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Powers: Twins’ Nolasco lets his pitching do the talking

By Tom Powers

St. Paul Pioneer Press

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Ricky Nolasco is a different type of fellow, dry as burnt toast. He is a sphinx, but with a tan and a hot car. There was a rumor going around the press box the other day that someone saw him smile. My theory is that was just his reaction to a carby pregame meal.

In our few brief conversations, Nolasco has appeared expressionless, uninterested and, seemingly, perpetually aloof. He occasionally seems about to switch from bland to testy but usually ends up aborting that critical gear shift. He just doesn’t have much to share and probably wouldn’t care to if he did.

And then he walks to the mound and everything changes. On the hill, he is creative and interesting. He’s like an artist with a brush, and home plate is his canvas. It’s difficult to try to guess what his next stroke will be.

“He’ll throw any pitch at any time, back door, front door,” said pitching coach Rick Anderson.

“He just knows what he’s doing,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s pretty tough on the mound. You can see it. He doesn’t like to screw around too awful much. He goes right at them. He knows how to add and subtract, all those things.”

A couple of years ago, when the Twins realized that the present had no commercial value, they promoted the names of Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Kyle Gibson. Those youngsters represented a brighter tomorrow. To quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier.’ “

Then Sano and Gibson blew out their elbows and needed Tommy John surgery. Rosario is under suspension for failing a drug test. We don’t even know where Eddie is. He’s not in camp. The Twins are very hush-hush about it, saying only that he is dealing with a personal matter. He might be in a gulag for all we know.

The Twins are selling hope, yet hope keeps getting kicked in the teeth. You really can’t trust hope until it actually walks into the clubhouse and puts on a uniform.

Nolasco is about here and now. If nothing else, he should provide a positive diversion while all the prospects are stewing in the minor leagues and trying not to explode. After all, Nolasco is the proud owner of the largest free-agent contract ever handed out by the Minnesota Twins — four years for $49 million.

Nolasco went two innings in his first start of the spring and then got rained out Thursday. So on that day, he threw a simulated game under the stands. Tuesday in Port Charlotte, he went four innings in a 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. In those last couple of innings, his real personality emerged: first-pitch curveballs, fastballs in unexpected places, all sorts of mixes and matches.

“It was good to get out there and get into a game and try things like that,” he said afterward, staring blankly at … I don’t know what he was staring at. “It’s something that’s a big part of my game — kind of mix things up. I was able to get four innings in. It’s kind of tough to be able to do that in two innings. Get an extended outing and there’s different things to work on.”

He didn’t really have a big-picture view of his spring training so far.

“Just go out there and getting things done,” he said. “Not really worried about getting people out or anything like that.”

After the beep leave a message. Beeeeeeep …

Nolasco gave up a couple of runs in his four innings, though the Rays didn’t hit the ball very hard. Asked what they expected from Nolasco over the season, best-case scenario, both Anderson and Gardenhire were quick to answer: “Two hundred innings.”

That really is something. It seems like only yesterday we were watching P.J. Walters, Cole De Vries, Pedro Hernandez and Liam Hendriks getting clobbered during the first couple of innings, killing hope for the rest of the night. And yet here is a fellow who knows what to do with the baseball.

“We like how he goes about it,” Gardenhire said after Tuesday’s game. “He’s pretty confident in what he does. He knows how to pitch, and you can see that right away. He’s going to be just fine for us.”

I think he should do very well. I just don’t expect him to analyze his performances very well. Still, that’s a great trade-off after what we’ve seen in recent years.

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