Skip to main content

Brian Murphy: Pablo Lopez could be Twins' postseason life saver

Postseason games so often come down to which starting pitcher can hold off hard-hitting opponents and project confidence.

Pablo Lopez could be just what the would-be doctor ordered in October for the perpetually flat-lining Twins.

The obvious Game 1 starter next week at Target Field concluded his debut regular season for Minnesota Wednesday night with a four-inning drive-by performance against the sorry Oakland A’s.

Lopez’s 32nd start featured six more strikeouts, giving him a career-high 234 – the most by a Twins pitcher since his boyhood idol Johan Santana whiffed one more in 2007. His 10.86 strikeouts-per-nine innings is the highest in team history. And his 194 innings were the most by a Twins starter four years.

But enough of those gaudy numbers. The only one that matters, the one consuming every molecule of oxygen in this state, is 18.

Eighteen straight postseason games the Twins have walked off the field defeated, each one another brick on the backs of fans here who have been carrying the weight of unfulfilled expectations by its pro teams in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Pablo Lopez

If it’s unfair to hang a 19-year yoke of failure on Lopez and this resilient roster, it’s reasonable for this perennially gouged consumer base to demand these guys finally end the misery, starting with the right-hander’s outing Tuesday against Houston, Toronto, Seattle or Texas.

Santana won Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS at old Yankee Stadium. Not saying that was forever ago, but Facebook was a Harvard novelty, gas was 2 bucks a gallon and Taylor Swift wasn’t in kindergarten yet.

“I’m really excited as to what’s to come, regardless of who the opponent might be,” Lopez said after the Twins vanquished Oakland 6-4. “Game 1 is really what sets the tone. It could be a series in August. It could be the first series of the playoffs. You always want to make sure setting the tone of how you want it to play out.”

Winning Game 1, vital in a best-of-three series, would set more than a positive tone. It would be a tectonic shift for the Twins, who might be forgiven for throwing a victory parade before Game 2 of the wild card series.

Why not Lopez?

His academic pedigree as the son of physicians is a well-worn tale. It’s also an original storyline for a team desperate to shed its baked-in narrative as playoff saps.

His late father, Danny, was a general practitioner; his late mother, Agnedis Serra, a pathologist.

Lopez spent his formative years devouring anatomy books and medical journals around the house. He accompanied his dad on rounds, wore a white lab coat and hung a stethoscope around his neck.

With a grade-point average of 19.8 on a scale of 1 to 20, Lopez graduated first in his high school class and earned admission to medical school in his native Venezuela – at the age of 16.

He also speaks four languages – Spanish, English, Portuguese and Italian. What have you done lately?

But Lopez shelved a potential medical career so he could pursue professional baseball in 2012 after signing with the Seattle Mariners.

The 27-year-old vowed to graduate from college and maybe medical school after his pitching days are finished. Meantime, he can help cure this baseball market’s chronic pessimism with his first postseason victory.

Since being acquired by the Twins from Miami in January for the sweet-swinging Luis Arraez, Lopez has enjoyed a career season with 11 victories and a 3.66 earned-run average.

Armed with a 95-mph fastball and darting changeup, Lopez has mostly baffled hitters with a devastating sweeper that hustles horizontally through the strike zone like Tony Manero cutting up “Night Fever” at the Odyssey.

The Twins rewarded Lopez in April with a four-year, $73.5 million contract extension. Ace money buys an awful lot of security. It also demands big-game returns.

Manager Rocco Baldelli says Lopez is not satisfied with merely being very good but wants to take his game -- and his team -- to another level.

“He has essentially as good a makeup as you’re going to find in this game,” Baldelli said. “He’s a tremendous character individual. He’s very methodical, sticks with his routine religiously and sets a great example for everybody around him, too.”

Lopez and the rest of the Twins’ deep rotation kept the club from falling into the midseason abyss while the lineup flailed away and stranded whoever wasn’t in the trainer’s room on base night after unfulfilling night. Well, that and an absentee American League Central Division.

Their second-half resurgence at the plate was a revelation that has once again raised postseason expectations from “why bother?” to … “you’re saying there’s a chance?”

Rookie second baseman Edouard Julien has been a revelation, smacking Joey Estes’ first pitch of the game Wednesday into the right-field overhang for his 15th homer.

Role players Kyle Farmer, Donovan Solano, Michael Taylor and Ryan Jeffers have backfilled while Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton and breakout star Royce Lewis battle relentless injuries.

Correa’s tender foot and Lewis’ wonky hamstring are top of mind entering the playoffs. But postseason games so often come down to which starting pitcher can hold off hard-hitting opponents and project confidence.

Too many times in October the Twins have fallen behind early and been snuffed at the plate, choking momentum and allowing the pressure to build like a cracked submarine.

Lopez has the power to deep-six the streak and the finesse a Game 1 win.

Who needs a medical degree to be a life saver?