MINNEAPOLIS — This season started so well for Martin Perez. Using a strong cutter, the lefty quickly worked himself into the Twins’ rotation, and stayed there.
Through his first 11 appearances of the year — the last eight of which were starts — Perez was 7-1 with a 2.95 earned-run average. He was a big piece of the Twins’ early success and a part of way-too-early playoff rotations being crafted in the heads of eager fans.
But things have changed. In the 12 starts that have followed, Perez’s ERA is 6.46 as he’s almost exclusively struggled to get outs and keep the Twins in games. Wednesday was no different. He compounded Jose Berrios’ poor start on Tuesday with another of his own, allowing seven runs — six earned — in six innings as Minnesota fell 11-7 to Atlanta in the series rubber match at Target Field.
“Bad day. I’ve just got to stay focused and stay strong,” Perez said. “I want to go out there and win, but this is the kind of day that you’ve got to go out there and compete and do your best.”
It seems entirely possible that was Perez’s final start in the Twins’ rotation, at least for now. Minnesota (70-44) has its four starters lined up for this weekend’s pivotal series against Cleveland, and Michael Pineda is eligible to return from the IL in time for Tuesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Upon Pineda’s return, the Twins will face a decision: Perez or Devin Smeltzer? It doesn’t seem like much of a decision at this point, thanks to the pitchers’ recent performances. Smeltzer has made five big-league appearances to date, and four of them have been excellent.
He threw six shutout innings in his most recent start in Miami, allowing just two hits. Smeltzer’s ERA in 27.2 innings is 2.28.
Perez thinks he needs to make a few adjustments, keep it simple and have fun. When he stays on the attack, he said, he gives the team a chance to win.
“I know that I’ve been trending down, but I believe in myself and I trust my stuff,” he said. “I know good things are coming, and I’ve just got to be ready for when those days come and go out there and show my teammates and the fans and the organization what I do.
“I never give up. I’m just here to do my best and come back tomorrow and try to figure it out and be ready for my next outing.”
But will there be a next outing? In the heat of a pennant race, Minnesota can’t afford to wait much longer for Perez to figure things out. Wednesday’s contest was over by the third inning. Both Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman crushed first-inning homers for the Braves before Atlanta (68-48) tagged Perez for four more runs in the third.
“There were probably some pitches in the middle of the zone to good hitters,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Really, that’s what I think it came down to. Instead of getting ultra deep into what it was, I think that was basically the sum of it.”
It could have been worse, had Perez not induced a 5-4-3 triple play off the bat of Tyler Flowers to end the inning. Flowers hit a grounder to Miguel Sano, who stepped on third and threw to Jonathan Schoop at second base, who turned and fired to C.J. Cron at first for the third out.
It was the Twins’ second triple play in less than three weeks. They also turned one in a win over the Yankees in July, which also came with Perez on the mound.
Albies hit his second home run of the game in the sixth, Perez’s final frame Wednesday, and perhaps his last as a Twins starter for a while. Perez won’t make any excuses for his struggles, and Baldelli said he has “no reason to believe” the pitcher isn’t healthy.
“He’s going to go out there and prepare for his next outing,” Baldelli said, “and we’ll talk and figure things out and line everything up.”
Kohl Stewart, who was called up Wednesday to be a fresh arm in the bullpen in place of Cody Stashak, threw the final three innings, giving up four runs. Stewart was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester after the game, Baldelli announced.
Minnesota trailed 11-3 entering the bottom of the ninth, before a three-run blast from Sano trimmed the deficit to 11-7, but that was all the closer the Twins would get.