MLB: Atlanta Braves at Minnesota Twins

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Martin Perez (33) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Target Field on Wednesday. (Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS — This season started so well for Martin Perez. Using a strong cutter, the lefty quickly worked himself into the Minnesota Twins’ rotation, and stayed there.

Through his first 11 appearances of the year — the last eight of which were starts — Perez was 7-1 with a 2.95 earned-run average. He was a big piece of the Twins’ early success and a part of way-too-early playoff rotations being crafted in the heads of eager fans.

But things have changed. In the 12 starts that have followed, Perez’s ERA is 6.46 as he’s almost exclusively struggled to get outs and keep the Twins in games. Wednesday was no different. The lefty compounded Jose Berrios’ poor start Tuesday with another of his own, allowing seven runs — six earned — in six innings as Minnesota fell 11-7 to Atlanta in the series rubber match at Target Field.

It’s seems entirely possible that was Perez’s last start in the Twins’ rotation, at least for now. Minnesota (70-44) has its four starters lined up for this weekend’s pivotal series against Cleveland, and Michael Pineda is eligible to return from the IL in time for Tuesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Upon Pineda’s return, the Twins will face a decision: Perez or Devin Smeltzer? It doesn’t seem like much of a decision at this point, thanks to the pitchers’ recent performances. Smeltzer has made five big-league appearances to date, and four of them have been excellent.

He threw six shutout innings in his most recent start in Miami, allowing just two hits. Smeltzer’s ERA in 27.2 innings is 2.28.

In the heat of a pennant race, Minnesota can’t afford to wait much longer for Perez to figure things out. Wednesday’s contest was over by the third inning. Both Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman crushed first-inning homers for the Braves before Atlanta (68-48) tagged Perez for four more runs in the third. It could have been more, had Perez not induced a 5-4-3 triple play off the bat of Tyler Flowers to end the inning. Flowers hit a grounder to Miguel Sano, who stepped on third and threw to Jonathan Schoop at second baseball, who turned and fired to C.J. Cron at first for the third out.

It was the Twins’ second triple play in less than three weeks. They also turned one in a win over the Yankees in July, which also came with Perez on the mound.

Albies hit his second homer of the game in the sixth, Perez’s final frame.

Kohl Stewart, who was called up Wednesday to be a fresh arm in the bullpen in place of Cody Stashak, threw the final three innings, surrendering four runs.

Minnesota trailed 11-3 entering the bottom of the ninth, before a three-run blast from Sano trimmed the deficit to 11-7, but that was all the closer the Twins would get.

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