Ober tests full repertoire in first spring start

Lee, Jackson aim for versatility at the plate and on the mound

February 25th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Players who enter spring with an established role have the luxury to tinker, fine-tune or just plain take their time ramping up for the season.

And so, when wanted to make sure each of his pitches was working against the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon at JetBlue Park, that’s exactly what the right-hander did.

Ober worked through everything across 1 1/3 innings during the Twins’ 8-6 loss, allowing four unearned runs on two hits and two walks while striking out three. Spring Training, of course, is less about results and more about the process, but for what it’s worth, both hits were singles, and each came on an offspeed pitch early in the count.

“I feel like I could have dominated with fastballs primarily only today,” Ober said, “but I needed to go out there and throw my full repertoire. It’s kind of something I wouldn't necessarily do during the regular season. … But it felt good to be back out there.”

The pair of walks was even less of a concern, not just because of Ober’s specific agenda but because of his history. He’s averaged 4.97 strikeouts for every walk in his career, and he logged 146 punchouts against just 29 walks (a 5.03:1 ratio) in 144 1/3 innings last season, just missing the minimum 162 frames to be considered qualified for contention among league leaders.

Assuming Ober stayed on his pace of 0.2 walks per inning and tossed those 162 innings, his 32 free passes would have ranked fourth in the Majors behind Seattle’s George Kirby (19 walks in 190 2/3 innings), Tampa Bay’s Zach Eflin (24, 177 2/3) and San Francisco’s Logan Webb (31, 216).

Switching it up
finished 1-for-3 from the cleanup spot in six innings at designated hitter. The 23-year-old switch-hitter spent the offseason tinkering with his right-handed swing to shore the gap between his production from the left side of the plate in Triple-A (.832 OPS) and the right (.358). Sunday marked the first time he trotted out his work in a game, batting once from the right side and two times from the left.

Lee’s third at-bat brought a payoff, when he batted left and pounced on a pitch from Boston’s Wikelman Gonzalez, driving it hard to right for a leadoff single in the sixth.

“He’s a cerebral ballplayer. I think, offensively, he’s looked good,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “... He wants to be an excellent at-bat from both sides of the plate, so that’s where his head’s always going to be.”

Lee, the club’s No. 2 prospect and No. 18 overall, per MLB Pipeline, could be the first guy the Twins turn to if there’s an injury in the infield, given that he’s played third base and shortstop professionally and devoted time this spring to improving his defense at those spots and at second.

He’s scheduled to play in the field during Monday’s 12:05 p.m. CT game against the Yankees in Tampa.

Welcome relief
Sunday’s game also featured the Twins debut of , the righty journeyman Minnesota hopes will hold a valuable role in what should be a pretty powerful bullpen this season. Jackson, who signed a one-year deal with the club Feb. 7, followed fellow reliever John Stankiewicz and pitched the third inning.

Jackson secured two quick outs before a pair of singles around a walk allowed the Red Sox to score once. He bounced back to coax a harmless flyout from Rafael Devers -- who hit a three-run homer off Stankiewicz one inning prior.

The 36-year-old figures to slot in as a setup man but has also proven valuable in longer stretches, flexibility the Twins would love to have should injuries or a string of rough starts occur. Last year with the Blue Jays, seven of Jackson’s 25 appearances lasted longer than one inning, led by a season-high 2 2/3 scoreless frames on 39 pitches (31 strikes) against the Astros on June 5.

“I’ve talked to him a little bit about this already: He’s going to have to be a versatile guy,” Baldelli said. “He’s going to be an all-purpose reliever for us. Every situation you could imagine, he’s going to pitch in for us this season, and he’s ready for it. He’s got the mindset for it, he’s not going to be thrown off by it.

“He’ll be ready for anything.”