NORTH PORT, FLA. – Jhoulys Chacin’s old friends gave his candidacy for a spot in the Twins’ rotation a big boost Tuesday. Mostly by looking completely fooled.
Marcell Ozuna struck out on a Chacin slider, Ender Inciarte lifted a routine fly ball, and their longtime National League pal Chacin had little trouble recording six quick outs — on only 19 pitches — in his first Grapefruit League start with the Twins.
“This morning [Inciarte] told me, ‘Hey, I’m playing today. I’m going to hit your fastball,’ ” the veteran righthander said with a smile. “Stuff like that, I like the challenge, because guys are your friends. It’s fun, but at the same time, I was keeping my focus and trying to make good pitches.”
He succeeded, giving up only a windblown fly ball that dropped for a double when outfielder Gilberto Celestino got turned around. In throwing so well, Chacin demonstrated the comeback potential that convinced the Twins to give the 32-year-old Venezuelan an invitation to camp. Chacin’s career derailed last year when his slider grew erratic, causing him to post a 6.01 ERA with the Brewers and Red Sox. But the Twins have grown convinced this spring that his career can be salvaged.
“We still think the stuff is there, we think his ability to pitch is still there. He manipulates the ball really well,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You watch him from behind, he can make the ball do things that very few guys can do.”
Chacin’s 11 seasons in the major leagues figure to give him an advantage over rookies Devin Smeltzer and Randy Dobnak in the battle for a rotation spot. But he has to keep throwing like he did Tuesday, too.
“It’s a strength because that’s something he can turn to. If he needs to make adjustments or figure anything out, he has a lot of different experiences to lean on that help him,” Baldelli said. Yet “I don’t think any of these guys are clearly ahead of any of the other guys. But he’s done everything he can to this point to put himself in position to eventually win a spot.”
And his trash-talking game is in good form, too.
“I feel like sometimes [Ozuna] looks for my fastball and sometimes he’s looking for my slider. I like to cross him up with my pitches,” Chacin said. “Inciarte, I’m going to [text him], ‘I threw you three fastballs. I told you I was going to throw you a fastball.’ But it’s more joking. He’s trying to hit a homer and I’m trying to get you out. It’s a good challenge.”
• Max Kepler’s upper back, underneath his left shoulder, has been sore this spring, Baldelli said, which explains his absence from the Twins’ first four Grapefruit League games. “Just a very, very minor soreness,” Baldelli said.
• Lefthander Lewis Thorpe was absent from spring training. “I’ve left camp for a week or 2 for personal matters. I’m healthy and excited for this year. I’ll be back shortly,” tweeted Thorpe (@ljthorpe33).
• A Miguel Sano batting practice home run cleared the left-field berm Tuesday — and broke a window in one of the team’s buses, parked just beyond it.
Aside from Kepler, nearly every position player in camp should get playing time Wednesday, because there are two games. Half the squad will travel north to Port Charlotte to take on the Rays, with Devin Smeltzer getting the start against former Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Meanwhile, Jake Odorizzi will make his first start of the spring when the Twins face the Phillies at Hammond Stadium. The game will not be televised.