MINNEAPOLIS — Sitting with his head buried in his Target Field clubhouse locker, a framed 4×6 of his 1-year-old daughter, McKenna, watching over his nonchalant pregame routine of iPad chicanery, Brian Duensing suddenly received an open-palmed slap to the back of the neck.
The 30-year-old Twins reliever swiveled his chair slightly to the left — his pitching arm side — just enough to see a chuckling Rick Anderson head toward the tunnel to check on his starter’s warmup progress.
Duensing buried his face back in whatever game or application had occupied his attention previously, acting as if nothing had happened.
It’s common enough mischief in the bullpen culture of Major League Baseball, but few engage in it with such ease as the approachable, soft-spoken Midwesterner. “We have too much time on our hands to stay sane,” he says simply.
Now in his fifth season in the majors, Duensing has firmly solidified himself as one of the Twins’ most easygoing, affable characters. In addition to crafting monotony-squashing pranks like he and Jared Burton’s feigned punch that went viral, he’s the king of the housekeeping among relievers, an exuberant veteran who’s young enough to have fun but been around long enough to direct traffic when asked.
“He’s one of the guys you can go to when you have questions about what’s going on, what event’s going on, and what time we need to be here, what time the game starts,” fellow relief pitcher Casey Fien said. “He’s one of those guys you can always go up to and look up to.”
Said general manager Terry Ryan: “Have you ever heard a bad word about Duensing? Everybody loves Brian Duensing.”
In the midst of a $1.3 million, one-year contract that delayed arbitration for at least a season, it’s now incumbent upon Duensing to become as effective a pitcher as he is a teammate.
He described his 2013 campaign as “mediocre.” Ryan called it “up-and-down.” Manager Ron Gardenhire used the word “inconsistent.”
No matter the characterization, it’s played out much like Minnesota’s summer as a whole: a nice output here, a costly gaffe there, and ultimately, a sub-acceptable overall portrait.
It’s a more complicated picture to evaluate for a mid-to-late reliever that’s pitched more than two innings at a time just once this year. Most of the time, Duensing’s asked to warm up at a moment’s notice, retire no more than three batters, then sit back down until he’s called upon again.
Sometimes, like last Friday’s doubleheader in Chicago, that’s later in the day. Others, not until the following week.
“You’ve got to be ready every game,” said Fien, who mans a similar role as a right-hander. “That’s the fun part about being a reliever, is you can pitch in any situation, any type of game and pretty much every game. As long as you didn’t go three days in a row, you’re always up.”
It leaves few chances to impress. If Duensing does his job, it’s a blip in the box score. If he doesn’t, he’s blamed for failing to complete what looks, superficially, like a meaningful task.
He’s experienced plenty of both this season.
“For me, personally, it’s been mediocre, I think,” said Duensing, who played with fellow major leaguers Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain at Nebraska in the early 2000s. “I started off pretty good then had a rough stretch there in the middle. I’ve been trying to recover ever since and, knock on wood, lately everything seems to be going as it should be.”
Entering Monday’s makeup contest against the New York Mets, Duensing has pitched a total of 47 innings and carries an ERA of 4.02 — an awfully hypothetical stat for a guy who could be in and out of a game during the course of one fan’s trip to the bathroom and back. At times, he’s played the stopper role well, setting things up for closer and locker room neighbor Glen Perkins or another late relief man.
On other occasions, things get away from him, like a wild pitch that sailed over catcher Joe Mauer’s head and put a pair of runners in scoring position Friday during a 5-2 White Sox win.
He rebounded that day to coax a groundout that kept a run from scoring.
Then, his day was over.
“There’s no reason that Duensing cannot succeed in that, certainly, in that request” to record a minimal amount of outs, Ryan said. “His stuff, as left-handers go in this league, his stuff his quite impressive.”
It’s the closest Duensing has come to carving a niche after bouncing between the Twins’ rotation and bullpen. He spent 2011 almost exclusively as a starter, going 9-14 and sporting a 5.23 ERA.
But Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire have settled on him as a jam-quelling, matchup-based reliever. The move looks as promising as it ever has lately, as Duensing hasn’t put a runner on base or allowed a run in his past five appearances (3 1/3 innings).
He even became the second Minnesota pitcher to pick up two wins in a day, pitching 1 1/3 innings to have his name on the Twins’ twinbill sweep in Chicago last weekend.
“That was pretty neat,” said Duensing, whose six wins dubiously rank above Minnesota starters Scott Diamond and Mike Pelfrey. “It’s kind of being in the right place at the right time.”
His August has far surpassed his July, when he gave up nine earned runs on 20 hits in just 11 1/3 innings of work.
“As of lately, he’s thrown the ball a lot better,” Gardenhire said. “The ball is coming out of his hand, a little more confident with his pitches.”
Duensing’s midseason struggles thrust his name into the trade deadline discussion, but he remains — for the moment — in the place he’s spent his entire career so far.
Like a resounding smack from his pitching coach or a costly hit that knocks him out of a game before he can record an out, Duensing took the whole thing in stride.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I wasn’t really worried about it too much. I know this year was the first year that trade talks kind of got as serious as they had been with my name out there, but you’ve still got to worry about the team that you’re playing with and what you’re doing on the field, so I try to keep it in the back of my mind and not focus on it.”
He could still be placed on waivers and potentially traded and will be arbitration eligible once again this offseason.
In typical fashion, Ryan was coy recently when addressing Duensing’s future with the team. The way he made it sound, he’ll either be valuable to the Twins as trade bait or as the everyday spot reliever they hope he’s becoming.
“I don’t know how many left-handers anybody needs, but it doesn’t seem like anybody has enough,” Ryan said. “Especially, he’s durable and he’s got enough stuff. So you can take from those words what you think my thoughts are on his future.”
In any case, Duensing will keep playing — jokes with his teammates and coaches, games on his iPad and yes, the tedious contest of relief pitching.
There’s no rule against sucking as much enjoyment out of it as possible, even if he and his team have endured their fair share of struggles this year.
“I honestly take every day as a day that’s just kind of like a blessing,” said Duensing, who grew up in Omaha, Neb. “I’m fortunate to be here. I’ve always been a humble guy; I was raised to be humble and appreciative of where you’re at and how you got here, and I wouldn’t be here if not for a lot of people that pulled for me when I was younger and in college.
“I kind of just take every day as a privilege to be here and go out and have fun and say ‘Whatever,’ you know?”