Saints to Twins: Thielbar’s journey to the big leagues

MINNEAPOLIS — Midway Stadium in St. Paul is just a 15-minute drive east from Target Field in Minneapolis. For Caleb Thielbar, though, the distance had to seem so much farther in 2011.

At that time, Thielbar was released from the Milwaukee Brewers organization and signed to pitch for the St. Paul Saints, the independent club known more for wacky promotions than for producing major league talent. With no options at the time, though, Thielbar took what he could and opted to pitch in his home state of Minnesota — even if it was an independent league team.

The Randolph native was 3-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 43 relief appearances for the Saints. Those numbers were enough to turn the heads of the Minnesota Twins, who routinely scout the Saints and other independent league teams to comb for potential minor league talent.

Two years later, Thielbar was at Target Field not as a spectator but as a Twin.

“Obviously it’s awesome being in the big leagues,” Thielbar said Wednesday, his first time suiting up in the Target Field clubhouse. “I’m just trying to enjoy it as long it as I can, take it one day at a time and enjoy every second I have here.”

Thielbar attended Randolph High School in the small town about 45 minutes southeast of Minneapolis. He said he expected about 10 friends and family at Wednesday’s game against Milwaukee, with plenty of others planning to make the drive north this weekend.

When Thielbar was called up from Triple-A Rochester on May 20, he had officially made the journey from high school ball in Minnesota to independent ball with the Saints to professional ball with the Twins.

“Caleb has had a little different path than a lot of us,” said Twins catcher Joe Mauer, a fellow Minnesota native and former No. 1 overall draft pick. “It’s very exciting for anybody to come up, but to play for your hometown team and in front of your family, it’s pretty special.”

Thielbar was originally drafted by Milwaukee in the 18th round of the 2009 draft as a pitcher out of South Dakota State. He spent two seasons in the Brewers’ minor league system but never ascended higher than the Low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. After a combined 5.19 ERA in 39 games with two minor league teams in 2010, Thielbar was released by the Brewers in December.

His next home in baseball would be at Midway Stadium.

“He pitched for the Saints and now for the Twins,” Mauer said. “It’s a great story.”

Growing up in Minnesota, Thielbar was a big Twins fan. As a left-handed pitcher, there was one player in particular that Thielbar kept tabs on.

“I loved watching Johan Santana when I was younger,” Thielbar said. “When I was in high school, I tried to emulate him a little bit. I don’t know how well I’ve done that. We don’t really look the same up on the mound pitching.”

It’s tough for any pitcher to emulate the former Twins left-hander, who spent his first eight years with Minnesota and won two Cy Young awards. And while Thielbar certainly won’t be mistaken for Santana, he has held his own in his limited big league experience.

Thielbar has made four appearances since his promotion and has yet to allow a run, although he did allow three runners to score Sunday in Detroit on a bases-clearing triple by Avisail Garcia when he entered with the bases loaded. In his first three outings, however, Thielbar pitched five scoreless innings with six strikeouts, two walks and just one hit.

“He’s pitched well,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Thielbar. “The one outing in Detroit where he just got a breaking ball up and the guy put it in the gap, he had faced the guy before. He knew how to put him away but he just didn’t get the ball where he wanted. He got ahead of him 0-2 and couldn’t finish him off. Other than that pitch, he’s thrown the ball really good. It’s come out of his hand good. He’s been a real competitor.”

Until Wednesday, Thielbar was one of two players on the Twins’ 25-man roster to work their way up from the independent leagues to the big leagues. Outfielder Chris Colabello spent seven seasons in the Canadian-American League before getting his chance in Minnesota’s organization. He, too, made his MLB debut this year with the Twins.

Colabello, 29, was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester prior to Wednesday’s game, but he and Thielbar have proven that persistence pays off — even for those playing in the independent leagues.

“Some guys bloom a little bit later than others, too,” Thielbar said. “Obviously Chris is a few years older than me. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and believing in yourself and having some people around you that believe in you, too.”

Twins general manager Terry Ryan said plucking guys from the independent leagues and turning them into big leaguers or serviceable minor leaguers isn’t as rare as you might think. Minnesota has shown recently that it can happen more than once in a season.

“When you do sign them, there’s no doubt that they have the appetite to go onward and upward,” Ryan said. “They don’t take the game for granted. Thielbar and Colabello are two prime examples. They’re very grateful for the opportunity. I know they’ve said that. I’m happy. I wish Colabello would have been able to do a little bit more. Thielbar’s done a nice job since he’s been up here.”

Thielbar didn’t pitch in Wednesday’s game at Target Field against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Twins used a combination of Casey Fien and closer Glen Perkins to pitch two scoreless innings in Minnesota’s 4-1 Twins win. Thielbar’s home debut will have to wait.

When he finally does take that mound, however, he’ll be fulfilling a dream he’s envisioned for years and joining the ranks of other Minnesota natives to play in front of their home fans.

“It’s cool. You hope that everyone knows that you’re from Minnesota when you go out there,” said Perkins, a Stillwater, Minn., native. “So hopefully when he gets that chance they’ll know that he’s a Minnesota kid.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.