Questions for Twins' bullpen after unraveling in 9th

August 27th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Here’s the sequence that unraveled what had been a tense duel on Saturday: single, single, strikeout, hit-by-pitch, walk, walk, hit-by-pitch, sacrifice fly.

It was just as much of a self-inflicted struggle as it was a Texas rally as the Rangers plated four in the ninth while the Twins’ pitchers couldn’t find the strike zone, turning a close battle between division leaders into a 6-2 defeat on Saturday night at Target Field that added another data point to a tough second half for the Minnesota bullpen.

Though handled a scoreless eighth against the top of the Rangers’ lineup to preserve a tie at 2, had a rough ninth, loading the bases before issuing the pair of bases-loaded walks to force in runs. didn’t fare much better, ceding two more runs to open up the final margin.

“That was tough,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Griff’s been excellent for us. Very good lately. Has pitched in some big situations lately, as he normally would. I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from him. Today wasn’t his day.”

These Twins have played more than their share of close games this season, putting plenty of stress on their two highest-leverage relievers in Jax and Duran.

For much of the season, that was a winning formula. But Jax and Duran have had their individual inconsistencies throughout the second half, and the Twins haven’t seen both make clean appearances in the same game since July 15 -- which was also the last time Duran pitched a hitless outing.

Since then, Duran has allowed 19 hits in 15 innings while being scored upon in seven of 15 appearances. Jax turned a rough patch around in the last week, including a save on Thursday, but he’s also been charged with 20 hits and 12 earned runs in 15 innings in that span.

“We've got nothing but confidence in the two of them,” said bullpen-mate Emilio Pagán. “They'll get the results that they want and that the fans want and that the organization wants. They're throwing the ball too well not to. It'll come.”

Because the Twins sat idle at the Trade Deadline aside from a reliever swap of Jorge López for Floro, there’s no external help to come for the leverage group, which also features Pagán and Caleb Thielbar, who allowed a solo homer to Adolis García in the sixth inning on Saturday.

And much of the Twins’ hopes down the stretch will continue to hinge on Duran and Jax doing their jobs, as their expected stats per Statcast continue to paint the picture of elite relievers running into both tough luck and rough patches.

But still, reinforcements could help.

Foremost among the possibilities is Brock Stewart, who is hoping for a return to the Twins around Sept. 10 after coming out of his most recent bullpen session on Friday with his right arm feeling good. That could be the biggest boon, considering Stewart had a 0.70 ERA in 25 appearances before going to the IL with forearm soreness in late June.

Beyond that, other possibilities also exist -- though they get more tenuous. Could the Twins turn to young starter Louie Varland in shorter stints to get him back to the Majors as a bullpen option? His fastball has averaged 94.8 mph as a starter in Triple-A, and his arm has been capable of plenty more than that.

“It’s actually a role that I think Louie could do, but there’s not a blueprint for doing that,” Baldelli said earlier this week. “I don’t know if we are going to be doing that, but anything is possible at this time of the year.”

And while Kenta Maeda has been one of the Twins’ most important starting pitchers with a 2.91 ERA in 58 2/3 innings since his return from the IL in late June, he also has experience pitching in relief from his time with the Dodgers, which could play into a shorter playoff series if the Twins don’t need to pitch a full starting rotation.

Beyond that, could the rehabbing Chris Paddack -- currently said to be throwing in the mid- to high-90s with his fastball in Fort Myers -- factor in somehow? Can the Twins salvage anything out of Jorge Alcala, who has thrown five recent bullpen sessions amid a mostly lost season?

The Twins have emphasized their depth and long-term game, but soon, that will turn into a sprint in September and perhaps beyond. That could present more options.