By Do-Hyoung Park
CLEVELAND — Twins fans will quickly become acquainted with this fact of life: When Matt Wallner hits home runs, they’re hardly ever cheap shots. So, when the Twins’ No. 5 prospect showcased his prodigious power in his Major League debut with a big swing against former Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber on Saturday, of course he immediately knew it was gone.
“Yeah, I was pretty sure,” Wallner said.
It turned out that one of his future rivals in the AL Central knew it, too.
“I knew it off the bat,” Bieber chimed in without turning or breaking stride as he walked by the media scrum in the service level of Progressive Field.
During an otherwise lackluster all-around effort as part of a 5-1 loss to the Guardians to open Saturday’s doubleheader in Cleveland, Wallner provided the lone bright spot for the Twins with a Statcast-projected 414-foot blast that landed in front of the bullpens in right-center field.
Though Minnesota’s playoff hopes in ‘22 are all the more remote following the Twins’ consecutive losses to open this critical series that dropped them to six back of the division-leading Guardians, Wallner should be an important component of this team’s success in the years to come — and he showed off in front of family, friends and future rival fans with an explosive opening act as a big leaguer.
“That was pretty cool,” Wallner said. “That was pretty rewarding. The biggest part was just making sure I touched every base, because that’d be pretty embarrassing if I didn’t. But yeah. It was pretty fun.”
There was no such embarrassment because Wallner, a native of Forest Lake, has had plenty of practice touching all of those bases en route to becoming the 32nd Minnesota-born player in Twins history and the second hometown kid to debut with the club this season, joining Louie Varland of North St. Paul, who was on the mound for Wallner’s debut on Saturday.
After setting the all-time record for career home runs at the University of Southern Mississippi, Wallner crushed 50 homers across three Minor League seasons in the Twins’ organization, reducing some holes in his left-handed power swing while upping his selectivity to nearly double his walk rate while maintaining his power in a huge ‘22 campaign that saw him surge up the organizational ranks and the prospect boards.
“Just trying to find more pitches that I can do damage with, as opposed to just taking pitches that maybe I can single off of but not necessarily drive and then getting myself out,” Wallner said. “The selectivity goes into the whole approach, and that’s kind of helped me a good bit.”
Wallner hit .299/.436/.597 with 21 homers in 78 games for Double-A Wichita, representing the Twins with a home run in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, before earning a promotion to Triple-A St. Paul. Following a bit of an adjustment period, Wallner was nearly unstoppable this month, hitting .333/.419/.685 in 13 September games, including a cycle on Sept. 1, before he was summoned to the Twins for the first time on Saturday due to Max Kepler’s placement on the IL with a right wrist sprain.
Hours after a late-night call from Triple-A manager Toby Gardenhire to inform Wallner of his promotion, the 6-foot-5 24-year-old with the huge outfield arm (he also pitched in college) stood in the big league clubhouse for the first time, fielding questions in a media scrum from current Bally Sports North analyst Justin Morneau, who had been Wallner’s favorite Twins player while growing up as a kid in the Twin Cities.
“[Joe] Mauer and Morneau [were my favorites], but [Morneau] had more power, so that was pretty cool,” Wallner said.
Wallner grounded out to second base in his first plate appearance and took a called third strike in his second, but went to the plate in the eighth inning looking for a pitch up in the zone. It came on a first-pitch cutter that caught all of the plate — and Wallner’s home run swing looked effortless.
In fact, the toughest part of that home run might have been in getting the ball back from a Cleveland fan in the bleachers, who was shown on TV cameras engaging in a lengthy negotiation with Twins travel director Mike Herman for Wallner’s milestone home run — though the Twins finally got Wallner his rightful keepsake in the end.
“We had to sell the Capitol Building to get it,” Wallner said.