At first, Ricky Nolasco’s season appeared to be over because of right ankle surgery.
Then, the Twins had the righthander working out in case they made a deep playoff run and needed another option.
Now Nolasco could be coming to a mound near you in a week or so.
The Twins are sending Nolasco to Fort Myers, Fla., on Saturday to work out and pitch to batters during instructional league games Monday. Each major league team holds a month-long instructional league after the minor league season for a hand-picked group of prospects. The league begins Monday.
These things happen when teams are in pursuit of a playoff spot in September. Nolasco’s availability has become an issue as Twins manager Paul Molitor searches for a functional starting rotation and a reliable bullpen.
“Things change here quickly, just because of our need, the shortening of the schedule,” Molitor said Friday. “And whether he gets out there to get another opportunity to help us in a long role or whatever, we’ll have to see how it plays out.”
The Twins got a little bit of a break Friday night when, following a 56-minute rain delay, their game against the Angels was postponed. It will be made up as part of a split doubleheader Saturday, with Kyle Gibson facing Andrew Heaney at 12:10 p.m., then Mike Pelfrey facing Garrett Richards at 6:10 p.m.
The past two games have taken a toll on the Twins bullpen. Kevin Jepsen, with no help from his defense, blew his first save opportunity of the season on Wednesday, then the Twins lost to Detroit 7-4 in 12 innings. Then the bullpen had to pitch the final 7⅓ innings in relief of Tommy Milone during Thursday’s 11-8 loss to Los Angeles. Friday’s rainout gave the Twins a chance to catch their breath.
“I would rather play,” Molitor said. “I like the fluidity of it and it puts another wrinkle in the rotation going forward, potentially. That all right. We’ll take the night off, and I do think one of the benefits is that the beleaguered bullpen gets a blow.”
All-Star lefthander Glen Perkins was available Friday after recovering from a sore back, and righthander Trevor May was available after nursing a sore hip. So the Twins will have their important setup men at Molitor’s disposal. But the long-term concerns with 16 games to go in the season are the inconsistent rotation and long relief.
Nolasco, 5-1 with a 5.51 ERA in seven starts, would not be scheduled to return to the club if it didn’t intend to use him. He last pitched May 31, leaving a start against Toronto in the second inning because of a right ankle impingement. After various attempts to get back on the mound, he underwent surgery July 13. He wasn’t expected to be a factor the rest of this season — but the state of the Twins’ pitching staff dictates otherwise.
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan was cautious about Nolasco’s return. “Let’s take it a day at a time with him,” Ryan said. “If things go well, that’s good.”
Nolasco was to throw to hitters at Target Field on Friday, but the rain forced the Twins to switch gears. They had Nolasco throw a three-inning bullpen session instead.
“I thought each inning he got progressively sharper,” Molitor said.
The Twins didn’t have a long reliever available Thursday when Milone had to be lifted after walking in a run in the second inning, so they tried A.J. Achter with the bases loaded and he gave up a grand slam to Mike Trout. Logan Darnell was called up last week from Class AAA Rochester as an option, but the lefthander has been shelved by pneumonia. Phil Hughes will be available out of the bullpen this weekend after giving up three runs in three innings Tuesday. The Twins also could give him another start, but he must show significant improvement.
And the Twins still intend to limit rookie Tyler Duffey because he has thrown 176⅔ innings between the minors and majors this year, even though Duffey is 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his past six starts.
Ryan said all it takes is one strong start to settle the staff down, but the Twins’ actions with Nolasco reveal how they aren’t taking any chances. Since he is on the 60-day disabled list, the Twins would have to make room on their 40-man roster before they can reinstate him.
“He’s healthy and he’s working and he’s ready to pitch,” Ryan said of Nolasco. “Now we just have to get some of that rust off, that’s all.”