Caleb Thielbar’s impressive streak of scoreless innings may be over, but the Twins rookie has still been a bright spot for Minnesota during the first half of the year.
Before Monday’s game against Tampa Bay, Thielbar had yet to allow a run in the first 19 2/3 innings of his major league career. Since making his debut May 20, Thielbar made Twins history with his scoreless innings streak by not allowing a run in his first 17 games — something that only six other major league pitchers had done since 1921.
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Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist put an end to that historic streak Monday with a two-run home run off Thielbar. Zobrist’s run was the only one credited to the rookie left-hander, who saw his streak come to a screeching halt at 20 innings.
For someone who once pitched for the independent St. Paul Saints, Thielbar’s story — scoreless innings streak or not — has been an inspiring one to follow.
“Thielbar has been impressive,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan during the Twins’ last homestand. “To this point, I think you have to be pleased with what he’s doing, especially where you know he came from — about (45) miles down the road.”
The 45-mile trek from Minneapolis south on US-52 takes you to the small southern Minnesota town of Randolph, where Thielbar pitched for the Rockets in high school. From there he went on to play at South Dakota State and was eventually drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 18th round of the 2009 draft.
Having grown up in the state of Minnesota, Thielbar was on the Twins’ radar during that draft. So when the Brewers released Thielbar in December 2010, the Twins once again had their eyes on him. It helped that he stayed in Minnesota as he pitched for the Saints for the 2011 season.
“We followed him quickly when he signed up with the Saints,” Ryan said.
Thielbar got his chance with his hometown team when he signed with the Twins in August 2011 as a free agent. Last season he ascended quickly through three minor league levels before finishing the year with Triple-A Rochester. That’s where he began the 2013 season as well before his call-up in May.
Twins fans might not have known what to expect with the 26-year-old Thielbar, but Minnesota’s front office had a good idea of what they had in the Randolph native.
“The great thing about this game is if you figure it out and you have a little stuff behind it and know how to pitch a little bit — which it looks like he does — you get a chance,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He obviously has done some pretty good things, from independent ball all the way up through the organization. I know he moved fast once we got him, and here you see him. You see the product out on the field winging it pretty good.”
Thielbar is a man of few words, instead letting his work on the mound speak for him. He can often be found reading in front of his locker, which happens to be located just a few stalls down from another Minnesota native, catcher Joe Mauer.
According to Ryan, Thielbar’s quiet demeanor has nothing to do with minding his P’s and Q’s as a rookie. That’s just how he is.
“He’s a good person. He sits in there and doesn’t say boo,” Ryan said. “It’s not like he’s changed his personality. He just happens to be a quiet guy.”
When Thielbar does talk, you quickly get the sense that he’s happy to be in a major league clubhouse and is willing to do whatever is needed of him in the bullpen. He pitched in a variety or relief roles in the minors last year and has already done the same with the Twins.
Recently, Thielbar has been used in more high-pressure situations. Last week against the New York Yankees, Thielbar entered a tie game — something he had not yet done in the majors. He allowed one of the two inherited runners to score but otherwise pitched two innings and struck out three batters while keeping his ERA and a tidy 0.00.
“I guess coming in with guys on is a little different, but it doesn’t change my approach or anything,” Thielbar said. “I’m still in there trying to throw strikes and change speeds. … I’m still trying to get them out regardless of when I come in.”
Monday in Tampa, Gardenhire called upon Thielbar with the Twins down a run in the bottom of the seventh inning. With a runner on third and nobody out, Thielbar served up the home run to Zobrist and was promptly removed from the game.
Still, the Twins and Gardenhire have confidence in Thielbar’s ability, no matter what the situation.
“I’m not surprised to see the poise, because he exhibited that last year,” Ryan said. “When you move a guy from A to Double-A to Triple-A coming off of independent baseball, I think that’s part of his mentality.”
Thielbar’s mentality doesn’t seem to waver regardless of the situation. Gardenhire often talks about the “funk” with which Thielbar pitches and notes his ability to use deception and hide the ball in his delivery.
That has led to Thielbar striking out 18 batters while walking just seven in 20 innings. In turn, he’s developed into a reliable arm out of the Twins’ bullpen for the foreseeable future.
“Every time you go out there, you gain confidence,” Thielbar said. “You just learn more and more every time out. I think that’s the biggest thing is not staying the same, just being able to learn and adapt to what you need to do every day.”