On Tuesday, one week before the Twins likely host a playoff game at Target Field, they welcomed back two relievers who could play large roles in the postseason: Chris Paddack and Brock Stewart.
Paddack, 16 months after he underwent Tommy John surgery, pitched two innings in his season debut. It was filled with ups and downs, and a lot of emotion. Stewart, back from a three-month stint on the injured list, pitched a scoreless ninth inning with two strikeouts in an 11-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
"It's not normal to have all of your relievers generally together, relatively healthy and everyone coming back and getting ready for the same time," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Stewart, who has given up two runs in 26⅔ innings this year, is a proven option and someone who could slot into the back end of the Twins' bullpen if he pitches as he did in the first half of the season. Stewart pitched around a leadoff single, hitting 98 miles per hour with his fastball. He racked up one strikeout with his cutter and one with his slider.
Paddack took the mound in the sixth inning to Eminem's "Square Dance" as the lyrics "It feels so good to be back" roared from the stadium's speakers. It had been 506 days since he last pitched in a major league game, after blowing out his elbow on Mother's Day 2022, and perhaps fittingly, he was facing the same opponent.
He surrendered a single to right field on his first pitch, then struck out the next three batters. Esteury Ruiz whiffed on a changeup. Ryan Noda swung under an elevated 97-mph fastball. Paddack finished the inning by striking out Zack Gelof with a 98-mph fastball to end a seven-pitch at-bat.
"I've been visualizing that outing right there for a really long time," Paddack said.
Paddack yelled a couple of times as he walked off the mound. He told Twins officials in January not to rule him out from pitching this season. He wanted something to target during his recovery. The Target Field crowd rewarded Paddack with a standing ovation after his first inning.
After fighting back tears in the dugout, thinking of all the people who helped him return to a big-league mound, Paddack's second inning wasn't as crisp. The first four batters reached base, which included a two-run homer by Seth Brown on a first-pitch changeup, and an RBI double by Jordan Diaz. After a mound visit from pitching coach Pete Maki, Paddack retired his final three batters.
"I'm already looking forward to my next one on what I can improve on and what I need to get better at," said Paddack, whose fastball topped out at 99 mph, up from averaging 93 mph with the pitch last year. "That is keeping adrenaline stored. I kind of let it all out there in the first."
Playing through light rain, the Twins took a 5-0 lead when A's starter Paul Blackburn labored through a 43-pitch first inning. Among the first seven batters, the Twins drew three walks and put only two balls in play. One of the balls in play was a down-the-middle sinker in a 3-1 count that Matt Wallner crushed out of play for his second career grand slam.
Wallner's grand slam, which followed three consecutive walks, landed more than 10 rows up in the second deck of center field. The ball traveled an estimated 463 feet for the longest homer of his career.
"One of the furthest balls I've ever seen hit ever," Baldelli said. "That's 20-something years of professional baseball. Truly like a rocket as it went into the night."
That was more than enough run support with the way Bailey Ober was pitching. He tossed five scoreless innings and struck out eight batters without issuing a walk. Oakland hitters offered 23 swings at Ober's changeup and whiffed 11 times.
Ober permitted only two hits to the 16 batters he faced, which included an infield single to first base. He was in such control he struck out seven in a nine-batter stretch.