Alcala angling for high-leverage bullpen role

March 22nd, 2021

The phone rang in the visitors' bullpen at Kauffman Stadium and walked over to the gate so he could hold it open for teammate Zack Littell. Twins starter Jake Odorizzi had just gotten hit in the chest by a line drive, there were runners on first and second with none out in the fourth inning, and Alcala figured the call was going to Littell.

Littell took a few steps out onto the warning track -- and was called back.

"I thought they were calling him," said Alcala, who was still wearing his jacket in the bullpen. "They were calling me."

First came a bunt single. Two batters latter, a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk. Alcala got to a 3-0 count on Nicky Lopez -- but came back to strike him out. Three balls again to Hunter Dozier -- followed by another timely payoff pitch and strikeout. Alcala retired the next six in order and finished with six strikeouts across his three innings.

That's when he knew.

"That was my turning point," Alcala said. "I said, 'I belong here, and I just need to keep learning and have an open mind about things and just keep growing.'"

If that Aug. 21 outing didn't tell him enough, his final 2020 stats should do the trick: a 2.63 ERA in 16 relief appearances, including 27 strikeouts in 24 innings. His fastball peaked at 100.7 mph, making him one of three Twins hurlers in the pitch-tracking era to hit triple digits. Opponents whiffed against his slider on nearly 40 percent of their swings.

Despite the gaudy numbers, Alcala never quite took that next step into the upper echelon of the Twins' bullpen, those tasked with protecting slim leads late in games. He made it into the sixth inning of a one-run game on Aug. 25, but he blew the lead -- and after that, he only ever pitched with Minnesota up big or down late.

With Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard and Matt Wisler in the fold last season, the Twins didn't need Alcala in that role. But this year, with a slimmer group of veterans at the back end of the bullpen, the club could certainly use his electric stuff.

He feels ready for it. Are the Twins?

"I think not only does he want to be in our bullpen, he wants to pitch meaningful innings in our bullpen," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I think those are great goals for him. I think he certainly has the ability."

What stopped the Twins from pushing the lanky 25-year-old into that type of role last season was that they still needed to see more consistency in his stuff. The fastball could touch triple digits, but it could also dip down into the 94-95 mph range at times. Maybe the stuff was there with his high-octane slider that averaged 88.6 mph, but the execution wasn't steady from pitch to pitch, outing to outing.

For a young pitcher making his first real foray into the big leagues, Alcala could get by on the quality of his stuff. To be trusted with those biggest outs, he needed to show that he could replicate it, whether in his velocity, the amount and shape of his break or his location.

"It's knowing exactly from our end who we have coming in the game, and also from his end, who he's going to be when he shows up and steps out on the mound," Baldelli said. "He's got excellent stuff. He executed well last year. At times, it was very good. At times, it was less so.

"But I think when he can actually get out there and execute those pitches and hone his stuff and command and take that one level up, I think we're going to really have something."

Last season, Alcala spent nearly the full year in the Majors, learning by example when it came to his preparation and routine between games as he continued his transition from starting to the bullpen. Alcala stayed in touch with pitching coach Wes Johnson and bullpen coach Pete Maki throughout the offseason and entered the spring with the determination to apply what he had learned.

"I think last year was really good for him," Johnson said. "Jorge is competing, and we are expecting him to make another jump and really help us out this year."

Spring results don't mean much in this organization, but Alcala has posted seven strikeouts in seven innings while allowing only two hits, including a trio of punchouts in two hitless frames to close out a win over Baltimore on Sunday.

He has walked four and the command is likely still coming along, but there are more 97s, 98s and 99s on the radar gun. The spottiness of spring data makes it more difficult to directly gauge his effectiveness, but the Twins are happy with what they're seeing.

"That's exactly what we've seen more of this spring," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "He's throwing the ball really well. He's throwing it consistently well. We've always felt he's got the pitches and the raw talent, the raw pitches, that can pitch towards the back of the bullpen. It's just now putting it all together."

The Twins do still have a robust late-inning core in , , and , but Rogers and Robles are both coming off down years, and it's already a thinner group than that of last season. A healthy should help that depth, but Alcala's stuff gives him the ability to be a true force.

Once Alcala reins it in, there should come a time when he's no longer surprised to get that call from the bullpen. Perhaps it'll be sooner rather than later.

"I think last year's experience was good for me," he said. "I learned a lot and I'm looking forward to doing the same this year, and I'm looking forward to opportunities like that. I think you learn a lot from those, and growing at this level is important for me."