FORT MYERS. FLA. – Glen Perkins was about as perfect as a closer could be in the first half of last season. Then, in large part because of injuries, everything collapsed, especially late in September.
The scrutiny became intense when the Twins found themselves in their first race for a postseason berth in five seasons. So intense that Perkins’ wife, Alisha — herself a blogger and Twitter user — was aghast at how some fans used their 140 characters to blame her husband for the Twins’ failing to make the playoffs.
“A couple people wished he would die,” Alisha said. “Some people said, ‘You’re not welcome in Minnesota anymore.’ I get being disappointed at someone’s performance, but to wish someone death, that’s a little extreme.”
Perkins will get an immediate opportunity to atone for last year’s fade, when after the All-Star break he recorded only four saves and had a 7.32 ERA. As pitchers and catchers report Sunday for the start of spring training, he has been reinstated to the closer’s role he relinquished last season to Kevin Jepsen.
Perkins is well aware that his conditioning has been a popular topic on talk radio and social media. And he’s clearly weary of the talk.
“I couldn’t walk without pain — what was I supposed to do, go out and run poles?” he said. “Is that what people want to watch? For the most part I was focused every day for the last two months of the season to get back into a spot where I could pitch that night.
“Everyone has their opinion, and that’s fine. I know what I do. I know what I did last year. I hope I made some changes for the positive this winter and that will help me in August and September.”
Perkins stood in the clubhouse the day after the regular season ended and vowed to do all he could to be prepared for a full season. So he underwent an offseason conditioning program designed to strengthen his back.
The Twins believe this season that reaching the playoffs is a realistic goal. Nothing is more deflating to a team than blown save situations. Perkins, a three-time All-Star, has proved he’s among the elite closers in the game. But as a closer, he has yet to prove that he can stay healthy a full season and help his team reach the playoffs.
And on that front, he knows 2015 was a huge missed opportunity. The Twins were in the wild-card race until the final weekend of the regular season.
“If I would have done my job better we would have been in the playoffs,” Perkins said. “It hurt more than the year before when I was on an unsuccessful team. I could have been a difference maker in the second half for the team and I wasn’t.”
Perkins was 28-for-28 in save opportunities while posting a 1.21 ERA before the All-Star break last season. He blew his first save of the season July 18, when Oakland’s Jake Smolinski blooped an RBI single off him with two outs in the ninth.
A week later, Perkins came on to protect a 5-4 lead against the Yankees. His first pitch was belted by Alex Rodriguez for a home run. Four batters later, John Ryan Murphy — now Perkins’ teammate after an offseason trade — hit a three-run homer as the Yankees won 8-5. Perkins’ health, and ERA, deteriorated from there — his ERA after Sept. 1 was 8.22.
He left the team in New York on Aug. 19 to return to the Twin Cities for two cortisone shots in his neck. Upon returning to the team, he revealed his neck problems had started in late June. He returned to the mound, but opponents hit .348 against him over the next 11 games. After getting a save on Sept. 1 against the White Sox, Perkins went down with back spasms, not pitching again until Sept. 19.
By early September, with the Twins clinging to their playoff hopes, manager Paul Molitor decided to go with Jepsen as the closer for the rest of the season. Perkins wasn’t given a defined role, as Molitor needed his relievers to be ready for anything down the stretch. That, combined with his injury battles, left Perkins frustrated.
When Molitor removed Perkins from a late September game, Perkins jammed the ball into his manager’s hand. They cleared the air the next day, with both admitting they could have done things differently.
Molitor made it clear at the end of last season that Perkins would open 2016 as the Twins closer with Jepsen returning to a setup role. Jepsen was instrumental to the Twins staying in the race last season, posting a 1.61 ERA after Aug. 1.
“Kevin was fine with that,” Molitor said of the decision to put Perkins back in the closer role. “I’m sure Glen is ready to embrace that and get back in there. I know he’s doing a lot of work, trying to get through a season healthy. It’s been three years, but when he’s been healthy he’s been really good. That [first half] was as good of a half as I’ve seen a closer have.”
Although Perkins has been an All-Star the past three years, each season was hampered by second-half injuries.
In 2014, he had a forearm strain and a nerve problem in the same area that led to his being shut down in September. He had right knee surgery right after the 2013 season.
Perkins decided to address the physical problems head on — and believes he has done that by spending more time than normal in Fort Myers during the offseason. For nine weeks — three each in December, January and February — he left Alisha and daughters Addison and Lyla in the Twin Cities to immerse himself in training.
“When I come down here I always feel better,” he said. “I feel more active. I feel like I want to get more accomplished. That was kind of why I felt like I needed to do this.”
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan praised Perkins for being willing to focus on his training in an effort to bounce back.
“I admire that,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to tell you too much more than that because I don’t want his wife to get mad at me.”
Before making his first trip to Fort Myers, Perkins spent several weeks with local health and fitness expert Rob Smith, who owns the Body Project in Eagan. Perkins focused on strengthening his lower abdominal muscles and continued his routine once he got to Florida. Erik Beiser, the Twins minor league strength and conditioning coordinator, picked up where Smith left off.
“He’s got me in a really good spot,” Perkins said. “It’s baseball-centric focused. [Beiser] has been irreplaceable this winter.”
Alisha has noticed a change in her husband.
“It’s good to hear about how positive he feels about the whole experience,” she said. “He feels great. He looks great. He’s taken a whole new outlook on what he eats and how he works out. It has really transformed him because he knows if you are going to give up your family and force your wife to be alone, you better give it your all.”
A Twins lifer
Perkins, who turns 33 on March 2, has a chance to spend his entire career with his hometown team. He will earn $6.3 million this year and $6.5 million in 2017. The Twins hold a $6.5 million option for 2018.
“I will probably play until the Twins don’t want me to play anymore,” Perkins said. “I won’t go play anywhere else. I want to be here for the next couple of years with these guys coming up.”
Perkins said it would mean a lot to him to finish his career in the Twin Cities and be part of a team that reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010. He knows how important a consistent, veteran closer can be to a team with young position players like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton.
Perkins has certainly reached veteran status. His next appearance will be the 400th of his career. His 120 saves are the third most in Twins history, behind Joe Nathan (260) and Rick Aguilera (254).
“I plan on living in Minnesota my whole life and working for this team when I’m done,” he said, “and I don’t want to be a guy that the people in Minnesota and the organization looked at and said, ‘If he could have done this, he could have been so much better,’ or, ‘If he could have stayed healthy …’ I don’t want all those things. So there was more pressure this winter to be able to be there for the team and the organization than I have in the past.”
Alisha dearly hopes the sweat equity her husband invested this offseason pays off.
“I kept giving him grief,” she said. “I tell him, ‘If what happened last year happens again, don’t try to talk me into letting you leave us again because I let you do it this year.’ ”