Dobnak earns Opening Day spot, then K's 5 

Baldelli tabs righty for relief role initially, with starting gig still in play

March 26th, 2021

Randy Dobnak already knew that he'd made the Opening Day roster, but in the information-controlled environment of the Twins' clubhouse, he wasn't able to spill the beans to the media himself following his start Thursday evening.

"We've had discussions, yes," Dobnak said cryptically. "But I don't know if I'm able to say that. I might be in [Class A Advanced] Cedar Rapids, who knows?"

It was an admirable effort at staving off the inevitable after left-hander Lewis Thorpe was optioned off the active roster earlier in the day, leaving Dobnak as the last man standing to assume a long relief or swingman role in the Twins' bullpen. It would have been a shame, too, had the Twins kicked Dobnak all the way back to A ball after he'd allowed just one earned run throughout Spring Training.

Fortunately for the 26-year-old right-hander, his manager made things official less than an hour later by announcing that Dobnak will break camp with the team and pitch out of the Twins' bullpen to begin the regular season.

"Randy has been incredible this camp," Rocco Baldelli said. "I mean, essentially unhittable in any of his outings. And we're very, very impressed with what we've seen from him."

It really wasn't much of an exaggeration. Until Dobnak allowed a solo homer to Bobby Dalbec in the fifth inning of the Twins' 7-4 victory over the Red Sox at JetBlue Park on Thursday night, he'd gone the entire spring without allowing an earned run. That homer was the only hit he allowed in his Thursday start, bringing his spring total to six hits yielded in 13 2/3 innings.

And how about this? Dobnak's book is likely closed this spring with a tally of 18 strikeouts and no walks. By the right-hander's tally, he only reached one three-ball count all spring.

Nominally, there was a competition for the final spot in the Twins' bullpen between Dobnak and Thorpe, who also arrived in camp with much-improved stuff. But Dobnak left little doubt that he belonged with his performance.

"Obviously, it's kind of something you grow up thinking about," Dobnak said. "One thing is to be a big leaguer, and the next thing is like, 'Oh, I want to be on the Opening Day roster when they introduce everybody.' Especially this year, with fans, that [will] be pretty cool."

The strikeout total is all the more impressive considering, well, Dobnak isn't a strikeout pitcher.

Wasn't, anyway.

In the span of only a handful of starts, Dobnak made an adjustment to his slider release in the hopes of adding more horizontal movement to the pitch, and he suddenly found himself in possession of that putaway pitch with two strikes that he'd been lacking for much of his career. (He only has 50 strikeouts in 75 career big league innings.)

That slider was on full display again Thursday, diving away from right-handed bats as he tallied five more punchouts in five efficient frames.

And even as the relative remoteness of his home in Hedgesville, W.V., led him to work with a 17-year-old high school catcher, Aidan Milton, during the offseason, Dobnak was able to rein in the consistency of his sinker that often had too much uncontrolled movement last season. That could also help him address the rather unusual issue of having a sinker that moved more than his changeup at times.

The Twins are very familiar with Dobnak's easygoing versatility in his role, and Baldelli noted that the club has a flexible role in mind for the right-hander -- as always.

"That could change at any time, as we know," Baldelli said. "It's a long season, and we're going to find ways to slot him in there as well to give us some innings. So even though he's starting here in the bullpen, I could see him -- not very long into the season -- coming out there and helping us in the rotation."

That's exactly what happened last year, when Dobnak made 10 starts -- third-most on the team -- due to a rash of injuries.

Whatever happens, he won't lack opportunities to keep poking fun at Kenta Maeda.

"After the one game [this spring] I had six strikeouts, [Maeda] kind of looked at me the next day and was like, 'Six strikeouts?'" Dobnak said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah. I'm coming for your job.'"

He's getting closer.