This was mid-February 2015 in Fort Myers and the Twins were not yet conducting spring training workouts. It was a blue-sky Saturday and a decision was made to check out the ballpark at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Eagles were hosting Central Michigan in a season-opening series, with a Saturday doubleheader in the middle.
FGCU’s starting pitcher was a lefthanded freshman and the results were not all that impressive. He lasted through two hitters in the fifth and finished with this pitching line: 4 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs, 1 earned, 2 walks and 5 strikeouts.
The several hundred people in attendance – including the visiting sports writer from Minnesota – could not have envisioned the lefty as a future asset for the Twins in the attempt to hold off Cleveland in a lively competition for the 2019 American League Central gonfalon.
Yet, I found the boxscore on the FGCU website and there it was: Devin Smeltzer was the Eagles’ starting pitcher in Game 1 of the doubleheader vs. Central Michigan. The freshman from New Jersey wound up with a no-decision in FGCU’s 6-4 victory.
Smeltzer would finish that season with a 1-4 record and unseemly ERA of 6.19. Somehow, he was able to land an invitation to pitch for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in the best of collegiate leagues, the Cape Cod, and then transferred to San Jacinto College in Texas.
Smeltzer was 9-3, with a 1.18 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings at that famed junior college. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Dodgers in 2016 and they gave him $500,000 not to accept the scholarship offer he had signed with Texas Tech. He came to the Twins last July 31 in the Brian Dozier trade.
Over the past weekend, the Twins were hit with a trifecta of injury news:
On Saturday, Byron Buxton returned to the injured list, a place with which he is as familiar as center field, and starter Michael Pineda was shut down as a precaution for the second time in 2019.
On Sunday, the Twins announced that new reliever Sam Dyson had been placed on the injured list. This came after viewing two appearances where Dyson displayed minimal cut on his cutter and zero life on his full-force fastball.
The actual decision on Dyson had been made Saturday. Smeltzer was with Class AAA Rochester in Pawtucket, R.I. and was flown in Saturday night. He was announced as Sunday's starter at mid-morning, and then pitched six scoreless innings.
And I can say this with certainty: A 23-year-old Smeltzer found the Kansas City Royals much easier to handle in his first big-league victory on Sunday, than a 19-year-old Smeltzer found the Central Michigan Chippewas to deal with in his first collegiate appearance in 2015.
Smeltzer’s start was his third for the Twins and only the sixth in 111 games that did not go to Pineda, Martin Perez, Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson.
Perez had been mostly mediocre for weeks and now downright bad over his last three starts: 15 innings, 21 hits, 13 runs and seven home runs allowed.
Manager Rocco Baldelli and his spin-it-positive approach will shut down speculation on such things, but Perez's place in the rotation has to be in jeopardy. He’ll get another shot Wednesday afternoon against Atlanta and if that goes badly … well, here’s the good news:
No, seriously … Randy Dobnak.
Smeltzer is not the only unlikely candidate to reinforce the Twins’ rotation. The lefthander climbed from not getting a look in big-league spring training and starting the season at Class AA Pensacola to his current status as the Twins’ sixth starter.
Dobnak, a 24-year-old righthander, has climbed from five starts at Class A Fort Myers, to 10 starts at Pensacola, and now five at Rochester. In the last three for the Red Wings, he’s pitched 18 1/3 innings, allowing nine hits and three runs.
And he has a pitching background more improbable than Smetlzer’s:
Dobnak went undrafted out of Alderson Broaddus, a Division II school in West Virginia, in 2017. He landed in the United Shore league, a four-team independent league that plays all its games in Utica, Mich., near Detroit.
“This is a true developmental league,’’ said Billy Milos, a veteran Twins’ scout. “It’s for younger guys, 18 to 25, who didn’t get drafted, or were released early – a second chance league. It’s not like the other independent leagues, in that they don’t play games every day, and there is a lot of time spent on the field, a lot of instruction.''
I had never heard of this league until running across Milos and Jim Essian, the former big-league catcher and manager, on a back field at the Twins’ Florida complex this spring. Dobnak was pitching for a collection of Twins' minor leaguers that day.
Dobnak and cather Taylor Grzelakowski were playing for Essian’s Utica Unicorns in the summer of 2017, and both were signed by the Twins for late-season duty in the low minors.
He's a ground-ball pitcher and varies his fastball from 90 to 96 miles per hour. He has 102 strikeouts, a mere 24 walks and 98 hits allowed in 125 innings at three classifications this season.
Plus, Dobnak has a glorious horseshoe mustache – the type of adornment that seems perfect for a Pittsburgh guy who has made it to Triple-A by way of the Alderson Broaddus Battlers and Utica Unicorns.
OK, Cleveland might be getting back Kluber and Carrasco, but who cares? The Twins have Smeltzer, and maybe Dobnak.