About this time a year ago, Caleb Thielbar made a decision about his pitching career.
“I was done. I was done with baseball,” the Minnesota-born lefthander said. “The Twins pulled me back.”
On Tuesday, they pulled him all the way back. The Randolph High School product pitched in a major league game for the first time in five years and three months, recording seven outs to help the Twins win their fifth game in a row, 7-3 over the Pirates.
Nelson Cruz continued his blistering start with three more hits and an RBI, and Jose Berrios recorded his first victory of 2020 with six strong innings as the Twins improved to 9-2 by closing out a 7-1 homestand with a two-game sweep of the Pirates. The teams play two more games in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and Thursday.
There were plenty of smiles after the victory, but Thielbar, whose last MLB game was on April 30, 2015, two days before he was demoted to Class AAA Rochester, had to choke back tears of joy after completing one of the most torturous paths back to Target Field that any player has ever endured.
“Once I went back down, my shoulder started to hurt, and it took me a couple of years, really, to finally get to a point where I got rid of that pain. And then I was able to stay healthy and then was able to find my arm path again and then get the velocity back,” Thielbar said. “It was really a long journey, but I never gave up on myself and, honestly, I think that’s one of the worst things you can do, give up on yourself.”
He came close, though. Thielbar, 33, spent 2016 and ’17 with the independent St. Paul Saints, and the past two summers in the Tigers farm system.
When Detroit didn’t call him up last summer, even though he pitched well, “I was pretty much over it. There had been so much hard work, and honestly, not getting a chance last summer was hard on me,” said the 33-year-old Thielbar, who spent the offseason as pitching coach for Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. — a new career, just in case this one was over. “I was pretty frustrated and I was done with the game. A lot of teams called this offseason, and that kind of took me by surprise.”
One was the Twins, and on Tuesday, he came home. Pirates shortstop Erik Gonzalez greeted him with an infield hit, and center fielder Jarrod Dyson walked.
“The emotions took over me for a couple of hitters there, but [pitching coach West Johnson] came out and basically just told me to breathe. Once I did that, I was able to kind of pull it together,” said Thielbar, who retired the next three hitters and pitched a scoreless eighth, too, before tiring and giving up two runs in the ninth inning. “It didn’t really hit me until after the game. That was pretty cool.”
It got better in the clubhouse, where manager Rocco Baldelli presented Thielbar with the game ball. “A great cap-off to the day,” Thielbar said. “I wish the third inning had gone a little bit better, but sometimes you’ve got to step back and look at the big picture and really realize that you went out there and made a difference for the team. Honestly, that’s all I really care about.”
The star of the game, though, was Cruz, who at 40 continues to enjoy the best start to his 15-year career. The designated hitter smacked three consecutive hits, inserting himself into three consecutive run-scoring bursts. Cruz, who also had three hits on Monday, is now an incredible 14-for-19 (.737) with runners on base, and 9-for-12 (.750) if they are in scoring position. No wonder his 15 RBI lead the majors.
“It’s just part of my job, you know? I’m not the fastest guy on the team, so I guess my job is, when I find runners on base, try to drive them in,” Cruz said. “My approach changes. Instead of trying to hit the long ball or crush baseballs, I try to be more simple and go with the pitch.”