MINNEAPOLIS -- The current state of the Twins’ depleted pitching staff isn’t a good one, with injuries having decimated the rotation and the cracks starting to show in a bullpen that’s been heavily taxed throughout this recent stretch -- and particularly in one of the club’s most dependable bullpen arms of the last few seasons.
Minnesota’s offense stayed plenty busy against Yankees right-hander Jameson Taillon to keep within striking distance of the Bronx Bombers’ relentless lineup, but the Yankees broke the game open in the seventh inning, when Anthony Rizzo hit a three-run homer off Tyler Duffey that sent the Twins to a 10-4 loss in Tuesday’s series opener at Target Field.
The blast continued one of the toughest stretches Duffey has endured during his career as a back-end reliever, one in which he has now allowed 11 earned runs and 13 hits in his last seven innings, spanning eight appearances. He has slowly descended in the Twins’ bullpen leverage hierarchy in the meantime, with this outing coming on the heels of another tough appearance in Toronto on Sunday, when he was handed a five-run lead in the ninth and couldn’t get out of the frame.
“It’s [expletive] frustrating,” Duffey said, cutting in before the first question of his postgame press conference had even ended.
“I feel good. I made some good pitches, some I definitely thought were strikes. Got a ground ball, Luis [Arraez] made a good try at it, and the next thing you know, three runs are on the board. … The last two years, I’ve been dealing. It’s definitely difficult, but we’re trying to right the ship. We’re working every day to fix it, and it just ain’t happening right now.”
The outing ballooned Duffey’s ERA to 6.55 this season, with a 1.50 WHIP in 22 innings, and this rough patch comes at a particularly rough time for the Twins, when all the injuries to their pitching staff have them starting rookie Cole Sands, Chris Archer and a struggling Dylan Bundy against the first-place Yankees.
Duffey entered with the Twins trailing, 5-4, in the top of the seventh inning, and retired Jose Trevino on a flyout and Joey Gallo on a strikeout to put himself on the cusp of a clean inning. But the frame unraveled when the Yankees’ lineup turned over, as DJ LeMahieu grounded a single through the right side and the Twins intentionally walked Aaron Judge before Duffey served up the three-run blast by Rizzo on a hanging 3-1 curveball.
The most frustrating part, Duffey said, is that he feels the quality of his stuff isn’t the problem, and that he feels on. It’s the lapses in execution bunching together that’s sunk him.
“The stuff’s there,” Duffey said. “The league knows me, I’ve made adjustments here and there, started mixing in different pitches, things like that. It’s just that sometimes good hitters, you’re trying to hit the corner and then you miss middle, and the next thing you know, Rizzo’s taking you up top. Or, pick a guy.”
Why was Duffey in that situation, considering his recent struggles? The Twins have never treated that situation -- down by a run late -- as a leverage situation with manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson at the helm. The Twins identified that as a lower-leverage situation in which they wanted Duffey to be able to work out of this slump.
Furthermore, Baldelli and Johnson have often tried to use relievers sooner rather than later coming off a difficult outing -- as was the case when Duffey allowed a three-run blast to Santiago Espinal in the low-leverage ninth-inning opportunity on Sunday in Toronto.
The Twins need Duffey to return to being a leverage option as part of the current state of this bullpen -- and though his fastball velocity and curveball whiff rate have declined, they still feel like he can get those outs. The only way for him to get back there is to pitch through it, and they felt that situation on Tuesday was an opportunity for him to do so.
It just didn’t work out -- and that’s been the case too often for Duffey of late.
“He’s gotten a ton of outs for us with this version of who he is,” Baldelli said. “I’ve actually just recently had some conversations about him as well where his breaking ball, the velo on his breaking ball and such, is in a pretty good spot right now. Might just be the execution more than anything else for him, and I think he can make that adjustment.”