BOSTON – Taylor Rogers surrendered a home run to a lefthanded hitter Tuesday, which was extraordinary. Then he faced down two of the AL’s best hitters with the tying run on second base to save a Twins victory. Which was decidedly ordinary.
Thanks to Rogers and large cross-section of the bullpen, the Twins’ first day of a 12-game stretch against teams with winning records couldn’t have gone any better. They battered a pesky old foe, crushed a couple more tape-measure homers and fattened their AL Central lead to 6½ games by holding off the Red Sox 6-5 at Fenway Park.
The Twins’ magic number for clinching their first division title since 2010 stands at 18. Rogers is hoping he’s standing on the mound when it reaches zero.
“I want to be that guy for this team — to face the hitters in crunch time,” Rogers said after converting his 23rd save of the season. “And I feel I can do the job for them.”
Still, his tenacity was jolted when the second pitch he threw, with Boston outfielder Andrew Benintendi at the plate and the Twins nursing a two-run lead, wound up in the Green Monster seats. It was the first home run Rogers had given up to a lefthanded batter since the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger connected on July 24, 2017.
Rogers did a small hop on the mound as Benintendi blasted the pitch, a sure sign he didn’t see that coming. But don’t worry: His confidence wasn’t damaged.
“I’m not sure anybody is better in baseball than me against lefties,” Rogers said. “That’s a bold statement, but I’m pretty sure it might hold true.”
That’s why manager Rocco Baldelli turned to Rogers as the Twins’ early 6-0 lead, built on a series of blasts of increasing magnitude — Jake Cave’s two-run triple off the center-field wall, Nelson Cruz’s 420-foot homer over it, and Miguel Sano’s missile over the wall beyond it — appeared to be slipping away. The Boston lineup is one of the more lefthanded in baseball, with five lefties in the lineup Tuesday.
“If he makes the pitches he wants to make, he’s very tough,” Baldelli said. “He’s tough no matter what kind of hitter is up there.”
Baldelli claims his faith didn’t waver after another lefthanded hitter, second baseman Brock Holt, led off the ninth with a ground ball that rolled through the infield. Boston sacrificed him to second, bringing up Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers, the reigning AL MVP and this year’s Red Sox MVP, with the tying run in scoring position.
Rogers didn’t blink. He got ahead of Betts with a fastball, then fed him nothing but sliders until Betts hammered a one-hopper that glanced off Rogers’ glove. The pitcher calmly grabbed it and threw him out. “I was a cat out there,” Rogers joked.
Then the lefthanded-hitting Devers, whose three-run homer in the fifth inning off Trevor May pulled the Red Sox within 6-4: Curveball for a called strike. Slider, swing and a miss. And another slider, a foul tip into Jason Castro’s glove, and just like that, it was over.
“That’s the kind of stuff he has. It doesn’t really matter who he’s facing, [even] two of the best hitters in baseball,” Baldelli said. “He’s one of the best relievers in the game for a reason.”
It was a satisfying victory for the Twins, particularly since they beat Rick Porcello, whose eight wins at Target Field, including seven shutout innings there in June, are the most by any visiting pitcher. The 2016 Cy Young winner looked ragged and frazzled, allowing all three of the Twins’ big blasts, his night finishing with Sano’s shot that may have broken the sound barrier.
“I’ve seen a lot of games here,” Baldelli said, “[and] I’ve never seen a ball go up there in my life.”