FORT MYERS, FLA - Michael Tonkin certainly looks like a flamethrower, especially since he’s grown a mustache and beard to cover up that boyish face atop his 6-foot-7 frame.
Tonkin certainly has the equipment: a fastball that can hit 96 miles per hour and a slider sharp enough to finish off hitters.
This isn’t suggesting that the Twins should jettison closer Glen Perkins. It’s acknowledgment that they have someone who one day could be the last man standing for them. For now, he could be a power arm to help get the ball Perkins.
Tonkin, 24, began last season in Class AA New Britain but finished with the Twins, where he allowed one earned run over 11⅓ innings of work while holding opponents to a .205 batting average. It capped a six-year journey to the majors, as the Twins patiently waited for Tonkin to fill out and develop a second pitch.
“It was good for the kid,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said of Tonkin’s first glimpse of the majors. “He’s fearless, as you talk to him. Obviously he’s got the stuff. For all those guys who got the opportunities like him it was invaluable.”
Last year’s debut opened eyes. He was brought in with two runners on and two out July 11 at Tampa Bay — and Evan Longoria at the plate. After allowing Wil Myers to steal third base, Tonkin, on a 2-2 pitch, struck out Longoria swinging on a 96-mph fastball. Tonkin threw 1⅓ scoreless innings that game, with three strikeouts. Can’t have a better debut than that.
“I was more nervous when I fell behind 2-0 in the count [to Longoria],” said Tonkin, 24. “It’s not a good batter to walk and not a good situation to walk a batter in. That was bad, but once I got [the count] even I was fine.”
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire already calls him “Tonka Truck.” It never hurts when the manager likes you enough to give you a nickname.
Tonkin was sent down two days after his debut but was called up twice more before the season ended. That short stint also gave Tonkin confidence that he can get major league hitters out.
Tonkin has averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors and allowed just six home runs over his past two seasons. He always had a live arm, but it wasn’t until recent seasons that the slider became a dangerous pitch for him. One thing that will help his quest to win a spot in the Twins bullpen will be to keep mixing in his slider. He threw nothing but fastballs in the Longoria encounter, which won’t always work.
“We kept saying, ‘You just can’t throw 95 by these boys. You better spin it,’ ” Anderson said. “Some games we had to force him to, but when he started spinning it, he finished up really good.”
Tonkin’s chances of making the Opening Day bullpen increase if the club takes eight relievers north. In addition to Perkins, the Twins return righthanders Jared Burton, Ryan Pressly, Casey Fien and Anthony Swarzak and lefthanders Caleb Thielbar and Brian Duensing. Tonkin would give them a second power arm behind Perkins. But the Twins might use that extra spot to hold on to one of the three starters who are out of options — Samuel Deduno, Scott Diamond or Vance Worley.
If the Twins decide to take seven relievers north, Tonkin faces an even tougher road.
“It was cool to get your feet wet, get little taste of it and leave you hungry for more,” Tonkin said. “I guess it kind of raises your confidence level that this is a possibility. I have the possibility of playing at this level, and if I go out there and do what I can do, I can be successful and contribute to the team.’’