By PAUL GOTHAM
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — That Trevor May started Sunday afternoon was not out of the ordinary. The 10-year veteran has thrown his squad’s first pitch 172 times in his career.
Throwing only one inning has also not been unusual of late for the right-hander. May, who missed all of 2017 after “Tommy John” surgery, has come out of the bullpen eight times this season for the Rochester Red Wings with three consecutive recent appearances consisting of one frame.
Starting the game and throwing one inning before giving way to scheduled starter Zack Littell? That might be a reason to raise a few eyebrows.
With Twins minor league pitching coordinator Pete Maki in attendance at Frontier Field, the Wings “dipped their toes” in the water of “bullpening” an approach used recently at the Major League level by the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It turns the lineup over a little bit,” Wings manager Joel Skinner explained. “There are some numbers that go along with treating the first inning as if it’s a ‘high-leverage’ inning from the standpoint that the score is tied and they have their best hitters coming up. The way the lineups are starting to be composed with having your Mike Trouts of the world or your best hitter hitting second in the lineup.
“We attack him with a guy that matches up well. Here we’re doing it more on the logistics of it. Going through the process of being that relief pitcher coming in even though you have the most pitches that day starter wise.”
May pitched to five batters in the first. He surrendered a leadoff double and a one-out walk before getting Andrew Susac looking to end the frame without any damage. Littell, listed as the starter in the game notes, took over from there.
“I think the logic surrounding it is sound,” May said of the approach. “There is something called the third time through the order penalty. Facing the best hitters in their lineup three times can be avoided this way.
“Starting a game is just different experience whether it’s as a starter or reliever. There’s an adrenaline factor. The fact that there’s eight innings left at the end of the game. It’s not do or die time which is what I thrive on as a reliever. That’s something to work through.”
Littell went 5.2 innings. He threw three shutout innings before giving up a pair of runs in the fifth.
“It changes your routine a little bit,” Littell said. “Obviously, you’re 30 minutes before the game and you’re on pace. With this you kinda have to wait and see how the first inning goes. If he (the starter) gets in trouble, you gotta to get in there.
“You still long toss and play catch before the game. You go in the bullpen and you just gotta stay warm.”
Tampa Bay reliever Sergio Romo started back-to-back games in late May. He was the first major leaguer to do so since Zack Greinke in 2012. Grienke’s consecutive starts came as the result of an ejection.
“He’s started before,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB.com. “Look, we think he’s a talented pitcher. And it hasn’t gone that easy for him up at the Major League level. Maybe a different look can help him. And we see a lot of guys change their lineup around, and stick a struggling guy up and hitting leadoff.
“There are some similarities, some thought to that. But every decision we make is to do our best to win that game that night. And we think this is going to help us.”
There’s more to it than that. MLB.com reported that as of late May 791 runs combined had been scored in the first inning throughout MLB. When the Rays deployed the tactic against the Baltimore Orioles, they were trying to neutralize an Orioles top of the order that is heavy on right handers.
“They’re doing it with certain guys,” Skinner said of the Rays. “Here it’s a little different because of the makeup of rosters.
“We’re not going to do it every day. Today was the first time we did it. If the numbers are trending that way at times maybe this is something that we want to at least be in front of the curve.”
In 30 appearances this season, Romo has made five starts. He also has 11 saves and has thrown a total of 27.2 innings as of July 22nd. Bullpen mate Ryan Stanek has also made 13 starts in 29 appearances with 35.2 innings thrown this season.
Twins manager Paul Molitor told MLB.com “I haven’t really thought it through, but off the top of my head, I don’t think I would do much different. You’ve got to trust the players you put out there. I think every once in awhile, you encounter situations where you know a guy is not going to go very deep in the game, whether coming from an injury situation or whatever, but I would still try to find a way to play from the lead if I could, put my best guys out there.”
“Like anything, you don’t want do something for the first time at the major-league level,” Skinner added. “You’re facing their best hitters and the score at least at home is nothing-nothing.”
“There’s no reason it can’t be successful at the big leagues,” May said. “It will be kinda interesting if the starting pitcher just stops existing at some point.”
Maki, in his first season with the Twins, replaced Eric Rasmussen who worked 27 seasons for the Twins before being fired last September. Maki was the pitching coach at Duke University prior to being hired by Minnesota. Before that, the Franklin and Marshall grad was the pitching coach at Columbia University.
The Wings dropped their seventh straight on Sunday, 9-5. Pedro Alvarez drove in two with a home run in a three-run seventh as Norfolk broke open a 2-1 game. After a day off on Monday, the Wings start a six-game road swing at Indianapolis on Tuesday.