MINNEAPOLIS For Twins starter P.J. Walters, Saturday was a study in margin of error.
Two pitches, and this would have been a different game. A few centimeters, even, the sharp ding of ball off metal that Walters hoped to hear, and this all would have been different. In the end, the Blue Jays' 2-1 victory over the Twins came down to little more than three two-out hits, one a Jose Bautista home run that was originally ruled a double. Minnesota was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and any blame for the loss lies far from the pitcher who was perhaps the game's riskiest player.
"P.J. pitched a heck of a ball game, should have got the 'W,'" first baseman Chris Parmelee, who went 0-3, said. "We should have gotten the 'W.'"
Walters, whose start Saturday was just the fifth of his career, hadn't started a game in the major leagues since Sept. 29, 2010 for the Cardinals. In just four career starts before joining the Twins, he averaged five innings and 86.5 pitches and had a 2-0 record. That wasn't much material for the Twins to work with in terms of evaluating the pitcher, whom the team signed to a minor-league deal on December 14 before purchasing his contract from Triple-A Rochester on Wednesday.
"Really, we haven't seen very much of him," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Honestly he's probably learned a little bit. He's been through the mail. He's been up and down. He's pitching in the minor leagues a lot. I think over the course of time and experience pitching in(Triple-A) or the big leagues, you learn a few things along the way."
Gardenhire's expectations were tempered going into Saturday night, and his hope was simply that the laid-back pitcher would relax and get through the first part of the game without blowing the Twins' chances. But as much as that unfamiliarity left the Twins uncertain as to what to expect, it seemed to work in their favor. In the majors, none of the Blue Jays' starting nine had ever faced Walters, who spent three seasons in the National League with the Cardinals before being traded to the Blue Jays and sent to Triple-Aafter just one inning. Between that unfamiliarity and perhaps a measure of improvement, Walters was able to hold Toronto to two runs and six hits in six innings. The Blue Jays scored on an Adam Lind single in the fifth and a Bautista home run in the sixth, but Walters' curveball was sharp, and 61 of his 93 pitches were strikes. He left the game with the Twins down just one run, and though it's hard to yet form an opinion of Walters, despite the loss he continued the trend of successful starts from the team's newest additions."Obviously a little nervous getting out there the first inning or so, a few two many pitches, that type of thing," Walters said. "I felt like I settled down and made some good pitches when I needed to. Just two outs, nobody on base, you've got to finish the inning better."Walters was the second starter to make his debut with the Twins this week after Scott Diamond pitched seven shutout innings in Minnesota's 5-0 victory over the Angels. In Diamond, the team had an idea of what it was getting: a prospect who'd been in its system for a full season, who'd started seven games in the majors already for the Twins. It was still a gamble he'd won only once in 2011 but at least an informed one. It was a glimpse at the team's future, at one of its system's better pitching prospects. Walters, though, was a risk in its purest form, and though his night wasn't the near-perfection that was Diamond's, it might have been enough to earn him another shot with a big league club. After going 3-1 at Rochester with a 2.70 ERA, Walters showed more positive signs on Saturday, but with the way Minnesota's starting rotation has been changing, little is guaranteed."I didn't change much from the way I've been pitching," Walters said. "Throw strikes, get ahead early and make good pitches when I need to."In this, the Twins' 33rd game of the season, Walters represented the eighth starting pitcher the team has sent to the mound. The original five-man rotation of Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Anthony Swarzak, Nick Blackburn and Liam Hendriks has seen two bullpen demotions (Liriano and Swarzak) and one assignment to Rochester (Hendriks). Though Swarzak's move was in part a result of Jason Marquis joining the team after missing time for personal reasons, this year's starting lineup has been a volatile one.In contrast, last season the Twins employed only six starters in as many games: Pavano, Liriano, Blackburn, Swarzak, Scott Baker and Brian Duensing. The team was just fractionally better 12-21 after its 33rd game May 9 but it hadn't yet begun to make such drastic changes. In 2012, all six of those pitchers remain under contract with the Twins, but only two are in the starting rotation; Baker will miss the season after April Tommy John surgery, and Duensing is working out of the bullpen with Liriano and Swarzak.That bullpen has become one of the lone bright spots in the team's 9-24 start. Besides Diamond and Walters, no current starter has an ERA below 5.00, while five relievers boast such marks. Despite stretching Duensing, who pitched three innings on May 9 and two Saturday in relief of Walters, Gardenhire is leery to promote relievers and tamper with the success they've had late in games. That attitude is in part responsible for Walters' and Diamond's starts this week, and through one start each, there's little room to criticize the manager's decision."They've handled themselves well, tonight P.J., and Diamond," Gardenhire said. "We're looking for a shot in the arm to give us some innings We're looking for innings and quality starts and we're getting them."Since Monday, when the Twins promoted shortstop Brian Dozier and Diamond from Rochester, the team a 2-4 record. Since then, Walters and Darin Mastroianni have also been called up from Triple-A, and though Mastroianni drove in three runs on Friday, the most uniformly impressive performances by new players have come from the pitchers, Walters and Diamond. On Saturday, Walters was solid. He's not going to turn this team around not alone, anyways, and not when giving up just two runs earns him a loss. But what matters most about his first start is that P.J. Walters is now a little less of a mystery and not yet a bust. For the Twins, that's enough right now. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter