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Twins blow late lead to Kansas City, squander terrific start by Devin Smeltzer

The left-hander gave up just two hits and a walk and struck out six in seven shutout innings in a 3-2 loss

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Devin Smeltzer (31) delivers a pitch Thursday, May 26, 2022, during the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports
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After baffling Kansas City for seven innings on Thursday, Devin Smeltzer was ready to go for the eighth. But the decision had been made, and the Twins’ left-hander left with a 2-0 lead.

Then it went sideways.

Kansas City quickly turned the tables, touching right-hander Tyler Duffey (2-3) for three runs on four hits and a walk in the top of the eighth inning and the Royals right-hander Scott Barlow got the final six outs — stranding five baserunners — to seal a 3-2 victory in from of an announced crowd of 17,657 at Target Field.

Whit Merrifield hit a two-run double to center off Duffey to tie the game with one out in the eighth inning, and Witt singled him home for the go-ahead run. Ryan Jeffers and Gilberto Celestino drove in runs for the Twins.

“It’s unfortunate for Smeltz, man, he went out and did his job,” Duffey said. “To come in behind him and do that is tough. It’s one that keeps you up at night, but it’s one that keeps you going. Makes you want to get better, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins first baseman Jose Miranda (64) slides safely into second base with a double during the fourth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26, 2022.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports

The Twins have lost two in a row for the first time since getting swept by Houston May 10-12 and their 4½-game division lead on the Central was in danger of shrinking pending the White Sox’s game against the Red Sox in Chicago.

A left-hander acquired in the trade that sent Brian Dozier to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018 but in camp this spring as a non-roster invitee, kept the Royals off balance all night, surrendering only two singles and fanning six. A self-described “old-school pitcher,” he said this week he likes to pitch as long as possible, but there was no way to lobby for it on Thursday.

“That can happen,” manager Rocco Baldelli said, “but when the decisions are made, there’s really no lobbying, no matter how hard they’re going to push for it.”

Smeltzer threw a five-pitch mix — fastball, curve, changeup, sinker and slider — but leaned heavily on his changeup at the behest of his wife, Brianne, “I agreed, and that’s what we did,” Smeltzer said.

It was a master class in deception. Smeltzer’s four-seam fastball topped out at 90.7 mph, and his curveball was routinely in the 75 mph range. The change? Low-80s. None of his three base-runners reached second base. He walked one batter, Andrew Benintendi on four pitches to start the fourth inning, but erased him on a double play grounder by the next batter, Bobby Witt Jr.

Smeltzer gave up his second hit in the seventh and was done after throwing a season-high 80 pitches. It stung, he said.

“I know Duffey wants to win. I know the team wants to win. I know Rocco wants to win,” he said. “It stings regardless of the position you’re in because we all want to win. Just got to keep going.”

The Twins loaded the bases with nobody out against right-hander Joel Payamps in their half of the eighth. But Barlow came in and struck out Miranda and pinch-hitter Nick Gordon, then got Max Kepler to ground out weakly to first to protect the lead. He pitched the ninth for his fifth save, stranding the potential tying run at third base — one of 12 they left on base.

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins catcher Gary Sanchez (24) hits a single during the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 26, 2022.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports

“We had a lot of different ways that we could have won the ballgame today,” Baldelli said, “and that’s going to happen at times.”

Called up from St. Paul for his second stint with the big league team this season, Smetlzer did everything he could to convince the Twins to keep him around for a while. The team leaves for Detroit after Sunday’s season finale against the Royals, and has a double header scheduled on Tuesday.

“The way Smeltz is throwing, I think we’re going to see Smeltz in one way, shape or form going forward right now,” Baldelli said.

Smeltzer, 26, missed all of last season because of a herniated disc in his neck that caused him, among other things, to lose feeling in some of his fingers. Taken off the 40-man roster in November, he went to Fort Myers, Fla., as a non-roster invitee and nearly made the Opening Day roster. But he wasn’t called up until May 14.

He started games against Cleveland and Kansas City, going 1-0 with a 1.74 earned-run average. After Thursday’s start, he has allowed eight hits and four walks in 17⅓ innings and lowered his ERA to 1.04.

“It felt great,” Smeltzer said. “Been putting the work in. Talked about it in the past a few times, (it’s) been a long couple of years. The work is paying off.”

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