In all of my recent years covering the Twins, it’s hard to remember a performance that was so dominant and surprising as what their starting pitchers did this week in three of the four games against the Astros.
The question coming into this season was whether or not Wes Johnson was going to be the guy to turn this pitching staff around. Coming from the University of Arkansas, he was the first college coach to ever make the leap to pitching coach in the major leagues.
More than a month into the season, the answer seems to be yes, and the pitching staff’s performance against the mighty Astros this week was great.
In the series opener Monday, Jake Odorizzi threw seven shutout innings, giving up four hits and one walk while striking out seven to win a pitcher’s duel against Justin Verlander.
On Tuesday Houston rolled 11-0 in a game where Michael Pineda really struggled, but it was the Twins’ lone poor performance.
Wednesday saw lefthander Martin Perez lower his ERA a full run from 4.44 to 3.41 after he threw eight shutout innings while striking out seven and giving up only four hits.
And Thursday, All-Star Jose Berrios did what he has done all season, throwing seven innings and giving up two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts and needing only 88 pitches to do it.
For Johnson, this kind of series, against one of the best teams in baseball, was a big first step in a long season.
He broke down what he saw from the three winning pitchers.
“I would start off with Jake Odorizzi, this guy was really good,” Johnson said. “He has had a phenomenal offseason and just came in and really executed his plan.
“What Martin did [Wednesday] night and how hard he has worked since spring training, since the day he showed up here, you’re starting to see he’s starting to get real comfortable with his pitch mix. The cutter is really, really playing well for him now.
“Then gosh, today, I mean Jose works hard all the time. We almost have to get him not to work hard. ‘Hey, take a day off, it’s OK.’ He is prepared, the way he prepares not only physically but mentally, I can speak to for probably hours. But he really commanded his fastball today and we didn’t even really have to go to the breaking ball much, which is unusual for him.”
Was he surprised to see the team win three out of four?
“You always expect that, we prepare and play to win,” Johnson said. “You hope if you go out and put forth your best game that you come out on the winning side. With that being said, [the Astros] are a really quality club. I was pleased we threw the ball well and give our offense a ton of credit. I mean, these guys can really hit.”
Even with that big game by the Astros offense on Tuesday, the Twins team ERA dropped from 4.32 before the series to 4.20 going into this weekend’s series at Yankee Stadium.
Last year through 29 games, the team had a 5.20 ERA. It’s starting to look like the front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine might have had a better understanding of this pitching staff than they were given credit for when they didn’t make too many big offseason moves to the staff other than bringing in Perez and reliever Blake Parker.
And it’s also worth pointing out that those two are delivering. Perez is 4-0 with a 3.41 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 34⅓ innings. His 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings are by far the highest of his career.
Parker has been lights out with a 0.96 ERA through 11 appearances. His 0.964 WHIP is the second-lowest mark of his career.
Johnson said that when it comes to working with a major league staff, a lot of his teachings are similar to what he did when he was a college coach.
“It is, it really is,” he said. “I would say just we work a lot more on pitch design here than I did in college. Meaning, for example, continuing to help Martin with the cutter, and Blake Parker has added a cutter and some other guys — today with Jose and his changeup. We work more pitch design here than I did in college.”
Still, Johnson said each pitcher has his own unique problems to solve.
“Different guys, different things, a lot of guys it’s pitch mix, but then there are other guys — like one of the things we’ve worked on with Blake Parker is some of the things in his delivery, his stride length, different things of that nature,” Johnson said. “Really it varies but it’s going to go, some guys are mechanical and some guys are more pitch mix.”
While the bullpen continued to have some struggles in this series, giving up seven runs over nine innings for a 7.88 ERA, Johnson said he sees a lot of positives coming out of that group.
“Ryne Harper [who pitched a scoreless eighth inning Thursday], I can’t say enough about what he has been able to do really his first year ever in the big leagues, but yeah, we are really happy,” Johnson said. “Taylor Rogers has been phenomenal. Trevor Hildenberger, Blake Parker, I can go through them all. Trevor May coming in today and just pumping strikes. Those guys have done really good for us.”
Road trip looms
So far this season the Twins have been solid on the road, going 8-5, but there’s no doubt that games against the Yankees and Blue Jays have been trouble for the team in recent years.
Since 2010, the Twins are 9-21 on the road vs. the Yankees and 11-19 vs. Toronto.
“Let’s start with New York first, I mean we need to come in and throw strikes, these guys can really hit,” Johnson said. “Toronto obviously took three of four from us at home, so we’re going to have to keep it up or they will get us. Those are two really, really good lineups. We have to execute pitches. But I feel confident we’ll be fine.”
Does Johnson think the Twins can keep up their winning ways going forward?
“That’s the plan, right?” he said. “Our plan is to keep it up and continue to get better each week. I think the easiest thing is I always tell these guys there is always a next level, no matter who you are. You put together a good week, now let’s put together a couple more good weeks and keep piling those on and on.”
• The word out of Utah is that former Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio won’t be back with the Jazz next season. Rubio is an unrestricted free agent who made $15 million this season. “I can start thinking and see where I want to go, where I can go,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But one thing I’m going to look for sure is the best situation for me, with the coach and the team. ... I want to be happy.”
• Former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams said on Twitter that he is signing with the Arizona Cardinals after four years with the Baltimore Ravens.