Baldelli defends unconventional ‘bullpen game’ in Twins’ playoff loss

The Twins rarely said it, but they quietly believed they owned the most effective bullpen in the American League, especially when Brock Stewart, Louie Varland and Chris Paddack joined that unit in September. And there was no bigger proof of that confidence than Rocco Baldelli's pitching strategy Wednesday night.

Joe Ryan threw only 26 pitches, completed two innings, allowed only one run, a solo home run to Michael Brantley. Yet rather than send him out to face that same rugged Astros lineup for a second time, the manager thanked Ryan for his work and turned over an unprecedented seven innings to that collection of arms waiting on their bench beyond the left-center field fence.

"We had a full bullpen of good bullpen arms," Baldelli said of his unconventional move. "Truthfully, in an elimination game like we were in today, there's no need to ride your starter. We wanted to get the best stuff out of Joe possible, which was going to be about one time through the lineup."

The statistics show that the first inning is Ryan's best; he allowed 10 runs and five homers in the first all season, while giving up 20 runs in the second (on 13 homers) and 22 in the third. So Baldelli and his staff came to the conclusion that a series of live, hard-throwing arms in short stints were a better way to go than seeing how far Ryan could go, particularly since the righthander had provided a quality start — six innings while allowing no more than three runs — only once in 11 starts since the All-Star Game.

It's a risky strategy, and one that had never been used in the postseason by a Twins manager. Fifteen postseason starters had lasted fewer than four innings for the Twins, but most were removed because they were hit hard. None had allowed only one run, as Ryan did.

Was he OK with the strategy? "We've got a fresh pen. You don't want to look back and not use some of those guys. I totally understand the approach," Ryan said. "I don't make those decisions, so I'm going to go make pitches as long as I can. I think it worked out pretty well."

Sign up for our Twins Update newsletter

That's the thing — Baldelli's choice may be controversial after a 3-2 loss, but Ryan is right. The Astros scored only two runs against five Twins relievers, and both of those scored on one bad pitch by Caleb Thielbar, a thigh-high fastball on the outer corner that José Abreu rocketed the other way, 424 feet off the upper-deck facade in right-center, a two-run homer.

"I feel terrible about it. I know it's not all on me. That's what everyone keeps telling me," a somber Thielbar said. "But that's how it feels right now, and it's going to take a little while to get over it."

Still, holding the Astros to just three runs is normally enough to win; Houston went 12-52 this season when scoring three runs or fewer. But the Twins' offense couldn't match it.

"Our pitchers, they did a good job. They threw the ball well," Baldelli said. "We got what we wanted. Like any game, you're going to bank on your team scoring some runs."

And it was a heartening performance for pitchers like Stewart and Paddack, who missed much of the season with injuries but combined to record 10 outs and allow only one baserunner on Wednesday.

"For sure, it's a little bittersweet. I want to keep pitching. I feel great," Stewart said. "It almost worked out perfectly. We were right in that game with a chance to win. I guess they were the better team, but we were right there with them."

Paddack, back from Tommy John elbow surgery, will likely be in the Twins' rotation next season. But he said he learned a lot during his two-week stint in the Twins' bullpen, and from his 2⅓-inning performance on Wednesday.

"For me personally, there's a lot of emotion, man. You can't write up what I've just been through any better," said Paddack, who struck out four of the eight hitters he faced, including Yordan Alvarez on a curveball. "I've busted my butt for the past 16 months to get back in this clubhouse with these guys. To have some success in the postseason, just makes me excited that all my hard work paid off."