From the outset of the game, when the Twins scored two runs off Sheffield in a hurry, it was obvious that the game-within-a-game the Mariners would be playing was keeping the Twins from doing too much damage against Justus Sheffield while Bailey Ober was on the mound, giving the team a chance to get back against the soft underbelly of Minnesota’s worst-in-baseball bullpen.
A fifth inning featuring back-to-back home runs by Nelson Cruz and Ryan Jeffers, as well as the second walk of the game dealt by Sheffield to the previously unwalkable Willians Astrudillo, who now has two of his career nine walks against Sheffield, ended any intrigue in both the game-within-a-game and the larger game itself. The Twins whisked young Master Ober away before the bottom half of the inning, but with the Twins up 7-0, Minnesota’s bullpen only had to not give up more than one run every two batters to preserve a victory.
The Mariners could only scrounge up one hit off Ober, off the bat of J.P. Crawford of course, and are lucky that the young starter is only stretched out for five-to-six innings starts at the time, because the way he was dominating Mariners hitters—six strikeouts in just four innings on a mere 63 pitches (40 strikes)—a complete game shutout felt very much on the table. The Mariners did try to make some loud noises with their bats off the lowly Twins bullpen: Ty France had the first extra-base hit for the Mariners off lefty Caleb Thielbar and scored on a Shed Long Jr. single. They’d add one more run off erstwhile Mariner Alex Colomé, still ensnared by the nightmarish forces haunting the Twins’ bullpen this season, although it came on the less-exciting single-wild pitch-sac fly combo, not exactly the thrilling offensive output of the previous night.
Ultimately, though, the Mariners just couldn’t rebound from another poor outing from Sheffield. The Twins love hitting the fastball, and they love being aggressive on the first pitch; a bad combination for Justus, who struggled with his fastball command, putting it too far into the hot zone of the Twins hitters. The Twins were also ready to hit when Justus tried to steal a strike with a first-pitch off-speed offering, punishing sliders that hung high and flat and spitting on the changeup, which only wound up in the zone about half the time. Sheffield just wasn’t fooling the Twins hitters; only six of his 95 pitches went for swinging strikes, with 12 called strikes. This just doesn’t look like a pitcher with a plan, or if there is a plan, one that’s being well-executed:
Mikey is going to have a deeper dive tomorrow on Sheffield’s struggles, but it’s just overall a real bummer for a pitcher who looked so promising last year. This is the second Sheffield start in a row I’ve recapped that has been a bummer in this fashion; if this ineffectiveness continues into another start, I wouldn’t be opposed to Sheffield getting a breather in Tacoma with pitching coach Rob Marcello to see if he can tweak something and get back to his 2020 form.
The rest of the bullpen, to their credit, held the Twins lead in check in case the Mariners did want to mount a comeback; Will Vest pitched a scoreless inning, and Rafael Montero had an easy, breezy, low-leverage low-stress inning. I know! Maybe Montero, who has admittedly had some really poor batted-ball luck so far in this season, will pull out of his early-season struggles. Hector Santiago also pitched in another two innings of scoreless relief, and I just have to say, Hector Santiago is one of my favorite things about the Mariners bullpen. My man comes in, usually when the game is well out of reach, hucks his 92 MPH fastballs up there with little to no downtime in between, picks up his meal ticket and heads home. The aesthetic of wanting to get home as quickly as possible is one that is deeply relatable for me so here’s a cheers to Hector Santiago, underappreciated member of the 2021 Mariners bullpen.