While the Detroit Tigers wore winter caps and their infielders sprinted to warm their hands on dugout heaters during pitching changes, Twins starter Vance Worley refused to wear sleeves or hide in the clubhouse between innings during his first Opening Day start. He chose a bare-armed Bud Grant fashion statement and risked sweating icicles.
To further endear himself to Minnesotans, Worley proved stoic and stubborn under duress, and he was under duress beginning with the first batter he faced in his Twins debut.
The temperature dipped into the 20s. He faced the defending American League champions, who this winter added another dangerous bat in former Twin Torii Hunter and welcomed back Victor Martinez after he missed the 2012 season because of a knee injury.
Worley dueled with the league’s best pitcher, in Justin Verlander. And whether he thought about it or not, Worley took the mound representing both his team’s best hopes for this season and its transition to a future filled with talented young arms.
On a day featuring ski masks, Worley almost stole a game. He survived a few bad-luck hits and a couple of his teammates’ misplays, and turned what could have become an embarrassing blowout into a game the Twins lineup should have won. The Tigers prevailed 4-2, while Worley outlasted Verlander and held the Tigers to three runs in six innings.
If the Twins’ plans remain intact, Worley in the coming years will be a middle-of-the-rotation starter on an excellent staff. For now, they are asking him to be a de facto ace while recovering from elbow surgery and adjusting to a new league. Monday, Worley displayed the competitiveness he hinted at all March when grimacing over meaningless spring training losses.
“That was impressive,” Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “He came out in the first couple of innings and gave up some runs. To be able to come out like that and put up zeros for the rest of the time he was out there showed us a lot.
“He was like that on the mound in Fort Myers. Real competitive. Wanted to win. A lot of pitchers go into spring training just working on their stuff. He wanted to win. That was cool to see.”
Worley’s nickname is “Vanimal,” but first impressions don’t justify the wild-and-crazy alias. He doesn’t threaten triple-digit speeds with his fastball, and he comes across in interviews as introspective and driven.
Shortly after Monday’s game, he was writing in his Twins cap, where he keeps a list of ailing relatives and a phrase he finds inspiring. Sadly, he has made a new entry. “A very close family friend just passed away last week, out of nowhere, right after his birthday,” Worley said.
He probably felt tempted to scream the unprintable inspirational phrase scrawled in his cap after just two batters on Monday afternoon. After Austin Jackson started the game with a single, Worley threw a pitch up and in to Hunter, who somehow fought it off for a hit-and-run single, putting runners on first and third with nobody out and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera coming to the plate.
Worley got Cabrera on a run-scoring grounder, then Prince Fielder cued a ground-ball double past third base. Four games into his Twins career, Worley had given up two runs and gotten one out.
He struck out Victor Martinez and got Andy Dirks on a groundout. In the second, he gave up another run before getting an inning-ending doubleplay that served as a tourniquet. The last nine batters he faced, and 15 of the last 16, failed to hit the ball out of the infield. Worley finished with three strikeouts and one walk.
“He was up in the zone early,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Once he started getting the ball down, you saw a more effective use of his pitches. I really loved watching him out there.”
There’s a lot to like about the Vanimal, a guy who wouldn’t wear sleeves on a day made for parkas.
Jim Souhan can been heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10-noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org