The Twins had two cuts left to get down to 12 pitchers. Veterans Brian Duensing, Mike Pelfrey and Tim Stauffer were going to stay because of their guaranteed contracts. Rookie draftee J.R. Graham was going to stay because the Twins did not want to lose his impressive fastball on waivers.
Two lefthanded relievers took the fall: Aaron Thompson on a Tuesday (March 31), and Caleb Thielbar the next day.
“I had been with [Class AAA] Rochester three days and pitched twice,” Thompson said. “I left the park Friday, stopped at a gas station and then I was going to get a haircut. I was standing there, barefoot actually, filling up the car when the cellphone buzzed.”
The caller was Brad Steil, the Twins’ minor league director. “He said, ‘I need you to get back here right away. I have to tell you something,’ ” Thompson said.
What Steil had to tell him was starter Ervin Santana had been suspended for 80 games for steroid use, Pelfrey was going into the rotation, and Thompson would be in the bullpen for the Twins on Opening Day.
“I was lucky; I didn’t get the haircut,” Thompson said. “You know what happened to Samson when his hair was cut? He lost his power.”
Thompson smiled. “Seriously, I’m part Cherokee … a small part,” he said. “There’s a legend that Cherokees were great trackers during the American Revolution. And then the military officers made them cut their long hair and the Cherokees lost their ability to track.”
You find out a few unexpected things in a conversation with Thompson, even if it’s only for 10-12 minutes in the clubhouse.
There was one restriction placed on Tuesday’s postgame interview. “No numbers,” Thompson said. “Don’t mention stats to me. I don’t want to hear about those.”
The interviewer requested a waiver to mention the most basic stat: The 1-2-3 eighth that Thompson pitched Tuesday came in his 14th appearance in 27 games.
“I’ll talk about that,” he said. “To me, that’s what I’ve worked for — to be healthy, to feel great every day, to be ready to pitch. I don’t want a manager to ask, ‘Are you available?’ I want him to know I’m available.”
Paul Molitor has rolled with that in his first month as manager. He has used the 6-foot-3 lefthander early and late. Last Saturday, Thompson got seven outs to help the Twins beat the White Sox. Then, he went an inning on Monday and again Tuesday against the A’s.
“We cut him, he got the second chance and he’s taken advantage,” Molitor said Tuesday night. “He can pitch in all situations, early or late. We’ve got to be a little careful with him. I was hoping for a quick inning tonight, and he only needed 10 pitches.”
Thompson was living in Beaumont, Texas, in junior high. His stepfather was driving 90 miles to work in Houston.
“My little brother came along, and my stepdad wasn’t home much with all that commuting,” Thompson said. “It made sense to move to Houston — for my family, and for me in baseball. Houston is a baseball hotbed.”
Thompson enrolled in Second Baptist, a small Houston prep school. “When I got there, I was throwing in the low 80s,” he said. “The pitching coach was Jeff Calhoun, a former big-leaguer … a lefthanded reliever. He changed a couple things and right away I was throwing 91.
“One day I got to a game and there were a bunch of scouts in the stands. I thought they were there to see someone on the other team. The coaches said, ‘They are here to see you.’ ”
Thompson was selected 22nd overall in the 2005 draft by the Florida Marlins. He was in his third organization when he made it to the big leagues for four games with the Pirates in 2011.
He was taken off the Pirates’ 40-player roster that winter, signed with the Twins as a minor league free agent and was quickly popped with a 50-game suspension for a positive marijuana test.
The Twins hung with him, and Thompson, now 28, has put that incident in the rearview mirror of his baseball career. He has become an offseason workout fanatic at the Tomball sports medicine facility in Houston.
“If you want to be healthy, you have to live healthy,” Thompson said. “Work out and watch what you put into your body.”
Included would be only those herbs approved by baseball, presumably.
Thompson mentioned several times in the conversation that he’s just functioning under God’s plan for him. “How long have you been religious?” he was asked.
Thompson responded: “Everyone says that … ‘Oh, you’re religious.’ I see it as spiritual. I don’t believe in the condemnation part of religion. I believe in God’s love.”
He’s grateful for that love, Thompson said, and talks with God daily, although not about stats.