The Baltimore Orioles were 52-110 in 2021, the most losses since the St. Louis Browns moved to Maryland in 1954. As this was occurring, the Orioles continued to send out Jorge Lopez as a starting pitcher.
Lopez was a 28-year-old righthander with what appeared to be excellent pitches — both in speed and sinkage. And yet in start after start, Lopez would hit a wall and depart looking at another loss.
He had made 25 starts by mid-August. He was 3-14 with a 6.35 ERA. He gave up 19 home runs, with the Camden Yards bandbox as his home park.
The Orioles finally put him in the bullpen on Aug. 22. Lopez made eight relief appearances, there was promise shown and Baltimore lined him up for the bullpen in 2022.
Baltimore went from incompetent to competitive, with a bullpen loaded with live arms. The Twins were hanging onto first place in the AL Central entering August, but with a serious need to reinforce an inadequate, overworked bullpen.
The Orioles had the even harder-throwing Felix Bautista to move into the closer role, so on the Aug. 2 trade deadline, they sent Lopez to the Twins for four minor leaguers. Cade Povich, a lefthanded starter, was considered the prize of the group.
And so what?
Lopez was arriving in Minnesota with a 1.68 ERA, better than a strikeout an inning and 19 saves in 23 chances. He would be joining rookie phenom Jhoan Duran to lock down wins.
Throw in starter Tyler Mahle, picked up at a higher price in talent from Cincinnati, and Michael Fulmer, a bullpen veteran from Detroit, and the Twins seemed to have greatly increased their chances of winning the AL Central for the third time in four seasons.
Many bad things have happened since then — weird baserunning, no clutch hitting, no hitting whatsoever, injuries to a couple of pitchers (including Mahle), injuries to a good hunk of the lineup.
The Twins gave it up this week, and were looking for an eighth loss in nine games against the Angels and the bionic Shohei Ohtani, power pitcher, power hitter, rocket runner, on a cold Friday night at Target Field.
This was the kickoff to Fan Appreciation Weekend, which did not include the Twins’ current best player Carlos Correa in the lineup, nor did it include many shivering customers.
Among the woes that have sunk the Twins, the most surprising from here has been the ineffectiveness of Lopez. Great in Baltimore; so frightening in his previous appearance in Cleveland on Monday that he was replaced after two outs by Jermaine Palacios, a position player.
Four runs put his ERA at 5.60 in 18 games in Minnesota, which is higher than Emilio Pagan’s 4.81. He’s still throwing a sinker that averages 97 miles per hour on over half his pitches. What he’s also done is miss the plate by a foot with changeups in big situations.
How could the key acquisition for the division push go from an All-Star in Baltimore to “bring in Palacios” in Minnesota?
“There’s been suggestions that we have him throwing more offspeed pitches than in Baltimore,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins baseball boss. “That’s not true. He’s still throwing a lot of fastballs and with the same velocity.
“For sure, we see cases in this game where players are having success in a place, they are feeling comfortable, and then you get uprooted and it’s an adjustment. Maybe that has been the case with Jorge.
“We can see that the pitches are still there. I know this, when we get to spring training, we’ll be looking at Jorge to be a big part of our bullpen for 2023.”
Which led to this question for manager Rocco Baldelli (he’s back for next season, Falvey guaranteed) in his pregame session: “Do you need fewer innings for your bullpen, meaning longer starts?”
The manager gave a long, long answer, the gist of which was those early hooks of starters have been made independently and not as an ironclad strategy.
“I think it will be important for us to be able to rely on our guys to go deeper,” Baldelli said. “We have some guys that have done it, and there are some guys learning how to do it right now … Joe Ryan’s a good specific example of that.”
So, there it is:
Twins followers were giving the front office a rare tribute after those pitching moves on Aug. 2, the team was tied for first place as late as Sept. 4, and by Friday, there was baseball’s familiar battle cry.
“Wait ’til next year.”