CLEVELAND — They wanted more. They wanted to end Cleveland’s season. Despite the inability to achieve their top priority, the Twins used Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Guardians to accomplish several other tasks that could grow in importance over the final month.
Even though they were saddled with a one-run defeat and lost the season series to Cleveland, which gives the Guardians the edge in case of a season-ending tie, the Twins received an encouraging look at Louie Varland pitching in relief, a good day from Edouard Julien at first base and another solid start by Joe Ryan.
The only line item to truly matter Wednesday is a loss that technically keeps Cleveland’s postseason hopes alive. Rather than drop eight games back with 22 to play, the Guardians are merely six behind the Twins.
Despite the loss, the Twins could embrace the good created during a 4-2 road trip in which they increased their lead in the American League Central and reduced their magic number to 17.
“We did a lot of the things that we wanted to do for the last six days,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Cleveland’s defense Wednesday prevented the Twins from accomplishing everything they hoped during the trip. The Guardians delivered four dazzling plays in the first three innings to keep the Twins offense in check. Starting pitcher Gavin Williams and four relievers did the rest, helping Cleveland avoid a devastating series sweep.
— Cleveland Guardians (@CleGuardians) September 6, 2023
As it is, the Twins winning the critical series and increasing their lead by a game drastically improved their chances of winning the division. It also affords them more opportunities to play Julien at first base or prepare Varland for the differences between the bullpen and the rotation.
Not that Varland appears to need much help.
Three pitches into his first relief appearance, Varland’s fastball registered 98.9 mph. He paired it with his changeup, slider and cutter to dominate the Guardians offense for three-plus innings, keeping the Twins within a run.
“His stuff is there,” said catcher Ryan Jeffers. “When he went to the bullpen, I think he’s got a little bit more of that bulldog mentality: ‘I’m going to let it rip for as long as I’ve got it.’ So to see him up there in the 8s and 9s, really firing the ball in there, you can kind of see from my perspective, you could see some of the swings they were taking were uneasy. I could see the fastball was getting on to guys. … When you’re throwing with the stuff he has, it’s kind of hard to hit.”
The Twins are hoping Varland’s increased fastball velocity makes a difference down the stretch and in the postseason. Along with a potential return from Brock Stewart, who threw 25 pitches in a bullpen session on Tuesday, Varland could be a difference-maker in relief.
Not that he was initially thrilled to hear the news.
Pitching at Triple A, Varland caught wind of the speculation that he could head to the bullpen several days before team officials approached him with the concept. Given he wants to be a starting pitcher, Varland made sure he and the Twins were on the same page when they did approach him last week.
“I believe the best version of myself’s a starter,” Varland said. “Starters also get paid. Yeah. I want to stay a starter as long as I possibly can. … I just had to voice my opinion on it so we’re on the same page, basically. I felt stubborn and I just had to voice my opinion. But we’re all on the same page now. All hands on deck. I’ll do whatever it takes to win and whatever the Twins need.”
That’s GOLD GLOVER Myles Straw to you 👀👀👀
— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) September 6, 2023
Varland pitched in relief once at Triple A and is only beginning to adjust to the nuances of the role. He began to get loose after the teams returned from a 66-minute rain delay that interrupted Wednesday’s game.
After Ryan needed 89 pitches to complete four innings, the Twins turned to Varland to start the fifth. Baldelli said the Twins didn’t intend to bring Varland back to start a fourth inning, but his efficiency allowed them to push on. Earlier in the week, Baldelli hinted Varland could be used in all types of relief roles if he’s successful.
So far, so good.
“I think the spontaneous call helps me,” Varland said. “But it’s pretty much the same routine as if I was starting the game. … The effort increased a little bit. I don’t know if (I coasted) as much if I would have started. But it’s the same process. Get outs. Hit your spots. Execute.”
Ryan’s execution continues to improve
Prior to the left groin strain he suffered in June, Ryan potentially was on an All-Star path. The injury sapped him of the ability to finish his off-speed pitches, which left many of them in the nitro zone. As a result, many hanging breaking balls were hit for home runs during a painful seven-start stretch in which his ERA soared from 2.98 to 4.43.
With the playoffs five weeks away, the focus now is on helping Ryan rediscover the pitcher he was pre-injury to get him ready to potentially throw in a best-of-three series.
“For the most part, he executed a lot of really good pitches,” Jeffers said of Ryan. “He looked really good. The outcome isn’t exactly what you wanted, but if you limit a couple of those foul balls — it’s just how the game went today — he goes deeper into the game. He’s really rolling and you look at his outing in a different light.”
Though the Guardians quickly ran up his pitch count by fouling off 25 pitches, Ryan felt like he took another step forward Wednesday.
Pitching before and after the rain delay, Ryan allowed two earned runs and four hits in four innings. Since returning from a 23-day stint on the injured list on Aug. 26, Ryan has a 2.40 ERA with 18 strikeouts, three walks and only two home runs allowed in 15 innings.
“It’s good to get back in a little rhythm, feeling pretty good,” Ryan said. “Thought the last three were — today was a lot of foul balls but, yeah. You do what you can do. I think, physically, it felt pretty good.”
A first for Julien
As other players get healthier, the Twins are looking for more ways to keep Julien’s bat in the lineup. One option being considered is occasionally moving Julien to first base.
Though some of Julien’s pregame work since August included taking grounders and working on scooping balls at first, he’d only logged an inning at the position in a blowout loss on Aug. 22.
With Donovan Solano receiving a day off Wednesday, the Twins determined it was the perfect chance to try Julien. The rookie handled it well, cleanly fielding all three grounders hit to him.
“We can’t take our eyes off him,” Baldelli said with a smile. “I think he did a good job over at first base. He showed a little bit of feel. Right off the bat, he had to make a play. It’s what we wanted to see from him on day one. I think he looked comfortable enough over there where we’re going to keep him working and we’ll see how he progresses.”
Initial indications from Stewart’s bullpen on Tuesday were good. “No news is good news,” said one Twins staffer. Though Stewart is faring well from a physical standpoint as he rehabs, the Twins want to ease him back as much as they can. Having had Tommy John surgery and later arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips, Stewart is aware of the stress and intensity his new role puts on his arm. The Twins want Stewart to feel comfortable returning to action and intend to take it slow. … Making his first appearance since having Tommy John last May, Chris Paddack allowed two runs in 2 2/3 innings at Low-A Fort Myers. Working with a fastball that averaged 94.6 mph, Paddack walked two batters and struck out four in a 52-pitch effort. … Alex Kirilloff continued a successful rehab assignment at Triple-A St. Paul by going 2-for-5 with two RBIs on Wednesday. If he emerges from the contest healthy, the Twins would potentially activate Kirilloff before Friday’s game against the New York Mets. Kirilloff is 12-for-27 with seven RBIs on his rehab assignment. … Rookie Kody Funderburk picked up Varland, stranding both of his inherited runners in the eighth inning. Said Varland: “Shout out to Kody Funderburk for cleaning up my mess and I gotta shout out Justin Morneau just cuz.”
(Top photo of Louie Varland in June: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)