Pelfrey shows strength in Twins debut

MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Pelfrey feels blessed.

The Twins right-hander feels blessed simply for the fact that he gets to play baseball for a living. He also considers himself blessed because of his rapid recovery from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He had the surgery on May 1 and it usually takes players a year to fully recover from the procedure.

But here Pelfrey was Thursday, taking the mound in his Minnesota Twins debut just over 11 months after his right elbow was surgically reconstructed. There was never a shadow of a doubt that his arm would be fine, never any hesitation from Pelfrey or his manager. 

In fact, when Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire tried to take Pelfrey out after five innings, Pelfrey told his new manager that he could keep going, elbow surgery be darned. While Pelfrey didn’t complete the sixth inning, he did earn his first Twins win as Minnesota topped the Detroit Tigers 8-2 to win the opening series of 2013.

“It felt good. Going into a year, whether I was coming back from injury or not, it’s always good to get that first one out of the way,” Pelfrey said. 

A year ago, Pelfrey had no idea when he might return to a baseball diamond. He made just three starts for the New York Mets last year before his elbow gave out. His surgery was performed May 1, and doctors told him to shoot for that same date one year later to make his return.

But the 29-year-old Pelfrey worked hard this offseason to come back sooner than that. When the Twins signed him as a free agent in late December, they still weren’t sure when he might make his debut, but they were pleased with his progress.

“I didn’t necessarily know how long it was going to take,” Pelfrey said after Thursday’s win. “(I’m) blessed to come back as fast as I have and feel as good as I do. Hopefully as the year goes on I’ll continue to get better. … I’ve truly been blessed in the whole process.”

Pelfrey’s first start as a Twin got off to a bit of a rocky start, at no fault of his own. Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson reached on a base hit to first base that could have been ruled an error on Justin Morneau. Jackson then stole second base and took third on a throwing error by catcher Joe Mauer. A groundout by Torii Hunter plated Jackson for Detroit’s first run of the game, an unearned run for Pelfrey.

After that first run, Pelfrey settled down and retired two of Detroit’s most dangerous hitters in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to end the first inning. He then worked around a leadoff single in the second before the Tigers scored yet another unearned run in the third. Hunter reached on a two-out error by shortstop Pedro Florimon and later scored for a 2-0 Detroit lead.

A home run by Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe in the fourth inning gave Pelfrey and Minnesota a 3-2 lead, and the newest Twins starter wouldn’t relinquish it. He got through a scoreless fifth inning and went back out for the top of the sixth, despite his manager’s behest. 

“We went to take him out after the fifth. He had 85 pitches and we said, ‘That’s going to be enough,'” Gardenhire said. “He told me, ‘I’m a horse.’ I said, ‘You’re a horse but I’m still taking you out.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand, I’m getting back to being a horse.’ I really like that. I don’t know what it meant at the time, but I really liked it.”

Pelfrey lived up to his self-proclaimed “horse” tag during his time in New York. From 2008-2011, he averaged 195 2/3 innings. He topped the 200-inning mark twice, including a career-high 204 innings in 2010. Given the way Minnesota’s starting pitchers struggled to go deep into games last year, the Twins are hoping Pelfrey can once again be a horse in 2013.

Thursday was a good step in that direction.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been a horse my whole life. I want to get back to that. I want to go back out,'” Pelfrey said. “He said, ‘Well, I trust you. Go back out, then.’ I appreciate the opportunity. I wish I could have gotten three more outs for him. Unfortunately I was only able to get one, but I feel good. I want to be that guy you can count on and go out there and get that extra out.”

Pelfrey was the third new Twins pitcher to make his Minnesota debut this week, following Vance Worley and Kevin Correia. Those three combined to pitch 18 1/3 innings and allowed just five earned runs for an ERA of 2.45. They also allowed just two extra-base hits. All five of the five hits Pelfrey gave up Thursday were singles.

There were questions about how the new-look rotation would fare this year, but each of the three starters passed their first test. For Pelfrey, Thursday’s start was the culmination of a long 11 months.

“I definitely put a lot of hard work into it,” he said. “This is reward for going out there and for all that hard work. I’m pretty pleased with my first outing. It’s something to build on.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.