DUNEDIN, FLA. – Brent Rooker and Caleb Thielbar wouldn’t mind spending a few weeks in Tokyo this summer, trying to win a gold medal. But they would rather be in Minneapolis.
Rooker and Thielbar were teammates Thursday in a spring training game, just as they were teammates last November in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Tokyo. Both were selected to play for Team USA at an Olympic qualifying tournament, but the U.S. team finished as runner-up in its group and isn’t yet in the Tokyo Games field.
“I wish we had played a little bit better, and I wish I had pitched a little better. But we had a lot of baseball happen to us,” said Thielbar, the former Twins lefthander who is trying to earn another stint in his old team’s bullpen. “We ran into a couple pitchers who our guys just couldn’t figure out. We had a lot of line drives hit right at guys. It just didn’t work out, but hopefully they can get qualified.”
Six teams will compete in the Summer Olympics tournament, baseball’s return to the Games after being dropped from the event in 2012 and 2016. Japan, Israel, Mexico and South Korea already have earned invitations. Another qualifying tournament will be held in Tempe and Surprise, Ariz., in late March, with the U.S. competing against the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico.
Rooker, a 2017 first-round pick who hit 14 home runs with Class AAA Rochester last season, hasn’t been contacted about playing in that tournament, nor has Thielbar. That could be because the team is limited to players who are not on an MLB 40-man roster, and some players’ status could change this month.
“The Olympics would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, but my big goal is to be in the big leagues by that time,” Rooker said. “As of right now, I’m planning on being in camp, working toward that goal.”
Rooker earned a spot on the all-tournament team in November, and he hit a game-winning home run in Team USA’s comeback victory over Chinese Taipei.
“It was a ton of fun. The whole experience was really cool, getting to go to Mexico and to Tokyo as well,” Rooker said.” That whole experience, getting to play for Team USA, it was awesome, even though we came up a little short.”
The Americans went 4-5 during the event, but even the losses were amazing experiences, Thielbar said. He gave up a run in Team USA’s 4-3 victory over Japan in Tokyo, and the memory is still vivid.
“It was unbelievable. It might be a low-key event here, but over there, when you’re playing Japan in the Tokyo Dome, there’s not one seat open in the stadium,” Thielbar said. “It was rocking in there. It was a lot of fun.”
• Max Kepler has been cleared to play and will make his 2020 debut Friday, playing right field against the Red Sox. Kepler had some soreness under his right armpit and in his back after the first several days of camp, and the team chose to wait until it disappeared before putting him in the lineup.
• Nick Gordon, the Twins’ first-round pick in 2014, has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game because he is dealing with some gastrointestinal tract issues that have limited his ability to work out, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s been challenging. We’re trying to help him regain his strength and get on a routine that allows him to start back up with baseball activities again,” Baldelli said. “It’s certainly a frustrating situation, being sidelined during big-league camp, but he’s handled himself very well. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
Righthander Homer Bailey, who signed a one-year free-agent contract in the offseason, will make his Twins debut against the Red Sox at Hammond Stadium, facing Boston lefthander Kyle Hart.