Two-strike issues haunt Louie Varland as Orioles hammer Twins in series opener

BALTIMORE — Louie Varland’s early struggles have little to do with throwing strikes. He’s throwing plenty of those.

Rather, the young Minnesota Twins starter is perhaps throwing too many strikes. At the very least, some of his two-strike pitches are catching too much of the plate.

Varland struggled again on Monday night, surrendering six runs in five innings as the Baltimore Orioles pounded the Twins 7-4 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Through three starts, Varland is carrying an 8.36 ERA in 14 innings for the Twins, who dropped to 6-9.

“Not leaving the zone with two strikes is an issue right now,” Varland said. “I need to be better at it. I’m letting the team down, and it’s a bad feeling. … I’ve got to learn.”

The sample size is way too small at this point to make much of it. Monday was only Varland’s third start of the season and the 18th of his career. One great outing can help Varland’s two-strike numbers trend in the right direction.

But for now, hitters are finding Varland’s two-strike pitches far too palatable. Especially when he’s ahead in the count.

A 1-2 cutter to Cedric Mullins in the fifth inning left Varland — who threw strikes on 66 of 94 pitches and walked none — shaking his head and yelling into his glove. The two-run blast all but decided the contest. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli spoke to Varland shortly after he exited the game, an approach he rarely takes.

“The two-strike execution with the breaking balls, especially has to be better than what it is,” Baldelli said. “That’s what I talked to Lou about. … It’s multiple starts in a row where he threw the ball reasonably well, but needs to make better pitches when he gets to two strikes.”

Facing Mullins with a man on first and the Twins trailing by two runs, Varland quickly got ahead in the count. Mullins fell behind 0-2 as he fouled off a fastball and a low changeup. Varland turned to his cutter, an out pitch when he was a reliever last September and October, and missed low with it for a ball. Varland followed with another cutter on the inner half, but it wasn’t in enough and Mullins yanked it out to right to make it 6-2.

An emotional Varland needed only six pitches after the Mullins homer to record his final two outs, including a pair of 98 mph fastballs, the fastest offerings he threw all evening.

“Wasn’t really hitting my spots with two strikes, and they made me pay for it,” Varland said. “I feel good. I believe I have my stuff every outing, but they have a pretty good approach right now.”

Entering Monday’s outing, opponents were hitting .261/.393/.435 against Varland with two strikes this season. Those figures include a Christian Yelich homer and a Brice Turang RBI double in a 3-2 loss at Milwaukee on April 2 and a pair of two-strike singles ahead of James Outman’s game-deciding three-run homer off Varland last Tuesday.


Orioles hitters were productive on at least three two-strike pitches in which Varland was ahead in the count on Monday.

Jordan Westburg ensured that an Edouard Julien fielding error earlier in the first inning was costly. Batting with two outs and the bases loaded, Westburg handled an 0-2 cutter from Varland that was up and on the outer edge, doubling into left-center to give Baltimore an early two-run lead.

Two innings later, Varland left a 1-2 curveball over the middle enough to Mullins, who hit it for a sac fly to give the Orioles a 4-1 lead.

Monday’s outing bore a strong resemblance to Varland’s last one on Tuesday at home against the Dodgers. In that game, Varland got ahead of hitters and used his nasty stuff to make great pitches to some Los Angeles hitters.

But far too often this season, Varland has yielded too much contact at inopportune times. Through 14 innings, Varland has yielded five home runs.

Thrust into the rotation after a spring training injury to Anthony DeSclafani, Varland has displayed many of the inconsistencies he did during his 10-start stint in the first half of last season. Varland undoubtedly has the stuff to hang in the majors as evidenced by his 108 strikeouts in 108 innings with only 28 walks.

“The good stuff is a good place to start,” Baldelli said. “The execution, though, does matter a lot.”

When he went to the bullpen late in the 2023 season, Varland demonstrated how nasty he can be. With his fastball touching 100 mph and his cut fastball playing up because of the increased four-seam velocity, Varland was outstanding.

His performance gave the Twins plenty of reason to continue looking at Varland as a starting pitcher; they expect to thoroughly exhaust that potential before they’d ever consider moving him back to the bullpen.

But how long Varland has to prove himself in the big leagues remains to be seen. With the Twins struggling, Varland’s leash could be short, especially after a stellar outing from Simeon Woods Richardson in Detroit on Saturday afternoon.


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Following Monday’s performance, all indications were Varland would take the ball again at home this weekend against Detroit. Catcher Ryan Jeffers thinks Varland has plenty of room for growth and wants to apply what they learned Monday to the pitcher’s next outing.

“You’re going to have days where you kind of shut it down and you’re going to make a really, really good pitch, and it’s going to get hit hard,” Jeffers said. “It’s still early. It’s, what, his third start of the year? We’re going to learn from that. We’re going be able to go come in, sit down, watch his outing, and go, ‘We can grow in this area. We did this, this and this really well. Let’s continue to do that.’ We’ll figure out what they are.”

(Photo of Louie Varland: Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)

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