When the Twins released Matt Shoemaker and traded away Jose Berríos and J.A. Happ this summer, the starting rotation lost most of its veteran presence. With Kenta Maeda stepping away from the team earlier this month to undergo Tommy John surgery, the new rotation is rife with rookies.
Except for Michael Pineda, the unassuming 32-year-old who pitched Thursday in the Twins' 7-2 victory over Toronto at Target Field in front of an announced crowd of 15,509.
Pineda isn't flashy, doesn't often stack up a dozen strikeouts. But there's something about the way he pitches, his presence, that gives the team a solid foundation.
"He'd be the first one to tell you he didn't have his best stuff [Thursday], but he went out there and kept it in the zone, threw a lot of strikes, kept us off balance, and he missed enough barrels, too," catcher Mitch Garver said. "He got us a win."
Pineda — now sharing a rotation with the likes of 25-year-old Joe Ryan and 26-year-olds Bailey Ober and Griffin Jax — is consistent, both in how he performs on the mound and how he approaches life. As in Thursday's game, when he gave the Twins five innings, allowing only two runs off eight hits.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said with Pineda starting, games never quite seem to go awry.
"Nope, they never seem to really get out of hand. Things are flying, and sometimes there's base runners, and really, it doesn't even matter what's going on around him," Baldelli said. "… He slows things down very well. He understands how to do that. … It doesn't matter what's going on around him, it doesn't matter what the last hitter did or how hard he hit the ball. He knows what to do next."
Toronto entered Thursday a half-game behind the New York Yankees and had a chance to pull even with a victory. Instead, they Jays are a full game behind in a tight American League wild-card race that also features the Boston Red Sox.
Toronto took the lead in the second inning, with Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hitting back-to-back doubles off Pineda. The Twins made it 2-1 in the third. Byron Buxton hit a leadoff double before Jorge Polanco's RBI single. Polanco later scored on Mitch Garver's single.
The Blue Jays leveled the score in the fourth on Hernandez's solo home run, but the Twins' breakout inning in the fifth built a formidable lead.
Toronto starter Steven Matz lasted just three innings, giving up seven hits and two runs. His successor, Thomas Hatch, pitched that fifth inning, walking Josh Donaldson and giving up a double to Garver to open the inning. Luis Arraez's groundout scored Donaldson, and Brent Rooker walked.
That's when Nick Gordon stepped up to slam a three-run homer. He garnered another RBI in the seventh inning, sending Rooker home after the designated hitter banked a shot off the right-field deck.
Both of Gordon's hits came with two outs, which didn't surprise Baldelli. He said Gordon doesn't play "tentative" at the plate or in the field. He has played nearly every position, switching from left field to right and back within Thursday's game.
"Just not to sell myself short: I learned a lot this year, just playing a lot of positions, a lot of different positions that I never played before," Gordon said. "It just kind of showed me that if you believe and you work hard, you can do it."
The Twins did lose Max Kepler ahead of the fifth inning, which forced some of the shuffling that involved Gordon. A team spokesman said Kepler left the game with a non-COVID illness.
Pineda had another point of pride: holding MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to a 1-for-5 night. Pineda pitched against his father, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., when Pineda was a rookie.
"I faced the Vladdy Daddy and the Vladdy Junior," Pineda said. "This is, for me, a great thing in my career and in my life. So it's a great moment when I face Vladdy Junior, with the numbers he has this season. This is, for me, 'Wow.' I enjoy the moment."