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Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Duensing among unlikely September stars


The crises come daily in the pennant races, and all the stuff that really matters at the outset of spring training -- pedigree, salary, past statistics -- really doesn't matter in September. If you show that you can be part of the solution, managers will keep giving you the ball to pitch or keep giving you at-bats.

Brian Duensing wasn't part of the master plan for the Minnesota Twins. He wasn't projected to be part of Ron Gardenhire's rotation. Pitching for Triple-A Rochester this season, Duensing -- a former college teammate of Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain at the University of Nebraska -- posted a 4.66 ERA in 13 starts. He made one relief appearance for the Twins in April, was sent down, and then was brought back to pitch out of the Minnesota bullpen; in his first nine outings out of the bullpen, Duensing's ERA was 5.50.

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But on July 29, Francisco Liriano was hampered by forearm soreness, and Gardenhire gave Duensing a start on short notice; the left-hander threw effectively, allowing a couple of runs in five innings.

Twenty-four days later, Duensing got another start and pitched well, and Gardenhire has continued to give him the ball, and Duensing hasn't allowed any runs in three of his past four outings. No matter how unusual his path to this moment has been, he is here and is serving in a crucial role for a contender -- and the same could be said for the Cardinals' Julio Lugo, who is hitting .294 since joining St. Louis; Nate Robertson, who stepped into the Tigers' rotation Sunday, after nursing a groin injury, and picked up a big win against the Twins; Jason Giambi, who was cut loose by Oakland and is now thriving in a reserve role with the Rockies; and Ronnie Belliard, who was a spare-part addition by the Dodgers but has become something more than that, after hitting .304 in his first 18 games with Los Angeles.

"It's everything that you'd want, especially as a first-year guy, to still be in the race," Duensing said Monday evening. "The biggest thing that I had to do was to earn the trust of a team that had already been in contention. ... The guys are starting to rely on the fact that I should be able to go out and get the ball and get the job done."

They need him; he feels that, and started to after he pitched the Twins to a victory against the Royals on Aug. 22. He made his next start against Texas, and it was the first time that he sensed that the team was counting on him to throw well.

Duensing's first outing in the majors proved valuable to his development. He pitched three innings against the White Sox back in April, before being sent back to the minors, but Duensing went down to the minor leagues with a new understanding that the hitters in the majors were not superhuman. "You see that it's the same game that it is in the minor leagues," Duensing said.

In that first start, he threw a slider to A.J. Pierzynski and the White Sox catcher rolled over it and grounded out. A couple of hitters swung over the top of his fastball. "Granted, if you make a mistake, they're major league hitters, and they'll [make you pay]. You grow up watching professional baseball and you see all of these big-name guys, and their stuff on television looks incredibly nasty. But then you get into a game and you throw your own game, and you can get results."

Shortly after Duensing returned to the majors, Minnesota pitching coach Rick Anderson worked with him in a bullpen session in an effort to slow down his delivery and improve his sinker. Anderson stood in front of him, a little off to the side, as Duensing went through the progression of his mechanics. In mid-delivery, Anderson would tell Duensing to stop, to reinforce his balance, to help Duensing make sure that he got through all of the parts of his pitching motion.

After this, the movement on Duensing's sinker improved, and he was better able to work both sides of the plate with command.

But Duensing is still working through some of the challenges of being in the big leagues. He pitched against the Tigers last weekend, shutting them out into the seventh inning, and as he came off the mound, the Metrodome crowd roared for him. The intensity of the ovation was something he had never experienced before, and he wasn't quite sure how to respond. "I didn't know if I should tip my cap, or give them a wave," said Duensing.

So, as a properly humble rookie, he walked into the dugout without doing anything. "I kind of feel bad about that," he said.

If he continues to lift the Twins, as he has for the past couple of months, he'll undoubtedly have more chances to respond.

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Duensing is lined up to start against the Tigers next week, in what will be a pivotal series, La Velle Neal writes. Nick Blackburn shut down the White Sox on Monday night, drawing Minnesota to within 2½ games of the Tigers, Kelsie Smith writes, but Denard Span was beaned along the way. The Twins are being scouted heavily by the Yankees, writes Shooter Walters.

The Tigers are still primed to win the AL Central, writes Lynn Henning. There are many reasons to think they'll win the division, writes John Lowe. The Tigers think Edwin Jackson has been tipping his pitches.

Around the league

• Former agent Dennis Gilbert has been identified as one of the parties pursuing the Rangers, writes Jeff Wilson. Jennifer Floyd Engel called the commissioner's office to ask about who is running the Rangers.

• Milton Bradley's mother said her son could feel hatred from the fans, writes David Haugh. The union might file a grievance over the Bradley suspension. Andre Dawson is mystified by Bradley, writes Fred Mitchell.

In the first game since Bradley was suspended, the Cubs were nice and loose, their manager says. Neil Hayes writes that Jim Hendry should never have gambled on Bradley.

• Heard this: The Texas Rangers probably wouldn't welcome back Bradley, even if they were given an opportunity to get him for the next two years on a sweetheart deal. A possible landing spot for Bradley might be in San Diego, where Bradley performed well in 2007, and where the Padres may be in the market for a corner outfielder this offseason. But to repeat: The Cubs will have to put Bradley on a platter and eat a huge portion of his contract, maybe all but $2 million to $3 million of the $21 million owed to him over the next two years.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Heard this: A possible candidate to be the next GM of the Blue Jays, if Toronto cuts ties with J.P. Ricciardi, is Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken, who worked for years for the Blue Jays before joining Chicago.

2. Cecil Cooper was fired by the Astros and replaced by Dave Clark, Jesus Ortiz writes. He deserved to be fired, writes Richard Justice. Clark will have the respect of the Houston players.

Despite the change, the Astros' problems remain, writes Dave Barron. There is no doubt about this: The Astros are caught under the enormous weight of their own bloated contractual obligations.

3. If J.P. Ricciardi is fired, Cito Gaston should be let go, as well, writes Jeff Blair. The presumption in baseball is that Ricciardi is going to be fired.

4. Within this Nick Piecoro piece, there is word that Arizona will consider an incentive-laden deal with Brandon Webb, something it has avoided in the past.

5. Kevin Millwood reached his $12 million vesting option for 2010, by getting Mark Ellis to bounce into a double play.

6. Heard this: Other teams expect that the Indians, now in rebuilding mode, will at least think about trading closer Kerry Wood, who would be a luxury item for Cleveland, at a $10.5 million salary. Some would-be contender might look to pluck Wood off the Indians' roster for a prospect and provide Cleveland with some salary relief. Wood has a 4.24 ERA this season, but it would be foolhardy to evaluate him on those numbers, because the Indians have been playing in adrenaline-less games over the past three months, and Wood just hasn't had a lot of save chances -- only 24 all year (he's converted 19). The 32-year-old Wood has 59 strikeouts in 51 innings this season, with 24 walks, and opponents have an OPS of .705 against him.

7. Tony La Russa is too focused on 2009 to think about 2010, writes Derrick Goold.

8. Heard this from rival talent evaluators: Ramon Pena, a special assistant to Mets general manager Omar Minaya, is about to be let go by the team.

Unruly performance

Joba Chamberlain has struggled of late, and two evaluators who have seen him recently believe that the problem is mostly command. "He's all over the place," said one of the scouts.

And his pure stuff is just not the same as it once was. The Yankees do feel like the velocity on his fastball has stabilized and recently improved, because of mechanical adjustments. I asked Doug Kern of ESPN Stats & Information to dig out the data about Chamberlain's velocity since he was summoned to the big leagues, month to month (keep in mind that in a lot of months listed below, Chamberlain was used as a short reliever, which presumably helped his velocity):

Joba's Velocity
Date All pitches Fastballs
Aug 07 92.9 97.1
Sep 07 92.6 96.8
Oct 07 91.8 96.1
Apr 08 91.5 95.4
May 08 91.6 95.2
Jun 08 90.7 94.7
Jul 08 89.7 94.5
Aug 08 89.4 94.8
Sep 08 89.9 93.4
Apr 09 89.1 92.5
May 09 88.0 92.2
Jun 09 89.1 92.5
Jul 09 89.5 93.0
Aug 09 88.4 92.5
Sep 09 88.8 92.3

Joe Girardi told reporters this: "It's time for him to step up."

Cy Young and MVP Votes ... as of today

This is the way I'd see the MVP and Cy Young voting as of today (and while the MVPs seem locked in at this point, it's a fluid situation with the Cy Young Award):

AL MVP: 1. Joe Mauer. 2. Derek Jeter. 3. Miguel Cabrera
NL MVP: 1. Albert Pujols. 2. Hanley Ramirez. 3. Chase Utley
AL Cy Young Award: 1. Zack Greinke. 2. Felix Hernandez. 3. CC Sabathia
NL Cy Young Award: 1. Tim Lincecum. 2. Chris Carpenter. 3. Adam Wainwright

Greinke goes for win No. 15 tonight, against Boston.

Dings and dents

1. Tim Wakefield continues to ache, and you have to wonder how much longer he can go this season.

2. Nick Green has a dead leg.

3. Josh Hamilton is close to returning.

4. Dave Robertson is making his way back from arm trouble, George King writes.

5. Chris Snyder is headed for surgery, which will hurt his trade value, writes Nick Piecoro.

The Patience Index

These hitters had the most productive at-bats Monday in terms of pitches seen:

Souvenir Muses
Hitter PA Pitches P/PA
Nick Punto 4 26 6.50
Ryan Sweeney 3 18 6.0
David Murphy 6 36 6.00
Steven Pearce 6 35 5.83
Juan Uribe 5 29 5.80
Kosuke Fukudome 6 34 5.67
Bobby Abreu 4 22 5.50
Chris Young 5 27 5.40
Mike Lowell 5 27 5.40
Wilson Valdez 3 16 5.33

Monday's games

1. The Yankees just can't find a way to beat the Angels, Marc Carig writes. But in the big picture, Andy Pettitte threw well after a rough first inning, Tyler Kepner writes.

2. The Giants won, but lost second baseman Freddy Sanchez to injury, Henry Schulman writes.

3. The Pirates are losing at an historic pace, and, Dejan Kovacevic writes, that's saying something.

4. The Angels beat the Yankees again, with Joe Saunders leading the way, but they are a long way from greatness, writes Jeff Miller. Why Saunders won, from Kern and Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Information:

  1. It was Saunders' longest outing since he went 8 1/3 innings on June 13, also a win.
  2. All hitters who ran ball-strike counts that were 2-0, 2-1 and 3-0 made outs.
  3. He threw strikes to left-handed batters 81 percent of the time (Damon, Cano and Matsui were 1-for-8).
  4. He finished off hitters when ahead: 93 percent of two-strike counts became outs (MLB average 72 percent).

5. The Braves obliterated the Mets, David O'Brien writes. Chipper Jones homered for the first time in a month.

6. Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox got blasted by the Royals. It was fashionable Monday to raise the question of whether the Red Sox might catch the Yankees for the AL East title. But a four-game deficit with 13 days remaining is enormous, and because it is all but certain that Boston and New York both are going to be in the playoffs, either way, neither Terry Francona nor Joe Girardi is going to rewrite his pitching plans and start throwing Jon Lester or CC Sabathia on three days' rest in an attempt to push for the division title. I don't think either manager would view it as that important.

7. Chris Tillman had a tough inning, Dan Connolly writes.

8. The guy who replaced Milton Bradley on the Cubs' roster got his first major league hit, Paul Sullivan writes.

9. Mark DeRosa was The Man for the Cardinals, who moved one step closer to clinching the NL Central. Why Kyle Lohse won:

  1. He threw 76 pitches in 6 innings, his longest outing in five weeks.
  2. He kept the ball down: 58 percent of pitches were either in the lower third or below the zone. That allowed Lohse to record more ground balls than fly balls for only the fourth time this year.
  3. Houston hitters were 0-for-9 in two-strike counts; Lohse also did not allow a hit when behind in the count. Three of the five hits came on the first pitch.
  4. His fastball averaged 90.5 mph, faster than his season average of 89.2.

10. Oakland's winning streak came to an end. The Athletics, by the way, have a chance to finish the season with a better record than that of the White Sox.

11. Chase Headley racked up a bunch of hits, Chris Jenkins writes. The Padres are rolling toward their 70th win, and could finish with something in the area of 72.

Other stuff

• The Giants are going to work with Pablo Sandoval on his conditioning this offseason. Smart.

Brad Mills is among the candidates nominated by Mark Bradley to replace Bobby Cox.

• The Rockies are finishing strong, writes Patrick Saunders.

Jose Lopez has made good on a promise to his late sister, writes Geoff Baker.

• The Rays' rookie of the year candidate is trying to focus on his next start.

• Charlie Manuel is still taking it one game at a time, writes David Murphy. The Phillies will make their pitch for the postseason, writes Sam Donnellon.

Wade Davis is giving the Rays fans something to look forward to, Marc Lancaster writes.

• The Dodgers' Chad Billingsley has gone bad, writes Kevin Baxter. Here are some numbers from his slump.

• The Nationals' young starters are a mystery at this point, writes Ben Goessling.

• The Reds are preparing for their move to Arizona, writes John Fay.

• The Indians have some prospects on the rise, Paul Hoynes writes.

Gary Sheffield wants to play in 150 games next year, writes Kevin Kernan.

• The Brewers' bullpen has been faring well lately.

• The Blue Jays have to start winning games to lure fans, says Cito Gaston. Other young pitchers should pay attention to the journey of David Purcey, writes Ken Fidlin.

• At a pivotal point in his career, Elijah Dukes is trying to step it up, writes Chico Harlan.