FORT MYERS, Fla. –Wednesday was a big day at Hammond Stadium. The Twins won big, and they did it in front of their biggest crowd ever. And at the center of Minnesota's 8-0 rout of the Cardinals was a pitcher for whom "big" is both a blessing and a curse — but who looms larger by the day in the team's future.
Adalberto Mejia made his first start of the spring, and strengthened his increasingly impressive case for the fifth spot in the Twins' rotation. The Dominican lefthander limited St. Louis to just four hits over 3⅔ shutout innings, and eight of his 11 outs were strikeouts. Mejia also didn't walk a batter and lowered his ERA, in five appearances totaling 10⅓ innings, to 0.87.
He wasn't the only one producing. Joe Mauer, Matt Hague and Chris Gimenez all cracked hits with the bases loaded, and the Twins bullpen held St. Louis to one hit over the final five innings, all before the largest crowd in the stadium's history.
Helped by a large contingent of Cardinals fans, the game drew a crowd of 9,538, easily breaking the stadium record of 9,298 set against the Yankees in 2014.
They saw a strong candidate for the fifth spot in the Twins' rotation.
"He has what looks like a really good idea of what he wants to do with each hitter, and he's executing pitches," said Twins manager Paul Molitor, who is clearly mulling the possibility of keeping the 23-year-old Mejia. "We're open-minded. There's a lot of competition here, a lot of people in the mix. I was looking forward to seeing what he can do, and so far he's done a nice job."
And that progress isn't just limited to the pitcher's mound. Mejia appears fitter this season. He's taken to tagging along with fellow Dominican Ervin Santana on stay-in-shape jogs around the Twins' complex, and the Twins say there's a little less roly in his poly this spring.
Nothing wrong with being, er, robustly proportioned, especially at 6-foot-3. Mejia can get generate plenty of power, and a 94-mph fastball, with that body.
"He's a big guy. Part of his strength is being a big guy," Molitor pointed out. "He's smart enough to know that's something he has to at least monitor. … Just make sure you're in good enough shape to handle the workload."
That hasn't always been easy, and it got Mejia into the biggest trouble of his baseball career. When he was a precocious prospect in the Giants' system, usually a couple of years younger but also several pounds heavier than his minor league teammates, the team set weight limits for Mejia, and he couldn't always meet them. Looking for help, he consulted a doctor in Arizona who prescribed him what Mejia understood were "natural" weight-loss pills, designed to suppress his appetite. They were essentially extra-strength caffeine, he says he was told, and he took them for nearly three years, whenever his weight spiked.
"I didn't want to let the team down. Without them knowing, I looked for a pill that would help," Mejia said. "I thought it was clean."
Whoops. The retail name of the pills hid the fact that they were actually sibutramine, which has been banned around the world because of its deadly side effects — strokes and heart damage — and prohibited by Major League Baseball. In June 2014, right around his 21st birthday, Mejia failed a drug test, and shortly after his Class AA season ended, it cost him his reputation, a 50-game suspension and, Mejia feared, his career.
"The Giants were a little mad, but I wrote them a letter explaining what happened, telling them I was really sorry. But I didn't do anything illegal, at least not on purpose," Mejia said through an interpreter.
He knows that he now carries a stigma as a PED user, even though sibutramine isn't really performance-enhancing. He hears it from fans and on social media.
"I was also having shoulder problems, and people say, 'Oh he can only pitch when he's on stuff,' but it had nothing to do with it," Mejia said. "My conscience is clean. It's not like I did something to try to cheat the game."
Mejia was traded to the Twins last July for Eduardo Nunez, a deal that stunned him at first but now excites him.
"I've developed a different work ethic. I'm able to work better now," Mejia said, before invoking the word of the day. "The Twins give me an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues. That's big for me."