Imagine what draft week must be like for a college kid with a 95-miles-per-hour fastball and a flinch-inducing changeup, a closer for a three-time major conference champion, the MVP of his conference tournament and a three-time participant in the NCAA baseball tournament. Scouts must be as suffocating and ubiquitous as the Texas humidity, watching every pitch, schmoozing every family member.
That how you remember it, Tyler Duffey?
“I didn’t meet a single scout. I hadn’t heard from one team before the  draft,” said the Twins righthander, who became a bullpen star at Rice University in his hometown of Houston. “I had zero expectations about getting drafted. I could have gone in the 40th round and I’d have been happy. And then the next thing you know, my name popped up.”
It popped up in the fifth round, the 160th pick overall, and came with a thrilling $250,000 bonus. The Twins had already stockpiled Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios with their first two picks, and were busy executing their new strategy of choosing hard-throwing college relievers, five among their top nine picks and nearly a dozen overall, with the intent of converting them to starting pitchers.
It’s a strategy that has produced mixed results, and a rash of elbow surgeries, so far, but one that Duffey might validate all by himself. Tuesday night’s start against the White Sox will be just the fifth of his big-league career, but Duffey already is proving that he’s a fast learner. Throw out his disastrous, oh-my-gosh-look-where-I-am debut in Toronto, and Duffey has a 1.89 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 19 innings.
“He was the one who always projected to climb the fastest, because starting was in his background,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president for player personnel. “Tyler was a starter in high school and as a freshman [at Rice], so he’s made up that way. He came in with three pitches and great command.”
He’s still got the pitches, and has added a curveball that has turned into a strikeout pitch. The command, reliable during his climb through the minors, has been spotty at this level, but the Twins believe that might have something to do with his surroundings. “It’s no surprise when a young pitcher tends to overthrow a little bit up here. It’s a big stage, and guys get a little nervous,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “Trevor May went through the exact same thing a year ago, and look at him. It takes a while to forget your surroundings and just pitch.”
Well, that might be a problem, because Duffey doesn’t intend to forget his Aug. 5 debut, rocky though it was. He had walked only one batter in his three previous starts at Class AAA Rochester, then walked his first big-league batter, Troy Tulowitzki. Had allowed only one home run in 138 minor league innings, then surrendered a towering blast to his second big-league batter, Josh Donaldson. He struck out Tulowitzki the next time he faced Toronto’s shortstop, his first big-league whiff, but then walked Donaldson and served up a 400-foot grand slam to Jose Bautista.
“It’s 100 percent good memory. I gave up six runs in the big leagues, and I’ll never forget it,” the relentlessly cheerful Duffey said. “There are all sorts of little things about that night that I know I’ll never forget. Just standing on that mound in that stadium — I know it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who get the chance, so it doesn’t matter how I did.”
It does now, of course, and Duffey has settled into a fifth-starter role that has paid dividends for the Twins, who have won each of his subsequent three starts. The job will pay dividends for Duffey, too, next weekend, when he returns home as a big-leaguer.
Duffey was born in Houston, pitched for high school and college teams there, and still lives there in the offseason. He once pitched 4⅔ scoreless innings in the Conference USA championship game against crosstown rival Houston and was named tournament MVP. He’s even pitched in Minute Maid Park during tournaments, though “obviously this will feel a little bit different.”
Especially on Sunday, when he’s scheduled to face the Astros, his favorite team as a boy. “That’ll be pretty cool. I went to games with my grandmother growing up — she always had tickets,” Duffey said, and 93-year-old Jean Duffey will be in the crowd when he pitches this weekend, “along with about half the city, probably,” he said.
Uh-oh. Getting nervous?
“I’ll never take it for granted, I’ll never forget where I am, but I’m learning to handle it ,” Duffey said. “I’ll be ready.”