The ace: It is a mythological creature described in ancient texts – a supernatural being, impervious to the most skilled batsmen and impregnable in the biggest moments. Rarely found in nature, the ace is fancied by every starry-eyed baseball fan near and far, revered as the ultimate key to championship glory.
In reality, aces are ephemeral and unpredictable. For now, the Twins have found theirs, and that's a victory worth savoring.
Madison Bumgarner used to be an ace. In fact, he is the exact type of specimen that fuels the term's modern mythology. His World Series performances are nothing short of legendary. They loom large in the minds of fans, and even front offices. The echoes of Bumgarner's long-removed ethos were enough to draw free-agent interest from the Twins and many other teams last winter, but the left-hander was steadfast in his desire to go to Arizona, so he did. (At an ostensible bargain, no less.)
Thus far with the D-backs, he's gone 0-4 with a 8.52 ERA in seven starts, already besieged by back issues. Imagine if the Twins had simply signed him for $100 million and called it a day.
Thankfully, they "missed" on Bumgarner and pivoted to Plan C, or D, or whatever it may have been. Any way you slice it, trading for Kenta Maeda has worked out better than any aspirational fan could have dreamed.
Frequently prodded throughout the offseason by fans and media for procrastinating on their promised addition of "impact pitching," the front office ultimately landed one of the best pitchers in baseball, and a proven World Series performer to boot.
A first impression is only that, but the start to Maeda's career with the Twins won't soon be forgotten.
Within his first nine starts as a Twin, the right-hander has:
- Taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning
- Set a franchise record with eight consecutive strikeouts
- Led the team to a 7-2 record while on the mound, posting a 2.43 ERA and an MLB-leading 0.74 WHIP
- Gone 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA against the Indians and White Sox
- Posted the eighth-highest bWAR (1.6) and ninth-highest fWAR (1.3) of any pitcher in baseball
- Posted the fourth-highest whiff rate of any pitcher in baseball (15.7%), trailing only Jacob deGrom, Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber
He pounds the zone with oft-untouchable stuff, and he rises to the occasion. That showed through again last Friday when Maeda took the mound and fired seven shutout innings against Cleveland, another dominant effort against a top contender in the division. In big moments, Maeda steps up. It's the pedigree of a guy who owns a 3.31 ERA in 32 ⅔ postseason innings.
The delightful impact of Maeda's arrival doesn't end with his performance on the field. He's also proving to be a person worth cheering for. How can you not love the earnest goodness of Maeda's story, shared in a YouTube video and translated on the Minnesota Sports Fan blog, about the fallout from his near-no-hitter-turned-near-loss after Taylor Rogers came in and promptly blew the save?
As Kenta explains, Rogers felt bad enough about costing his new teammate a well-earned W (and even tagging Maeda with an earned run) that he left an apology letter at the starter's locker.
"I told him not to worry about it," Maeda explains. "It’s not like my pitching line gets erased or anything and we won the game anyway. But Rogers just felt so bad that he initially offered to buy me some alcohol. Some of my translators and trainers told him that I don’t drink, though. So some of my staff just casually said maybe if we go out to drink you can pay the bill or something."
Maeda continues: "But he insisted that it has to be something that benefits Kenta directly. So one of my trainers told him about this really high-quality Japanese rice from a store I like, and he purchased that for me as a gift. So along with this letter, he presented me with this ticket to trade-in for the rice. I can’t read the letter myself so I had it translated. Basically, it says 'I am so sorry for ruining your phenomenal pitching performance yesterday.' This really made me happy. I don’t think there are that many pitchers out there who care this much to go out of there way to do this."
It's a great (but unsurprising) story about Rogers, who is a respected and beloved leader in the clubhouse. This connective moment between an organizational stalwart and the rotation's newly acquired phenom really warms my heart, transcending language barriers and cultural divides.
It serves to reinforce what we're seeing on the field. He might be a big-market fish in a land of 10,000 small ponds, but Maeda is fitting right in, and he's just what this team needed.
On Thursday afternoon in Chicago, he'll face the White Sox with the division more or less on the line. If the Twins can win behind him and split the series, they'll be one game behind in the Central with 10 days to go, and Minnesota will hold the tiebreaker.
It'll be the biggest spot of Maeda's Twins career. At least up until he starts Game 1 of the playoffs in a couple weeks. He's under contract for three more seasons, so I'm sure there will be plenty more to come.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email