In the first 3½ seasons of his Twins career, Johan Santana entered 14 games as a reliever, usually with his team already trailing, and proceeded to throw 60, or 70, or sometimes more than 80 pitches, in order to keep the Twins close and give them a chance to rally.
So it probably goes without saying: The Twins would sure like to find another Johan Santana.
OK, sure, the Cy Young-winning starting pitcher would be ideal. But the long-relief specialist that Santana was in his early years, the bionic-arm inning-eater who is always ready when a starting pitcher flames out early — those guys are practically as extinct from modern baseball as the sacrifice bunt.
"The game has evolved over time away from that type of role," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "The challenge is, you're always trying to figure out how far you can go [without regular work] before he isn't stretched out enough anymore. How long can he go between those outings and still feel like you can get 50-plus pitches out of that kind of guy? The game has changed, no question."
But that doesn't mean teams don't still try to fill that role, to find latter-day Dick Tidrows and Dennis Lamps, Bob Stanleys and Juan Berenguers.
The Twins hoped they had found one, at least temporarily, in Randy Dobnak. What they found instead is that Dobnak — who, after all, had a better ERA than Kenta Maeda or Jose Berrios one month into the 2020 season — is too valuable to sit around waiting for blowouts.
"He played that [long-relief] role for us somewhat out of necessity, and somewhat out of thinking it would be a good fit for us," Falvey said. "But once we sent him back to Triple-A and stretched him out, hopefully we are building him back toward starting. We think he's a starter long-term."
So do the statistics. With five rotation spots already spoken for, Dobnak pitched sporadically in a relief role in April, sometimes going two days between appearances, sometimes a week or more.
It didn't go well. Dobnak went 0-3 with an 8.16 ERA as a reliever, giving up four home runs in just 14⅓ innings.
"Yeah, April wasn't really fun," Dobnak concedes.
Worse, since he never knew when he'd be needed, Dobnak could never pitch long or regular bullpen sessions, just to keep him fresh. And it had the opposite effect: By the end of the month, the Twins realized his stamina wasn't up to starting anymore, and he was sent to St. Paul to build up his arm again.
That, and fix his delivery.
"Sometimes I get a little too cross-body, and that's just causing everything to lag behind," Dobnak explained of his resolve to find a release point that is identical no matter the pitch. "I'm just trying to find the consistency in my slider like I had in spring training. I'd love to see my changeup come into play here and there, but mainly I'm sticking to getting my slider locked in."
He started three games for the Saints, and didn't allow a run in two of them. So when a doubleheader and Michael Pineda's injury absence forced the Twins to find another starting pitcher, Dobnak was an easy call. He responded with six shutout innings in Cleveland.
"He's done a really good job. He's gone down. He's done everything we asked. He's stretched himself out and he's throwing the ball really well," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He's putting himself in a spot where we really have to consider finding ways to get him in the rotation and keep him there."
Dobnak will start against Kansas City on Friday — he's 3-0 in his career against the Royals — and hopes he keeps the job when Maeda returns from injury.
"I prefer starting, I've always said that. The routine aspect of it, certain days for bullpens, certain days for rest, I can prepare more for that," Dobnak said. "I like that part of it, but whatever I can do to help the team win, that's most important."