Pagan gains footing as Twins closer, or whatever they are calling his role

·5 min read

When Emilio Pagan was in college, he was Belmont Abbey's everyday third baseman, and he heard from teams that were considering drafting him as an infielder. Just one problem.

"I couldn't lay off anything that was spinning [toward] the dirt," Pagan said. "I could always barrel up a fastball, but I swung and missed at an awful lot of breaking balls."

That experience informs his current profession: Closing games for the Twins. Pagan joined the team on Opening Day, armed with a new pitch he developed over the winter — a splitter that, yes, spins toward the dirt. That breaking ball accounts for 22.8% of all pitches he's thrown this season, according to StatCast, and has been put in play as a base hit exactly once all season.

An .053 batting average against that splitter so far makes it a real weapon — and a relief to the guy throwing it.

"I've actually been better against lefties this year than against righties, which is a good sign," Pagan said. "My September last year was historically bad, so adding a third pitch to lefties with the splitter this year has been huge for me."

He could see a few of them this week, with tough left-handed hitters like Josh Naylor and Andres Gimenez, or a switch-hitter like Jose Ramirez — the nucleus of the Cleveland Guardian's red-hot offense. The Guardians come to Target Field for a three-game, first-place showdown that begins Tuesday, and Pagan could play a critical role in trying to keep the Twins from losing their one-game AL Central lead.

Detroit damage lingers

Good thing it's not the Tigers. In an odd aberration he can't explain, Pagan has blown three of his four save opportunities against Detroit this season, but is 9-for-9 with only one run allowed over 8 1/3 innings when asked to protect a ninth-inning lead against anyone else. Six of those saves came in one-run games, a nerve-jangling experience that the North Carolina native says is the reason he loves pitching.

"Without sounding too overly confident, I've always thought of myself as someone who can handle those situations. In the minor leagues, when I was coming up with Seattle, I threw towards the end of the game a lot," the 31-year-old Pagan said. "I'm comfortable in that role, I'll just say that. I really enjoy it."

But like a blacksmith or a milkman, Pagan is trying to carve out a Twins career doing a job that doesn't exist, at least as far as his manager is concerned. The Twins don't have a closer, Rocco Baldelli says, because that label is too broad and ignores how he, pitching coach Wes Johnson and the Twins' pitching analysts view usage.

"It's not the way I think about it. I do not think about the ninth inning [specifically] as part of our consideration," Baldelli explained. "I'll be honest, I don't think of it as settling on one guy to pitch the ninth. It's not like we build the game backward from there. We just use who we think is the best option at each point of the game."

'This is it'

Pagan respects that opinion, he says, though when you're standing on the mound protecting a one-run lead, everything is magnified. "I understand why the numbers might say that it's just another inning, but you see all the time [that] pitchers who haven't pitched the ninth react a little bit different," said Pagan, who saved 20 games, albeit in 29 opportunities, with the Rays in 2019. "It's hard to put into words, the feeling that this is it. They're down to one chance and they're going to scratch and claw and do whatever, do a little bit more, and you can feel it in the at-bats."

That's when he wants the ball, and even with his gruesome Tiger meltdowns, he's been an above-average closer. His fastball, which he uses roughly half the time, averages 95 mph and can hit 97, and has produced a .139 batting average. His cutter is more problematic, and has been punished at a .333 clip and .630 slugging percentage, so he's trying to minimize it.

Walks were a problem in April, but he has issued only two since May 13. He's allowed five home runs, but only one other earned run besides those five; keeping the ball in the park is obviously a priority. His 2.45 ERA is just off his career best.

"Emilio's a really good pitcher," Baldelli said. "No matter what the inning, there's some comfort knowing he's an option."

As the successor to (and trade partner of) All-Star closer Taylor Rogers and a teammate of 103-mph-throwing Jhoan Duran, Pagan knows he's not the fans' choice for the job. Plenty of Twins fans are critical of the trade, and even more want Duran, who's never before been a relief pitcher, to take over the job.

"I'm a fan of [Duran] just like anyone. When he gets in the game, I get really excited," Pagan said. "Duran is going to finish his career with a lot of saves. Whether that happens now or later, somewhere in between, he's incredible."

That doesn't mean they can't coexist, though.

"Like everyone in that clubhouse, I just want to win. I'm working hard to make myself better, so I can help us do that," Pagan said. "I want to be a guy we can depend on."