The pressure was on. Rick Stelmaszek knew if he tripped on the way to or from the mound, or butchered his pitch, he would never hear the end of it.
“Oh yeah,” Jack Morris said. “We had the odds going.”
“I was talking to him as soon as he got here about warming up in the batting cages,” Roy Smalley said.
Yes, his critics were there, standing behind him while he was on the mound. A group that included Morris, Smalley, Tom Kelly, Kent Hrbek, Torii Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins, Ron Gardenhire and others. Even A.J. Pierzynski, a last-minute arrival, flew into town.
“A late entry here,” said Stelmaszek, who was a Twins coach from 1981 to 2012, a 32-year tenure that is the third-longest in major league history. “A.J. came in and that’s always eventful.”
They gathered as the Twins honored Stelmaszek, who is battling pancreatic cancer, with the first pitch on Opening Day.
Twins President Dave St. Peter called Stelmaszek with the offer about a month ago, but the longtime bullpen coach was reluctant at first. Stelmaszek was let go after the 2012 season. Many of the players on his watch have left. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine run the baseball department, not Terry Ryan.
“I thought this moment, Opening Day, was for the players, the manager, the coaches and the people of Minnesota,” he added. “Dave St. Peter talked differently. He took a different avenue and it took me by surprise.”
St. Peter told Stelmaszek how much he meant to the players he coached as they went on to successful careers.
“This was an opportunity for some of those guys, as well as the organization, to recognize his contributions to this franchise, which are significant,” St. Peter said.
Stelmaszek, 68, continues his battle with cancer, which was diagnosed late last year. The Chicagoan said he recently had the eighth of 19 chemotherapy sessions, which take a lot out of him. But he was upbeat on Monday, to be back at Target Field and back among his baseball family.
“It’s a process,” Stelmaszek said. “The medication is doing its work and [the fatigue], that’s the side effect, that’s all. One day at a time.”
By the way, Stelmaszek’s throw one-hopped catcher Eddie Guardado. But it was far from a disaster.
Go directly to first
Brian Dozier carried a bat up to home plate, even though he realized he probably wouldn’t need it. With two runners on and first base open in the seventh inning of a tie game, the Twins second baseman knew what was probably coming. But he was still curious.
Major league baseball no longer requires a pitcher to throw four balls to intentionally walk a batter; the team on defense can simply signal their intention. “I wanted to see how everybody reacted to the process,” Dozier said.
So how does it work? In Dozier’s case, Royals catcher Salvador Perez delivered the news.
“Salvy said, ‘Give me your bat,’ ” Dozier explained. “Then he said, ‘Go to first.’ All right, I’ll go. I like that.”
The experience had its downside, too, however. “I was disappointed,” Dozier said after the Twins’ 7-1 victory over Kansas City. “I thought I might be a ‘Jeopardy!’ question [as the first player ever to receive a no-pitch walk]. But I heard [the Cardinals’] Yadi [Molina] did it yesterday.”
Byron Buxton went 0-for-5 in his first game as the No. 3 hitter in the Twins lineup but still had a major effect on the game. The third-year center fielder made a pair of diving catches, one of them after slipping on the outfield grass.
“We’ve been working hard on these [outfielders] about taking chances and making plays,” manager Paul Molitor said. “We’ve changed philosophies on trying to shallow them up a little bit to give them a chance to use their skills.”
Buxton used them to catch up to a sinking line drive by Alex Gordon in the third inning, leaving his feet to corral it about a foot off the ground.
Two innings later, Buxton lunged forward, his feet scooting out from under him, as Paulo Orlando’s line drive was hit, but recovered in time to catch it about 75 feet from the infield.
“He got a great jump on the first one,” Molitor said. “The second one, on the wet grass, he slipped a little bit, got fooled by the swing a little bit. But [he] made an outstanding recovery.”