'He's here for real': Why Johan is singing López's praises

March 23rd, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It might be tough to believe, but only made two Opening Day starts for the Twins. Since he left the organization, three other pitchers have gotten consecutive nods on Day 1: Carl Pavano, Ervin Santana and José Berríos.

will join that group on Thursday, when he’ll lead the Twins into the regular season for a second straight year. But perhaps unlike those who came before him, López's ceiling (and already established playoff record for Minnesota) could put him in position to be this rotation’s surest leader since the days of Johan -- and Santana himself thinks this year is crucial for López to make that leap.

“Now, he's here to be the ace of this team, and it's been proven that he can take the ball in those particular games,” Santana said. “The thing is, in a new season, that game is going to be every time he goes out there. A lot of people are going to be expecting a lot of things from him.”

No pressure.

That’s the difference this year. López was new to all this last season when he arrived in an offseason trade. Equipped with a new sweeper, López was anointed the Opening Day man even before he finished as the American League runner-up in strikeouts and snapped the organization’s 18-game playoff losing streak.

This year, all those accomplishments feed into heightened expectations.

“Not every team has a go-to guy that you rely on for everything,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Pablo is the go-to guy for us. That means a lot of different things. You look to that guy in big games. You look to that guy to end a tough stretch when you're not playing the baseball that you want.”

So, coming off a final four-inning tune-up outing in a Double-A Spring Training game on Saturday, the next start for López is for real on Thursday. He always puts pressure on himself to improve every day, so pressure is nothing new -- but he now understands that there’s a bigger picture to the role of ace.

“I'm just as excited as the first one,” López said. “I'm also sure I'm going to be just as nervous, just as anxious as the first one. I think that's something that never goes away.”

There aren’t necessarily performance bona fides that López needs to show. Sure, he’s spent this spring working on landing his curveball more effectively in all counts and tuning up his five-pitch arsenal here and there. But López has also had conversations with Santana this spring that have emphasized the importance of embracing an ace's tone-setting mentality. Leading a staff entails consistency, not only on López's start days, but on all other days, too, especially with Sonny Gray gone.

“He works harder than anybody,” Carlos Correa said. “This guy is the first one to show up to the clubhouse every day and the last one to leave, and I really mean that. A lot of people say that just to say it, but it’s true.”

Santana talked to López about the importance of confidence -- success priming confidence, priming more success, priming more confidence -- and how that feeds the team around him. Even amid all the successes of last year, López has talked about that stretch of 6.15 ERA pitching from April 22 to June 1 as a pain point, the kind of stretch that motivates him and stands out as a clear area of improvement from an otherwise great 2023.

“I'm the tone-setter,” López said. “I get four days to get ready for three hours. … Are you doing everything you can and that you possibly could to make sure that you redeem yourself or you keep that momentum going? I took a lot from that conversation.”

With three seasons left beyond this one on López’s four-year extension that he inked shortly after last Opening Day, this could be the second of many more tone-setting nods to come -- and, in that bigger picture, this year is important to consolidate that overall trajectory for what he means to this organization.

“What happened in the playoffs last year wasn't just something that happened,” Santana said. “He's here for real. So I think he has to set that pace, and everybody else has to follow. All the pitching staff has to follow, because if you want to be a winning team, if you want to win again this season, and you want to go deeper into the playoffs, that's how you do it.”