Ervin Santana’s first start with the Twins is now less than two weeks away. Yet the Twins rotation remains as crowded — and as big a toss-up — as the Iowa caucus field.
“We all know that’s coming,” manager Paul Molitor said after the Cubs walked away with an 8-0 victory Sunday at Target Field, dropping the Twins to 4-9 in this 13-game stretch against some of baseball’s best teams. “We’re keeping tabs.”
And Molitor is dropping no hints about the team’s plans, possibly because the current starters are making the choice so difficult. Kyle Gibson ended the Twins’ streak of five quality starts by lasting only five innings Sunday, but he also started the streak five days ago — and the team’s starting pitching has transformed from its biggest liability to perhaps its biggest asset this season.
After finishing last in the American League in ERA by starting pitchers for the past three seasons, and never managing an ERA below 5.00 in that time, the Twins now rank fifth in the AL at 3.84.
It is even better lately, too. During their most recent starts, Twins starters have combined to post a 1.59 ERA, giving up six runs in 34 total innings, with six walks and 25 strikeouts. Only Gibson, with two runs Sunday, gave up more than one run.
“We’ve got a good problem on our hands, because our guys have been pitching well,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “Competition brings that out.”
The Twins have plenty of it. In addition to Santana, whose steroid suspension expires July 4, righthander Ricky Nolasco could return from injury in the next couple of weeks.
Time to adjust
Byron Buxton believes he has figured out why it took five days to collect a hit in Target Field. It’s exactly the reason you might imagine.
“The difference in levels makes a big difference, especially not seeing breaking pitches the way they are thrown up here,” said the 21-year-old rookie, who jumped from Class AA Chattanooga to the majors on June 14. “You have to get adjusted to that, and just keep battling.”
Buxton battled Jake Arrieta better than most of his teammates Sunday, fouling off three consecutive pitches in the eighth inning before lining a 95-mph sinker into left field, breaking his 0-for-14 start at Target Field. It was the Twins’ only hit off Arrieta after the fourth inning.
“It’s a relief,” said Buxton, 3-for-25 (.120) as a major leaguer. “I went up there every day, just trying to grind out at-bats, see how they’re pitching me, and finally got that first hit.”
His manager was happy, too, hoping that the pressure Buxton feels to excel gradually wears off.
“He’s trying. You can see him up there trying to grind away at-bats,” Molitor said. “He fought off some pitches with two strikes, and got a fastball he can handle. He’s a 21-year-old kid working, trying to find his rhythm up here. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Buxton also collected the first stolen base of his career after reaching on Arrieta’s fielding error in the third inning. Catcher Miguel Montero’s throw bounced off the pitcher’s mound and into short center field, so Buxton took third, too, but was stranded there.
“I’ve put in a lot of work,” Buxton said. “I’ve just kept grinding it out, and today it showed up.”
A magnetic resonance imaging test taken of Aaron Hicks’ right forearm found no structural damage, Ryan said, increasing his optimism that the center fielder might be activated once he is eligible Sunday. Ryan said he has made no decision about whether a rehab stint would be required.