Jax steps into spotlight in St. Louis, stars

July 31st, 2021

St. LOUIS -- The first game of the post-José Berríos era in Minnesota went on as if the right-hander had never left.

That’s because rookie Griffin Jax was able to step in and seamlessly fill the two-time Opening Day starter’s rotation spot following Berríos’ trade to Toronto earlier in the day as part of the fracas ahead of the Trade Deadline, twirling five strong innings of two-hit ball to begin what could be an extended look in the rotation.

But Minnesota’s bullpen gave way in a 5-1 defeat to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Friday.

“Everyone knows what’s been going on today and what everyone’s been dealing with today, losing some of our guys,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Griffin came in and just did a great job. He seemed very relaxed. He was focused. He wasn’t thrown off by us calling his name late and sending him out there [to] pitch.”

There should be plenty of starts to go around in the Minnesota rotation through the end of the season now that both Berríos and J.A. Happ have been dealt away as the Twins look ahead to 2022 and beyond. With manager Rocco Baldelli already having indicated before the game that Jax will likely remain in the rotation for his first consistent starting gig in the big leagues, the 26-year-old Air Force graduate isn’t giving his skipper much reason to change his mind.

Jax scattered a pair of singles and two walks through his 83-pitch start, with the lone run to his name crossing home following a single, a stolen base and two flyouts in the fourth inning. Couple that with his four-inning start against the White Sox in his last outing in which he allowed one hit -- as his preseason work to add more vertical movement to his fastball paid off -- and the rookie is settling in at the game’s highest level.

Not that he’s thinking about that, and it’s tough to blame him. His first four big league appearances were all relief outings in June -- a role he hadn’t appeared in since 2018 in High-A. And now he's made three consecutive starts on an irregular schedule.

“It’s not my job to anticipate consistency and easy, I guess, opportunities,” Jax said. “I’ve been asked to handle a workload that is sort of uneven, whether it be, ‘Get a start here, go back down, help [Triple-A] St. Paul out, come back up,’ I have no idea. I’m just going to be here, show up every single day with a smile on my face and make sure I’m giving myself the best chance to go out there and do my best work.”

After Jax left the game with a 1-1 tie, Tyler Duffey allowed a bases-clearing double to Tommy Edman in the sixth inning before the Cardinals tacked on an insurance run in the seventh to pull away.

That might have stopped Jax from collecting his second big league win, but he should have more opportunities as the Twins gear up to give plenty of starts down the stretch to him and fellow rookies Bailey Ober and Charlie Barnes with Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe -- the club’s previously expected rotation depth -- all sidelined with injuries.

This could be their chance to prove to the Twins that they, too, can play meaningful roles moving forward when opportunities could get tighter with top prospects Joe Ryan, Drew Strotman, Jordan Balazovic, Jhoan Duran, Matt Canterino and Josh Winder all expected to graduate to the Majors within the next year or two.

“It's an important time for the players themselves,” Baldelli said. “These are opportunities at the big league level that you don't always get. We're looking for our guys to go out there and play fearlessly, and go out there and compete and give this last couple months of the season everything they have.”

Need fearlessness? Jax stepped into the batter’s box for the first time since 2014 on Friday -- once with the bases loaded. Fortunately, that won’t be part of the audition moving forward.

“I’m just going to be here and show up every single day and do what I need to do to anticipate I’ll be starting in the next five days, [or] whenever [I am], but I’m ready to accept any single role that is asked of me,” Jax said.