Patrick Reusse: Good bullpen help sometimes hard to find

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2009 - 5:29 AM

Bullpen options for the Twins are thin at Class AAA Rochester. Their best bet might be at Class AA New Britain in the person of Anthony Slama.

Anthony Slama is the righthanded closer at Class AA New Britain. He was the Twins’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2008.

The performance and the psyche of this Twins outfit are so shaky that it must be assumed a game- losing blowup by Jesse Crain or Bobby Keppel would cost him a place in the bullpen.

Brian Duensing might not have wanted to chance a disaster, either, until Tuesday night, when the lefthanded option of this moment -- Jose Lugo -- arrived at the mound for Class AAA Rochester, said he felt pain in his side while warming up and was unable to throw a pitch against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

This occurred with Terry Ryan and Tom Kelly, trusted evaluators of talent, in attendance. Jim Rantz, the Twins minor league director, also was in the stands.

Lugo was not alone in damaging his chance for being summoned to the big club. A similar fate befell righthander Armando Gabino, not because of injury but performance.

On Sunday, baseball boss Bill Smith was answering questions on his radio show and Rochester's Gabino was the first in-house candidate mentioned for the bullpen. Come Tuesday, under the gaze of Ryan, Kelly and Rantz, he entered with a 4-3 lead and promptly turned it into a 6-4 deficit.

Rantz was asked Wednesday if there were other candidates at Rochester and said: "The best arm there is Juan Morillo's. He touches 98 [miles per hour] and his breaking ball has improved. Control is an issue, but when he's on, he mows down hitters."

The Morillo method was on display Tuesday. There was an Iron Pig on third and Morillo was intentionally walking Andy Tracy. He threw the third intentional ball over catcher Jose Morales' head to the backstop, enabling a run to score. And then Morillo struck out Tracy on the next three pitches.

Gabino gets ripped. Lugo gets hurt. Morillo hits the backstop during an intentional walk. All these things happen on the same night in Rochester.

So, where now -- the next time a Twins reliever crashes and a game is lost, and manager Ron Gardenhire calls the front office, weeping for a different option in the bullpen?

Antony and Rantz offered the same response: "Maybe Slama. We've gone down to Double A for players before."

Anthony Slama is the righthanded closer at Class AA New Britain. He was the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year in 2008. He's having another outstanding season.

He's also 25, which begs the question, "What are the Twins waiting for?"

Then you note that Slama was 23 when he signed as a 39th-round selection in 2007. He pitched a mere 31 2/3 innings that season before dominating with 25 saves, a 1.01 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 71 innings in 2008.

Slama is 4-2 with a 2.60 ERA and 23 saves at New Britain. Most impressively, he has 87 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.

"He's had a solid year -- not too many ups and downs," New Britain manager Tom Nieto said. "He has the mentality for the late innings. Am I surprised he's still in Double A? All I know is I'm happy to have him."

Slama relies on a well-located fastball and a sharp slider. He doesn't throw bullets -- 89 to 92 mph -- but Nieto, Rantz and Antony all noted a deception at the end of his motion that causes many hitters to be late. Once ahead in the count, the slider becomes a strikeout pitch.

Slama's change of speeds was called a "work in progress" by Twins officials.

"My changeup has been a work in progress for about five years," Slama said in a phone conversation Wednesday. "I work on it in the bullpen, but in a save situation, you don't want to get beat with your third pitch."

Asked if he was frustrated to remain in Class AA despite this success, Slama said: "I'm definitely not in a rush. The organization makes those decisions, and they have been doing it well."

Rantz said Slama figures to get a promotion to Rochester for a couple of weeks at the end of the minor league schedule. Then again, it could be a promotion to the Twins -- sooner rather than later.

Reaching to Class AA for a pitcher worked for the Twins last September. They surprised by calling up New Britain's Jose Mijares, and he became an effective setup guy for Joe Nathan down the stretch.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30 tp 9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. preusse@startribune.com

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