DENVER – The final few weeks of the regular season are typically a time when teams are just trying to survive with their pitching staff.
The Twins were in a rare position to reshape their bullpen because of their depth. Louie Varland, Chris Paddack and Kenta Maeda have successfully transitioned to the bullpen, though Maeda remains available to start if needed in the postseason. Plus, Brock Stewart returned from a three-month stint on the injured list.
The results speak loudly. The Twins bullpen entered Saturday with a collective 3.15 ERA through 94⅓ innings in September. It's the second-lowest ERA in the American League this month, trailing only Houston (2.96), and a sizable drop from the bullpen's ERA in July (5.19) and August (4.78).
"I don't want to sit here and say we've done a great job," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We've done what we've wanted to do."
The Twins thought Varland's fastball and cutter would play well in the bullpen. He may have even surpassed expectations, emerging as a potential late-inning option. He's permitted two runs in 12 innings, entering Saturday, with 17 strikeouts and one walk.
Paddack was the biggest unknown. It had been 16 months since he pitched in the major leagues as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. In his season debut Tuesday, he hit 99 miles per hour with his fastball and struck out three of his first four batters, before he admittedly struggled maintaining his emotions in his second inning.
He followed that with three shutout innings Saturday, striking out four and earning a victory as the Twins beat Colorado 14-6.
"As soon as [Paddack] got into games, the stuff looked excellent," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "We knew there was a real chance, for short stints, we could see some big numbers."
In the middle of the summer, the Twins planned for Paddack to begin a rehab assignment at the beginning of September. What they didn't know was whether he would become a legitimate option for the postseason.
It was Paddack's second Tommy John surgery, so the recovery was deliberately conservative. They repeatedly had him throw bullpen sessions, in which he hit 90-92 mph with his fastball, before he ever faced a hitter in a live batting practice session.
"He was probably frustrated by it after a while," Falvey said. "Then, he got to one 'pen where he was just dotting. Everything was good and it was like 95 mph. Then, it's OK, it's 95 in the 'pen, he looks healthy, he's responding well, body looks good, feels good, everything's good."
The Twins aren't overly worried about the lack of innings for either Paddack or Stewart going into the postseason.
"When you have three outings, you want four," Falvey said. "When you have four, you want five. At some point, you have to trust that the preparation they're doing in between and the way that they're feeling.
"In Chris' case, he kind of knows how he'll be used regardless and probably get a little more time, no matter what, to warm up. Brock's back and pitching the way we wanted him to, so I don't have any concerns with them."
Combine the converted starters with their backend relievers and the Twins view their bullpen as a strength heading into a playoff series.
"It's just been exciting to see the change that those guys now add to the guys that have been the guys all year, right?" Falvey said. "[Jhoan] Duran, [Griffin] Jax, [Caleb] Thielbar and [Emilio] Pagán have really stabilized some things for us, then what Kody Funderburk has done, coming up here and showing that he can be an early guy out of the 'pen. Hopefully, all of these things continue to track in the right direction for us."