Minaya, Coulombe thriving in Twins' bullpen

August 18th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Amid the wave of young waiver wire pickups looking to snag a foothold in the Twins' bullpen, a pair of veterans have also seen their patience and commitment to the organization pay off -- and they're rewarding the club with their performance, too.

and arrived as veteran Minor League free agents before the 2020 season, put in long hours at the alternate training site without any guarantees and chose to return to Minnesota for the '21 campaign, again on Minor League deals.

Now, not only have they finally found the consistent opportunity in the big leagues that they've long sought, but they're also thriving in high-leverage situations.

"There’s a reason those guys are still here," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "A lot of the time, guys won’t be in the same organization after a period of time if they haven’t had as much of an opportunity as they’d like. But I think we were pretty upfront with what we thought of them. The fact that we thought they have real ability that we think we can work with and would like to use it at some point."

Minaya, 30, logged a 3.32 ERA in 13 appearances this season entering Tuesday, with 23 strikeouts and nine walks in 19 innings. He had thrown six straight scoreless appearances and earned an extra-innings win in Houston to go with a shutout eighth inning in a tie game on Monday against Cleveland.

The 31-year-old Coulombe has found his place facing left-handed hitters late in games and saw his leverage usage spike in Houston, when he faced the Astros' string of productive lefties -- Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker -- while protecting leads. He owned a 2.75 ERA in 17 outings, with 22 strikeouts and three walks in 19 2/3 frames, entering Tuesday's game against Cleveland.

Both have experienced success at this level before -- and they're thrilled to be back in this position after some years of uncertainty.

"I trust myself completely, but it's great that they trust me to put me in situations like that," Coulombe said. "I've learned a lot."

Coulombe had a 4.27 career ERA in parts of five seasons with the Dodgers and A's before the Twins snagged him with an eye on his ability to spin the ball. When he got to Minnesota, he found an organization that helped him re-introduce the carry to his four-seam fastball instead of relying as heavily on his sinker, emphasizing the separation between that pitch and his breaking balls.

The Twins really buckled down on his pitch movement last season at the alternate training site and put him through a velocity camp before the '21 season -- and that kind of work made it an easy decision for Coulombe to want to be back with the club.

"Those guys have really helped me," Coulombe said. "Even at this point in my career, I felt like I got a lot better last year. ... I think they've really helped me. I really like the organization as a whole."

Minaya had decent success with the White Sox for four seasons, during which he posted a 3.93 ERA, but the Twins saw an effective changeup that they thought he could rely on more heavily. His usage of that changeup is way up this year to 41.9 percent -- nearly double his previous career high -- and they've emphasized command of all pitches.

"Early in the process, when I got here, I was pitching [blowout] games," Minaya said. "I got more comfortable, started getting people out, and now they trust my work. It feels good to come in and win games like that."

It hasn't been the easiest season for the Twins' pitching machine, with the noted struggles of free-agent acquisitions Alex Colomé, Hansel Robles, J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker playing no insignificant part in the club's losing record.

But in Coulombe and Minaya, they appear to have executed quite well -- and they're reaping the benefits.

"These are guys that have put themselves in positions to succeed through working their tails off, having a plan, going to the field every day and doing what they need to do and executing their plan when they show up," Baldelli said. "And we’re seeing the results on the field. I think they’re doing a nice job in establishing themselves a little bit and they’ve filled big roles for us."

Watkins tests positive for COVID-19

The Twins announced that first-base coach Tommy Watkins tested positive for COVID-19 and granted permission for public release of that information. Watkins had previously been vaccinated.

Watkins was suddenly removed from the third inning of Monday's series opener against Cleveland. Major League field coordinator Kevin Morgan took his place and will continue to fill that position until Watkins' return.

Baldelli indicated on Tuesday that he did not believe the status of Minnesota's games against Cleveland in this series to be in jeopardy. He also said the situation could impact multiple members of the Twins' group.

"As of right now, everyone is doing OK," Baldelli said. "I don’t have anything to report on that side, which is relatively good. But we have to stay very aware, very careful, and pay attention to everything going on around us."

Co-hitting coach Edgar Varela is already away from the group as part of a separate situation in which he stepped away for COVID-19 issues within his family and eventually contracted the virus himself.

Even with the coaching staff down two members, Baldelli indicated the Twins would stick with their existing Major League staff through this period. Run creation coordinator Frankie Padulo will step up to work with the hitters alongside co-hitting coach Rudy Hernandez in Varela's absence.