Mackey: Glen Perkins and Jim Hoey as main set-up men? Go figure
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After a mass bullpen exodus this past offseason, the new herd of Minnesota Twins relievers -- all 20 or so in Fort Myers -- were destined for a round or two of musical chairs.
In the eighth inning of a one-run game Sunday against the heart of the Cleveland Indians lineup, Perkins struck out Shin-Soo Choo swinging, walked Carlos Santana and induced a harmless pop-up off the bat of Travis Hafner that left fielder Jason Repko lost in the sun for a base hit.
Manager Ron Gardenhire then summoned Hoey, who fanned Orlando Cabrera on a 95-mph cut fastball -- "I'm not quite to that level yet, not naming pitches," the right-hander said when asked what he calls that nasty cutter -- and left-hander Jose Mijares, who got Michael Brantley to fly out.
Despite frequent issues with command, Mijares is no stranger to the eighth inning, but the emergence of Perkins and Hoey as set-up men is a new concept, and also reminder of just how much the Twins bullpen has changed in less than four weeks.
The bullpen totem pole on April 1 looked something like this:
Well, Nathan (9.82 ERA) lost his job after only two weeks, Hughes (9.00 ERA) has allowed crooked numbers in three of his nine outings, Slowey landed on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis, and Manship (8.10 ERA) was optioned to Triple-A Rochester after only five outings.
Because of the changes, the Twins have been forced to craft a new totem pole:
RHP Eric Hacker
The bridge held strong on Sunday, but it doesn't mask the fact that heading into the game Twins relievers had posted a collective ERA of 4.42 (24th in baseball) while tallying the fewest strikeouts (31) and racking up the third-highest contact rate (85%) of any bullpen.
Perkins, specifically, is a guy who doesn't rely heavily on strikeouts at all (4.67 career K/9), which he acknowledges and also dismisses.
"An ideal at-bat for me is like when I faced Billy Butler our last homestand," said Perkins, who has tallied four strikeouts while walking three in 9 1/3 scoreless innings so far this season. "I threw a first pith slider he took (for a strike), then I threw a fastball up and in that he popped out to short.
"There's people that are going to say that, for one, you shouldn't get pop ups, you should get ground balls, and two, you should get strikeouts instead of contact. But I'll take my chances on the 0-1 (count), when I throw a pitch, exactly what I want to do -- and that's exactly what I wanted (Butler) to do."
Perkins, who toiled in Rochester for much of 2010, was competing for a spot on the 25-man roster as recently as late March, but he has become -- perhaps somewhat by simply winning the battle of attrition early on -- Gardenhire's most trusted reliever (du jour) behind Capps.
"I'm glad that I've earned their trust, more than anything," the left-hander said. "Everyone wants to contribute, you always want to contribute, but definitely to be able to contribute to some more important innings, that's exciting."
Gardenhire even went so far as to say, "We have to guard against, when we get in a big situation in the sixth, saying, 'well let's get Perkins up, because he can be your go-to guy right now,' but we need him in the eighth more than we do (in the sixth) ... We just have to kind of guard ourselves from trying to force-feed him too much and pitching him too much and use everybody."
The "everybody" Gardenhire refers to includes Hacker, who will be used mostly as a long reliever, Hughes, whose recent outings have dropped him down the trust ladder in recent weeks, and Mijares, who Gardenhire acknowledges has "great stuff" and the ability to "dominate innings," but who also has managed to walk a batter per inning while throwing only 41% of his pitches in the strike zone.
"The thing that's a little different for us right now is trying to figure out how Nathan fits and then Hoey," Gardenhire said. "We only have three right-handers out there, or four right-handers with Hacker being the long guy.
"It's kind of hard right now trying not to do anything too much with Nathan until we get him going, so Hoey has to fill those roles."
Hoey has done so, allowing zero earned runs and striking out two in 1 2/3 innings over three appearances since being called up from Rochester last week.
Nathan will continue to pitch in low leverage situations for the time being, like in Saturday's 10-3 thrashing of the Indians, when the former closer pitched a clean ninth, striking out two, including Cabrera on a nasty slider.
"He needs innings right now, and he needs to pitch," Gardenhire said. "He needs to pitch like every other day or something like that, and that's hard to do at this level. But really, if you try to send him to the minor leagues, you're not going to face the hitters that he needs to see. He needs to see good hitters. So we have to get it right up here, not somewhere else."
Gardenhire added, "This guy's a pretty good pitcher. It's not like he's totally out of confidence. We can use him today in the eighth inning. It might be a little 'thump, thump' of the heart, because we're not sure yet how he's feeling, but we have a lot of confidence in him."
Until Nathan returns to form -- which is no guarantee -- the Twins will hope the unlikely bridge of Hoey, Perkins and Mijares will hold steady leading up to Capps.
The smart money, however, is on another round of musical chairs at some point.