On a good day, if the conditions are right and his left arm feels extra strong, Andrew Albers might hit 90 miles per hour on the radar gun. He’s pretty sure that’s happened a few times in his career.
“Obviously I don’t light up a radar gun,” he said. “And my secondary stuff is not anything special.”
Albers is being more honest than self-deprecating. The soft-tossing southpaw is the pitching equivalent of dial-up Internet.
Pitch-to-contact has become a punch line among Twins fans because the organization lacks flame-throwers who make batters swing and miss. Albers has achieved overnight cult status because he confounds hitters without optimum velocity.
His fastball hovers around 86 miles per hour. He threw a curveball this week that registered 66 on the gun.
“That probably won’t be the slowest one of the year,” he noted.
And yet he’s turned hitters into mental sawdust. In his first two major league starts, Albers has pitched 17⅓ shutout innings, a team record for a starter. He’s allowed only six hits, all singles.
Albers trumped his impressive debut in Kansas City by tossing a complete-game shutout against Cleveland on Monday. He became the first major league pitcher since 1966 to throw eight scoreless innings in each of his first two starts.
On a team devoid of pitching, Albers’ call-up has been like going out on a blind date and having Kate Upton answer the door.
“I just want to keep trying to ride this high and see how far I can go and see how far it can take me,” he said.
This fairy tale will end at some point, perhaps as soon as Saturday against the White Sox in his third start. Eventually, Albers will get hit and hit hard. And then what?
Baseball history is littered with players who dazzled early and then quietly disappeared. Nobody can know for certain the path Albers will take once he returns to Earth. But he’s providing an enjoyable diversion and intriguing subplot in an otherwise dreadful season.
“If you’re worried about him cracking, no, you won’t see him crack,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “He is a guy who has his head screwed on right.”
His instant success seems improbable even by long-shot standards. Born and raised in Canada, he was a ham-and-egger in hockey so he played baseball and badminton. Yes, badminton, a sport that he excelled at, and even played in the Canadian equivalent of a state tournament.
Since baseball wasn’t a sanctioned high school sport in his province, Albers played travel ball in the summer and eventually was recruited to the University of Kentucky.
The San Diego Padres drafted him in the 10th round in 2008 but released him after he returned from Tommy John surgery. Albers pitched as a reliever in a Quebec independent league the following year.
In a last-ditch effort to save his career, he drove his Buick LeSabre from his home in Saskatchewan to Phoenix and then to Fort Myers for tryouts with three clubs, hoping one might offer him a spring training invitation. He spent 60 hours on the road with nothing but his thoughts and his radio to keep him company.
Albers squeezed in a trip to Kentucky to train before his scheduled auditions. At the urging of Kentucky coach Gary Henderson, Twins scouts Earl Winn and Tim O’Neil attended one of his workouts.
“Gary looked me in the eye and said this guy is going to pitch in the big leagues — as he’s throwing 86 miles per hour,” O’Neil said.
Winn and O’Neil huddled after Albers pitched the first inning of a simulated scrimmage. The scouts had seen enough to make a sales pitch to their Twins bosses, who ultimately gave Albers a chance.
“I don’t want to say we were totally convinced he was a major league starter,” O’Neil said, “but the makeup is there.”
Albers relies on deception and location to offset his lack of velocity. He moves the ball in and out and mixes speeds to keep batters guessing. And he’s not afraid to pitch inside.
Albers didn’t hesitate when asked to pick his best pitch.
“Strike one,” he said.
No, fastball or slider?
“Strike one,” he responded. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fastball, changeup, curveball. It’s strike one, period, end of it.”
He’s thrown first-pitch strikes to 71 percent of the hitters he’s faced in his two starts. Chris Colabello, his teammate at Class AAA Rochester for much of the season, saw his share of first-pitch strikes when he faced Albers in the Canadian independent league. Colabello estimated he went 0-for-20 against him.
“He’s aggressive, he attacks the zone and he doesn’t back down,” Colabello said. “People undervalue that if you throw 86 or 82 or whatever.”
Even so, what’s happened still feels surreal to Albers. He spent 30 minutes signing autographs after Monday’s start. Several sports bars in his hometown in Saskatchewan now show his starts on big screens. A stranger stopped his mother in the grocery store the other day to offer congratulations.
“The whole town is going crazy,” older sister Christine said.
His parents, sisters and other relatives plan to be at Target Field to watch him pitch Saturday. His sister Pam said the family was struck by his reaction after the final out of his complete game.
“That was the biggest we’ve ever seen him smile,” she said. “That’s about as excited as he gets.”
Albers doesn’t know how long this will last. He figures he might as well enjoy every minute of it.