Kenta Maeda disappeared into the home clubhouse between the second and third innings of his start against the Rays on Saturday and emerged wearing a long undershirt in the chilly Fort Myers, Fla., breeze.
He doesn't like to stretch himself too thin in his final start of Spring Training, so this start -- his penultimate of the Grapefruit League -- offered him the chance to come closest to regular-season conditions, and he went the extra mile by preparing for the cold spring weather of the Upper Midwest. Having pitched in sunny Southern California for much of his career and without a spring in Minnesota last season, that kind of temperature will be new to him.
"I haven’t worn that in seven years," Maeda said.
The sleeves didn't seem to get in the way of another gem in which he allowed one run on four hits in 5 1/3 innings to key the Twins' 2-1 win over Tampa Bay at Hammond Stadium. He struck out six without issuing a walk, bringing his Spring Training total to 18 strikeouts and one free pass in 14 1/3 frames.
That'll play -- and he no longer needs to worry about having "too good" of a spring anymore, as he'd posited after his last start.
"I’m really glad I said it," Maeda said. "That’s an excuse for me to give up runs there."
His performance has been all the more impressive considering he's spent this spring working on new pitches -- a curveball and two-seam fastball -- and he featured those offerings more prominently on Saturday than he had all spring, tossing the curveball nine times and the sinker eight times. He and the Twins feel good about how the curveball could fit into his arsenal this season, but the two-seamer still needs work in order for him to use it as a weapon in on the hands of right-handed hitters.
This game did offer a glimpse of how those offerings could help Maeda reach new heights this season, as he generated six whiffs on 12 swings against his changeup while he mixed and matched all of his pitches throughout his 75-pitch appearance.
"You could probably look at it and say Kenta’s good enough at what he does to go out there with his present stuff and get outs, but he’s not satisfied with that," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "They’ve come along well. I’m sure he’s going to continue to think about them, tinker with them, play with them in his outings and use them in select spots to get select hitters out, one way or the other."
Pitching coach Wes Johnson said earlier in the week to keep an eye on non-roster left-hander Brandon Waddell, whom he described as having "the lowest hanging fruit" among newcomers to the staff in terms of changes the Twins wanted him to make. (Though Johnson, of course, didn't specify what said fruit might look like.)
Whatever they're doing, it sure looks like it's working.
The left-hander, acquired off waivers from the Pirates early in the offseason, struck out five in two hitless innings to close out the Twins' victory and generated 10 swinging strikes, including nine with his slider. He has now tallied 10 strikeouts in 4 2/3 scoreless innings over his last four appearances, with significant boosts to the spin rates on both his fastball and slider.
Though Waddell was outrighted off the 40-man roster before camp, his work could be paying off to the point where he could play a role out of the bullpen sometime during the regular season.
"He came in very open-minded," Baldelli said. "We've been able to talk to him, experiment with and take out onto the field a good four-seam fastball. And he can spin the ball and he has pretty good feel for what he's doing command-wise. There was a lot to work with Wad, and I think he's feeling good physically, throwing the ball well and had a hell of an outing tonight."
The Twins expect second baseman Jorge Polanco to return to the lineup on Sunday. Polanco last took the field on Tuesday, when he suffered left adductor tightness after rolling over the baseball on a diving attempt.
All eyes will be on left-hander J.A. Happ in Sunday's 12:05 p.m. CT contest against the Orioles, when the veteran will make his second start of Grapefruit League play following a delayed arrival to camp due to COVID-19. His rampup for the regular season is the main question that remains on the Twins' pitching staff in the closing days of Spring Training after he threw 29 pitches in two innings in his spring debut on Monday.
Happ should have two more spring outings following this one to stretch out his arm, and it's also worth noting that the Twins now have Lewis Thorpe synchronized to Happ's schedule, as the younger left-hander pitched in relief of Happ on Monday and is scheduled to do so again on Sunday. If Happ isn't fully stretched out by his first turn in the regular season, that might mean Thorpe could be enlisted to step in as a tandem option in long relief.
That picture should become clearer in the coming weeks, but for now, the Twins still don't appear worried about Happ.
"We feel comfortable he’s got some time to get ready," Johnson said.