May and Meyer have gained something else this fall, too: a role model. Each mentioned the success of Michael Wacha, who had pitched only 19 games above Class A before becoming the Cardinals’ most reliable starter in the postseason, as inspiration for their own major-league ambitions.
“He’s a different animal,” Meyer said of the 22-year-old St. Louis rookie. “He’s about as special as anybody pitching right now. It’s funny, he’s younger than me. But he’s been dominant in the major leagues in just a short time. I can’t say I know I’m ready for that; the only [big-league] hitters I’ve faced have been in spring training.
“That’s why this [AFL] experience is so good — these are without a doubt the best lineups I’ve ever faced. It’s forcing me to learn how to pitch more and not necessarily just throw as much, which is good.”
While pitching against better competition has helped build confidence in the Twins’ top starting prospects, they’ve been quite a bit harder on the pair of relievers Minnesota assigned to the Desert Dogs. Zack Jones in particular has been overwhelmed by the jump in talent — understandable since he’s only 22 and has no experience above Class A.
But while the San Jose, Calif., native has walked nine and allowed 12 earned runs in only six AFL innings, Smith said he’s made an impression “by not giving in. He’s still competing, even though this is the first time he has faced Class AAA competition, and he’s learning,” the manager said. Jones has averaged 95 mph with his fastball, but “he’s learned that you have to command it, too. He’s making progress.”
The progress is more obvious with A.J. Achter, who despite posting a 2.54 ERA at New Britain and Class AAA Rochester last summer, still can’t quite believe he’s here.
“There aren’t a lot of 46th-rounders who get a chance to come out here and showcase their stuff, so it’s pretty exciting,” the Michigan State alum said. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, so I’ve never had a problem getting up for proving myself. Coming out here, not being a heralded prospect, it’s easy to get up to pitch against the best guys in the minors.”
He has walked only three batters, demonstrating the strike-throwing ability the Twins believe could get him to Minnesota as soon as next season.
“He’s a guy a manager can trust,” Smith said. “He’s consistent from one outing to the next, which is so valuable in the bullpen. I know he’s under the radar a little bit, but I’m excited to see what he does next year.”
There’s a lot of that going around in Arizona these days.
“I know  was a tough season, pitching-wise” for the Twins, Smith said. “But I’m seeing some real good signs that it’s going to change.”