Twins’ Duensing offers mixed results in start

On Saturday, Brian Duensing tried to do what only Scott Diamond and P.J. Walters have achieved for the Twins this season: earn a win in his first start of the season.

Like seven others before him, he failed, but the odds were already against him. His pitch count was strict, and the Reds are good – seven games over .500 going into the afternoon and sitting atop the NL Central.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said he’d limit Duensing to about 60 pitches, and after giving up three runs in the fourth inning, he was over his limit at 63. With no one out, he was pulled for Anthony Swarzak, who allowed one more of Duensing’s runners to score.

“Once I got to the fourth inning, I was into territory that we hadn’t gone yet,” Duensing said. “I hadn’t thrown that many pitches before. I hadn’t been sitting down and getting back up that many times. So it was kind of uncharted territory, and I kind of hit a wall.”

Three innings. Four earned runs. No run support en route to a 6-0 loss. It was not what Gardenhire envisioned.

As the Twins’ 10th starting pitcher of 2012, Duensing is the team’s latest hope to spark a starting rotation that’s been decimated by injuries and struggles. This isn’t the most starters Gardenhire has used in a season – he employed 11 in 2009 – but it’s only the second time he’s tried 10 after doing so in 2006. But it’s only June. That mark of 11 could likely fall.

Duensing joined the starting rotation after accruing a 1-2 record and 3.12 ERA in 34.2 innings in the Twins’ bullpen. He slotted into Walters’ spot after the righty landed on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation on June 14. Before Saturday, Duensing spent all of 2012 in the bullpen after going 9-14 with a 5.23 ERA in 2011, his first year as a full-time starter. It was the worst ERA of his career after posting winning records and sub-4.00 ERAs in his first two seasons in the majors.

Before 2011, Duensing offered promise as a starter. In 22 games started in 2009 and 2010, he had a 2.93 ERA and a 12-3 record. He also received an average of 5.6 runs in support, up from the 4.72 his team gave him in 2011.

Even in Saturday’s loss, Duensing felt good after the first three innings. He said he felt like he was commanding the strike zone, but regardless, stretching from a reliever into a starter is always an experiment. It’s a tough transition, Duensing said, though a good opportunity.

“As a reliever, you know exactly the extent of how much you’re going to pitch,” Duensing said. “You might go in for an inning, but you’re not going to go in for more than two or three. Then all the sudden, you’re asked to start, which I’m happy to do, (but) it’s tough. It’s tough to tell yourself that you’re going to be out there for a while.”

On Saturday, Duensing’s run support was a disheartening zero. In fact, he gave up just one hit before the fourth inning, and it looked like a promising start. But the team’s offensive stagnancy under National League rules was eventually its undoing.

Four runs should not be an insurmountable deficit, even when a starter leaves after three innings and hands the game over to a bullpen that averaged 3.86 innings of work in the team’s previous seven games. But when Duensing, who doesn’t have a hit in six career at bats, must hit and Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto drives in two runs on sacrifices, it’s even more difficult to come out on top.

Saturday’s game marked the first time the Twins have been shut out since June 5 in Kansas City, but it continued a worrisome trend. In eight of their last 12 games, the Twins have been held to three or fewer runs, a streak that’s dropped their average runs scored to 4.07 per game. That’s ninth-worst in the majors.

When Duensing left in the fourth, the game was still far from out of reach. But the bullpen gave up one or more hits in every inning except the fifth, unable to hold the four-run margin.

It’s hard to assess Duensing’s performance when it was so constrained by pitch count. The outing was hardly a resounding vote of confidence, but it’s difficult to say what standard he needed to meet to be good enough. His three strong innings to begin the game suggest that Duensing might improve as he stretches his arm through further starts, but one game is hardly a good sample size.

Four earned runs in three innings isn’t good. For the Twins right now, it’s not enough to salvage a win, but might not rule out a second chance for Duensing.

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