At one point during Wednesday’s intrasquad game, Twins catcher Alex Avila stood up from behind the plate, turned to a lone figure standing in the first row of seats directly behind him, and fired the ball toward him, into the screen.
So much for robot umpires.
Actually, the lighthearted moment probably said more about the Twins’ playful state of mind than their opinion about the Trackman system used to call balls and strikes during the umpire-less game. Jose Berrios and Randy Dobnak pitched four scoreless innings apiece, with Berrios striking out five and Dobnak four, and the Twins enjoyed their first semi-competitive baseball “game” since March 11.
"Through everything that’s gone on — pandemic, coming back, spring training 2.0, the masks, really so many things — just being able to go back out on the field, putting baseball pants on, making it a place where the guys can go out and enjoy themselves and have fun and just play baseball in a normal atmosphere, that’s helpful and positive and probably sparks a little bit of positive emotion for all the guys out there on the field,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “They had fun with it.”
The pitchers especially. Berrios allowed a first-inning single to Nelson Cruz and a double down the left field line to Byron Buxton, but struck out Ehire Adrianza to work out of trouble. He threw 63 pitches over four innings, walked only one, and “his stuff was up exactly where you would want it,” Baldelli said. “He commanded his pitches well.”
Dobnak was his equal, allowing two hits and striking out four in his four-inning, 49-pitch outing according to mlb.com. Jhoulys Chacin, Cory Gearrin and Caleb Thielbar also pitched, and none allowed a run.
But the atmosphere was the most notable part of the day. After 17 weeks spent mostly idle, the Twins clearly thirsted for playing again.
“Finally we are free again,” Berrios said. “We are glad to be all together on the field, doing what we love.”
The hitters manned their defensive positions for a few innings apiece on a rotating basis, with sharp defensive plays by Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and … who was the other one again?
“Frankie Padulo goes out there and makes a great play in left field to really cap it off,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ advance scout and video coordinator. “That’s probably the play of the day.”
Pitches were umpired by the Trackman radar system, with advance scout Colby Suggs standing behind the screen, relaying the calls. Pitchers and catchers didn’t always agree with the calls, and the strike zone seemed higher and narrower than they are used to, Baldelli said.
“We’re just trying it, giving the guys a taste of it. We’re not preparing them for anything,” Baldelli said. “We need an umpire. Instead of a novice umpire strapping on the gear, or someone standing in the middle of the field, we just figured we’d give it a try. It actually worked pretty well.”
Star Tribune photo of Josh Donaldson hitting during Wednesday's intrasquad game by Renee Jones Schneider