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A full-circle, five-year journey back to MLB

'I was done. The Twins pulled me back. I'm glad they did'
@dohyoungpark
August 4, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- A year ago, Minnesota native Caleb Thielbar wanted to be done with professional baseball. At that point, the veteran left-hander had languished in the Tigers' Minor League system for nearly two seasons. He had thrown his last Major League pitch in 2015. He had pitched plenty well enough

MINNEAPOLIS -- A year ago, Minnesota native Caleb Thielbar wanted to be done with professional baseball.

At that point, the veteran left-hander had languished in the Tigers' Minor League system for nearly two seasons. He had thrown his last Major League pitch in 2015. He had pitched plenty well enough to earn a callup to some bad Detroit teams with a 2.05 ERA across two levels in 2018 and a 3.30 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning for Triple-A Toledo in '19. Still, he never got the call.

"I was pretty much over it," Thielbar said. "There had been so much hard work -- and honestly, I don't want to say too much about that -- but not getting a chance last summer was hard on me. I was pretty frustrated, and I was done with the game."

He was so done, in fact, that he accepted a job to become an assistant coach at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he helped guide the Vikings to a 9-4 record in a COVID-shortened 2020 season. In the meantime, he was taken aback when a flood of teams contacted him during the MLB offseason -- including his hometown Twins. He couldn't resist signing a Minor League deal.

On Tuesday afternoon, a journey of more than five years involving five MLB organizations, an independent league team and a Division II college came full circle when Thielbar toed the rubber at Target Field for the first time since April 30, 2015. More than a half-decade after he held the White Sox to one hit over two shutout innings on that mound, he emptied the tank with 51 pitches in 2 1/3 innings in a 7-3 Twins victory over the Pirates.

Boy, did that feel good.

"I was done. I was done. The Twins pulled me back," Thielbar said. "I'm glad they did."

It wasn't the smoothest debut, as Thielbar allowed two runs on five hits and issued a pair of walks, but it was exactly what the Twins needed as they played with only 29 on their 30-man roster, mired in a stretch of 36 games in 37 days. Thielbar's 51 pitches marked a career high and gave everybody in the Minnesota bullpen other than Trevor May a much-appreciated day off ahead of an eight-day road trip.

The Twins surprised him with a game ball after the win, something that Thielbar hadn't been expecting after running out of steam in the ninth inning.

"It was a great moment for him, being out there on the mound," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "A great moment for him in the clubhouse. You talk about people earning things. He earned it a long time ago, and he’s earned it once again. It was a great day."

Thielbar insists that this isn't the same version of him that appeared in 109 games over three seasons with the Twins from 2013-15. He was quite successful then, pitching to a 2.74 ERA before he was optioned down and, later, designated for assignment. He went through stints with the Padres' and Marlins' organizations. He pitched two seasons for the independent St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He threw effectively in the Tigers' system.

He never made it all the way back. Until Tuesday.

"It was something I never was totally convinced was going to happen again,” Thielbar said, “but I kept pushing and finally got the opportunity.”

Thielbar's fastball velocity wasn't where he wanted it to be on Tuesday, as he averaged 89.5 mph with it, but he's expecting that to improve. He also knows that his curveball has more depth to it, and after consulting with the Twins' pitching minds during Spring Training, he took the time away from baseball to add horizontal movement to a slider that he now feels can be a weapon.

"My stuff is unquestionably better than it used to be, but the game is also better, too," Thielbar said.

Growing up, Thielbar lived about 40 miles away from Target Field in tiny Randolph, Minn., south of the Twin Cities area, and watched the Twins. It was nearly seven years and three months ago that he threw his first Major League pitch for his hometown team in 2013 and got to live his dream for nearly two years.

That dream lives on.

"Today, he had an opportunity to go out and do what he loves," said Twins starter José Berríos. "I feel so happy for him because it means he never gave up and is still working hard. He believes in himself. That's very important. He's now with us and enjoying his ability."

"It didn't really hit me until after the game," Thielbar said. "It was good to get back out there, especially with this team. This is the team I grew up watching. I played with a lot of these guys. I'm really excited to see where the organization has gone. I'm just glad to be able to get back with this team in particular."

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