By Phil Miller
CLEVELAND – Dereck Rodriguez was in his St. Paul apartment on Saturday morning, preparing for his start against the Louisville Bats at CHS Field that night, when his phone rang. It was his boss, asking him to undertake a suicide mission.
Well, that’s not the way Toby Gardenhire puts it. It’s usually more like “You’re going to the big leagues! You’re going to the big leagues!” But Rodriguez, the son of Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez, has been around long enough to know what it meant: If he pitched poorly, he wouldn’t be a Twin for long. If he pitched well, he’d probably pitch several innings — and he wouldn’t be a Twin for long.
“It’s part of the game,” Rodriguez said with a shrug. “Keep your head up and keep going.”
So after getting the 11:15 a.m. call, he rushed to the airport, caught a 12:30 flight, and landed in Cleveland while the Twins were in the eighth inning of a 5-1 loss in Game 1 of a doubleheader. After fighting traffic, he arrived at Progressive Field and was issued a uniform and a blindfold.
Just kidding. He was told, just before Game 2 started, that he had been added to the roster to replace Trevor Megill, who was placed on the COVID-19 list. And that’s how he wound up pitching perhaps the best game of his season.
The Twins ran out of available pitchers after 11 innings of Game 2. “I looked around and there was nobody else left,” Rodriguez said. “The game was pretty much mine after that. They asked how I felt, I said I’m good. I can pitch. I’m pretty sure they were going to leave me out there as long as the game kept going.”
They did, and the game lasted 15 innings, finally ending when shortstop Jermaine Palacios booted a ground ball, allowing Cleveland to score an unearned run and win 7-6. Rodriguez was officially the losing pitcher — but a hero in the visitors’ clubhouse.
“D-Rod was awesome. Awesome. Without him, we’re not playing baseball for that long,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s not easy to put up zeroes when there are runners on second base” to start every inning.
Yeah, Rodriguez noticed that, too.
“It got the heart going really quick,” Rodriguez said. “A bloop, or anything, and the game is over. So that was fun. Considering everything, pennant race, I consider that one of the best [outings] I’ve had this year. It was a lot of fun.”
Less fun: His conversation with Baldelli on Sunday morning, one he knew was coming. After all, it happened to him after he pitched four innings against the Dodgers in April, too.
Baldelli thanked him for his good work, but explained what Rodriguez already knew: His 40-pitch night meant he’s out of action for a few days, and the bullpen is too shorthanded to carry him. He was sent back to St. Paul, and likely faces being waived once they need his 40-man roster spot again.
“I’m proud of it. I mean, we were tied, you don’t want to give in. You’re doing whatever you can to win the game, and that’s what I was trying to do,” said Rodriguez, who was originally drafted in 2011 by the Twins — as an outfielder — and pitched in 53 games for the Giants from 2018 to ’20.
Maybe he earned some brownie points that will earn him another shot? “Well, that’d be nice,” he said.
With Megill’s status still uncertain — he had COVID symptoms but tested negative, and has yet to be cleared by MLB to return — the Twins replaced Rodriguez with Ronny Henriquez, the righthander they received as part of the Mitch Garver trade with Texas in March.
Henriquez, at 22 the first Twins player ever born in the 2000s, is a high-velocity specialist, with 106 strikeouts in 95 innings at St. Paul this year. Usually a starter, Henriquez was in the bullpen for Sunday’s game, but he wasn’t called upon.
That didn’t change his anticipation. “I’m not going to lie, I was excited. My legs were shaking a little bit,” the Dominican native said through an interpreter. “Every time the phone rang, I was actually hoping that it was my name because that’s when I calm my nerves. When it’s my name, then I know I’m on. … I was a little nervous, but it was exciting.”
When he pitches, Henriquez will become the 60th player to play for the Twins this season, the 37th pitcher to pitch for them, and the 12th rookie to make his major league debut, all team records.
Righthander Jharel Cotton, designated for assignment four times and returned to St. Paul after appearing as an extra player for a doubleheader one other time, has finally departed the organization. Cotton was claimed off waivers by the Giants on Sunday, two days after his final DFA from the Twins.