Vogelsong looks to crack Twins’ starting rotation as age 40 nears

Ryan Vogelsong was named an All-Star in 2011 and has two World Series rings in his career.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Ryan Vogelsong isn’t ready to be over the hill.

He’s still having fun on top of it.

Vogelsong is in spring training with the Minnesota Twins on a minor league contract, about four months before his 40th birthday but plenty confident he can win a spot on the staff for the season.

“I still think I can get big league guys out consistently and help a team win, so that’s why I’m here,” Vogelsong said.

The right-hander started for the Twins on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at LECOM Park in Bradenton on Sunday, working 2 1/3 innings with three earned runs allowed on four hits. Vogelsong, who struck out one and hit one batter in a 4-3 victory by the Twins, said his rhythm on the mound felt as good as it has all during camp.

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“I’m really happy with it,” he said. “Everything was doing what I wanted it to.”

Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago are likely to fill the rotation behind sure-bet Ervin Santana, despite lackluster 2016 performances. Trevor May was recently diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, removing one competitor from the scramble for the fifth spot, but it’s still crowded with Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey and Adalberto Mejia and fellow non-roster invitee Nick Tepesch.

Vogelsong endured too much adversity in his career to be deterred by that, though.

“He wants to be in that mix, and I don’t blame him,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He’s done fine so far. We know he’s a guy that’s not a young kid, so he know what he needs to do to prepare and we’ve seen progress every outing so far.”

There are no guarantees for Vogelsong, who has an opt-out clause in his contract that he can exercise at the end of spring training. Nearly having the game taken away from him last year made him realize his desire to pitch remains strong. With the Pirates last season, Vogelsong was struck in the face by a pitch from Colorado Rockies right-hander Jordan Lyles that shattered the orbital bone around his left eye. He still has titanium plates around his eye and cheek, reminding him how quickly a career can be taken away.

“I didn’t want to end last year with a half season after being hit in the face,” said Vogelsong, who went 3-7 last season with a 4.81 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 82 1-3 innings while splitting time between starting and relieving for the Pirates.

Over a 12-year career, which included two separate stints with the Pirates and San Francisco Giants, Vogelsong has a 61-75 record with a 4.48 ERA and 900 strikeouts in 1190 innings. Out of the majors for four full seasons, the first three pitching in Japan, Vogelsong was named an All-Star in 2011 upon his return after going 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA. He has a pair of World Series rings with the Giants from 2012 and 2014.

Vogelsong just wants one last shot at being a starter in the majors. The bullpen isn’t part of his focus now.

“It’s something I think about a lot,” he said. “It’s not something I’m just pushing under the rug and say, `I can’t do that.’ It’s something that I want to be able to do, so there is a constant thought process about what I can do better if I am in that situation.”

He’s not the same pitcher he was in 2011, requiring more command and craftiness to induce weak contact with the strikeout not as much of a weapon at his age. He’s not ready to be counted out, though.

“One of the reasons we brought him in this spring,” Molitor said, “is as a guy with character that still has something he feels he wants to prove.”