MINNEAPOLIS — During a weekend in which Minnesota’s starting pitching faltered, its bullpen stepped up big once again.
That was the case in Sunday’s 3-2 win over visiting Houston, as the Twins’ relievers combined for four scoreless innings to help Minnesota earn a three-game sweep of the Astros. Starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey lasted just five innings, meaning it was once again up to the bullpen to keep the Twins in the game.
“They’ve been pitching well, but they’ve been pitching probably too much,” said Pelfrey, who allowed two runs through five innings, his second straight start of five or fewer innings. “I made two starts this home stand and I threw nine innings total, which is terrible. Those guys are good. If you want those guys to stay like that, we’re going to have to find a way to go deeper into games so they can stay fresh.”
Pelfrey labored through five innings, needing 104 pitches to get through it. He passed the torch to right-hander Josh Roenicke, who turned 31 on Sunday. Pitching on his birthday, Roenicke tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed just one hit.
From there, Minnesota called upon left-hander Caleb Thielbar, who got the Twins out of the seventh inning despite walking to batters to load the bases. Pinch hitter L.J. Hoes grounded out to shortstop Doug Bernier for the final out of the seventh, keeping the score tied at 2-2.
After Minnesota outfielder Oswaldo Arcia put his team back on top with a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, Twins set-up man Jared Burton pitched a scoreless top of the eighth inning, striking out a pair of Astros batters. He needed 14 pitches to get through the perfect eighth.
With the scoreless inning, Burton now has 14 straight appearances without allowing a run. He hasn’t surrendered a run since allowing three against the Yankees on July 1. The key, he said, has been better command of his fastball.
“Once you start commanding that fastball, it just gives you more and more confidence with it,” Burton said. “It makes the off-speed (pitches) even better.”
Burton spent most of the season as the Twins’ set-up man in the eighth inning. But in several games in July he was used more in a seventh-inning role as right-hander Casey Fien set up closer Glen Perkins.
That’s been a key for the bullpen, though, is the ability of many of the pen’s pitchers to enter the game in a handful of situations.
“There’s no competition whatsoever down there. We all have the same goal,” Burton said. “We all root for each other and seeing each other do well is the best thing in the world for us.”
After Burton’s scoreless eighth inning, closer Glen Perkins notched his 27th save of the year to help close out Minnesota’s first sweep since June 18-20 against the White Sox.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Twins’ bullpen had the third-best ERA in all of baseball at 2.93, behind just Atlanta (2.48) and Kansas City (2.88). Minnesota’s relievers were also tied for second in the majors in number of innings pitched with 380 2/3.
That’s certainly a higher number of innings than the Twins would like to see from the bullpen at this point in the season, but Minnesota’s relievers have been up to the task despite being a bit overworked.
“We all know we threw a little more than we’d like, but we answered the bell,” Burton said. “Sometimes that happens. We’ve just got such a great group, a great mix down there of different stuff. Roles really go out the window when your bullpen’s in the fourth or fifth inning. We’ve pitched as good as we could.”
When all was said and done during this three-game series, Minnesota’s bullpen pitched a total of 17 innings this weekend. The Twins’ relievers allowed just one run during that span on six total hits.
“Our bullpen, they were saviors through the whole thing,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Perkins at the end, it’s always a good feeling when you get to go to him.”