When Ricky Nolasco comes back from the disabled list sometime in the near future, the Minnesota Twins will have six starting pitchers for five spots in the rotation. As the team’s No. 5 starter, Pelfrey is one of several candidates who could be on the outside looking in when that decision is made.
If Pelfrey keeps pitching like he did Tuesday, though, the Twins will be hard-pressed to squeeze him out of the rotation.
Pelfrey tossed arguably one of his best starts in a Minnesota uniform, holding the Tigers to two runs — one earned — in seven innings. Pelfrey struck out seven, surrendered a season-low three hits and earned his second straight win as Minnesota topped Detroit by a 3-2 final.
Oh, and Pelfrey also made a strong case for staying in the rotation.
"I try not to worry about that," Pelfrey said after the win, which marked the first time he’s won back-to-back starts since May 2011. "I’m healthy. I have high expectations for myself when I’m healthy and I’m feeling good, and I feel good. Hopefully I just go out there and try to do the best I can and see what happens. I have a lot of confidence in myself that when I’m healthy, I’m going to get guys out."
Pelfrey breezed through two quick innings to start his night. Along the way, he struck out the heart of Detroit’s order — Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes — in the second inning.
He ran into trouble in the third, though, thanks to an error by shortstop Danny Santana. A misplay at short allowed Nick Castellanos to reach first base and moved Alex Avila to second. Two batters later, Anthony Gose drove in Avila. The run was unearned, but still put Pelfrey and the Twins in a 1-0 hole.
Minnesota scored a run in the bottom of the third to back Pelfrey and erase the brief deficit. Santana atoned for his error with a single up the middle that scored Oswaldo Arcia for the Twins’ first run.
After a bit more trouble in the fourth inning that yielded another run — Detroit’s J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes hit back-to-back, two-out doubles — Pelfrey settled in. He retired the last 10 batters he faced, picking up two more strikeouts in the process.
The Twins put Pelfrey back out for the seventh inning despite his pitch count nearing 100. He induced a pair of fly-ball outs and struck out Avila for a 1-2-3 seventh.
"He had a lot of really good, clean, crisp innings," Twins manager Paul Molitor said of Pelfrey. "A couple little hiccups along the way. We missed a play that was a difficult play that led to a run. . . . We ran him back out there for that seventh inning. He got through it (for) us, which helped set up our bullpen and gave us a chance to come back and win the game."
Pelfrey’s night was done after seven innings, but he left with his team trailing 2-1. After seeing their pitcher toss a solid game, the Twins put together a pair of runs to help him earn the victory. Eduardo Escobar doubled to right-center to score Eduardo Nunez for the game-tying run. Two batters later, Kurt Suzuki’s single to center plated Escobar to give Minnesota a 3-2 lead.
"It’s always nice when your pitcher gives you some good innings like that and battles his butt off out there," Suzuki said. "To give him the win was definitely a good feeling."
Pelfrey’s first two seasons in Minnesota could accurately be described as disappointing, to say the least. In his first year with the Twins in 2013 — his first season after having Tommy John surgery — Pelfrey was 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts. The following year he pitched in just five games as an arm injury shortened his season to a mere 23 2/3 innings.
That 2014 season came after Pelfrey signed a two-year, $11 million extension with Minnesota. His original contract signed in 2013 was for just one year and $4 million. Despite all of that, Pelfrey was slated to being the year in the bullpen, a plan that was changed when Ervin Santana was hit with an 80-game suspension. Now, Pelfrey, Trevor May and Tommy Milone appear to be in a game of musical chairs that only has two seats remaining.
Through Pelfrey’s first four starts of 2015, he’s now 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA, the lowest of any Twins starter by more than two runs. The 31-year-old Pelfrey is finally starting to pitch like the player Minnesota hoped it was getting when he signed that contract extension.
"I busted my tail this offseason to come back and try to put myself in the best situation to succeed," Pelfrey said. "I feel like I’ve not only gotten healthy but I feel like I’ve gotten better. … Last year didn’t go any way that anybody would like. I wanted to come in and make good on that two-year deal. We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of baseball left. I’ll just continue to try to build off this one."