BALTIMORE — It was less than one month ago when the starting rotation was the Twins’ biggest question mark nearing the end of Spring Training. That uncertainty was compounded by the injuries to Sonny Gray and Bailey Ober in the weeks since. But the surprise move Minnesota made to shore up its pitching as camp closed is paying dividends for what is statistically one of the best staffs in the American League.
That was never more true than Monday, when Chris Paddack and Emilio Pagán were integral in securing a 2-1 victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards. Acquired together from the Padres as camp closed, Paddack notched his first win as a Twin and Pagán contributed a scoreless eighth to lead Minnesota to its 10th win in 11 games.
“These are the games that we’re going to remember as a team come October,” Paddack said. “These are the ones that can be the difference between winning the division and not.”
Supported by run-scoring hits from Ryan Jeffers and Carlos Correa, Paddack retired 12 of his first 14 hitters, and he benefited from Joe Smith relieving him in the sixth and inducing an inning-ending double play before three more Twins relievers held the line. Paddack’s 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball shaved Minnesota’s rotation ERA to 2.58, best in the AL through 23 games.
That unit has thrived behind a great start from Joe Ryan, early bounce-backs by Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer, and it should receive an additional boost in the coming weeks with Gray working his way back from a right hamstring issue. Also acquired via trade this spring to provide rotation help, Gray completed three scoreless innings in his first rehab start at Single-A Fort Myers on Sunday.
In the meantime, the Twins were betting that Paddack would benefit from a fresh start, and he has. Monday’s effort lowered the right-hander’s ERA to 3.15 through four starts. He’s yet to allow a home run and has issued just two walks across 20 innings. It’s a positive trend for Paddack after regressing the past two seasons with San Diego, following a standout rookie season in 2019.
“I finally feel like myself again,” Paddack said. “I’m not searching on the mound. There is no doubt. It just goes back to simplifying the game, making this game easy and fun again, knowing that my stuff plays, and having that conviction and confidence and cockiness you have to have on the mound. These guys have welcomed me with open arms.”
Said manager Rocco Baldelli: “The first thing you notice is that he comes at you in the strike zone with four different pitches. He seems like he gets stronger, too, as the starts go on. I think he gets more comfortable, and really finds different pitches as the starts go on and can lean on different pitches in different outings. He’s a talented guy, does a lot of different things to find ways to get an out, but he makes the opposition earn it.”
Against an Orioles team known for being aggressive early in the count, that led to lots of quick outs in the series opener despite relatively few swings and misses. It was Pagán who got the whiffs when he needed it, striking out Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays to work around a leadoff walk in the eighth and hand a one-run lead to Jhoan Duran, the club’s No. 5 prospect, for the final three outs. Duran hit 101.2 mph with his four-seamer in the inning and struck out Tyler Nevin on a 97.6 mph splitter for his first career save.
“I thought [Pagán] was going to pitch both innings,” said Duran, through team interpreter Elvis Martinez. “That’s why I work so hard, to be in situations like that.”
Asked after the game, Baldelli said he did not prep Duran for the ninth-inning assignment, and didn’t commit to the rookie in that role going forward. But clearly Duran, a former starter who never pitched the ninth inning at any level before Monday, gives this Twins bullpen a different element. Pagán has also shown effectiveness in big situations, striking out nine across 6 2/3 innings with two saves so far. Both figure to get more opportunities as Minnesota looks to replace longtime closer Taylor Rogers, who went to San Diego as the return in the Paddack/Pagán deal.
“I was very impressed with the consistency of the quality efforts that we got from all of our arms,” Baldelli said. “Coming off a big series where we played well, and right off the plane, we come in here, there’s zero letdown. Our guys are locked in and tense.”