Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Big Mike Provides a Steadying Presence


Everyone has seen the movie, “The Blind Side,” right? While we’re not going to get into the plot, it chronicles the life of Michael Oher, a former NFL lineman. He’s nicknamed “Big Mike” and his persona is one of a steadying calmness. After watching Michael Pineda come through for the Twins yet again last night, is there any other way to attribute his own “Big Mike” moniker?


Following a nightmarish start to one of their biggest series of the year, Rocco Baldelli’s Twins were searching for answers. Rich Hill was bad, the bullpen was taxed, and a demoralizing loss was hung on them by the rival Chicago White Sox. Pitching for the first time in nearly a full year, the former Yankee was ready to take the ball.


Pineda was suspended under PED violations for using a diuretic intended to help lose weight. Because he was able to prove the usage was for weight loss and not an intention to mask PED usage, the suspension was reduced. Minnesota brought him back on a two-year deal knowing they’d be without him for roughly the first third of 2020. As the season was shortened to 60 games, the time off turned into what amounted to half of the season.


As is the case with all players not currently on an active 28-man roster, but still in the 60-man player pool, Pineda got his work in at Minnesota’s alternate site. He ramped up to an ability that would’ve allowed for 80-100 pitches in his debut per manager Rocco Baldelli. Big Mike’s calming presence was going to be allowed to show itself, but would it?


Coming off Tommy John surgery and having not pitched in a Major League game since 2017, Pineda owned a 6.21 ERA through his first six turns last year. By his 11th start things started trending up as the ERA dropped to 5.34. By the end of June, through 16 starts, Pineda owned a 4.78 ERA and then he turned it up a notch. Over his final 10 starts in 2019, Pineda was Minnesota’s best pitcher. He owned a 2.88 ERA and allowed just a .666 OPS against. Had it not been for the suspension, he was squarely in the conversation to be the Twins game 1 starter in the ALDS.


Despite having ramped up and faced other batters for a couple of months in St. Paul, Pineda remained a question mark before last night. When he showed up on the mound to face one of baseball’s most difficult lineups, all he did was efficiently shove.


Chicago got two first inning runs thanks in part to miscommunication by Miguel Sano and Ildemaro Vargas on the right side of the infield. From there though, Pineda went untouched. Scattering six hits across six innings, he fanned four while walking one and generating plenty of swinging strikes. He topped out at 94 mph, after averaging just 92 mph on his fastball a year ago. In a night that Minnesota needed their starter to pick them up, a guy just returning to the team answered the call.


There are only 23 games left in the regular season at this point, meaning Pineda will get at most a total of five starts this season. That there’s no training wheels attached, and he can go deep into games remains a big plus. The hope would be that 2019’s slow start was injury related, and the way it finished is how Pineda fares going forward. Should that be the case, there’s another arm in Baldelli’s rotation that’s locked in and not going anywhere.


A division title remains an enviable accomplishment even in a bastardized season. However, in a year that everyone will make it to the Postseason, being ready to advance beyond that three-game series out of the gate should be the goal. Big Mike is back and he’s ready to put the Twins on his back, calming presence, and all.