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Updated: June 9th, 2012 5:14pm
Zulgad: Scott Diamond continues to provide boost to starting rotation

Zulgad: Scott Diamond continues to provide boost to starting rotation

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Twins were 7-21 and the team's starting pitchers were ranked last in the Major Leagues with a 6.75 earned-run average on May 7 when Scott Diamond arrived from Triple-A Rochester. The 111 earned runs the Twins' starters had surrendered were eight more than the second-worst team in the majors, the Boston Red Sox.

Diamond had gone 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA in six starts for the Red Wings, but his arrival wasn't viewed as a move that would stop the bleeding.

The 25-year-old lefthander had gone 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA in seven starts for the Twins in 2011 and if anything it became a bit of a running joke to look at Diamond's early-season success in Rochester and suggest he would be the Twins' savior.

As it turns out, Diamond has been far more effective than anyone could have expected.

Saturday marked Diamond's seventh start since his promotion - matching last season's total - and the difference in his production is enormous. Diamond pitched six shutout innings in the Twins' 11-3 victory over the woeful Chicago Cubs at Target Field, improving his record to 5-1 and lowering his ERA to a miniscule 1.61.

He gave up seven hits, with no walks and five strikeouts, and has not surrendered more than three earned runs in any start. The double-digit offensive support was appreciated but wasn't absolutely necessary.

"I don't know why you guys want to talk to me, we scored 11 runs today," Diamond said, joking.

There was a good reason a media contingent was gathered around Diamond's locker.

Entering Saturday, he had posted a 1.86 ERA since his recall, the fifth-lowest in baseball in that span behind the Mets' R.A. Dickey (1.27 ERA, 4-1), the Pirates' James McDonald (1.56, 3-1), the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong (1.73, 4-0) and the White Sox's Chris Sale (1.82, 4-1).

Diamond continued to prove Saturday that he isn't afraid to work inside with his fastball - he also said his curveball was "the best from start to finish that it has been all year" -- and he again showed the type of poise that manager Ron Gardenhire has to appreciate. (That being said, Diamond certainly could work at a quicker pace but when you're having success those things don't seem to be a huge deal.)

"It's just command of the strike zone more than anything else with all of his pitches," Gardenhire said when asked about the difference in Diamond from last year. "He has deception. His mechanics are the same. He's not adjusting his arm, arm dropping down, any of that. He's staying the same, he's got a nice rhythm out there.

"More than anything else he's pounding the strike zone with all of his pitches. When he's behind he's got a three-pitch, four-pitch mix that he can just pound the strike zone with."

Cubs left fielder Reed Johnson opened Saturday's game with a double to right field. Diamond responded by getting Starlin Castro and David DeJesus on groundouts before the hot-hitting Alfonso Soriano flew out deep to Ben Revere in right field. (Soriano later blasted his third home run in two days in the eighth inning off reliever Jeff Gray.)

Diamond got the Cubs 1-2-3 in the second but gave up at least a hit in every other inning he worked. It didn't matter. Chicago didn't get a runner past second base against him.

This type of production is what the Twins hoped they might get one day when they selected Diamond in the Rule 5 draft from the Atlanta Braves on Dec. 9, 2010.

The Twins liked Diamond enough that instead of offering him back to the Braves when he didn't make the big-league club out of spring training in 2011 they sent minor league pitcher Billy Bullock to Atlanta in order to retain Diamond's rights.

However, Diamond not only struggled with the Twins but he also didn't impress at Rochester. He went 4-14 with a 5.56 ERA in 23 starts for the Red Wings. Opponents hit .311 against him.

After experiencing success at Rochester in April, Diamond carried that confidence to the majors. He shutout the Los Angeles Angels for seven innings, giving up only four hits, walking one and striking out six, in his first start on May. The Twins won 5-0.

Diamond did not give up a run in his first 14 big-league innings of 2012.

The Twins are now 17-13 since Diamond's arrival - they are 9-2 in their past 11 -- and have improved to 24-34 on the season.

The arrival of P.J. Walters, who was recalled from Rochester the same week as Diamond, also has provided a boost to the rotation. Walters is 2-1 with a 4.42 ERA after pitching five innings in an 8-7, 10-inning victory over the Cubs on Friday.

But Walters gave up five earned runs in five innings. Diamond has yet to give up an earned run in two starts this month, a stretch that covers 13 innings.

"He's going at it," Gardenhire said of Diamond. "He thinks about the game, he thinks about the pitches. He studies the hitters. Even coming in between innings he talks about mistakes he made that inning and where he should have got the ball to. So he's studying the game, studying the hitters as he's out there which is good."

Said Diamond: "I'm more comfortable on the mound (this year). Like that leadoff double today, against Reed Johnson, I didn't let it get to me. I'm like, 'OK, he hit a decent pitch that was inside so I'm going to have to attack these guys anyway.'

"Rather than having to just throw fastballs, I'm going to have to use more of the repertoire but I just feel more comfortable out on the mound. ... Sometimes (last year) the game would speed up on me in the bigger innings. So that's something I worked on in the offseason. Just to try to focus on slowing things down."

The nagging question when it comes to a pitcher like Diamond has been how long would it be before opposing hitters figured him out?

It now might be fair to wonder whether that will happen. Diamond, who suffered his only loss on May 23 against the White Sox and then got a no-decision in his next outing against Oakland, is certain to have a few rough outings.

But the native of Guelph, Ontario, has put together enough quality starts that it's probably safe to assume what the Twins saw in Diamond when he was in the Atlanta organization was a pitcher with legitimate major league stuff.

The failures of 2011 are, for now, forgotten.

"It was draining," Diamond said of last summer. "It was definitely tough to just try to continue to work day-by-day. That's kind of what's gotten me here is just continuing to push through everything. I've never been a big prospect or a guy on the radar or something.

"Working harder than most is the way that I've been able to get here. It was mentally draining, but I knew that my stuff could still be successful at this level so that's what I tried to keep focusing on. Coming into this season it was a lot of work but it's paying off."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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