The Michael Pineda Experience, that roller-coaster performance of several runners on base yet relatively few crossing the plate, packed up after one final adventure on Wednesday, headed into an offseason that's just as mysterious as his last three.
After 2018, a season spent with rehab specialists and minor leaguers, Pineda was the unknown Twin, his ability to bounce back from surgery in question. The 2019 season ended with Pineda under suspension but not under contract, a failed PED test spoiling an encouraging return as he headed into free agency. Pineda pitched only 26 2/3 innings in 2020, the suspension limiting an already abbreviated season.
And now, having battled his way through forearm and oblique injuries to become the last pitcher standing from the Twins' Opening Day rotation?
"He's been a pillar in our clubhouse," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the 32-year-old righthander. "He's been about as important a member of this group over the last three years as anyone."
Maybe so, but free agency looms again, and even though the Twins could find no interested buyers at the trade deadline in July, Pineda responded with a salary-drive month that figures to get some attention. Since recovering from the oblique injury and returning to the Twins at the start of September, Pineda has won five consecutive games, posted a 1.85 ERA, allowed only two home runs, and added a note of veteran stability to a starting staff almost completely devoid of big-league experience.
“I hope that's not the last time we're going to be taking him out of a ballgame in a Twins' uniform, but it was definitely a very nice way to end his season. I'd love to have Mike back here. But Big Mike's going to have to do what's best for him and his career.”
The scattered crowd of 17,254 at Target Field stood and applauded as he walked off the field in the sixth inning. If this was a farewell, it was a fond one.
"I love the Minnesota Twins and I love the city, but I don't have control of that," Pineda said. "I'd be happy. … If I got the opportunity to be back, I'd be happy."
Sounds like Baldelli would be too, and not just because of his pitching.
"The leadership has been a constant, and his personality, too. Which matters," the manager said. "He's a good competitor when he's out there on the field, and he's a guy that sets a really good tone for us."
He's a master of working his way out of trouble, too. Though he has allowed the second-most hits on the team, his 3.62 ERA is the best of his career in a full season since 2014.
Pineda proved it again a few times in his start against the Tigers on Wednesday, allowing two singles to lead off the second inning, then inducing a double-play ball, his seventh of the season, from Eric Haase and a lineout from Niko Goodrum to post another scoreless inning. Three innings later, a leadoff double and a one-out single had him in trouble again, but Pineda got former Twins teammate Jonathan Schoop to strike out, and Robbie Grossman to line out, leaving the Tigers frustrated, and the fans appreciative.
Pineda is proud of his season, but disappointed by his team's. "I feel pretty good because I'm working hard for every time they give me the ball to go do my job," said the veteran righthander, who has never pitched in a postseason game. "But at the same time, I'm feeling little sad because we want to be in the playoffs."
As his career in Minnesota has shown, re-signing Pineda, who earned $10 million this season, would not come without risk, especially as he approaches his mid-30s. But the manager made it clear it's a risk he would like the Twins to take.
"I hope that's not the last time we're going to be taking him out of a ballgame in a Twins' uniform, but it was definitely a very nice way to end his season," Baldelli said. "I'd love to have Mike back here. But Big Mike's going to have to do what's best for him and his career."