FORT MYERS, Fla. — Daniel Duarte smiled as he walked off the mound inside Hammond Stadium on Wednesday, happy with how the 20 or so pitches he threw to Twins hitters looked. Duarte seems to smile a lot, which is remarkable, given how cruel baseball has been to him.

The 27-year-old righthander from tiny Huatabampo, Mexico, signed with the Texas Rangers in 2013 and over the next nine years played with 11 minor league teams. He was released twice, non-tendered once and returned home to play in the Mexican League twice.

But in 2022, the Cincinnati Reds, impressed by Duarte's performance in, among other things, the Tokyo Olympics for Team Mexico, signed him and invited him to training camp, where he beat long odds to make the major league team. After only two appearances, however, Cincinnati optioned him to Class AAA — but recalled him just four days later. And on April 16, while pitching in Dodger Stadium in his third big league game, Duarte felt a twinge in his elbow.

The twinge turned into swelling, and then pain. After a decade of climbing his way to the major leagues, his season was over after just 2⅔ innings.

"It was really tough on me because of all those years of working hard. I was so happy, and then it ended," Duarte said. "But something I learned was: Don't give up. Keep working, and work even harder. And here we are."

Well, he left out a couple more disappointing steps. Duarte didn't need surgery on his elbow and returned to the Reds last year. Though he was sent to the minors three times, he pitched relatively well, posting a 3.69 ERA in 31⅔ innings. But his season ended early again when he felt soreness in his shoulder in September. The Reds eventually dealt him to the Rangers in January, and Texas waived him just a week before training camp opened.

The Twins claimed him, however, and added him to their 40-man roster — but then outrighted him to St. Paul when they needed a roster spot for Carlos Santana.

All the bouncing around, the crazy path he took to Minnesota, will be worth it if he pitches like he knows he can.

"I'm just keeping the mentality that I'm here, I've got a shot, and I want to enjoy every opportunity I get," Duarte said. "I know I can play in the major leagues."

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The Twins suspect that might be the case, too. They've helped him tweak his slider into more of a sweeper, with greater horizontal movement, and hope it becomes a weapon to go with his mid-90s fastball and sharply dropping sinker.

"I just started throwing it last year and got a lot of good results," Duarte said of the sinker. "A lot of ground balls in Cincinnati."

A lot of walks, too, he concedes: 20 last year, to go with his 23 strikeouts. But he believes he's conquering that problem, too.

"I was working on some mechanical stuff last year at the same time I was trying to compete. I had too many things in my head," said Duarte, whose wife and two young children will arrive in Fort Myers next week. "In the bullpen, my command is great, every pitch moves a lot, but sometimes it gets away on the mound. I think it will be much better this year."

After all he's been through, his optimism remains unshakable.