived until the eighth inning.
He was cruising with a no-hitter through seven, including a Twins’ record eight consecutive strikeouts from Eric Sogard for the second out in the third to Ben Gamel to end the fifth.
Maeda had 92 pitches through seven innings. The Twins were leading 2-0 when manager Rocco Baldelli sent him back out for the eighth. A 10-pitch walk to Omar Narvaez was the first visible flaw of the night, as Maeda required 21 pitches to make it through the half-inning with the no-hitter in place.
The Twins added a run and then Baldelli sent him back out for the ninth with 113 pitches thrown. From the sound resonating through Target Field, the cardboard cutouts were joyous over this decision.
Then, Sogard blooped a single to open the ninth, and Maeda was gone, displaying the traditional forced smile of resignation you see from pitchers losing a no-no very late.
Maeda wound up being charged with a run, as Taylor Rogers gave up the lead – a couple of his three hits allowed also being very soft. Maeda is now 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA in five starts, and that would be 5-0 if Rogers was demonstrating the same domination while finishing in this short season as he did during the 101-win season of 2019.
This was the Twins’ 24th game and the first to reach extra innings – with the format that puts a runner at second base to open those innings. It has been done in the hope of avoiding games that drag deep into the night.
This one dragged deep into the night -- 4 hours, 28 minutes -- as the Twins and the Brewers needed six half-innings to finally get that free runner home from second base.
After seeing in-person all the managerial machinations the free runner can lead to, chintzy though it is, we might as well get used to it:
Opening an extra inning with a runner on second is here to stay in future regular seasons. It’s going to be baseball’s equivalent of the NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime (without the shootout). It will be something that can decide playoff position during a long season, and will disappear in the postseason.
I’m not a big fan, although it was entertaining to see the rival managers, Baldelli and Craig Counsell, not knowing if they were on foot or horse back at times as they made strategic decisions. Counsell had a five-man infield trying to prevent the winning run in the bottom of the 12th.
The lengthy contest also provided Twins’ viewers an opportunity to get a first real look at Ildemaro Vargas, the 29-year-old infielder handed over to the Twins by Arizona last week.
Vargas is already on double non-secret probation with me. It’s not so much the fact his off-target throw after a pivot caused the Twins to miss a double play and allowed the Brewers to score the tying run in the ninth. It’s not so much that he opened the 11th as the free runner at second base and was thrown out by 12 feet trying to advance to third on a ground out.
It was his at-bat against Milwaukee’s outstanding lefty, Josh Hader, with two outs in the 10th. He managed a few foul balls, and felt the need to walk across the plate and take several laps behind the umpire and catcher.
Plus, after he finally and inevitably struck out, he stared at Hader for a couple of seconds, as if it was an upset that this All-Star pitcher had the audacity to whiff the Magnificent Ildemaro.
Maybe it was the lateness of the evening, but this guy got on my nerves. And with Josh Donaldson likely to be remain absent for a time (perhaps, until February 2021), I can’t figure out why the Twins went for another utility infielder rather than bring over third baseman Travis Blankenhorn from the squad at the East Berlin* asylum to find out if he’s a prospect or a suspect.
*Occasionally, we must remember Sid's title for St. Paul.