Twins relievers ready to step up with Jhoan Duran, Caleb Thielbar sidelined by injuries

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jhoan Duran felt his side begin cramping on Sunday while throwing warm-up pitches. A day later, magnetic resonance imaging revealed a moderate oblique strain.

“It’s something that happened (and it’s) frustrating,” Duran said through interpreter Mauricio Ortiz. “But it’s something I’ll recover from.”

The Twins expect to have further clarity on the length of their closer’s absence in the next week or so, but he could be out a month or so. For reference, left-handed reliever Caleb Thielbar missed about a month with an oblique strain last season. He returned very briefly and then was out for seven weeks with another oblique strain.

Thielbar will start the year on the injured list while dealing with a hamstring strain, and while he and Duran recover, others in the bullpen, which has been projected to be a major strength of the Twins, will need to step up.

“It feels great to know there’s guys that can do the job,” Duran said. “I just hope that it’s not for a long time that I’m out.”

When it comes to who will pitch the ninth inning in Duran’s absence, manager Rocco Baldelli and president of baseball operations Derek Falvey mentioned Griffin Jax and Brock Stewart as options.

“I’ll be ready if the team asks me to handle it. I think Brock will be ready,” Jax said. “I don’t necessarily know what direction the team is going to go in terms of like it be one guy versus two guys, three guys, whoever they view fits that matchup well, but I’ll be ready for sure.”

Jax finished last season with a 3.86 earned-run average — a particularly tough stretch early in the season inflated his season numbers — and was one of the Twins’ most reliable arms out of the bullpen.

He primarily pitched in the eighth inning last season, serving as a setup man for Duran. He had some save opportunities himself, finishing with four saves on the season. There’s a huge difference, he said, between pitching in the final two innings of a game.

“After pitching the eighth and pitching the ninth a couple times, I understand why closers make a lot of money,” Jax said. “It’s an awesome job, it’s a lot of adrenaline and just to know that the team’s giving you the ball to stop the game at the end, it’s pretty cool. I mean I try not give it too much more weight than any other inning, but at the same time, I know internally it’s a big deal.”

Stewart, who was lights out during his breakout season in 2023, earned himself plenty of late-inning trust, as well. While he started the season in Triple-A and was limited to just 28 major league games because of injury, he posted a 0.65 ERA in those games, striking out 12.7 batters per nine innings.

“I view them as the same,” Stewart said of the eighth and ninth innings. “Just trying to get three outs, one pitch at a time, one out at a time. Just try to go out there and do the same thing I would do in the eighth inning or the seventh inning. Just try to get that hitter out.”

It’ll take a lot more than just Jax and Stewart to cover the losses of Duran and Thielbar.

The Twins brought in a number of relievers in the offseason — including Justin Topa, Jay Jackson, Steven Okert and Josh Staumont — and have three open spots in the bullpen to fill between now and Opening Day next Thursday.

“It’s going to take the depth. We’ve got good guys, even guys that maybe were slated to start in Triple-A,” Stewart said. “I think we’re confident in our group. This is the deepest bullpen the Twins have had in maybe ever — for sure a long time —so we’re just going to use the depth and try to go out there and get outs and help the team.”

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