You know baseball’s trade deadline is close when relief pitchers become as popular as the starting pitchers and sluggers. For the right team, one of these heretofore anonymous arms surely will be the piece that turns a good team into a great one.
That’s been especially true in Minnesota, where the Twins boast the best offense in baseball, the fifth-best starting rotation and a 5½-game lead in the American League Central. Will Smith, Ken Giles, Shane Greene … who will be the lucky one to leave his also-ran team and solidify the bullpen of a contender?
One name curiously absent from the chatter is Trevor Hildenberger, odd because he’s under contract with the Twins, played a big role in this year’s fast start and has at times been a very good relief pitcher.
Shut down by a muscle strain in his forearm since June 17, Hildenberger has been playing catch without pain and hopes to extend his distance this weekend in Fort Myers, Fla. “It’s all dependent on how I feel, and right now I feel really good,” he said Wednesday.
In the meantime, he’s been watching his team vault to the top of baseball.
“It’s still hard to be away, no matter what, but it’s really fun to watch these guys tear through the league, and watch guys like Taylor Rogers get seven outs (in a game), and five of them are punch-outs,” he said. “I’m really proud of those guys. I’m rooting so hard for the Twins to clinch the division as soon as possible.”
A side-arming right-hander with heavy sink and a formidable changeup, Hildenberger appeared in 73 games for the Twins in 2018 — only 11 relievers pitched more — and finished with seven saves and 17 holds. In his first 11 games this season, he was 2-0 with a save, four holds, 10 strikeouts and a 0.00 earned-run average in 7.2 innings as the Twins bolted to an 8-3 start.
“Hildy’s a guy … we looked to lean on, and we did lean on early in the year,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He got some big outs for us early this year.”
Over his next eight appearances, however, Hildenberger gave up 13 earned runs on 17 hits and two walks in 6.1 innings, which might be why his name isn’t on Twins fans’ lips. The fact is, Hildenberger has been an asset for the Twins since making his major league debut in 2017 — 3-3, one save, 3.21 ERA in 42 innings — and he’s confident he will help the Twins down the stretch.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he said.
Well, not quite. First he has to heal. Then he needs to finish tweaking the mechanics that made him so effective early. When he arrived in Rochester, his shoulders were out of whack, and he was throwing from the balls of his feet instead of his heels. His arm angle was widening.
As a result, the fastball wasn’t as effective and batters were sitting on his offspeed stuff — and that wasn’t very effective, either. To get his arm right, coaches and trainers started working on his hips and ankles. Then he got hurt. Asked if the flexor mass strain might be the result of his side-arm delivery, Hildenberger, 28, said no.
“I think it’s from 70-some appearances last year and 60-something combined in the minors and big leagues in ’17,” he said. “I felt fine; I think it’s partly because of just the nature of our sport and game – your body wears down. Things get hurt if you get overused, and … my volume was high.”
The Twins return from the all-star break with a monumentally big series starting Friday, July 12, in Cleveland, where the Indians are waiting with bated breath. Winners of six straight, they’re 21-9 since June 1 and have cut the Twins’ division lead from 11½ to 5½ games with 13 head-to-head matchups remaining.
The Twins, on the other hand, are 9-9 in their past 18 games, but not because of the bullpen, whose collective ERA has improved from 4.68 on June 10 to 4.30, sixth-best in the AL. Injuries were the Twins’ problem; they put eight players on the injured list after June 18 and were playing infielders in the outfield. The bullpen was mostly solid.
Sure, the Twins could use help there — every team can — and they’re likely to go out and get some by July 31. But don’t forget about Hildenberger.
“Hopefully I get back up there as soon as possible,” he said. “If I get the opportunity to contribute, that would be awesome. If they’re cruising along and looking solid, I’m still rooting for them.”