MILWAUKEE – If there is a positive aspect to your oft-injured star infielder coming up lame in his first at-bat of the season, Rocco Baldelli found it Thursday: At least it's something new.
"It doesn't appear to be related to [Josh Donaldson's] calf in any way," the Twins manager said of the nagging injuries that cost Donaldson more than half of his first season and all of the short postseason with the Twins. "It looks like it's isolated to his hamstring area."
Donaldson whistled the third pitch of his season into the power alley in left-center, exactly the sort of at-bat the Twins have been eager to see from the former MVP after his short-circuited 2020 season. But as he rounded first base, Donaldson suddenly hopped in pain and limped into second base. He told first base coach Tommy Watkins he was fine, but "when he got in the dugout [at inning's end], we knew it was the right time, and I think the right decision, to get him out of there," Baldelli said.
After an examination, the Twins diagnosed the injury as "right hamstring tightness," potentially far less serious than last year's injuries.
"We're going to re-evaluate him [Friday]. We'll probably get him in here on the off day, get a little work done on him and see how he's feeling," Baldelli said optimistically. "Obviously there has to be some concern, but we'll wait and see."
Donaldson's health has been a concern all spring; that he would be hurt on his first at-bat of the season seems almost cruel. The Twins and their third baseman had brainstormed several ways to avoid another leg injury, which has marred three of his past four seasons. Baldelli even talked about it again before Thursday's opener.
"The thought is to make sure he's ready to go the full season. That's the priority here, keeping Josh on the field," Baldelli said. "If Josh Donaldson is healthy for the entire year and continually takes the field for us, we're going to be really good."
Luis Arraez, scheduled to play left field, went to third base instead when Donaldson was removed, and that might be the logical solution if Donaldson winds up on the injured list. Willians Astudillo or first baseman Miguel Sano also can play the position, and utility man J.T. Riddle is on the taxi squad that's traveling with the Twins this week and available.
Worth the wait
Max Kepler had one hit in February and two in March. He already owns three in April.
"It's another test of the meaning of spring training at-bats," Baldelli crowed about the right fielder, who left Fort Myers with an .070 batting average, three singles in 43 at-bats. "Kep's a good hitter and that's all it comes down to."
As if to prove it, Baldelli stuck Kepler in the exact center of his lineup and watched as he looped a run-scoring single to center in the third inning, lashed a triple off the right-field wall in the fifth, and hit a hot grounder down the left-field line for a leadoff double in the seventh.
"I didn't hesitate to put him right in the middle, where he belongs," Baldelli said.
Real fans, real noise
The 11,740 fans allowed to attend Thursday's game made plenty of noise, and the Twins noticed.
"Last year, there weren't any fans and I kind of got used to that," Twins starter Kenta Maeda said. "In a situation where bases are loaded, you hear the fans cheering. That really gives the home team an advantage, with the fans' cheers and support."
"It's a completely different experience when there's people who want to be at a baseball game and are having fun and getting into the game," Baldelli agreed. "I'm looking forward to getting back to Minneapolis and playing in front of our fans."
The crowd also booed loudly once: When the traditional sausage race was run only via video on the scoreboard and not on the field. Chorizo was the winner.
Taylor Rogers, last year's team saves leader with nine, pitched the seventh, not the ninth inning Thursday. That's because the Brewers' 3-4-5 hitters were due up, and two of them, former MBP Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw, were lefthanded.
"Over the course of this year, we're going to see him, and probably everybody, pitching some different spots when it makes the most sense," Baldelli said. "We talked about it before the game, and he came in and did the job."
Rogers retired all three hitters he faced, as did Cody Stashak in the sixth and Hansel Robles in the eighth, as the bullpen retired 11 consecutive hitters.
• The Twins wore black "MB" patches on their right sleeves, a season-long tribute to bench coach Mike Bell, who died of cancer last Friday. The teams also observed a moment of silence before the game for Bell and several other baseball figures, including former Milwaukee Brave and Brewer Hank Aaron.
• Maeda on whether becoming an Opening Day starter was as exciting as he expected: "Absolutely. It was a fantastic experience. Being on the mound felt great. Unfortunately, I didn't pitch my best. The results weren't there. But I'm hoping to be Opening Day starter again, and next time I hope to do much better."