MINNEAPOLIS — If you were told that Ricky Nolasco would pitch a complete game for the Minnesota Twins on Friday against Baltimore, you’d probably assume he’d end up as the winning pitcher. After all, that was the case in his previous nine complete games throughout his major league career.
On a night when Minnesota and its taxed bullpen needed Nolasco to go deep, he went the distance. Unfortunately for the righthander, the Twins’ bats didn’t back him up. So Nolasco wound up with the loss — his third of the season — as Minnesota was blanked 3-0 by the visiting Orioles.
Nolasco’s outing helped preserve the Twins’ bullpen, but it wasn’t enough to snap Minnesota’s losing streak, which now sits at four games.
"I was just trying to go out there and give us some innings and a chance to win," Nolasco said. "We just came up short."
Throughout the first month of the season, the Twins’ offense hadn’t been much of a problem. The starting pitching, meanwhile, has failed to live up to the hype after Minnesota signed Nolasco and fellow free agent Phil Hughes to big contracts this offseason. The expectation was that the Twins’ rotation would be improved while the lineup would struggle to score runs.
For just the second time in 27 games this year, Minnesota’s offense was held scoreless. In both instances, Nolasco was the Twins’ starting pitcher. He also picked up a loss on April 18 when Minnesota fell 5-0 to Kansas City.
"Ricky pitched great. Ricky pitched well enough to win, for sure," said Twins center fielder Sam Fuld, who had one of Minnesota’s four hits in Friday’s loss. "It’s frustrating. Good teams find a way to win when a pitcher throws a game like that."
At the very least, Nolasco’s 10th career complete game saved Minnesota’s bullpen, which was pushed to the limits on Thursday in a day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The second game Thursday wound up taking more than five hours to play and saw the Twins use seven different relievers. Minnesota was playing Friday night’s game with 14 pitchers on the roster after calling up Logan Darnell, but manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t want to have to dip into his bullpen early once again.
Thanks to Nolasco, he didn’t have to. The right-hander needed just 110 pitches to throw his first complete game since Sept. 9, 2012 against the Nationals. It was tough luck for Nolasco that he happened to do so on a night where Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez was nearly unhittable for 7 1/3 innings.
"We needed him to go deep, as we talked about before, and he did that. He had good stuff tonight," Gardenhire said of Nolasco. "He did what we needed. Unfortunately, the other guy on the other side was really good."
One of the few mistakes Nolasco made all night came in the top of the sixth inning when he left too much of an 87 mph two-seam fastball over the plate. Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz sent it an estimated 424 feet to the third deck in left field to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. The only other run the O’s scored all night came from an RBI double by catcher Matt Wieters, who hit a deep drive to center field to score Cruz.
Minnesota had a few chances to score, but not many. The best opportunity came in the third inning after Fuld singled to start things off and advanced to second on Eduardo Escobar’s walk. The two executed a double steal after Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer struck out, but Trevor Plouffe was the third strikeout victim of the inning for Jimenez as the Twins left two runners in scoring position.
With Minnesota unable to scratch across a run for just the second time all season, Nolasco was left with another loss.
"You tip your hat to Jimenez," Gardenhire said. "He made some really good pitches."
So did Nolasco, who faced the minimum in four of his nine innings. Twice, he surrendered a leadoff hit but worked around it to strand Orioles runners on base. Nolasco issued just one walk while striking out a season-high six batters. He managed to scatter nine hits and pounded the strike zone all night — 76 of the 118 pitches he threw went for strikes.
Though it didn’t result in a win, Nolasco’s performance was a shot in the arm for a pitching staff that needed one badly.
"Ricky threw the ball great for us," Gardenhire said. "A complete ball game, but against Jimenez tonight, not enough."