DETROIT – The Twins have lost six consecutive Opening Day games. That’s only one pattern Phil Hughes would like to change on Monday.
Since becoming a full-time starter five years ago, Hughes has alternated good seasons with bad, his ERA yo-yoing twice from 4.19 to above 5.00, until reaching an encouraging 3.52 last year. Wait, “encouraging” isn’t the word Hughes would use — “breakthrough” is.
“I know what I did last year to be successful, so I’ll try to replicate that and maybe even mix in some things that I feel I can get even better at,” said Hughes, who will make his first Opening Day start Monday against the Tigers. “It seems like every good year I’ve had, I’ve had an off year after. So I want to go out and prove that that’s not going to happen again. I want to follow up last year with an even better one.”
That means being aggressive with his fastball, spotting his cutter, perhaps even mixing in his new changeup. “I feel like I’ve matured a lot as a pitcher. Before I felt like, ‘I have a good fastball, I’ll just [go with] that.’ I didn’t pitch too much. I’d just go out and use my stuff and hope I beat them with it,” Hughes said. “Now I have more weapons I can go to.”
That’s what his manager expects to see, too. “I think he’s a prideful guy who understands last year was a nice change of course for his career and he wants to build on that,” Paul Molitor said. “I think he enjoys the fact that he’s a leader of that pitching staff.”
A buzz in the air
Nearly all 25 players attended an optional workout at Comerica Park on Sunday, and they could feel the excitement that accompanies Opening Day growing.
“I’ve never been on the Opening Day roster, so this is pretty important to me,” backup catcher Chris Herrmann said. “It feels a lot different to make the team out of camp. It means a lot.”
The players aren’t the only newcomers, though. Molitor, the Twins’ first new manager since 2002, expects to feel “that adrenaline rush that only Opening Day can provide” before he manages his first major league game.
“I always like to stop and take in the surroundings … just remind yourself of the uniqueness of the opportunity,” Molitor said. “You think back to the times as a kid, the passion you had playing catch with your dad, and here you are some 5½ decades later, still involved. You remind yourself of that, it helps you keep it in perspective.”
That appreciation for the opener extends to his players, too. He’s researched the pitchers the Twins will face in this series, tried to figure out the best lineup for each situation.
But Opening Day is about honor, too.
“I guess people can make arguments about whether you should use other people,” Molitor said of his first lineup. “But to me, some of these guys have earned a shot to be out there on Opening Day, [so] they’re going to be out there.”
Pelfrey takes lumps
Mike Pelfrey was on a quest to build up stamina as he pitched a minor league game against fellow Twins starter Tommy Milone on Sunday in Fort Myers, Fla. He also built up the confidence of a few Chattanooga hitters.
Pelfrey, who will start Saturday’s game in Chicago, gave up back-to-back homers to Class AA players Michael Gonzales and Adam Brett Walker in the second inning, and a bases-empty homer to Byron Buxton and a two-run shot to Travis Harrison in the third.
“Everything I threw inside they turned on,” said Pelfrey, who recovered to retire the final 10 batters. “I got stronger as I went along.”
Pelfrey allowed five runs over six innings but, most important, threw 85 pitches and pronounced himself ready to start the season. Milone gave up two runs over five innings and 62 pitches while facing Class AAA Rochester hitters.
Upon arriving in Detroit on Saturday, Twins players were treated to dinner at a steakhouse by veteran teammates Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer.
“We’ve done a few things this spring to get the guys together, away from the field. It’s been a lot of fun,” Mauer said of the chemistry-building meal. “We’ve got some characters in our group. Some veterans, and some new guys. It’s a good mix.”
And it was a good welcome-to-the-majors moment for relief pitcher J.R. Graham, the only current Twin who has never appeared in an MLB game. “J.R. was saying this was his first big-league dinner,” Mauer said. “Now he’s a real major leaguer.”