Rookie arms impressive for contending Twins

September 21st, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins reliever Cody Stashak was first called up to the Major Leagues on July 22, but you wouldn't know that from watching him pitch. The quiet, steely 25-year-old arrived with a very simple plan, and he's had little trouble sticking to it so far.

"Throw strikes," Stashak said. "The only way to get outs."

Those outside the organization worried about Minnesota's bullpen depth heading into the Trade Deadline couldn't have foreseen the quick rise -- and immediate success -- of young pitcher after young pitcher that the Twins have turned to throughout the season and in September as they chase their first American League Central title since 2010.

Stashak began the season in Double-A Pensacola. Devin Smeltzer also started in Pensacola and first made his way up to the Major League club on May 28. Lewis Thorpe first came up from Triple-A Rochester on June 28. Brusdar Graterol, ranked as the Twins' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline, started in Pensacola and became a Twin on Sept. 1. And Randy Dobnak, the biggest surprise of all, started all the way down in Class A Advanced Fort Myers before debuting on Aug. 9. He picked up his first Major League win against the Royals on Friday.

On Friday night, that group of rookies, united in the Majors, took a big symbolic step forward. Dobnak, Stashak, Smeltzer and Graterol were trusted with eight innings in a close game against the Royals, passing their first significant test as a group with the Twins in the midst of a playoff chase.

"Our player development group has sent us quality Major League players, guys that you take and they’re ready to come in and contribute, and it’s great," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "It doesn’t always work like that. It’s not that easy. Guys don’t just come up from the Minor Leagues and come in and contribute.

"We’re in a pennant race, and to be able to lean on those guys right now and not have any second thoughts about it, it’s very nice."

True to the creed that Stashak laid out when he first arrived, the rookies have all pelted the strike zone throughout their stays in the Majors. Stashak has been the best example, entering Saturday with 21 strikeouts and only one walk through 22 innings, and the five first-year pitchers had combined for 107 strikeouts and 30 walks this season.

"That's one thing they teach coming up through the system, just pound the zone, get ahead of guys," Dobnak said. "Once you fall behind guys, that's when you get in trouble. They have done a really good job of teaching that. Those four guys, they have done it their whole careers and continue to do it up here."

For reference, that works out to an average of 3.57 strikeouts per walk this season for that quintet, which would rank highest among MLB bullpens.

"We're taught that from a young age, and the guys you're seeing here are guys that are just really good at it and trust their stuff," Smeltzer said. "All these guys trust their stuff. One hundred percent. That is why we're able to go in the zone and say, 'Here's my stuff. Let's see if you can hit it.' And that's why we're successful, and that's why you're seeing a lot of success from all these young guys."

They're not focused on it for now, but they're aware that they might be pitching for potential playoff roster spots at the end of the season, with Michael Pineda suspended and Sam Dyson's status uncertain for the remainder of the season.

One thing's certain: They haven't been intimidated by the Major Leagues so far, and they don't expect that to change in the postseason.

"I try not to think about it," Thorpe said. "I try and go day to day every day, and go battle and go about my business. If it happens, it happens. It would be awesome."

"It's just not letting the game speed up on you," Smeltzer said. "It doesn't matter if you're in the [Arizona League], the [Florida State League], the big leagues, the Dominican. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how many fans are there. It's still a round ball and a round bat. The guys get better. You have to execute a little more. When it's said and done, if you're in the zone, you're going to be all right."