CHICAGO — Joe Ryan, assigned No. 74 as a rookie, says modesty — and his last name — prevent him from ever asking to wear No. 34 in the future. But let's not be too hasty.
Ryan had a game Wednesday that MLB all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan, whose No. 34 is retired by three different teams, would be proud to claim, except perhaps for the length. The Twins rookie, making just his fourth major league appearance, mowed down Cub after Cub with a fastball that, judging by how many they took, few batters expected to wind up in the strike zone.
Ryan struck out 11 of the 18 hitters he faced over five innings — the first pitcher in Twins history to rack up so many K's in a start of five innings or less — including the last seven in a row, and the Twins left Wrigley Field with a 5-4 victory over the Cubs and a sweep of their two-game series.
"He's not doing this with tricks [or] deception. He's in the zone," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He is coming right at them with pitches that, even when they take, they're in the zone. That's what you're looking for — guys that can beat guys in the zone."
While Ryan mostly silenced Chicago's passive hitters, Max Kepler continued to make himself at home in the National League's oldest park. The veteran outfielder, mired in a seasonlong slump that had worsened in September, cracked two home runs and a double, driving in three runs for the first time since July 5. It was Kepler's second three-hit night in a row.
The victory over their final National League opponent of 2021 allowed the Twins to split the season series with the Cubs and finish the season with a 20-20 interleague record, just the fourth time in 11 years they have avoided a sub-.500 record against NL teams.
Ryan, whose last start ended with an injury scare when he was struck on his right wrist by a Myles Straw line drive last Tuesday, showed no ill effects a week later. Quite the contrary. His fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range, and clearly had plenty of movement. The Cubs swung and missed at 14 of his pitches but six times watched strike three go by, including the last five hitters he faced.
"Couldn't tell you" why the Cubs kept taking third strikes, Ryan said. "I've been told I had some good little hop at the end of the pitch, so maybe it looks like it's going to be down and stays in the zone a little longer. I really don't know what it is."
Really? No special two-strike weapon? "I like to think I have several of them," he said with a laugh.
Sure, the Cubs are the easiest team to strike out in MLB history — they are on pace to become the first team to whiff 1,600 times in a season — but Ryan made it look easy, especially at the end of his short outing. A walk, a double by Matt Duffy and a two-run single by Nick Hoerner in the second inning briefly broke his rhythm, but he struck out all three hitters he faced in the fourth and fifth innings, reaching the mid-90s pitch limit Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson had set for he rookie.
"Wes showed me his notes and said, 'I don't think I've ever taken a guy out of the game who just did this,' " Baldelli said. "[Ryan] was feeling really, really saucy and probably could have continued on, but the most he's thrown this year is about 89 pitches. I don't like talking about pitches when a guy throws the ball that well, but it was just a wonderful start."
Almost had an ugly finish, though, when the Twins had to survive a typically nerve-racking ninth inning by closer-by-default Alex Colome, who allowed three hits and two runs and put the tying run on third base before striking out Trayce Thompson to end the game and allow Ryan to enjoy the moment.
"It was great. It was amazing," Ryan gushed. "Every game in the big leagues is going to be a blast."