FORT MYERS, FLA. — Danny Valencia scorched a home run against the New York Mets' Johan Santana on Friday. It was his second home run and fourth extra-base hit in 22 exhibition at-bats.
The Twins did not want to see more of that from the third base prospect. Valencia was optioned to the minors after the game. Another infielder, Luke Hughes, also was dropped, after producing four extra-base hits in his last six at-bats.
The Twins arrived in Florida with a plan to have Nick Punto and Brendan Harris share third base, and to have Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert compete to be the second extra infielder.
Casilla and Tolbert were unimpressive (at best) through the first two weeks of exhibitions. More line drives off the bats of Valencia and Hughes, and camp followers might have pondered:
"Why not open with one of the 25-year-olds with some right-handed thunder at third, keep Punto and Harris as the backups, and forget about Casilla and/or Tolbert?"
There's no such controversy when you make a quick decision, and General Manager Bill Smith did that in sending out Valencia and Hughes.
We're left with only a couple of intriguing possibilities to beat the odds and debut with the Twins next month: catcher Wilson Ramos and reliever Anthony Slama.
Gardenhire has expressed interest in opening with Ramos, 22 and a top prospect, as the backup catcher. He'll never get that past Smith. Drew Butera, a rookie destined for a career as a backup, will be Joe Mauer's caddie.
No Valencia. No Hughes. No Ramos.
Can we at least see Slama -- a righthander with 271 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings in the minors -- in April?
Clearly, the Twins had no thought of giving him a chance when spring training started. Then, Joe Nathan left the March 6 exhibition and was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right elbow.
Veteran Clay Condrey has struggled. So have Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing, bullpen candidates with Francisco Liriano making his claim to be in the rotation.
Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares and a healthy Pat Neshek seem set in Gardenhire's pen.
The manager needs two more relievers. He needs one with a strikeout pitch -- and that could be Slama's slider.
Slama had pitched twice for a total of two innings in the first 13 exhibitions. Last Thursday, he entered with the Twins and the Pirates tied 4-4 in the ninth, and struck out the side.
"He's got funk ... a different delivery than most guys," Gardenhire said Saturday. "He's got a little side sling and the ball comes out at a funny angle. He can cross-shoot a little.
"You see why he can finish ballgames in the minors. It becomes a matter if they can do the same here ... if they can locate the ball.
"He's a strikeout guy, but not overpowering. He relies more on deception. We're going to see him a few more times."
The next time came Saturday, with a 1-2-3 ninth and two more strikeouts in the Twins' 6-2 victory over Tampa Bay in Port Charlotte.
"He's real sneaky and deceptive," pitching coach Rich Anderson said. "I always ask him, 'How many balls did you throw above the knees today?' When he's down at the knees ... You talk to the catchers and what makes him so tough is deception. The ball gets on the hitter."
Slama was 23 by the time his pro career started in the rookie league in 2007.
He's short on experience, but the calendar says it's time for him. He turned 26 in early January.
It was mentioned to Slama that he comes off as low-key in the face of what might be a growing opportunity with the Twins.
"I sit in front of my locker and don't speak unless spoken to," Slama said. "I'm trying to look calm, but there's a lot going on inside. Trust me."
Slama doesn't light up the radar gun, but there's a lot going on with his pitches: excellent slider, a sinking fastball and an improving changeup with natural movement.
There's strong evidence he can strike out hitters, and the post-Nathan Twins need a guy like that, even if it's for the seventh inning and not the ninth.
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org