Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer went 4 for 5 with three RBI against the… (Genevieve Ross / Associated…)
MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe it was a desert mirage, that 2.37 earned-run average in four spring starts, the 13 strikeouts and no walks in 19 innings, but somewhere between Arizona and the regular season, Joe Blanton lost his pinpoint command and ability to put hitters away.
The Angels right-hander was pounded again Monday night, allowing four runs and nine hits — including two home runs — in 42/3 innings of an 8-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins in Target Field.
Solo homers by Peter Bourjos in the first inning and Brendan Harris in the third provided hope for the Angels on a chilly 38-degree night, but the offense went into a deep freeze and went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position, dropping them to a major league-worst .129 (12 for 93) in those situations.
Blanton, who signed a two-year, $15-million deal last winter, is 0-3 with an 8.59 ERA in three starts, allowing 14 earned runs and 26 hits, including six homers, in 142/3 innings. The Angels (4-9) had their modest win streak snapped at two.
"He's having issues commanding counts, and when he does have a thumb on these hitters, he hasn't been able to put them away," Manager Mike Scioscia said of Blanton. "In spring training, he was like clockwork, moving the ball around, pitching inside, changing speeds. He just hasn't gotten into that rhythm."
He isn't alone. Angels starters are 2-6 with a 5.72 ERA in 13 games, and they're averaging between 51/3 and 52/3 innings a start. That has taxed a bullpen that lost Garrett Richards to the rotation, Kevin Jepsen to a shoulder injury and is still without injured closer Ryan Madson and is fraying under the burden.
Middle reliever Mark Lowe was tagged for three runs in the eighth Monday and has allowed eight runs in two innings of his last four games, and veteran lefty-hander Scott Downs is struggling with a 5.79 ERA.
Asked how much longer the bullpen can sustain a three-plus-innings-a-game pace, Scioscia said, "You can't. You do what you have to do to win games, but at some point, the starters are going to be left in when maybe the matchups aren't great, they're tired, and they have to force through some things. If not, you're going to overextend your bullpen and have problems down the road."
Length has certainly been an issue for Blanton, who has yet to pass the five-inning mark in his three starts, but so has first-batter efficiency. Opponents have led off innings against Blanton with 11 hits, including four homers, in 16 at-bats (.688).
With the score tied, 2-2, Monday night, Blanton gave up a leadoff homer to Trevor Plouffe in the fourth inning and Joe Mauer in the fifth, and the Twins pulled away from there.
"I was trying to go in on Mauer with a fastball and left it out and over the plate, and the same with Plouffe — I was trying to go arm side, and it ran back over the plate and up," Blanton said. "Mechanically, for whatever reason, after spring, I've been a little off."
Mauer led Minnesota with four hits, including a double in the first and run-scoring singles in the sixth and eighth. Pedro Florimon hit a two-run double in the eighth.
"Everyone knows Joe is aggressive in the zone, he's going to come right after you," Scioscia said. "Right now, his command isn't as crisp as it's going to get, and he's paying a price for it. He's challenging guys with the ball not quite in the zone where he wants it, and consequently, he's finding some barrels."