By La Velle E. Neal III
Before the start of the eighth inning on Tuesday, fans at Target Field began to chant, “Joe, Joe, Joe,” in appreciation of the pitching performance they were witnessing on the field.
Within minutes, they were booing more lustily than cheering. That’s because Twins manager Rocco Baldelli took one Joe out — righthander Joe Ryan — and replaced him with another Jo — lefthander Jovani Moran — for the eighth inning.
Ryan had been terrific on a night the Twins eased their way to a 6-3 win over Kansas City in an attempt to get back in the heart of the AL Central race. On Tuesday, they found the formula for keeping their playoff hopes alive: Just have their pitchers take no-hitters into the late innings every night and that should do the trick. Cleveland and Chicago both won on Tuesday, so the Twins remain in third place, five games out of first in the division.
Ryan was strong all night, featuring a fastball that Royals hitters couldn’t put in play, and mixing in off-speed stuff effectively. The one blip on his line on Tuesday was that he gave up 32 foul balls to Kansas City hitters, which assisted in pushing his pitch count upward.
Which brings us back to six paragraphs earlier. Ryan struck out two in the seventh to earn a standing ovation from most of the 19,005 in attendance. He topped out at 94 miles per hour during the inning and looked able to handle another.
At 106 pitches, he was four pitches away from tying his season high in a start. Realistically, he was going to need many more than that to finish off the no-no. After yielding 32 foul balls, he suddenly wasn’t going to turn a pair of quick 1-2-3 innings. It’s late in the season. And, unlike many Twins followers, the Twins have not given up on the postseason. So letting Ryan blow through his personal best for pitches tossed in a game when there is a chance the season could extend into the middle of October is not a chance a careful manager like Baldelli was going to risk.
He was not going to push Ryan harder than necessary. Ryan is on line to pitch on Sunday at Cleveland, during a season-defining series against the Guardians. If Ryan throws the last two innings on Tuesday and needs 135 pitches to complete the no-hitter, he’s getting skipped the next time through the rotation and the Twins don’t have one of their best starters available for a key series.
Personally, I would have given him the eighth. But again, if you might need him in October, is it worth pushing it in a game he more than likely won’t be allowed to finish?
So the, “Joe, Joe, Joe,” chant began after the Twins batted in the bottom of the seventh. As soon as fans saw a player walk down the tunnel from the bullpen, they changed their croon. Moran was booed as he headed for the mound, then again as he was announced.
Poor guy. He did nothing to deserve it.
Moran stuck out two during the eighth and took the mound for the ninth three outs away from earning his share of history, co-authoring the sixth no-hitter in Twins history.
Moran struck out Drew Waters but walked pinch hitter Hunter Dozier then MJ Melendez. Bobby Witt Jr. lined a 1-2 pitch to left for an RBI double to end the no-no and shutout. The Royals ended up scoring three runs in the inning.
Moran had a good chance to complete the no-hitter, but he ran into trouble once he got to the top of the order.
If Moran would have preserved the no-hitter on Tuesday, it would have been the fifth combined no-hitter of the last seven thrown. The Mets used five pitchers in April to no-hit the Phillies.
This is how pitchers are protected in this current state of the game. Baldelli’s decision was well-reasoned. Now the Twins need to get hot and win the division to make Rocco’s decision a prescient one.