Twins’ pitching ‘Kid Krewe’ exceeds expectations by on-the-spot learning, adjustments

In January 2007, at the Twins’ annual media kickoff luncheon, then-general manager Terry Ryan’s remarks included a frank assessment of the team’s pitching staff. The Twins had signed Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz as cheap reclamation-project free agents for the back of the rotation, and Ryan laid their success or failure in the lap of pitching coach Rick Anderson.

It was Anderson’s job, Ryan said, to turn them around.

In some cities, like the one with the skyscrapers that starts with “New,” that might be construed with political overtones, as a duplicitous GM setting up the pitching coach to fail.  But that’s not how Ryan meant it. Instead, it showed the respect the Twins organization has for Anderson, who might be the best low-profile pitching coach in baseball.

Of course, not even Anderson could do much with these stiffs. To think that Ponson, who was jailed in 2004 for punching a judge on a beach in Aruba, would listen to any authority figure was wishful thinking on Ryan’s part. Ortiz did listen, and pitched well for about a month. The Twins jettisoned both before end of the season.

But the kids the Twins thrust into the rotation this season — Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins — pay attention to Anderson, as well as catchers Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond. They have to. None has the electric stuff of a pre-surgery Francisco Liriano, or the Josh Beckett/A.J. Burnett/Dontrelle Willis staff that Redmond helped catch with Florida Marlins. “Those guys, it was a strikeout competition,” Redmond said.

Not here. Anderson’s task with the Kid Krewe was threefold. Throw strikes of course, especially on the first pitch to every batter. Develop secondary and off-speed pitches to throw confidently in any count, which keeps hitters from sitting on fastballs. And learn to recognize and fix minor mechanical glitches in your delivery on the fly, to keep an inning from getting out of hand.

The last skill is the hardest to pick up. Now, Anderson said, they all do it. “It’s exciting to watch,” he said. “Usually, kids panic and try to throw too hard.”

For Slowey, whose 12-9 record includes two shutouts and three complete games, a stern talk from Anderson on May 8 in Chicago hammered that lesson home. Handed a 2-0 lead in the top of the fifth in his first start after returning from a right biceps strain, Slowey gave up three runs in the bottom of the inning and pitched no further in a 6-2 loss.

“He was kind of up in my face — not yelling at me, but he said, ‘Do you know what you did wrong here?’ ” Slowey said. And Slowey did: He kept leaving his fastball over the plate. Slowey needed to get the ball down or throw something else. He did neither, wasting what should have been a quality start and a possible victory.

 “He said, ‘You’ve got to make the adjustment quicker than that,’ ” Slowey said. “I don’t know if he’s ever really yelled. But you know his stern demeanor from his laid-back demeanor.

“There have been times when he’s come out to the mound and said, ‘What do we have going on here? The last three pitches were belt-high’ He wants to hear me say it, and what I’m going to do about it.”

Said Redmond:  “You can talk to pitchers who’ve been pitching 15 or 20 years in the big leagues, and some of them can’t do that. That’s the key, knowing yourself well enough to make the adjustments to get back on track. That’s part of the process of learning how to pitch in the big leagues. If you can make adjustments, like Slowey’s talking about, that’s what we’re trying to get to.”

Slowey, Perkins and Blackburn all have 10 or more victories. Baker will join them if he can win two of his four remaining starts, beginning Friday in Baltimore. And Liriano is 5-0 with a 1.58 ERA in eight starts since his recall. All that is stunning, and a major reason why the Twins remain in the AL Central race even after Thursday’s 10-inning, 3-2 loss to Kansas City.

“We feel like we’re all top-of-the-rotation guys,” Baker said. “We just all came into our own all of a sudden. We’ve put ourselves in a position where a lot of people thought we wouldn’t be right now.”   

Though the bullpen’s shakiness remains a concern, you probably won’t see any starters vastly exceed 100 pitches per outing the rest of the way. That’s why manager Ron Gardenhire pulled Liriano after eight innings and 95 pitches on Thursday afternoon in a 2-2 game, despite Liriano retiring 17 of his last 18 batters.

Perkins and Blackburn already have pitched more innings than in any previous pro season. A common baseball rule of thumb says pitchers who jump more than 30 innings from one season to the next may be at risk for injury or poor performance the following season.

“We try to protect our kids,” Gardenhire said. “I know people complain a lot about pitch counts and taking them out, but as the manager before me (Tom Kelly) said, ‘You protect your starters.’ We were the same way with Johan (Santana).”

 At least now, the Twins have quality to protect.

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