Ron Gardenhire faced a troublesome dilemma late in yesterday's game.
Kevin Slowey had just wrapped up a seventh hitless inning against the Athletics, putting him on track to hurl the Twins' first no-hitter in almost 11 years. His pitch count sat at 106.
Gardenhire decided to pull Slowey. It was the right decision. Normally, I don't prescribe to the notion that a pitcher's arm is being horribly taxed every time a manager lets him creep over the 100-pitch mark, but Slowey was pitching on extended rest due to elbow soreness that had been bothering him earlier in the week. He's too vital to the Twins' playoff hopes to risk injury for the sake of a personal achievement.
Slowey might have had a shot at the no-no had he done a better job of keeping his pitch count in check, but this is an issue that has plagued him all season long. Whether due to lack of efficiency or lack of stamina, Slowey has regularly been unable to last deep into games this year. It's not because of ineffectiveness -- Slowey has allowed more than four runs only six times in 22 starts.
In those 22 starts, he has also pitched into the seventh inning just six times. While he was brilliant yesterday, the game was emblematic of his plight this season; Slowey was extremely advanced and poised in his approach, but his lack of truly outstanding stuff forced him to sometimes be too fine around the strike zone (three walks) and also resulted in a lot of extended at-bats from two-strike foul balls. Even when he's at his best, which he clearly was yesterday (a fifth inning in which he struck out the side after Alexi Casilla put the leadoff man on second with a brutal throwing error sticks out to me as the the highlight of Slowey's season thus far), it seems he's still just a few notches short of the elite caliber he flashed in the minors.
That's no slight. Slowey is a very good pitcher and a guy who I have always viewed as a potential borderline ace. He's been spectacular over his past handful of starts, and yesterday's pseudo no-hitter stands out as his best effort yet. His inconsistent work over the first several months of the season was baffling, but Slowey now seems to be settling in and his timing could not be better.
Is he an ace? Maybe not -- Slowey's best work has still come against relatively weak lineups and few would expect the same type of excellence against an upper echelon offense. Fortunately, with Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano already leading the pack, the Twins don't need Slowey to be an ace. He's looking like a damn good middle-of-the-rotation option, however, and is taking some significant strides in what is becoming an interesting race to earn a start in a potential postseason series.