Powers: Extra closer gives Minnesota an edge in postseason
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's a delivery that looks and even sounds funky. "Pffffft!" That's the sound of Brian Fuentes flipping the ball up to the plate. It appears as if his hand never gets above his ear, like he's throwing darts in a pub. "Pffffft!" But...
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's a delivery that looks and even sounds funky. "Pffffft!" That's the sound of Brian Fuentes flipping the ball up to the plate. It appears as if his hand never gets above his ear, like he's throwing darts in a pub. "Pffffft!" But neither righties nor lefties have much luck making contact.
"Yeah, I get funny looks all the time," Fuentes said with a chuckle. "But I'm not out there to look pretty."
Regardless of whether the Twins open against the Yankees or the Rays, they will be the superior ballclub in one important area: the bullpen. In fact, this could be the Twins' best bullpen ever. Fuentes is a big part of that. He's sort of taking a sabbatical from his normal role as a closer to help the Twins be the best they can be in 2010. When the season's over, he'll move on to another club and return to the role he loves best.
"There's no adrenaline rush like it," Fuentes said before Wednesday's game against the Cleveland Indians. "It's the highest high you can get. Oh yeah, that's what I want to do."
But for right now, Fuentes is experiencing a happy pause in his career as a closer. With Matt Capps established as the Twins' ninth-inning specialist, Fuentes has worked as a setup man. His efficiency and his ability to serve as a backup or emergency closer, if you will, is a tremendous luxury for Ron Gardenhire heading into the playoffs.
"Our bullpen sets up pretty good," Gardenhire said appreciatively. "Especially at the back end. It's nice to have."
Capps is throwing well. Fuentes has been very good. Jesse Crain is on a roll. Matt Guerrier is steady. The only question mark among the regular relievers is Jose Mijares, who shook up the staff with a rocky performance Tuesday night. But Fuentes gives the team consistency from the left side, even if Mijares can't get squared away.
"I don't have a problem setting up," Fuentes said. "We have a great closer in Cappy. Now, if we were 15 games out and a non-contender, it might be frustrating. But this is a good situation. These guys did all the legwork before I got here. It's an outstanding group."
I'm still amazed that Fuentes somehow slipped through waivers, past the relief-pitching-starved Chicago White Sox, and ended up with the Twins. He is as good as any reliever the Twins have. And they should take full advantage of his ability before he resumes his closing career with another team next season. There aren't many lights-out lefties.
The heck of it is, Fuentes didn't start out with that funky delivery. Ten years ago, one of his minor league pitching coaches, tired of seeing him cuffed around, suggested he alter his traditional over-the-top delivery. Fuentes does not throw particularly hard, about 90 mph tops, and was struggling to reach the big leagues.
Fuentes remembers the coach saying, "We're out of options for you." Translation: If this new delivery doesn't work, your days as a professional baseball player might be numbered. But he dropped his arm angle and took to the new mechanics right away. Within a year, he was a major leaguer and soon after that he was a closer, mowing down hitters standing on either side of the plate.
"It came pretty quickly. It wasn't something I had to tweak a whole bunch," he said. "I'm really proud of being able to get right-handers."
Against the Indians on Wednesday, the Twins kept right on rolling. Even with a patchwork and champagne-drenched lineup, they cruised to a 5-1 victory. Fuentes pitched the eighth inning. Although he wasn't razor sharp, he didn't allow a run. His biggest adjustment with the Twins has been adapting to being a non-closer.
"It's still taking a little while," he said. "It's just trying to anticipate when they'll use me. Will Gardy bring me in to get a lefty out? Work an inning? Set up for Cappy? It's a little different. Before, I pitched the ninth inning when we were ahead. Now I might pitch a run ahead, a run behind or tied."
With his experience, he could be a difference-maker in the playoffs. The Twins' bullpen probably is their biggest strength as they prepare for their first-round opponent.
Powers writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He can be reached at email@example.com .