Journeyman Pino is primed to be a starter for Twins

The 30-year-old rookie responded well when the Twins called on him.

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Yohan Pino made his first start for the Twins against the White Sox last week.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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When the Twins decided to reach down to Class AAA Rochester for starting pitching help, they had several candidates from which to choose, including a couple of highly touted prospects.

General Manager Terry Ryan said righthander Yohan Pino was the one ready to step into the rotation.

“Pino was the best pitcher out there,” Ryan said. “He was the best guy. Has been the best guy from pretty much the get-go. He’s been consistent. The numbers speak for themselves.

“He never had a bad outing. Every time he got a start, he forced our hand.”

The Twins starting rotation is gaining steam, posting a 2.83 ERA in the past 12 games going into a six-game road trip that begins Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels. At the back of the train sits Pino, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer in the majors for the first time. If Pino, who starts on Wednesday, can hold down that spot it, will boost a team trying to creep over the .500 mark this late in the season for the first time since 2010.

It’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but the Twins were impressed with Pino’s first start Thursday, when he held the White Sox to two earned runs over seven innings. Pino was unfazed, threw strikes and was unpredictable.

It was just like he pitched in Rochester, which doesn’t always happen for pitchers making big-league debuts.

“I didn’t feel nervous,” Pino said. “I just wanted to do my job.”

Long journey

Pino originally was signed by the Twins in 2004 out of Venezuela and pitched six seasons before being traded to Cleveland in 2009 for Carl Pavano. Pino can touch 91 miles per hour with his fastball and has a nice curveball. He also throws a slider and changeup. But none of them stand out. Therefore, he never has been a highly rated prospect.

Pino reached Class AAA Columbus before the Indians sold him to the Blue Jays in 2011. He moved on to the Reds organization in 2013 and bounced between the rotation and bullpen at Class AAA Louisville, going 5-7 with a 3.26 ERA.

He became a minor league free agent after the season, and the Twins signed him back. Pino joined with no guarantees of a spot in Rochester’s rotation. Prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May were going to get their starts. Lefthander Scott Diamond failed to make the Twins rotation and was headed to the Red Wings. There were so many spots locked up that the Twins basically sold Vance Worley to Pittsburgh so he could start for the Pirates’ Class AAA team.

Pino was unfazed.

“I wanted to go to Triple-A and do my job, and I didn’t care if it’s the bullpen or a starter,” he said. “I just wanted to pitch and just waited for the opportunities to get into the rotation.

Pino made fill-in starts but went 9-1 with a 1.99 ERA and landed in the rotation for good on June 1 when the Twins moved Diamond to the bullpen.

“He pretty much forced his way into the rotation,” assistant GM Rob Antony said.

The Twins sunk about $84 million in their 2014 rotation by signing Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey during the offseason. But the Twins had the highest starters ERA in the American League a month into the season, and it was time to tinker.

They spent recent weeks reworking the back end of the rotation. Samuel Deduno had a chance to replace the injured and ineffective Pelfrey. That lasted eight starts. Options abounded at Rochester. May appears to be ready; he is 8-4 with a 2.94 ERA. Meyer is 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA but has been inconsistent, and the Twins have been careful with his workload. Lefthander Kris Johnson is 6-3 with a 2.72 ERA and spot-started for the Twins on May 1. Lefthander Logan Darnell is 2-4 with a 3.25 ERA and pitched in a May 6 game for the Twins.

But Pino got the call.

“They asked me what pitch I can throw for strikes,” Pino said. “I tell them I feel like I can throw any pitch at any count for a strike. That’s helped me a lot.”

On Thursday, he opened with first-pitch curveballs to Adam Dunn and Jose Abreu, making it known that he was going to mix things up. He gave up two runs in the third, but the rebound was quick and final, as he retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced.

“I asked him what he thought about it,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “He said, ‘I just looked at the catcher’s glove and just tried to hit the glove.’ He didn’t look at the hitter or get caught up in anything. That’s pretty unusual for a first start. And the amazing thing to me is that he kept himself under control from the first pitch to the last pitch.”

Backup catcher Eric Fryer is motivated by how patient Pino has been while waiting for his chance.

“He’s been down there and never once complained about how good his numbers were and that he wasn’t getting a shot,” Fryer said. “He just went about his business every single day. A lot of us can learn from that, no matter where we are at. Things can turn in the right direction for us if we keep plugging along. He really showed that down at Rochester. He was the ultimate professional and it paid off.’’

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