CLEVELAND – As Josh Naylor rounded first base, flinging his bat high into the air, the ball he just hit soared just to the right of the left-field foul pole. He tossed his helmet once he sprinted past third, jumping into a mob of his Guardians teammates who dumped an orange Gatorade cooler full of ice onto him.
At some point, Naylor grabbed the head of Cleveland manager Terry Francona — protected somewhat fortuitously with a helmet — and full-on headbutted him with glee at his walkoff, two-run homer in the 10th inning for a 7-6 victory over the Twins on Wednesday
Somewhere unseen in the visiting dugout or clubhouse was Twins reliever Emilio Pagan, likely also banging his head against a hard surface — either metaphorically or literally — with frustration.
Pagan was yet again pivotal in a late-game bullpen meltdown as the Twins gave up a 6-3 lead in the tenth at Progressive Field. The Guardians climbed back within two games of the first-place Twins in the American League Central.
“I’m pretty angry. Disappointed. Letting the team down,” Pagan said. “That’s probably about as simple as I can put it.”
Pagan had just blown a save the previous day, bungling a two-run lead in the eighth inning as the Twins fell 3-2 in the opener of a doubleheader. He has given up nine runs in five losses to Cleveland over the past week.
The Twins took their tenth inning lead on an RBI single by pinch hitter Carlos Correa and a two-run home run from Max Kepler.
Pagan came in and got the first out, only to throw a wild pitch to advance the free runner to third. He then walked Steven Kwan and gave up an RBI double to Amed Rosario.
Manager Rocco Baldelli pulled Pagan and Jharel Cotton took over and retired Jose Ramirez. But Ryan Jeffers’ passed ball let another run trickle in before Naylor’s shot.
“It was supposed to be up and in, and I just pulled off,” Cotton said of his pitch to Naylor. “Caught some more, a lot, of the plate, and he put a good swing on it. … Just got to make a better pitch in that position. The outcome probably would have been different.”
The Twins had already come back from a three-run deficit — starter Dylan Bundy allowed three runs and six hits in five innings — in the sixth, thanks to a two-run homer from Alex Kirilloff and a solo shot by Gio Urshela. And their best bullpen arms in Caleb Thielbar, Griffin Jax and Jhoan Duran had already pitched scoreless innings.
“We have to turn to another guy. We need a full bullpen. We need our guys to be able to go out there and pitch,” Baldelli said of Pagan’s usage. “We’ve looked to EP a lot in those spots, and also we’ve looked to some other guys in those spots, too. We’ll continue to look at everyone.”
What makes Pagan’s failings so glaring, including his five blown saves and 5.26 ERA this season, is that he came to the Twins as part of a trade for All-Star Taylor Rogers ahead of Opening Day. Rogers is second in the National League with 22 saves for the Padres.
“It’s probably the best stuff I’ve had maybe in my career. Maybe in my life,” Pagan said. “… It’s frustrating. I feel like I’m throwing the ball good enough to get outs, and it’s just not going my way right now. I’m just getting beat. So I’m pretty mad.”
Baldelli agreed that outside of game situations, Pagan’s pitches look great. But the execution is lacking. And complicating the ability to bridge the divide is pitching coach Wes Johnson’s looming departure. Thursday is Johnson’s final game before he takes the pitching coach job at Louisiana State.
“He’s in a rut at this point. He’s got the stuff, but obviously, there’s something a little missing,” Baldelli said. “He’s a worker. He’s going to continue to put his head down, and he’s not going to shy away from any time we give him the ball. And he’s not going to shy away from any difficult conversation either.”