Tyler Duffey will be pitching in his ninth season with the Twins organization, presuming the 2020 schedule finally gets started next Friday in Chicago. The tradition when interviewing a career-long Twin with such longevity is to ask:
“How many players are left from that first summer in Elizabethton?’’
The rookie team in Elizabethton, Tenn., has been a first step for generations of Twins dating to 1974. Yet, the answer to the E-Twins question is usually “a couple,” not “much of the nucleus of our current club,” as it could have been for Duffey.
“I was talking about our 2012 team in E-Town in the clubhouse the other day,” Duffey said. “We had Byron Buxton and Max Kepler in the outfield, Jorge Polanco in the infield, Taylor Rogers was a starter during the season, and Jose Berrios was with us later and in the playoffs.
“I was in the bullpen and so was J.T. Chargois, my teammate from Rice. Nikko Goodrum was on that team. We had the best record in the league and then won the playoffs at home.”
Duffey paused and said: “That was an all-time great game. Adam Brett Walker hit a gigantic home run — off the house behind left-center — to tie it in the bottom of the ninth. And then D.J. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam in the 12th inning to win it.
“Those are the teammates I really remember: good players, good hitters, good guys like D.J. and Adam Brett, who didn’t make it to the big leagues. That’s a reminder of how tough it is to get a job here.”
The many twists in Duffey’s now-lengthy tenure with the Twins is further confirmation of this.
He was a standout reliever at Rice, 92 appearances (one start), 159 innings, 189 strikeouts, and went to the Twins in the fifth round in June 2012 — three rounds after Chargois, a harder thrower with less durability for the Owls.
The Twins made Duffey a starter in 2013, and he pitched 270⅔ innings over two seasons. He was at Class AAA Rochester in 2015, doing OK, when the Twins (in the wild-card race) made him a surprise call-up to start in Toronto on Aug. 5.
Duffey lasted two innings. He gave up a gigantic two-run home run to Josh Donaldson in the first, then a grand slam to Jose Bautista in the second. He was sent back to Rochester and then called up 10 days later to start again.
“We media mavens aimed criticism at [General Manager] Terry Ryan for bringing you back after the beatdown in Toronto,’’ I said to Duffey this week.
Duffey laughed slightly and said: “I was aware of that.”
What big-league hitters weren’t aware of was the effectiveness of Duffey’s curveball when well-located. He made nine starts from Aug. 15 to the end of the season and was terrific: 5-0, 2.25 ERA, 56 innings and, with all those curveballs, only two home runs allowed.
The Twins had themselves a 25-year-old starter. And then they didn’t when his ERA soared to 6.43 and the Twins went an all-time worst 59-103 in 2016.
Goodbye, Terry Ryan; hello, bullpen again for Duffey.
Full season with Twins’ wild-card team in 2017; No. 1 passenger on MSP/Rochester, N.Y., shuttle in 2018; in Rochester to start 2019, back to Minnesota for four games, then back to Rochester in late April.
He was in Rochester for 2½ weeks when again summoned to Minnesota.
“I swore to my wife, Sarah, and everyone else: ‘I’m not coming back; I’m going to make the Twins keep me this time,’ ” he said.
Duffey made 54 relief appearances from May 11 to the end of the season: 52⅔ innings, 2.58 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 12 walks, and a .199 batting average against.
Rogers was great. So was Duffey. A bullpen that had a woeful look in Florida in March 2019 was the second-most-important element — behind bombas — in a 101-win season.
Rogers and Duffey. Trevor May and Zack Littell. The wily vets, Sergio Romo and newcomer Tyler Clippard. The old ball writers’ favorite — “oozing with confidence” — was what you saw from these bullpeners this time in Florida.
And then came the shutdown.
Duffey didn’t wait long to jump in his truck and head back to Houston. Sarah, his high school sweetheart, was due to deliver the couple’s first child. Teddy was born on April 9.
“Instead of having three days of paternity leave from the Twins, I had almost four months with Sarah and the baby, and that was great,” Duffey said. “Looking at your baby … it changes you. I’m stronger. Seriously. I feel different.
“I have Dad muscles.”
One more thing: Donaldson, author of that bomb in your first big-league inning. What have you noticed from that gent as a teammate?
“I see a player who is constantly trying to get better,” Duffey said. “He’s always working on defeating what the pitchers are trying to do with him. You see that anticipation, even in batting practice.”