FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jorge Polanco's tenure as the starting shortstop for the Twins ended in January, when Andrelton Simmons signed as a free agent. But it nearly concluded six months earlier.
That's because Polanco's right ankle was so painful because of a small chip in his bone, a condition that bothered the veteran infielder virtually from the start of training camp, that having season-ending surgery was a tempting option.
"Sometimes I played with no pain, and sometimes, it was very painful. I just kept making my rehab to see if it would get better, and it didn't," Polanco said of the ankle, which also required surgery after the 2019 season. "To be honest, I did think about [having surgery] during the season, but my decision was to keep playing."
Said manager Rocco Baldelli, "It really speaks to the toughness of the guy we're talking about."
The injury clearly hampered Polanco on the field, and particularly when he batted lefthanded. The switch hitter is a .281 hitter against righthanded pitching, with a .792 OPS; hobbled by the bone chip and a bone spur that developed around it in his stride foot, Polanco batted only .227 with a .606 OPS against righthanders last year, but .345 and .805 against lefties.
"It didn't feel good, hitting lefthanded. That was one of my problems last year, that I couldn't get good at-bats lefthanded," Polanco said. "But this year, it's feeling pretty good."
Playing second base, as he will across from Simmons, will help, too, he said. The position puts less stress on his feet, and he is enjoying playing on that side of the bag, too. He will still play short occasionally as Simmons' backup, but is focused on improving at his new job.
"I think I can be pretty dang good at second base," Polanco said.
Good spot, bad result
Devin Smeltzer retired the side in the first inning Sunday on just nine pitches, producing two popups and a grounder that traveled 3 feet in front of the plate. Then he whiffed Rafael Devers, got another routine grounder — and surrendered a long home run on a high fastball to Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec.
One bad pitch, huh?
Nope. Zero, Smeltzer said.
"[That was] not a mistake at all. I threw the ball exactly where I wanted to," the lefthander said after his 26-pitch outing. "I said in the dugout to [pitching coach] Wes [Johnson] — if that pitch is down in the zone, I have something to be frustrated about. But I hit my spot with it, it felt good, and you just move on."
That's because getting his fastball high in the zone will pay off with weak swings at other pitches, Smeltzer said.
"Last year, I did not get the ball up with the fastball the way I normally do. It hurt me big-time, because it gets them off the offspeed. They don't chase if my fastball's not up," said Smeltzer, who posted a 6.75 ERA in 16 innings for the Twins in 2020. "These hitters are trying to get their timing down and I'm trying to get the fastball up. He's a good hitter and he didn't miss it."
• In the last couple of seasons of Joe Mauer's career, the Twins regularly waited a week into the spring schedule before putting the veteran into the lineup. That will be similar to the plan this spring, Baldelli said, for easing Nelson Cruz, 40, and Josh Donaldson, 35, into regular work. Neither was in the lineup Sunday, though Baldelli said a plan is in place for giving them enough at-bats before the season opens in a month.
• Simmons remains at his home in Curacao, Baldelli said, still trying to get a visa appointment to complete his travel paperwork, a task complicated by COVID-19 rules. The Twins aren't certain how quickly his situation will be straightened out.
• Jose Berrios and Kenta Maeda will make their spring debuts when the Twins return to Hammond Stadium later this week, with Berrios facing the Red Sox on Wednesday and Maeda getting the Rays on Thursday. In the meantime, the Twins will travel to Port Charlotte on Monday to face Tampa Bay, with Lewis Thorpe getting the start, and to North Port on Tuesday to play Atlanta, with Charlie Barnes starting.