By Phil Miller
CLEVELAND — It seems almost cruel, doesn’t it, asking a rookie to face a Cy Young Award winner like the Guardians’ Shane Bieber on his first day in the majors? But Rocco Baldelli had no doubt.
“[We’ll] throw Matt Wallner right in there,” the manager predicted before Saturday’s doubleheader, “and let him go deep.”
Good call. Wallner, the Forest Lake native and a first-round pick in 2019, swung at the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer Saturday and grounded out, then looked at a called strike three a couple innings later.
But in the eighth inning, the outfielder was ready. Bieber started him with a belt-high cutter, and Wallner unleashed his powerful swing. The ball landed 414 feet away in front of the bullpens in center field, the lone bright spot in a dreary 5-1 loss to open a doubleheader.
“I was missing pitches a little bit the first two [at-bats], and just made a little adjustment,” Wallner said. “To be able to hit that last pitch, it’s rewarding when you’re able to do that.”
He circled the bases — “it’d be embarrassing to miss one,” he joked — then celebrated with his new teammates. “They were just happy for me. It’s fun to get a little excitement going,” the 24-year-old said. “I definitely appreciate that. It’s fun to do, obviously, in your first game.”
Especially since, after starting the season at Class AA Wichita, he didn’t really expect to reach the majors this year. Then he started tearing up Class AA pitching, followed by Class AAA pitching, and he made himself an obvious candidate to fill in when Max Kepler got hurt. Wallner has 63 extra-base hits in 2022, 27 of them home runs, and his new, patient approach has been rewarded with 97 walks and a .412 on-base percentage.
Wallner was lying on his bed in St. Paul — “just being lazy,” he said — when Saints manager Toby Gardenhire called Friday to tell him to get to Cleveland. By the next morning, he was activated as the team-record 59th Twins player to suit up this year, and put in the lineup as the starting right fielder. His parents, fiancée and friends from his days at Southern Miss were in the stands to watch.
“Honestly, [I was] not as nervous as I thought. I thought it was going to be a lot crazier,” Wallner said. “Once the game got going it was — not the same, but very similar.”
Especially when he punctuated it with a home run, setting off an intense negotiation with the fan who caught it in center field. The fan got the bats from Wallner and Carlos Correa that he bargained for, and Wallner got the souvenir.
Did he know that baseball was gone, right off the bat? Wallner considered the question in the hallway outside the Twins clubhouse. “Yeah, I was pretty sure,” he said.
As he said it, Bieber happened to walk by. “I knew it off the bat,” he deadpanned, and kept walking.
Kepler on IL again
Kepler was placed on the injured list, the Twins finally giving up on their hope that he could return quickly from a sprained right wrist.
“It’s a tough break. If Kep could have stayed active, believe me, we would have kept him active, even if he would have missed a couple more days,” Baldelli said. “It finally appeared that it wasn’t in the cards. He’s still struggling with the wrist and [a sore] hip.”
The move is retroactive to Wednesday, so Kepler will be eligible to return next weekend, when the Twins are home against the Angels.
“He’s shut down for a couple of days because he wasn’t trending in the way we want,” Baldelli said. But the Twins intend to have Kepler back in the lineup for the season’s final 10 days.
- To make room on the 40-man roster for Wallner, the Twins designated Saints righthander Drew Strotman for assignment. Strotman, acquired with Joe Ryan for Nelson Cruz at the 2021 trade deadline, has a 6.44 ERA in 39 appearances for St. Paul.
- The Twins placed Trevor Megill on the COVID-19 injured list and recalled fellow righthander Dereck Rodriguez from St. Paul. Megill missed the Twins’ series in Toronto earlier this season because he is unvaccinated.
- The Twins promoted 2022 first-round draft pick Brooks Lee to Class AA Wichita and fellow shortstop Wander Javier to the Saints. Lee had been playing at Class A Cedar Rapids, but the Kernels’ season ended Friday.