Neal: Where did Duran’s dominance go? It’s trouble with the curve

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Louie Varland, the fine young man from North St. Paul, said all the right things Monday when the starter agreed for the greater good of the club to work out of the Twins bullpen for the rest of the regular season and during what should be a playoff appearance.

Varland prefers to start. "I believe the best version of myself is a starter," he said. The Twins had other ideas after he hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball during a four-inning relief outing last Thursday for Class AAA St. Paul — about 4 mph faster than his heater when he starts.

He is needed, for the Twins bullpen continues to oscillate between sailing and failing. Its 3.23 ERA in June was the seventh best in baseball. The next two months, the Twins were 23rd and 22nd in relief ERA. Their lead in the AL Central (at seven games after Tuesday's 8-3 victory) would be wider if not for a handful of late-inning meltdowns.

The Twins need more than Varland to energize the reliever room. They need health. They need productivity. And they need a search party for Jhoan Duran's missing breaking ball. The Twins closer either no longer has a feel for his curveball, has lost confidence in it, or both. Dominant earlier this summer, Duran is inconsistent now — a 4.24 ERA and three blown saves in his past 23 outings — and no Twins bullpen topic matters more than this.

Relievers, and bullpens, can be volatile from season to season. The Twins had an effective plan mapped out at the beginning of the year, but things have gone topsy-turvy. There were early issues when righthander Jorge Alcala went out because of a muscle strain in his right forearm and he has not been heard of since. Jorge López, who was expected to be closer 1A to Duran, struggled on the mound, left the team to deal with mental health issues and was later traded to Miami for Dylan Floro. Jovani Moran made the Opening Day roster but struggled, stabilized, struggled and now is with the Saints.

Varland was holding his own in the Twins rotation until three poor starts in June landed him on the light rail to St. Paul. A recent decision to have him try out a bullpen role has led to this new reliever job description that he hopes is temporary.

A starter's fastball can get faster when used in a relief role, like when Glen Perkins averaged 89 miles per hour as a starter but 95 mph as a closer. Varland's return as a reliever could be a significant development if he can enter games and provide some flamethrowing, either in one- or three-inning bursts.

The Twins need high-velocity reinforcements, and more good news could be coming soon. Alcala is on the comeback trail and could rejoin the team later this month. Righthander Brock Stewart, a revelation in May and June before a sore elbow sidelined him, is working his way back as well.

These developments impact more than the regular season. Once the playoffs arrive, a manager needs neutralizers in the bullpen. Griffin Jax and sprinkles of Emilio Pagán are fine, but the armory needs to be full for the postseason, when managers make that bullpen door spin like a turnstile.

There are limited workable contingencies, however, for what's going on with Duran. His four-seam fastball averages a league-leading 101.8 mph, but the disappearance of his breaking ball has made him merely mortal.

His curveball usage has dipped since July, when he blew two saves and posted a 6.52 ERA, from 31% to 22%. He's tinkered with his pitch usage ever since. In August, he reduced the number of fastballs he threw and increased the use of his split-fingered sinker, which is really more of a specialty pitch for him. In his first two September outings, he threw his curve only 13% of the time. His curveball is one of the better ones in the game and, combined with his outstanding heater, makes him dominant. He's not right now. The Twins know this and are working with Duran to help him rediscover the pitch.

If they can't figure out how to help Duran rediscover his full range of pitches, it might be worth asking Varland if he's willing to be cloned, too.