DETROIT – In the clubhouse, he's called Big Mike. On the mound, he's been Big Easy. Michael Pineda has been the one member of the Twins rotation who has had little volatility in his pitching lines for most of the season.
Sunday was another afternoon of Pineda working his way through a lineup. He went six innings to help the Twins down Detroit 8-3. Since Cleveland lost to Tampa Bay again, the Twins' AL Central lead grew to 5½ games.
Their four-game series in the Motor City concludes with a Labor Day matinée Monday, with the Twins trying to clinch a winning 10-game road trip after improving to 5-1 Sunday.
"I know this lineup is very, very, very aggressive today," Pineda said. "My plan was to execute, especially because I know they are going to swing, and I did."
Nelson Cruz went 3-for-5 with three RBI to lead the Twins. Sorry, there were no home runs to highlight, as the Twins put on an exhibition of opposite-field hitting. They went 7-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and their final 11 hits were singles after Luis Arraez's second-inning double. One day after setting a major league record for home runs hit in a season, the Twins again showed they can use the whole field when not hitting balls over the fences.
"We had some good at-bats early and found some ways to push runs across," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "You're not going to hit home runs all the time, but you can always have good at-bats and get a good pitch to hit, put a ball in play and see what happens."
Over six innings, Pineda held the Tigers to two runs on five hits and one walk and nine strikeouts, matching his season high. Pineda liked his fastball enough Sunday to throw it 58.5% of the time, up from his season average of 51.5.
"This team, they know I throw a lot of breaking balls," Pineda said. "So they look for my breaking ball, and that's why they always are making contact on my breaking balls."
But he got nine swing-and-misses with his fastball, which he threw more as the game continued. His most impressive inning might have been the sixth, when he gave up an infield single to Miguel Cabrera, then struck out the next three batters on nine pitches, needing only 84 pitches to complete his outing.
And Pineda was able to pitch with a big lead after the Twins scored five runs off lefthander Spencer Turnbull in the second inning. Jake Cave started it with a two-run single. Jason Castro, Jorge Polanco and Cruz followed with RBI singles. All five hits in the inning were to the opposite field.
Willians Astudillo, back after two months on the injured list, hit an RBI single in the fifth inning, and Cruz and Eddie Rosario added run-scoring hits in the eighth. The Twins' last five RBI singles came with two out.
Highly touted righthander Brusdar Graterol made his major league debut in the ninth inning. His fastball averaged 98.5 miles per hour, topping out at 99.6.
While Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez and Jake Odorizzi have had games to forget during the second half of the season, Pineda is 7-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 13 starts since June 13. In most of them, he has been able to find an opponent's weakness and exploit it.
"We talk about his feel for what's going on, his awareness, his ability to make adjustments," Baldelli said. "That's not raw physical ability. That's not going out there and throwing 98 miles an hour or having a wipeout slider.
"He finds ways to be successful, and when whatever he's working with or whatever he's trying to do maybe isn't working perfectly, he has other ways that he can go out there and get people out. He's done it over and over again."