It’s no wonder Phil Hughes doesn’t own a victory after three starts. When you’re the ace, you frequently match up in April against the likes of David Price and Chris Sale and … Danny Salazar?
Salazar, called up by Cleveland to make his 2015 debut, looked like an ace himself Saturday, outpitching the Twins’ best starter, striking out 10 and earning the Indians a 4-2 victory at Target Field that ended the Twins’ winning streak at three games and dropped them back to last place in the AL Central.
It also continues an annoying trend for the Twins: They have scored exactly two runs this year while Hughes is in the game, giving 2014’s 16-game winner little margin for error. And speaking of annoying trends, this is the third consecutive season and fourth in the past five years that Hughes has come up empty in his first three starts.
“Maybe I need three more weeks of spring training,” he deadpanned.
That’s probably not the best solution, especially since Hughes’ slow starts haven’t been awful. He has lasted at least six innings for 14 consecutive starts, he hasn’t given up more than four runs in a game this year, and he held Cleveland to two runs through six innings Saturday despite splitting the fingernail on his middle finger.
“All of a sudden, I felt something like a bee sting on my finger, looked down and it was bleeding all over the place,” Hughes said, a circumstance that forced him to abandon his curveball and cutter. “I came back in after the inning, got some Super Glue on it, filed it down a little, and it seemed to go OK.”
Just not OK enough. Hughes gave up a third-inning home run to Cleveland catcher Roberto Perez, a solo shot that cannoned into the upper deck above the bullpens in center field, roughly 435 feet away. And the Indians turned a Brandon Moss double into another run in the fourth.
Then Hughes gave up three singles in the seventh inning — the last one driving in a run and breaking Jason Kipnis’ 0-for-16 skid — and was removed, his third consecutive loss on the way. That 0-3 record might be more alarming if Hughes’ ERA wasn’t 4.42, if he hadn’t started with a 7.20 ERA after three games last year, and if his career ERA in April wasn’t 6.08 — nearly two runs more than any other month.
“It’s just inconsistency. It’s something I don’t expect coming out of spring training, but it is something I’ve struggled with in the past,” Hughes said. “I’m just trying to get that pitch execution up to 85-90 percent that you want. Right now I’m kind of 60-40.”
His manager isn’t worried. “In all of his starts, to this point, he’s kept us in the game,” Paul Molitor said. “He hung in there.”
That’s more than the Twins could do against Salazar. The third-year righthander, jettisoned to Class AAA Columbus after posting an 8.18 ERA in spring training, returned looking “like a completely different pitcher,” according to Twins second baseman Brian Dozier. Routinely hitting 98 miles per hour with his fastball, then freezing hitters with 87-mph changeups, Salazar recorded strikeouts on nine of the Twins’ first 10 outs, all of them swinging.
When the Twins could get a bat on his fastball, they went far — their six hits off Salazar included three doubles and a Kurt Suzuki home run — but there weren’t nearly enough of them.
Of course, that’s becoming a habit, too: The Twins have managed fewer than 10 hits in nine of their 11 games this year.