Inconsistent effort from Louie Varland, offense add up to 3-2 Twins loss to Brewers

MILWAUKEE — There were several promising moments during Louie Varland’s first start of the season on Tuesday afternoon, including a high-profile, bases-loaded escape. But the young Minnesota Twins starting pitcher’s outing also featured some instances he’ll need to improve upon.

Varland knew as much when assessing his performance after a 3-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in front of 41,659 at American Family Field.

Though his stuff was there, the consistency wasn’t, which led to a quicker exit than he’d hoped for. Varland lasted only four innings and a meager Twins offense was unable to rebound from an early three-run deficit, finishing with three hits.

“(Varland) had to really grind through the performance,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He threw a ton of pitches. … He got into these at-bats, got a strike or two on them. I think in a few, (he) struggled to finish the at-bat. … I don’t think he was at his sharpest.”

When it comes to the rotation, Twins fans already have their sharpest knives drawn and are waiting to pounce. They’re questioning — and who could blame them? — how the team addressed the group, opting to let Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda walk in free agency.

In trimming the Opening Day payroll by $26.4 million from 2023, according to Co’ts Contracts, the team elected to replace a duo that accounted for 288 1/3 innings last season with talented arms in Varland and Wednesday’s starter Chris Paddack, and the oft-injured Anthony DeSclafani.

DeSclafani already is out for the season after undergoing flexor tendon surgery on Friday.

Even though the Twins think Paddack is ready to take a big step forward, the pitcher is still facing workload limitations as he comes off his second Tommy John surgery.

Both of those cases mean the Twins need stability and consistency from Varland, who was making only his 16th major league start on Tuesday.

At times he looked brilliant, like when he handled the top of Milwaukee’s order in the first inning or when he pieced together a 1-2-3 fourth inning against the same group.

At others, Varland struggled to keep his electric stuff in the zone, which allowed his pitch count to soar.

Despite getting ahead to three of four hitters in the second inning, including going to 1-2 counts on two, Varland yielded four straight singles to the bottom of Milwaukee’s lineup, giving the Brewers a 1-0 lead.

Yet just when Milwaukee appeared to have Varland on the run, he escaped with a fielder’s choice and a strikeout.

But his next inning was equally inconsistent.

Varland threw a 3-2 fastball down the middle to start the third inning and Christian Yelich hammered it for a solo homer and a 2-0 lead. He recorded the next two outs but hit Rhys Hoskins with a 1-2 fastball, which led to another rally. Oliver Dunn followed Hoskins with a walk and Brice Turang made Varland pay with a two-out RBI double to make it 3-0.

“I went four innings — I kind of expected to go five or six,” Varland said. “The second or third inning I probably threw too many fastballs there. I should have thrown my off-speed more.”

After he reassessed in the dugout, Varland relied on his off-speed pitches more often and bounced back with an easy fourth inning. But by then his pitch count was at 89, which led to Baldelli turning to his bullpen.

Despite his frustration at the short outing, Varland saw several positives, including holding his velocity. He also was pleased with the quality of his stuff, which generated 11 swings and misses.

“My new slider/curveball thing had some swing and miss,” Varland said. “That’s good. I got to 89 pitches and held my velo. I threw my cutter not as much in the zone as I usually do. The expectation of that being there in the outings to come will help.”

With the way the rotation is set up, the Twins need more consistency from Varland and Bailey Ober, who uncharacteristically struggled and recorded only four outs in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Kansas City Royals. There’s plenty of internal excitement about the quality of innings Paddack will provide the Twins out of the fifth spot in the rotation. There’s also plenty of uncertainty about how many innings he can deliver after undergoing a second Tommy John surgery in April 2022.

“Lou does a lot of good things,” Baldelli said. “He’s got good stuff, he attacks, he’s generally in the zone a good amount. He adjusts pretty well. … But we’ve got to be more efficient, I think, more than anything else and he knew it.”

Offense inconsistent again

Six times in Tuesday’s contest the Twins sent only the minimum three batters to the plate.

Suffice it to say, a game after they were shut out for the first time, the Twins weren’t happy with their output again. The Twins finished with three hits, the last of which occurred only two batters into the fourth inning.

Though the Twins scored five runs in their first game without Royce Lewis on Saturday, they’ve scored twice since.

“It was not a great day offensively for us,” Baldelli said. “We did have a few swings and it felt like when we did put good swings on the ball, they made some plays. (Byron) Buxton had two excellent swings and we had a couple of others maybe, but certainly not enough. … We needed to do more offensively.”

Buxton’s ‘close call’ with bratwurst

Buxton had a near-miss with a bratwurst on Thursday and we’re not talking indigestion.

As he took the field for the bottom of the sixth inning, Buxton, who is a spokesperson for the Sheboygan Sausage Company, was almost wiped out by the bratwurst mascot running in the Milwaukee Brewers’ famous sausage race.

Noticing that Pablo López tried to grab his attention as he headed out of the dugout, Buxton looked to his left just in time to avoid a collision with the mascot. Afterward, Buxton said Ryan Jeffers suggested a rival from Johnsville Brats, whose owners have a minority stake in the Brewers, might have tried to take him out, which led to this exchange.

Buxton: Oh, I know. Sheboygan bratwurst. Somebody, who told me that? Jeffers was that you?

Jeffers: Yeah, we said Buck almost got Bratwursted.

Buxton: Yeah, he told me that and I was like they’re competing with Sheboygan, huh. It was fun.

Jeffers: I think it would’ve been great if he got run over by the bratwurst. It would’ve been a way better story.

Buxton: Sheboygan would’ve had a good one.

Jeffers: As long as he’s OK. I mean, the bratwurst was OK.

Buxton: The bratwurst? What about me? That was a train collision because if I took out one, I’m taking out at least two more.

(Photo of Louie Varland: Benny Sieu / USA Today)

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