Here’s a quick intro to the series:
Basically, the premise of the series is that certain games have an effect that is far greater than their mere impact on the win-loss column. These games are mentally and physically definitive of a season, and before the new season begins, by looking back and remembering and feeling the emotions of last season one more time, we can understand what happened, what went wrong, and most importantly, what went right. So, climb aboard the side-burn express, and keep your hands, arms, feet, heads, and all other extremities inside the vehicles at all times as we embark on one final excursion through the highs and lows of last season.
Brian Duensing is a mystery to me. He was an unmitigated disaster out of the bullpen, but taken and put into a (arguably) higher-stress role, that of the 4th starter on a contending team, and he performed, by and large, far better than anyone could have expected (for a while there, he was better than Nick Blackburn). This game should have been his crowning moment.
After turning seven strong innings, giving up only one run against Texas, Duensing returned to the Dome to take on the White Sox. Once again, he was surprisingly dominant. He pitched seven innings, giving up five hits, walking one, and striking out seven.
Nothing I have seen about Duensing’s stuff appears to be so dominant that it justifies how well he matched up against opposing hitters those last few months of the season, when he struck out 53 in 84 innings after August 17, while only walking 31 (yeah, just a bit of small sample size). Quite frankly, Duensing stepped up and might be the most responsible of any Twins player of last year outside of Joe Mauer himself for the improbably playoff run. After Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins went down in July, Duensing stepped up, turning in a 3.64 ERA on the season, and ending with a 5-2 W-L mark and the distinction of being one of the few pitchers to pitch well through most of August. As was shown by the promotions and demotions of Kevin Mulvey, Armando Gabino, and Anthony Swarzak, not all promotions are able to contribute as well as Duensing did. However, this is probably his most important contribution of the year, because he demonstrated consistency and an ability to get hitters out that had been absent from the #4 spot in the rotation for pretty much the whole season.
However good the game was for Duensing, it was a harbinger of bad things to come for Joe Nathan. Nathan came in in the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead, and promptly got two outs. He then gave up back-to-back home runs to Gordon Beckham and Paul Konerko. He then responded to a visit to the mound, which was presumably to calm him down, by walking back-to-back hitters. Nathan got yanked, and Matt Guerrier didn’t do him any favors, letting in two more runs on a single and a wild pitch. From that point on, Nathan was very on-and-off. He only blew two saves, but he started needing more and more pitches to get out of his save situations. This culminated in two disastrous outings against the Yankees: one in which he blew a save and both in which he couldn’t last a full inning. Was this a sign of problems to come? It’s impossible to tell. But, as near as I can tell, this is where Nathan’s weakness started showing up.
Did Duensing save the season? Too many variables to say for sure, but without Duensing’s impressive late-season performance, it would have been a lot more difficult. One can hardly fault him for losing to the Yankees in New York 16 hours after winning game 163, especially in light of what happened during the regular season. He proved a lot: he proved that our predictions were underestimations, he proved that the unsung third choice can in fact save a season, and he proved that he can be, under the right circumstances, a good professional pitcher.