MILWAUKEE – The Twins' bullpen plans played out exactly as manager Rocco Baldelli hoped on Opening Day. Well, right up to the point where they blew a three-run lead and lost Thursday's game, 7-6.
But in what looks like a preview of what's to come, Baldelli found the roles and situations he had envisioned for a largely remade relief corps that he's still getting used to.
"We all know how Rocco is going to run the bullpen," Taylor Rogers said of the relievers' understanding of their various roles. "We've all gotten prepared to be a unit down there and try to be really good as a bullpen. I'm really excited to see how we end up doing."
Tyler Duffey, for example, was summoned mid-inning to work his way out of a difficult situation with the lead at stake, which the Twins hope becomes his specialty. Cody Stashak was the midgame bridge, a task he'll likely split with Jorge Alcala, and former Angels closer Hansel Robles was asked to freeze the score against the bottom of the Brewers lineup in the eighth.
The determination of how to utilize Rogers and Alex Colome, expected to shoulder most of the burden of closing out victories, was Baldelli's biggest decision. And he couldn't have drawn it up better than how it happened.
Right, except for the loss. It's a big caveat, no question.
With Milwaukee's 3-4-5 hitters due up in the seventh, Baldelli made a call that he hinted at all spring. Since Christian Yelich, a lefthanded hitter and former MVP, was set to lead off the inning, and Travis Shaw, another lefthander who posted back-to-back 30-homer seasons for the Brewers in 2017 and 2018, was due up third, Baldelli turned to Rogers, his best lefthander.
It was the first time since Baldelli became manager in 2019 (excluding scheduled seven-inning games last season) that he had summoned Rogers so early in a game.
"We were facing a lineup with some good lefthanded hitters. Yelich in particular always catches your attention, where he sits in the lineup," Baldelli said of his new strategy for using the 30-year-old Rogers. "We've got a pretty good lefthander [in Rogers] who's closed a lot of games for us. But over the course of the year, we're going to see him, and probably everybody, pitching some different spots when we think it makes the most sense. Today was one of those days for him."
There's no mystery why the Twins hope to use Rogers in these roles. Over his career, the Colorado native has been especially difficult for lefthanders to solve, with a .204 average against and minuscule .268 slugging average particularly telling.
That last number especially appeals to the manager; with the exception of an opposite-field fly ball by Andrew Benintendi in 2019 that carried to the top of the Green Monster in Boston, Rogers hasn't allowed a home run to a lefthanded batter since July 2017.
"We talked about it before the game," Baldelli said of his plans. "He came in and he did the job."
Yelich struck out, Avisail Garcia flew out and Shaw hit a one-hopper back to Rogers, a quick and quiet 10-pitch dismissal of Milwaukee's most dangerous hitters.
After Robles did the same — altogether, the bullpen retired 11 consecutive hitters between innings five and nine — Baldelli left the ninth inning to Colome, whose 138 career saves dwarf Rogers' 41. That's when a three-run lead suddenly slipped away — in part due to Colome's decisionmaking, not his pitching.
With one out, Colome threw a pitch that hit the end of Kolten Wong's bat and, umpires decided after video review, nicked his fingers, too. Then Keston Hiura hit a comebacker to the mound, and Colome, rather than take the sure second out by throwing to first base, whirled and rushed a throw to shortstop Andrelton Simmons at second, drawing him off the bag and allowing Wong to reach safely.
Up came those same lefthanders that Rogers had retired, and this time it didn't go well. Yelich hit a long fly ball that Max Kepler reached on the run but dropped. And Shaw doubled home the tying runs, sending the game to extra innings and eventually a Milwaukee win.
"We had a chance to get these guys out. We just have to ultimately make those plays and throw the ball to the right base," Baldelli said. "We're going to make those plays a vast majority of the time, and know what to do."