FORT MYERS, FLA. – Although Major League Baseball figured out a way to execute a 60-game 2020 season and flawless postseason — well, until the Dodgers' Justin Turner was pulled from Game 6 of the World Series because of a positive COVID-19 test — no one was certain when the sounds of baseball would be heard again.
There was no certainty about when players would take the fields in Florida and Arizona for spring training. The pandemic raged on throughout the winter, cases surged during the holidays and, despite the soothing news in November that a vaccine was on the way, MLB still suggested a one-month delay to the start of the regular season.
The player's union balked at the plan, and everyone prepared for an on-time arrival to camp.
It still seemed hard to believe that baseball would start its progression to Opening Day on schedule. But then Kenta Maeda threw 22 pitches during a bullpen session at the CenturyLink Sports Complex on Thursday, and the sound of a baseball smacking into a mitt was back.
It's true. Baseball has returned. And, for now, it's on time.
Pitchers and catchers have indeed reported to camp.
"It was the first bullpen of spring training, so I went nice and easy just to make sure where my body's at," said Maeda, who was 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA last season and finished second to Cleveland's Shane Bieber in American League Cy Young voting. "Everything felt great so going into spring training, I'll be wearing the uniform and getting myself ready for an intensified bullpen going forward."
An ugly number
Maeda helped the Twins to a second consecutive AL Central title, which led to another early postseason exit. The Twins' playoff drought is now at 18 losses in a row, a record for American professional sports and a number that now has the organization as irked as much as its fan base.
The streak dates back to 2004. The regime of President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine enters its fifth season, which means six of those losses have come under their watch.
The Twins hope the tweaks they've made will help them return to — and extend — that postseason.
Righthander Jake Odorizzi, an All-Star in 2019, is likely leaving via free agency. Lefthander J.A. Happ was signed to lengthen the rotation. With Maeda and fellow righthanders Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda, the Twins feel they have four starters that can grind them through a long season. Righthander Matt Shoemaker, trying to revive his career after several setbacks, righthander Randy Dobnak and lefthander Devin Smeltzer will compete for the fifth starter's spot.
The bullpen will look a little different, as Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Trevor May and Matt Wisler were not brought back. Alex Colome will share closing duties with Taylor Rogers. Tyler Duffey looms as the key setup man. Free agent righthander Hansel Robles looks to forget a disastrous 2020 season and righthander Jorge Alcala likely takes on a more important role.
The catching setup appears to be in good hands with the promising Ryan Jeffers helping out Mitch Garver. Willians Astudillo, first of all, reported to camp on time and with no visa issues. Secondly, the Twins love how he can catch and play the corner infield spots while keeping his teammates loose.
But not everything went smoothly. The Twins are expected to reveal a couple of late arrivals to camp when officials meet with the media Friday.
The first full-squad workout is set for Tuesday, when manager Rocco Baldelli will address the team for the first time and expectations for the season will be discussed. As if Baldelli needs to remind anyone, you can't end a playoff losing streak without reaching the playoffs first. And the Twins can't talk about the playoffs without acknowledging their futility.
"I think it's in everyone's mind that we don't do so well during the playoffs, so I think we have to switch our mind and forget about all that losing streak," Maeda said through an interpreter. "I think it's important to get that first win. As long as we get that first win, we'll have the momentum to go deeper in the postseason.
"We were playing a little differently from regular season to in the playoffs, so I think if we can play as we did in the regular season and have that momentum going forward, I think we'll have a good shot of going deep in the postseason."