For Smeltzer, playing for fans tops result

February 28th, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It had been 354 days since the Twins last played in front of fans when they took the field for their Grapefruit League opener against the Red Sox on Sunday.

took in the scene before the game, standing on the left-field warning track and waving to fans on the left-field grass berm after his warmup tosses on the outfield grass. The (distanced) interactions with fans, the smell of ballpark concessions, the roar of a (small) crowd -- these sensations were all too familiar and all too welcome after a long, pandemic-driven year -- and Smeltzer was emotional to finally be part of it.

"I got choked up a little bit," Smeltzer said after starting the Twins' 7-6 win over the Red Sox. "I haven’t had fans in the seats since the Dominican outing last year. I can’t even express how great it is just to have whatever we have here. It felt amazing."

The Twins welcomed 2,154 fans across the Hammond Stadium threshold to watch as a five-run second inning carried them to victory, buoyed by Smeltzer's strong two-inning start. It certainly felt like a step toward normalcy again, with the crowd roaring in the second inning when a Boston error on a rundown let a run score, and later jeering when a fan missed a foul ball that hit him in the glove.

"The feel of the game is so much different than anything that we were playing in front of last year," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Just a completely different environment, and I think the energy level for everyone involved just spikes when we have that. It’s great to see, and I think everyone had a good time."

Smeltzer allowed a solo homer to Bobby Dalbec in the second inning but otherwise felt great about his arsenal, which has continued to incorporate a new slider that he tried out for the first time last spring. Even the homer wasn't a mistake, as he's working to elevate his fastball in the zone to help his offspeed pitches play off it more effectively.

None of those results mattered to him as much as the energy he felt on the mound, anyway.

"I was miserable last year," Smeltzer said. "Bluntly, I feed off the fans, I’d rather have 100 million fans than no fans. I like feeding off them, whether we’re home or away. Everything from my debut in '19 to the playoffs in '19 on the road in New York. The fans are what this is all about, and it’s just great to have them back."

Donaldson, Cruz to work into games over the next week

There's no need to fret about the absence of Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz from the lineup on Sunday. Considering their age and veteran status, the Twins are going to ease the pair into regular action this spring, with the club taking particular care with Donaldson as part of how it will handle his usage in the aftermath of his calf issues flaring up again in 2020.

Willians Astudillo started at third base in Donaldson's place, with Caleb Hamilton serving as the starting designated hitter. Baldelli expects both Donaldson and Cruz to work their way into the lineup over the course of the next week.

"They’re each on their own program to get ready and play," Baldelli said. "I think we may see Nelly a little bit before J.D. But both of them are on the schedule that I’m looking at right now. I will add that both of them are in great shape and look fantastic."

Weirdness reigns due to new Spring Training rules

Here's something you don't see every day -- an inning-ending double in which no outs were recorded. But expect that to become more of a common sight this spring.

The Twins and Red Sox ended the bottom of the second following Miguel Sanó's two-run rope down the line in accordance with a new rule this spring that allows for defensive managers to end an inning following any completed plate appearance if the pitcher on the mound -- in this case, Red Sox right-hander Caleb Simpson -- had thrown at least 20 pitches.

And although the Twins completed their victory as the home team in the top of the seventh inning, the clubs agreed to play the bottom of the frame to give both teams' depth players the opportunity to get some additional game experience. Those plate appearances will be harder to come by earlier in camp due to most teams playing only seven innings as a result of Spring Training rosters being limited to 75 players.

"Probably catches some people by surprise as well when we’re still out there playing at home with a lead," Baldelli said. "But being able to plan out your pitching a little bit, being able to get an extra at-bat for some of the position players, I think will be helpful now that we’re cutting two innings out of most of these games."

Up next

Lewis Thorpe spent the offseason working six days a week to regain velocity, strengthen his lower half and get himself into better physical and mental shape. He was feeling quite encouraged after his fastball was tracked at 93 mph in his first session throwing batting practice, and he'll get a chance to translate that to game action for the first time when he starts the Twins' 12:05 p.m. CT matchup against the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Monday.