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Varland rocked again in Twins loss, says he's 'letting the team down'

BALTIMORE – Louie Varland sunk almost to one knee as Cedric Mullins' high fly ball arced down the right field line, and he visibly flinched as the ball passed the foul pole, fair by perhaps 8 feet. He shouted something into his glove and stalked around the mound as Mullins circled the bases, yelling in frustration even more.

Varland knew what the slicing fly ball meant to the Twins' chances of winning, and he was correct: Though the Twins tried to rally, the Baltimore Orioles walked away with a 7-4 victory at Camden Yards, the Twins' seventh loss in 10 games.

He reacted visibly because he "was letting the team down," the second-year righthander said. "I'm letting the team down, and it's a bad feeling."

Especially because it's not changing. Varland's first three starts have produced an 0-3 record and an 8.36 ERA, and the latter figure actually dropped from 9.00 with his five-inning, 11-hit, six-run (only four earned) outing. The St. Paul native is still one of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in the majors, regularly hitting 98 mph on Monday.

But he's also tied for the American League lead with five home runs allowed, and he allowed the Orioles to hammer eight different pitches with exit velocities of more than 100 mph.Some of those hard-hit balls were turned into outs, but most fell for hits. Ryan O'Hearn drove a 3-1 cutter 435 feet into the night.

Which is why Twins manager Rocco Baldelli sat his young pitcher down in the dugout and had a chat, "something I rarely do," he said.

The topic: two-strike pitches. Opponents are batting .297 on two-strike counts, which should be a put-away pitch. Varland's 11 two-strike hits allowed this year are tied for the second most in baseball.

"That's a tough lineup to navigate, so the two-strike execution, with breaking balls especially, has to be better. … It's multiple starts in a row where he threw the ball reasonably well but needs to make better pitches when he gets to two strikes," Baldelli said. "Those pitches in the middle of the zone, those are not quality pitches."

One other problem: Opponents are hitting .411 against Varland with runners in scoring position.

"He's got the stuff to get major league hitters out," Baldelli said. "He just has to learn and try something different."

Reigning rookie of the year Gunnar Henderson added a solo home run off Matt Bowman, spoiling the veteran reliever's Twins debut and allowing the Orioles to rack up more runs than the Twins could counter in a battle of division champions, one healthy, one hobbled.

BOXSCORE: Baltimore 7, Twins 4

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Jose Miranda drove in two runs with his first three-hit night in more than a year, the first coming on a solo home run that traveled 411 feet. He also singled home Byron Buxton, who had doubled, in the fourth inning.

"It feels great, obviously, to have a game like that," Miranda said. "A game like this is super important. It means a lot in confidence for me, and for the team, too."

His RBI single was one of only two hits with runners in scoring position, in nine chances. The other came in the seventh inning, when Ryan Jeffers, who also contributed a three-run night that included a pair of doubles, drove in Austin Martin and Edouard Julien with a double off former Twins reliever Yennier Cano.

Perhaps things would have been different had the Twins struck first, but Orioles center fielder Mullins foiled that hope in the first inning with a flat-out dive, as he raced away from the plate, to snag Kyle Farmer's all-but-certain run-scoring double.

"That ball was smoked. It was as hard as Kyle's going to hit a ball in that gap," Baldelli said. "He made a great play. If we get on the board there, you don't know what's going to happen."