Twins’ Duensing displays growth vs. Red Sox

Last Saturday, Brian Duensing had just a few hours between a late-night text from pitching coach Rick Anderson and his Sunday start against the Indians. It was a six-inning, one-run affair, a last-minute start after the team traded Francisco Liriano to the White Sox.

That afternoon, Duensing proved that perhaps no preparation is the best kind.

On Friday, in his second start since rejoining the rotation, Duensing went from spot start sensation to something closer to average, but even in doing so showed signs of growth. And though five runs in six innings isn’t quite Cy Young material, only two of those runs were earned, and it was still enough to keep the Twins in the game.

In the 6-5, 10-inning Twins win in Boston, Duensing gave up four of the Red Sox’ five runs in the third inning, though Carl Crawford’s three-run home run was unearned after the Twins’ poor defense extended the inning. It was the bullpen – Casey Fien, Alex Burnett, Tyler Robertson, Jeff Gray and Jared Burton – that ensured the win in four scoreless innings, and the Twins continued to perform better than their record would dictate in one run games; they’re 19-19 in such contests this season.

Duensing’s start may have been rendered somewhat irrelevant by his team’s four-run fifth inning and its airtight relief pitching, but his performance on Friday was significant nonetheless. It proved that the Twins pitching staff’s inconsistency has bred a certain level of flexibility that might pay off in the season’s final months.

Duensing, who’s been in the major leagues since 2009, has transitioned in and out of the Twins’ starting rotation since his debut. He started nine games in 2009 and 13 in 2010 before spending all but four of his 32 appearances as a starter last season. This year, he was first relegated to the bullpen before being pulled into the rotation for two separate stints. That’s significant change for a pitcher, especially in today’s climate of defined roles, and his ability to perform competently in both roles might be Duensing’s greatest value to the Twins.

Ron Gardenhire has not been shy about his belief that pitchers should be versatile. When closer Matt Capps was healthy, he used him in non-save situations, and since he’s been injured, Gardenhire has given multiple pitchers a chance to earn a save. When the team called up reliever Luis Perdomo for last Friday’s game, the young pitcher was touted for his multi-inning outings in the minor leagues. In 10 relief appearances in Rochester since June 29, Perdomo pitched two or more innings five times and as many as 3.2 innings on one occasion. Although Gardenhire did not specifically state that Perdomo would be used in long relief, he did acknowledge that allowing young pitchers in the system to be flexible and stretch themselves is crucial.

It hasn’t been by choice, but Gardenhire has manipulated his pitching rotation – and that of Triple-A Rochester by default – throughout the season. As the Twins struggle to keep themselves out of the AL Central cellar at season’s end, at this point the team’s young pitchers should work to show their versatility more than anything else. That might be the most valuable commodity for a Twins team in transition, and in that respect, Duensing likely did enough on Friday night.

His 90 pitches marked the most he’s thrown this season, his highest pitch count since Aug. 28, 2011, and Gardenhire’s desire to keep Duensing stretched out even when he was sent back to the bullpen in mid-July. Duensing wasn’t lights-out in Boston, not by far, but not every series can be as perfect as last weekend’s against the Indians, not every start as assuredly dominant.

Duensing didn’t get a decision on Friday, but his efforts shouldn’t be forgotten, both for his struggles and his growth. It wasn’t perfect, but for now, there seems no immediate need to change the rotation once again.

Flexibility in pitching might be a growing trend, one that the Twins have benefited from this season to some extent. But perhaps that flexibility pays off most when it’s no longer needed, and it’s up to Duensing to stabilize his performances to ensure a steadier role.

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