MINNEAPOLIS — It’s hard to tell which tough situation Ryan Pressly has handled better: facing big league batters or wearing a pink backpack before every game.
As the least experienced member of Minnesota’s pitching staff, it’s Pressly’s job to tote the backpack to the Twins’ bullpen as the relievers make their way out before each game. In this case, it’s a pink Minnie Mouse backpack, complete with a big pink bow.
It serves as a reminder that Pressly is indeed a rookie, even if he’s pitched like a veteran.
Through Friday, Pressly has appeared in nine games for the Twins and has posted an impressive 1.72 ERA in 15 2/3 innings of work. His biggest “welcome to the big leagues” moment came earlier this week in Boston when the 24-year-old right-hander pitched four scoreless innings in relief to earn his first major league win.
“His confidence is pretty good,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s quiet, but I think you can see him opening up the more we go here, getting more comfortable.”
That comfort level extends past the pitcher’s mound. Prior to every game, Pressly has to sling the Minnie Mouse backpack over his shoulder and walk slowly to the Twins’ bullpen. As he does so, he’s often heckled by fans sarcastically complimenting him on his pink backpack.
“Just, ‘Nice backpack,’ or, ‘Stupid rookie,’ or something like that,” Pressly said. “It doesn’t really bother me that much.”
It’s all part of being a rookie, Pressly says, and he’s taking it all in stride.
“I think a young pitcher wants it,” said fellow reliever Brian Duensing, who wore a pink fairy backpack as a rookie in 2009. “It’s kind of a symbol of saying, ‘I’m in the big leagues. I’m a rookie, but I’m here.’ It’s always fun to see how they react, how long it takes them to start getting frustrated with fans always saying they like the backpack, hearing that kind of stuff. It’s fun. He handles it well.”
So far, Pressly has also handled the rigors of being a big league pitcher. He joined the Twins as a Rule 5 draft pick in early December when Minnesota took him from the Red Sox organization. During his time in the minors, Pressly — an 11th-rond pick in 2007 — began as a starting pitcher in 2008 but was eventually converted to a reliever in 2012 after he struggled to find consistency as a starter.
The Twins have used Pressly in a variety of relief situations so far, calling on him anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning. Wednesday’s four-inning appearance was his longest of the year but he’s had five outings of more than one inning.
“The way he’s been able to step up in some big situations, we always talking about breaking these guys in slowly and trying not to put them in too many pressure situations,” Gardenhire said. “That hasn’t mattered. He’s handled them all. He’s handled pretty much everything we’ve thrown at him. That’s a pretty confident young man.”
Confident enough to wear a pink backpack on a daily basis and brush off the heckling. The backpack holds plenty of goodies for the guys in the bullpen — granola bars, cans of Red Bull energy drinks, ibuprofen — and is worn by the reliever with the least amount of major league experience. As of right now, that happens to be Pressly.
You would think that would mean Pressly is hoping another rookie gets called up to relieve him of his backpack duties, right?
“Not really. I don’t want anybody coming up because that means somebody over here got hurt,” Pressly said. “I’d never wish that upon anybody. But yeah, I don’t like carrying the backpack. It comes with the territory, so I’m not too worried about it.”
Pressly hasn’t looked too worried about anything yet during his first several weeks in the majors. He’s been a big reason why the Twins’ bullpen has been one of the best in baseball.
Minnesota has had some success in the past with Rule 5 picks. Current starter Scott Diamond was plucked from the Atlanta Braves organization in the 2010 Rule 5 draft. Former Cy Young winner Johan Santana was acquired via the Rule 5 draft in 1999.
In fact, Pressly was given the No. 57 when he joined the Twins, the same number Santana wore in Minnesota for eight seasons.
“They gave me 57 so I thought that was a pretty good omen,” Pressly said. “Hopefully I stick around a little bit more.”
If he sticks around a while, he’ll gladly keep wearing the pink backpack.