Twins rookie reliever Michael Tonkin pitching with a purpose

The Minnesota Twins have had a handful of players make their major league debuts this season. Add reliever Michael Tonkin to the list.

The 23-year-old Tonkin debuted Thursday at Tropicana Field, pitching 1 1/3 innings of relief in Minnesota’s 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. He entered Thursday’s game with the Twins trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Tonkin came in with two outs in the inning and replaced right-handed reliever Josh Roenicke.

Tonkin’s first batter he faced was Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. After falling behind in the count 2-0, Tonkin got two strikes on Longoria before getting him to swing and miss at a 96 mph fastball for his first big league strikeout.

After the Twins scored a pair of runs in the top of the eighth to cut the Rays’ lead to 4-3, Tonkin went back out to pitch the bottom of the inning. He got James Loney to fly out to left field for the first out and induced a first-pitch flyout to right field off the bat of Yunel Escobar for out No. 2. Jose Lobaton then grounded out to first base for the final out, the first 1-2-3 inning of Tonkin’s major league career.

Tonkin was the Twins’ 30th-round pick in the 2008 draft. For his first few years of pro ball, Tonkin struggled to get past Single-A. He spent three seasons in Low-A Beloit before he was finally promoted to High-A Fort Myers during the 2012 season.

“I spent those couple years in Beloit, it seemed like it was going slow, and 13 months later I’m here,” Tonkin told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I definitely wanted to get out of there. I don’t know if I was pitching all that angry — definitely pitching with a purpose trying to move up.”

After all that in A-ball, Tonkin began the 2013 season with Double-A New Britain before advancing to Triple-A Rochester. In his 13 games with the Red Wings prior to his MLB debut, Tonkin posted a 1.23 ERA with five saves, 16 strikeouts and just three walks in 14 2/3 innings.

He found out earlier this week that he’d be joining the Twins in Tampa Bay when reliever Caleb Thielbar went on the bereavement list to return to Minnesota for his grandmother’s funeral.

“I was kind of shocked. Didn’t really expect it,” Tonkin told the Pioneer Press about his call-up. “Regardless of what happens, I just got to take it for what it’s worth.”

Just because Tonkin replaced Thielbar on the Twins’ 25-man roster doesn’t necessarily mean that Tonkin will be the one sent out when Thielbar returns from the bereavement list. Minnesota assistant general manager Rob Antony told reporters earlier this week that Tonkin could earn the opportunity to stay in the majors if he pitches well.

So far, so good for Tonkin after Thursday’s debut.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter