'Different,' and tall, Twins' Jon Rauch closing in on success

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2010 - 8:02 AM
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Twins reliever Jon Rauch

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The Chicago White Sox took Jon Rauch in the third round of the 1999 draft. He was assigned to Bristol, Va., in the rookie Appalachian League. His teammates included Matt Guerrier, a 10th-rounder in the same draft.

"The White Sox had something like 15 picks in the first 10 rounds, and 11 or 12 were pitchers,'' Guerrier said. "There were pitchers backed up in the low levels in the organization, but Rauch stood out right away.''

The reason for that went beyond Rauch standing 6 feet 11.

"He threw 94, 95 [miles per hour] and was blowing hitters away,'' Guerrier said. "A year later, he was the minor league pitcher of the year.''

Rauch was a combined 16-4 with a 2.66 ERA and 187 strikeouts at Class A Winston-Salem and Class AA Birmingham in 2000. The Sporting News named Rauch, 21, its minor league player of the year.

He started the next season at Class AAA Charlotte. He struggled through six starts and then was sent to see orthopedic specialist James Andrews. Rauch underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in late May.

"He's the same pitcher as when we were young guys in the White Sox organization, except he doesn't throw as hard,'' Guerrier said. "He still competes, throws strikes and mixes his pitches.''

The Twins are Rauch's fourth organization. He brought a reputation as a "different'' guy from his time as an employee of the White Sox, the Expos/Nationals and the Diamondbacks.

"Yeah, he's always been different,'' Guerrier said. "When you're 6-11, you're asked 'How tall are you?' so often, it probably makes you different. But as a teammate, he would do anything for you, and he's still that way.''

The 2009 Twins were trying to muster an AL Central run at Detroit. Guerrier needed help in front of closer Joe Nathan. On Aug. 28, the Twins acquired Rauch from Arizona for a pitcher to be named (Kevin Mulvey) and also signed lefthander Ron Mahay.

Rauch pitched in 17 of the Twins' final 34 games (including No. 163). He was 5-1 with a 1.72 ERA.

He had arrived with a contract through 2010, meaning the Twins would have him to share righthanded workhorse duties with Guerrier for another season.

But an upheaval struck the well-organized bullpen when Nathan felt a burning sensation in his right elbow in his first exhibition appearance. On March 14, it became official that Nathan would be lost to Tommy John surgery.

There were 18 days remaining in Florida, and the Twins didn't have a closer.

"There were conversations going on with other teams,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said on Wednesday. "If a deal was made, we didn't want to be in a situation where we already had told one of our guys, 'You're the closer.'

"We decided to wait until we left Florida to say anything.''

Privately, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rich Anderson discussed their in-house options on a daily basis.

"We kept coming back to two guys -- Rauch and [Francisco] Liriano,'' Gardenhire said. "Rauch had done it before, and we liked that. And Frankie had those two power pitches [fastball, slider]. We weren't sure, and then Frankie told us he wanted to start, and that was it. We went to Rauchie.''

Rauch learned of the decision on the flight from Fort Myers to Minneapolis on April 1. Guerrier learned earlier in the day in Boston's spring ballpark, where the Twins were playing a final Florida exhibition.

"Andy said that they wanted to keep using me as they had and Rauch would be the closer,'' Guerrier said. "No surprise. Jon deserved the chance.''

The revamped bullpen has held up well enough that Guerrier is slightly behind his '09 workload through 34 games: 16 innings in 16 appearances now compared to 18 1/3 innings and 17 appearances then.

On Wednesday, Guerrier retired Alex Rios to end the eighth inning, and Rauch registered a clean ninth for the 3-2 victory over the White Sox. Rauch is 9-for-10 in save chances, and the blown save became his one win of the season.

Guerrier was told that Rauch, when surrounded by reporters postgame, deflects all questions that direct praise or credit at him.

"I'm not surprised,'' Guerrier said. "Jon's been doing this long enough to know a reliever has to stay humble, since we're never more than one outing from being humbled.''

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com

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