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Notes: Littell seeks heat; Berrios tweaks curve

@dohyoungpark
February 29, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Encouraged by his results last year, Zack Littell left behind a message for pitching coach Wes Johnson as he went home for the offseason. "I want to hit 100 [mph]," Littell told Johnson. "I want to get to 100."

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Encouraged by his results last year, Zack Littell left behind a message for pitching coach Wes Johnson as he went home for the offseason.

"I want to hit 100 [mph]," Littell told Johnson. "I want to get to 100."

That wasn't going to happen overnight, and almost certainly not by this point in Spring Training -- not that Littell has needed it. His fastball topped out at "only" 93 mph in the Twins' 2-0 loss to the Pirates on Saturday night, but he continued his dominant spring with three strikeouts in two hitless innings of relief.

The 24-year-old right-hander has continued a smooth transition to the bullpen with eight strikeouts in five scoreless frames of Grapefruit League action this spring. Though Littell was a starter throughout his Minor League career, he was converted to relief last May and posted a 0.88 ERA in 30 2/3 innings over the season's final four months.

His stuff played up out of the bullpen, too. The average velocity on his four-seamer jumped from 92.0 mph in 2018 to 93.8 mph in '19, and the heater topped out at 97.3 mph in a Sept. 17 outing against the White Sox, leading to Littell's stated goal to Johnson.

His easier workload out of the bullpen helped him work on that once the season ended.

"I ended the year last year with, I think, 60 fewer innings than I had the year before," Littell said. "I know it was 22 more appearances or something. But I felt like it was June. I felt really good. I came home this offseason and started a lot earlier. I took about two weeks and started going at it again. I feel good."

Littell doesn't believe he needs to add any more strength to his frame; though he won't go into specifics, he said that his plan with Johnson is instead to clean up some of the movement patterns in his delivery and train his body to accomplish those new movements without Littell needing to actively think about them. He's encouraged with the progress he already saw in 2019 and feels there's still some untapped potential left in the tank.

"I didn't necessarily go into the bullpen trying to throw hard," Littell said. "Honestly, I didn't try to throw hard at all. But I think some of the work we did, some of the work that Wes did with me, I'm not going to say it's going to be now or even in a couple of weeks or a month or whatever it is, but I think it's there. If I continue to do this stuff, who knows?"

Berríos aiming for more 12-6 action on curveball

The days of José Berríos' big, slurve-y breaking ball may be numbered.

Throughout the first four seasons of his Major League career, Berríos' curveball developed into his primary swing-and-miss pitch and showed significant lateral run toward his glove side as well as vertical drop. But Berríos said after his three scoreless innings on Saturday night that he's working to develop more north-south action on the pitch this spring, with the hope that it will tunnel more effectively with his fastball up in the zone.

"It looks like a fastball and then it drops down," Berríos said.

Berríos has also been working on the consistency of his release point across all of his pitches, drawing his arm back less significantly in his delivery and using the Twins' new force-plate mound and visual elements to track his progress. That also plays into the right-hander's ability to tunnel the fastball and curveball.

"Being able to use those pitches off of each other, I think, is certainly a trick that José is aware of and he's used," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I think he's still perfecting that kind of stuff and gaining even more feel for it."

Odds and ends

• The Twins bring franchise legends Tony Oliva and Rod Carew to camp every year because of the positive impact that the old friends have on players at every level of the organization. On Saturday, that generosity also extended off the field.

Before the Twins' night game against the Pirates, Carew popped his head out of the back entrance of the home clubhouse at Hammond Stadium and emerged with three signed baseballs -- gifts for the stadium usher/security personnel sitting at a makeshift break table in the tunnels beneath the stands. Carew told the ushers that he appreciated the time and effort they put into their work during Spring Training.

Nelson Cruz's son, Nelson David, took part in pregame fielding drills alongside his father (who worked out at third base for fun) and served as a bat boy in Saturday night's game.

Up next

The Twins should have another key piece of their roster healthy at last for Sunday's game, as All-Star shortstop Jorge Polanco is expected to make his Grapefruit League debut when the Twins head north to Port Charlotte, Fla. for a 12:05 p.m. CT matchup against the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Polanco sat out the first week of games to complete his recovery from arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle.

Kenta Maeda will make his second Twins start opposite Tampa Bay right-hander Joe Ryan in the game, which will be televised on MLB.TV.

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.