MINNEAPOLIS — When the Yankees departed Boston late Sunday and arrived here in the small hours of Monday, they felt splitting a four-game series with the Red Sox was something to build on.
Then they dragged a busload of exhausted bodies into Target Field and played like they needed a medicine chest of B-12 injections, dropping a 4-2 decision to the Twins in front of a Target Field crowd of 27,566.
When Caleb Smith, a lefty rookie making his major league debut, came out for the eighth inning after two perfect relief frames, it was clear Joe Girardi was giving his taxed bullpen a night off.
With the bullpen inactive, Smith gave up two runs that snapped a 2-2 tie and sent the Yankees to their 21st loss in 30 games. Because the AL East-leading Red Sox also lost, the 47-44 Yankees remained 3 ½ games out and in third place.
Smith’s major league debut couldn’t have started better since he retired the first six batters he faced and struck out three.
Back-to-back one-out doubles by Chase Headley and Garrett Cooper in the seventh off right-hander Tyler Duffey tied the score, 2-2. After Duffey whiffed Austin Romine, Twins manager Paul Molitor lifted Duffey and called on lefty Taylor Rogers to face the lefty-swinging Jacoby Ellsbury and Ellsbury grounded out to the right side.
The Yankees missed a strong chance to take the lead in the eighth when Clint Frazier’s second leadoff double in three innings was followed by Aaron Judge being walked intentionally. Judge had barely touched first when the ice cold Matt Holliday hit into a 6-4-3 double play. With Frazier on third and two outs after an intentional walk to Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius attempted to bunt for a base hit against Rogers with the count, 0-1, and was an easy out when the ball stayed close to the plate.
Yankees starter Bryan Mitchell allowed two runs (one earned, thanks to his fielding error) and six hits in five innings. The Twins Adalberto Mejia worked 5 ¹/₃, allowed a run and five hits.
Frazier’s leadoff double in the sixth put the Yankees in position to at least tie the score, 2-2, but Frazier got as far as third on Judge’s fly to center. Duffey replaced Mejia and got Holliday on a hard grounder to short and fanned Castro.
Mitchell’s only clean inning was the fifth, but he did well to hold the Twins to two runs and it would have been less if he avoided a fielding error that scored an unearned run in the third.
Continuing a trend that started Friday night in Boston, Mitchell was the latest Yankee pitcher to succeed with runners in scoring position, holding the Twins without a clutch hit in seven at-bats over five frames. In the previous four games Yankee pitchers gave up three hits in 38 at-bats.
The Yankees had four hits through five innings and Cooper had two of them. His two-out double in the fifth was followed by an opposite-field double by Austin Romine that scored Cooper and cut the Twins’ lead to 2-1.
After Judge threw out Brian Dozier at the plate for a 9-2 double play in the third inning Cooper and Mitchell combined to allow an unearned run score and up the Twins’ lead to 2-0.
Mitchell dug a deep ditch by giving up back-to-back singles to Dozier and Zack Granite before walking Joe Mauer to load the bases without an out. Judge’s bat is in the first funk of the season but the right fielder didn’t bring the dead wood to the outfield.
Miguel Sano hit a fly toward right-center that Judge gloved and threw a one-bounce strike to Romine at the plate and his tag was a nano-second ahead of a sliding Dozier. When Mitchell induced Max Kepler to hit a ground ball to the right side it appeared the Yankees were going to escape unscathed.
However, Cooper wandered too far off first base on a ball that was clearly going to be handled by Castro. Seeing Cooper wasn’t going to get back to first Mitchell broke for the bag. Castro’s throw was perfect and then it clanged off Mitchell’s glove for an error as Granite scored.
Mitchell kept the damage to a minimum by catching Kennys Vargas looking and strand two.
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