The Twins engineered a nice comeback Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, just in time for the bullpen to create another utter disaster. Starter Francisco Liriano put the team in a 5-2 hole early, but the Twins clawed back. Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka led a 5th inning rally to bring the team within one. Micheal Cuddyer tied it in the 7th with a homer.
They shouldn’t have bothered.
The very next inning, Alex Burnett surrendered a walk, two singles, and a squeeze bunt, putting the Rays ahead 7-5. Lest any Twins fans hold out hope of another comeback, Burnett soon allowed a two run homer to Sean Rodriguez. In the 9th inning, Phil Dumatrait served a three run homer to Evan Longoria for good measure. The Rays’ hitters and the Twins’ bullpen combined to turn a close contest into a 12-5 laugher.
Laughter would be the appropriate response to this game – after all, it was just a getaway game against a good team after two satisfying victories - if only it were an isolated incident. Instead, it’s part of an ugly repeating pattern for the Twins. This was the 14th time in 2011 that the Twins’ bullpen has frittered away a game where the team was tied or leading in the 7th inning or later.
Let me repeat that, because it blows my mind: Barely halfway through the season, the Twins’ bullpen has lost 14 games this year that should have been won.
The Twins currently sit at 38-47, eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. But if they had managed to win those 14 games, they would now be 52-33, best in the entire American League and riding an eight game winning streak. Now, to be fair, no bullpen can be expected to win every close game. But if the ‘pen had managed to be just half as bad – if they could have held on to just half of those 14 games, Minnesota would still be a respectable 45-40. They’d be just a single game behind Cleveland. Despite all of the injuries, despite all of the hitting struggles and inconsistent performances from their starters, the Twins would be right in the middle of the race.
Another sobering fact: three of the games (May 11, May 30, and May 31) were against the Detroit Tigers. This obviously bodes badly for the Twins, since the Tigers are thought to be the strongest competitor in the AL Central. If the Twins end up losing the division to Detroit by three or fewer games, the bullpen will be to blame.
While the bullpen’s overall ineffectiveness has been a team failure, two men are to blame for nine of the 14 losses. Matt Capps, the team’s ostensible closer, has lost four. Alex Burnett has lost five. It may seem depressing that the closer and a pitcher the team was counting on as a key setup man have performed so poorly, but in fact this is good news. It means that the problem should be relatively easy to fix.
- The Twins need to remove Capps from the closer role and stop using him in any high pressure situations, much like they did with Joe Nathan early in the year. Capps should assume a mop-up role for a few weeks until he corrects whatever problems are causing him to be hit so hard. Hopefully, he can do so soon, because the Twins would benefit from having him as a setup man in August and September.
- Burnett should be sent down to Rochester. At 23 years of age, he still has a promising career ahead of him, but he is clearly overmatched by big league hitters at this point. A stint in the minors could help him fine tune his pitches and build some confidence so that he may help the team next year. Right now, his 6.39 ERA is not helping anyone.
- Finally, the Twins need to acquire at least one good relief pitcher via trade. Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan may be capable of holding down the back end of the bullpen, but they will need some help. I do not think the Twins should give up any top prospects, which probably rules out acquiring any big name releivers like Heath Bell or Mike Adams. But any veteran relief pitcher with the ability to strike out batters would be a big help right now.
It is not too late for the Twins to address their bullpen woes, but they need to act fast. If not, the bullpen will be the deciding factor that ruins the Twins’ 2011 playoff hopes.