FORT MYERS, Fla. – Nothing he saw Tuesday in the Twins’ 1-0 victory over the Rays, Paul Molitor said, will have an impact on the roster decisions still to come this week. If that’s the case, ByungHo Park probably has been safe for awhile.
Park slugged a cut fastball from Tampa Bay righthander Austin Pruitt several rows deep into the seats in right-center at Hammond Field during the seventh inning, providing all the offense Minnesota would need to win for the first time since last Thursday. It was Park’s fifth home run of the spring, two more than any teammate, and an effective punctuation mark on a solid bounce-back spring.
It also drained any drama out of the battle to be the Twins’ designated hitter. Molitor said roster moves will come Wednesday that will provide “a fair amount of clarity” about the remaining roster competitions, but with Park batting .362 this spring and Kennys Vargas absent for weeks at the World Baseball Classic and now hobbled because of a bruised foot, it’s difficult to imagine Park heading anywhere this weekend but Target Field.
“It’s been fairly consistent all spring,” Molitor said of Park, whose 2016 debut season was ruined by a stubborn slump and an injured hand. “Some of the pressure has been lessened. You can see a little more calmness. The velocity doesn’t seem to get him off his approach too much, like we saw at times last year.”
The Twins couldn’t necessarily have predicted that, given that they exposed him to waivers — any other team could have claimed him — and removed him from the roster shortly before camp opened. Rather than demoralize the proud South Korean slugger, the move might have motivated him, though Park insists that’s not the case.
“I have the same mind-set whether or not the 29 teams are watching me,” he said.
Maybe so. But Park obviously has learned from his disappointing 2016 season, which in retrospect was probably not so surprising.
“He had a lot of attention being paid, not only here, but [in Korea],” Molitor said. “I think his culture is expectation-based, trying to please other people. We got off to a bad start, he was putting pressure on himself, maybe even blaming himself to some degree for his role in that, and it just kind of snowballed the wrong way for him. So clearing his mind, getting his hand fix, and knowing what to expect, there’s a higher level of comfort for him.”
Park feels it, too. More important, he said he’s growing more comfortable with 95-mph fastballs. “It’s more than mechanics; it’s more about the timing of the bat,” Park said through an interpreter.
Park’s home run obscured a subpar day for the Twins’ offense, as illustrated by their 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. But it didn’t matter with — speaking of competitions — Nick Tepesch and Justin Haley shutting out Tampa Bay for a combined seven innings. They seem to be the two likeliest options as a long reliever, and both were effective Tuesday.
Tepesch, a minor league signee, gave up three hits and a walk, but also got the benefit of two double plays. Haley, a Rule 5 pickup from Boston, allowed only two baserunners in his three innings, and one was quickly erased with a double play.
In a preview of a potential alignment during the regular season, Matt Belisle pitched a perfect eighth inning and Brandon Kintzler the ninth as the Twins closed out their third shutout of the spring.