La Velle E. Neal III
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La Velle's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions on Sundays.

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Tyler Nubin's two interceptions were just as highlight-worthy as any of the big plays in the Gophers' 13-10 last-second victory over Nebraska in their opener Thursday. And Daniel Jackson's catch and Dragan Kesich's field goal will be remembered for a long time.

But Justin Walley's fourth-quarter forced fumble on Cornhuskers running back Anthony Grant was a moment of athletic brilliance.

Nebraska had this game. Walley punched it away.

The Gophers trailed 10-3 with four minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the game. The Huskers had the ball, had just gained a first down and were driving toward midfield. Fans were walking toward the Huntington Bank Stadium gates.

Grant took a handoff from quarterback Jeff Sims and headed around the right end. Walley, a junior defensive back, was being blocked as he swooped in to make a play and only got a hand on Grant as he rushed by. But Walley stopped, reversed direction and caught up with Grant to punch the ball loose. He didn't give up after Grant got away. And it was an NFL-quality punch.

"He wasn't really looking at me,'' Walley said. "We practice 'punch time' so much that it's really instinctual. The ball was out, so I punched it out.''

Aidan Gousby recovered the fumble at the Minnesota 47, setting the stage for Jackson. Ten plays and one sweet toe drag later, touchdown Gophers.

Minnesota will be tested by much better offenses this season, but the standings read: Gophers 1-0. Credit to Thursday night's playmakers for that, including Punch Time Walley.

Gophers defensive back Justin Walley forced Nebraska’s Anthony Grant to fumble in the fourth quarter Thursday.
Gophers defensive back Justin Walley forced Nebraska’s Anthony Grant to fumble in the fourth quarter Thursday.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Justin Walley’s forced fumble and the ensuing recovery set off a Gophers celebration in the fourth quarter.
Justin Walley’s forced fumble and the ensuing recovery set off a Gophers celebration in the fourth quarter.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Remembering baseball drama

Josh Donaldson and Lucas Giolito made news this week, bringing to mind a scene worth remembering. Donaldson became a Brewers minor leaguer and Giolito joined his third team in a month, second-place Cleveland, on Thursday.

Donaldson, an over-percolated brew of unfiltered intensity, influenced the Twins clubhouse for two seasons before the club dealt him in 2022 to New York. Longtime White Sox nemesis Giolito has a chance to again influence the Twins' stretch run as they pursue an AL Central championship.

Things were different, and more interesting, when these gentlemen were still with the Twins and White Sox.

The two provided what was one of the odder moments in Twins history when they met in the parking lot of Guaranteed Rate Field following a game in June 2021.

Donaldson had homered off Giolito, who had spun some dominant performances against the Twins in recent seasons. As he crossed home plate, Donaldson commented about how Giolito's pitches lacked the same quality following a crackdown on sticky substances. Giolito took exception, saying, "He's a ... pest" while mixing in an expletive. He also called Donaldson classless.

After the game, Donaldson was sitting on the Twins' bus to the hotel when Giolito emerged to walk to his car. Donaldson got off the bus and asked Giolito if he had something to say to him. Half the Twins' bus was entertained. The other half was bracing for a fistfight. The two talked without incident, although Giolito told Donaldson that he was annoying. The next morning, Donaldson went shopping and bought a T-shirt that read "You got something to say?" just so he could wear it during a Zoom call that afternoon.

While revealing Giolito's spin rate numbers, Donaldson said, "if we are going to talk about class, which side are you going to choose?"

The Twins moved on from Donaldson after the season, sending him and Isiah Kiner-Falefa (a Twin for all of one day) to the Yankees for Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez. The Twins now have nothing to show from that trade — other than peace and tranquility.

Louie Varland could be back with the Twins soon, and in a new place: the bullpen.
Louie Varland could be back with the Twins soon, and in a new place: the bullpen.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Louie in the 'pen?

There was an interesting development at CHS Field on Thursday. North St. Paul's Louie Varland came out of the bullpen and pitched four innings in an 8-7 come-from-behind walkoff win over Columbus. He gave up one earned run on three hits and a walk. And he lit up the radar gun.

A Twins official told me that Varland was hitting 97-100 mph with his fastball. I couldn't believe it. I was sent a screenshot of his pitch velocities: four-seam fastball averaged 97.2 mph, topping out at 100.2 mph.

Have the Twins found something here? They failed to add an impact reliever at the trade deadline, and they were beaten on the waiver wire by other teams, including Cleveland, when they eyed possible upgrades. Any upgrades will have to come from within, and Varland looms as an intriguing arm out of the bullpen.

... AND TWO PREDICTIONS ...

Twins will take it

The Twins will clinch the AL Central title on Sept. 23, with seven games left in the regular season. Cleveland will wilt under a tougher schedule, while the Twins have only Tampa Bay and Cincinnati with records over .500.

Vikings TD prediction

Dalvin Cook had five touchdown catches in six seasons with the Vikings. He's gone now — Cook is a Jet — and his replacement, Alexander Mattison, will have more than five TD catches in his first season as the starting running back.