Caleb Thielbar took the mound a batter into the ninth inning against Cleveland on Thursday afternoon to boos from the Target Field crowd.
To be fair, the 24,929 fans weren’t directing their ire at him. No, that was for his manager, as Rocco Baldelli had made the call to remove Jhoan Duran after Duran struck out Franmil Reyes with the Twins clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Duran, with his 103 mph fastball, had been electric, eliciting oohs and ahhs. He hadn’t relinquished a hit or run in 11⁄3 innings, although he did hit a batter and throw a wild pitch. Thielbar replacing him was a poorly received decision, and he quickly gave up a double to Andres Gimenez, which didn’t inspire much confidence in the swap.
But the veteran lefthander and Randolph native retired the final two Guardians, coaxing a groundout and striking out pinch-hitter Steven Kwan to earn his first career save.
The Twins’ victory, with the only run coming on Nick Gordon’s third-inning homer, salvaged the final game of a three-game series and helped them regain a share of the American League Central lead. The teams are tied atop the standings, although technically Cleveland’s .554 win percentage betters the Twins’ .549.
“I’ve done that a few times this year, just finishing the ninth,” Thielbar said. “It’s a little different. I kept the ball this time. A lot of times I just throw it into the crowd if it’s the ninth inning. But I made sure to keep this one.”
While Thielbar ended up proving his manager right, it’s understandable how it raised eyebrows. The Twins (39-32) came into this series a game ahead of Cleveland (36-29) only to lose Tuesday and Wednesday because of the bullpen blowing multiple-run leads in late innings. Emilio Pagan played a major part in both of those — giving up five earned runs in two innings combined — though Thielbar did allow a run to score when he balked in the fifth inning Wednesday.
Because Tuesday’s game went 11 innings and the ninth-inning meltdown forced the use of another arm Wednesday, Baldelli said he knew he’d be short on relievers Thursday. He said Duran is turning into “one of the best young relievers in the game,” but the manager couldn’t let his pitch count stretch into the 30s when he had already pitched two innings Tuesday.
“You don’t know what happens if you start leaving a guy in there in a second inning of work. … We’re going to need this guy all year long,” Baldelli said.
Baldelli said Thielbar “lined up” with that section of the Guardians batting order, which was also how the seventh inning set up for the Twins. Devin Smeltzer (4-1) had a shutout after six innings but was pulled after 92 pitches. Reliever Joe Smith lined up with the Cleveland order and avoided another relief disaster.
Cleveland loaded the bases against Smith with a walk, a double and a hit by pitch. But the Twins defense got two forceouts at home before Myles Straw lined out to end the threat.
“When they’re a hot lineup, you’ve just got to come in, trust the work you put in that week, and [catcher Gary Sanchez] and I put our work in,” Smeltzer said. “It just comes down to trust and execution. I’m going to go as deep as I can every game. It’s always my goal to give [relievers] a break as much as I possibly can, and when I’m successful at it, after the game, yeah, it does feel good.”
Gordon played center field in the stead of Byron Buxton, who sat out a second consecutive game with a nagging knee injury, and tipped the scales with his third-inning blast to the lawn in center.
“It’s a big swing, and it’s one of those guys stepping up and doing something for the club,” Baldelli said. “We need stuff like that.
“We need someone to do something big.”