The Twins’ third attempt at using a relief pitcher to handle the first two innings went far better than the first two. But they left room for improvement, too.
“In a perfect scenario, you get the first six hitters out, and your primary [pitcher] gets [hitters] 7-8-9 in his first inning of work,” manager Paul Molitor said. “That’s not very likely, but that’s probably the ideal scenario.”
Tyler Duffey, selected to make his first “start” since Sept. 30, 2016, though limited to two innings, came relatively close to the ideal. Duffey faced only seven hitters in two innings of the Twins’ eventual 10-5 victory over the Yankees, but he gave up a run. After getting a double play in a three-batter first inning, Duffey surrendered a one-out triple to Didi Gregorius in the second, followed by a Gary Sanchez sacrifice fly.
But he turned the game over to Kohl Stewart to face the bottom of the New York lineup, and Stewart shut out the Yankees for three innings before loading the bases in the sixth, ahead of Didi Gregorius’ grand slam off Trevor May. Stewart earned his first major league victory, despite pitching only 3⅓ innings.
“It’s kind of crazy that I felt worse than I have all year up here, and ended up getting the win,” Stewart said. “I honestly just didn’t have much feel tonight. You can’t walk five guys like that and expect a victory.”
He will likely get more chances, though. Molitor made it clear that the Twins intend to continue to try the first-inning reliever concept over the next few weeks. The idea, he said, is to use a pitcher particularly suited to a certain opponent in the early innings, in hopes that the “primary pitcher” can pitch multiple innings without facing the best hitters three times.“It’s not something that we’re flippantly trying to experiment with,” Molitor said. “We think it has merit. We’re trying to see how it plays out.”
That includes judging the fit for their various pitchers. Duffey was the third Twins pitcher asked to pitch only the first two innings — Gabriel Moya and Trevor May have also opened a game — and he’s the first one to get through two innings as planned.
In fact, the Twins have given up seven first-inning runs in their three opener/primary pitcher games, which is not exactly what they are looking for.
“Obviously, the first pitch of the game is different than coming in in the eighth,” Duffey said. “It felt weird, but I threw that first pitch and it put me in the mode of, OK, attack guys. … The weirdest part was coming [into the clubhouse] afterward. … Now what?”
The Twins are also examining the effect the late “start” has on the designated multi-inning pitcher. So far, they have used only rookies, Stephen Gonsalves once and Stewart twice, mostly because they experienced the concept at Class AAA Rochester.
“Part of the challenge with those guys is trying not to have their confidence shaken as a starter. That, ‘Hey, we need to open for you because we’re just a little worried about how you’re going to do the third time facing the lineup,’ ” Molitor said.
Tampa Bay is the model for the concept; opponents hit only .221 in the first inning off the Rays this year, the second-best mark in the AL. They have given up only 58 first-inning runs, the fewest in the league.
“I couldn’t help but pay attention to Tampa’s success. [We] have talked about it at length throughout the year, and have watched fairly closely how it’s unfolded in our system. The more you look at the date, it’s easy to support,” Molitor said.
• Miguel Sano took about 10 minutes of swings on the field Tuesday, and fielded ground balls for about 10 minutes, the first activity he’s attempted in a week. Sano has not played since injuring himself Sept. 4.
• The Twins honored Tom Burnett, a Bloomington native who helped rush the cockpit of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, during a pregame ceremony. Burnett’s sister, Martha Pettee, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, with Molitor catching.