Trevor Hildenberger made two appearances for Cal-Berkeley as a freshman in 2010, was redshirted in 2011, and then had nine appearances as a sophomore in 2012. That added up to 11 games pitched in three college seasons.
He discovered the sidearm pitching action as a junior in 2013, and then set a Cal saves record with 10 as a senior in 2014. He was a 23-year-old pitcher relying on a trick delivery, not the profile for a major prospect in the 2014 June draft.
Hildenberger was taken in the 22nd round by the Twins, signed quickly, and was assigned to the GCL Twins – the rookie team in Fort Myers. He was 4 or 5 years older than a number of his teammates.
There have might been extra motion in Hildenberger’s delivery, but there wasn’t much wiggle room for him as far as a pro career was concerned. At his age, if he didn’t get hitters out immediately, and keep getting them out, he would be back home in the Bay Area, using that Cal education in the job market.
Hildenberger had 24 appearances in rookie leagues (23 in the GCL, one in Elizabethton) in 2014 and 41 in Class A (28 in Cedar Rapids, 13 in Fort Myers) in 2015.
The results were positive and the Twins added him to their list of players for the Arizona Fall League in 2015.
I was watching the AFL championship game on the MLB Network that November and Hildenberger pitched a scoreless inning. The action and velocity on his pitches was more impressive than had been imagined.
He was outstanding for eight appearances back at Fort Myers in 2016, then was promoted to Class AA Chattanooga. He pitched in 32 games for manager Doug Mientkiewicz, with an ERA of 0.70 and a batting average against of .157.
Then, in early August, he had elbow discomfort and was shut down for the rest of th season. Hildenberger said at the time it was an issue with the flexor tendon, and that the ligament was “great.’’
You have heard that so many times – Tommy John surgery wasn’t needed, rest and rehab could fix the problem and it didn’t work -- that you always expect the worst with a pitcher’s elbow.
It worked for Hildenberger. He was back on the mound at Class AAA Rochester to start the 2017 season, and was very good for 21 appearances (including six saves).
On June 23, precisely three years after making his pro debut as an old-timer in the Gulf Coast League, Hildenberger made his major league debut for the Twins in Cleveland.
He was 26 and arrived as part of the bullpen chaos of the 2017 Twins, with a big chance to get involved in the Rochester/Minnesota shuffle if he struggled at all. He didn’t let that happen.
Hildenberger joined Taylor Rogers – a teammate in the Fall League and elsewhere in the minors – to give the Twins a reliable right-left combination in front of the closer of the moment (first Brandon Kintzler, then Matt Belisle).
The Twins signed three veteran relievers in the offseason: closer Fernando Rodney, righthander Addison Reed and lefthander Zach Duke. Adding them to Hildenberger and Rogers gave the Twins the appearance of an impressive handful of relievers to finish off games.
And then Hildenberger and Rogers started pitching in exhibition games. Rogers getting pounded in Florida wasn’t that much of an issue. He had a track record of two seasons, with 126 appearances of major league-worthy work as a bullpen lefty.
Hildenberger had those three months and 37 appearances. Everyone was in favor of him impressing again in spring training.
Not so much. Hildenberger pitched 11 times in exhibitions, a total of 12 innings, and allowed 19 hits, including five home runs. He would get hammered, and manager Paul Molitor would bring him back quickly for another look, and he would get hammered again.
Last week, Hildenberger had a clutch appearance in a victory over the Red Sox. Forty minutes after the game, he had finished his postgame routine and was asked by a reporter:
“Were you as nervous as people here about the way it went in spring training?’’
Without smiling, Hildenberger said: “I don’t know. How nervous were people here? I was working on some different pitches. And it hasn’t been unusual for me to get off to a slow start.
“I seem to get better. I was confident that would happen again.’’
The Twins hung with Hildenberger, based on his work from late June forward in 2017 – hung with him not only through a bad spring, but also a shaky April. From Opening Day on March 29 through April 30, Hildenberger pitched in 12 games, allowed three home runs and had a 4.15 ERA.
Hildenberger was better in May, although he allowed a couple more home runs – the second by Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar on May 18. Throw in spring training and at that point, he had pitched in 31 games in 2018 and allowed 10 home runs.
In reference to those struggles, Molitor said last week: “We understand you’re working on things in spring training, but you also have to make sure that you’re ready for Opening Day with the pitches that you used to get to the big leagues.’’
Which was a reference to Hildenberger de-emphasizing his outstanding changeup in spring training to work on a breaking pitch and paying the price with all those long balls.
Fortunately for the Twins, for the manager and for Hildenberger, the Aguilar home run became a jump off point for the righthander. The changeup has been terrific, his fastball has regained its velocity and on Sunday, he pitched a 1-2-3 eighth for his 15th consecutive scoreless appearance.
Fifteen games, 0.00 ERA, and a .155 batting average against.
Reed became the provider of long balls, Duke should be a lefthanded specialist, Rogers has started to find it, but as the Twins head off to six games in Chicago (White Sox, then Cubs) and three in Milwaukee, the eighth-inning guy in front of Rodney appears to be Hildenberger.
And now when Hildenberger asks, “How nervous were people here?,’’ the response can be changed from "sheer panic'' to "just a bit.''