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FORT MYERS, FLA. – Devin Smeltzer pitched for the Twins seven times in 2020, enough to get used to empty ballparks and fake crowd noise. But not enough to like it.
"I was miserable last year," Smeltzer said. "I feed off the fans."
Yet the lefthander still sounded a little surprised at the visceral reaction, the pent-up emotion, he experienced as he stepped out of the dugout in Hammond Stadium for the Twins' spring opener Sunday.
"I heard some fans — some normalcy — out there," Smeltzer said. "It was pretty emotional. I got choked up a little bit. I can't even express how great it is just to have whatever fans we had here. It felt amazing."
Yes, the Twins beat Boston 7-6 in seven innings, used seven pitchers, gave up three home runs, and rallied with two runs in the sixth to begin Grapefruit League play with a victory. The most important number in the boxscore, though, was this: 2,154.
That was the announced attendance, the first time since March 11 that the Twins had played in front of paying customers, albeit socially distanced, mostly masked ones.
"It was a really great day for all of us to be out there again and play in front of our fans," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "The feel of the game is so much different than anything that we were playing in front of last year. Just a completely different environment."
It was odd for something so familiar to feel so alien, to hear fans applaud as always when the P.A. announcer contrasts the Florida gametime temperature with the weather in Minneapolis, for the crowd to erupt when Miguel Sano laced a bases-loaded double just inside the foul line in left field. The stadium was less than one-quarter full, with fans spaced out in "pods" of two or four people, and even the fans sitting on the grass berms were admonished to remain inside socially distanced boxes painted on the grass.
They made more noise, actual cheering rather than prerecorded clapping, than players have heard in a ballpark in months.
"The energy level just spikes when we have that, and it's great to see," Baldelli said. "I think everyone had a good time."
Well, maybe not Boston rookie Caleb Simpson, who faced five batters in mid-inning relief of starter Nathan Eovaldi, retired none them, and finally caused the Red Sox to invoke one of this spring's new rules intended to protect pitchers' arms — a team can terminate an inning if its pitcher has thrown more than 20 pitches. With five runs in after Sano's double and Simpson having thrown only five strikes among 21 pitches, the Red Sox did so, stranding two Twins in scoring position with only one out.
The shortened inning came into play once the Red Sox rallied, with designated hitter Michael Chavis blasting Tyler Duffey's first pitch of the spring into the seats in right-center, and then infielder Jeter Downs launching another Duffey pitch into the seats for two more runs. Boston took a 6-5 lead, but the Twins struck back in the sixth, with one run scoring on a rundown gone bad on an errant throw by second baseman Jonathan Arauz, and the go-ahead run brought home by Kyle Garlick's sacrifice fly.
The teams played the bottom of the seventh, too, even though the Twins led, to give Boston prospect Kaleb Ort some work. That enabled the Twins to hit into a double play on the game's final pitch yet walk off winners anyway.
What the players will remember most, however, is the delight in sharing the sunny spring day with hundreds of interested spectators.
"It was fun to run on the field and have my hair stand up a little bit," Smeltzer said. "Kind of got that little bit of a spike that I haven't felt in a really long time."
Added Baldelli: "I'd much rather hear thousands of fans enjoying themselves and cheering on the Twins, than [hearing] what's going on in the other dugout. We found a way to get through [the pandemic] and it worked out fine. But this is much, much better."