FORT MYERS, Fla. — If Venezuela had beaten the United States Saturday night in Miami, Pablo López would have been in line to play in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday.
Instead, Trea Turner’s grand slam eliminated Venezuela, and the starter found himself pitching the ninth inning of an exhibition game against the Braves, then five more innings in a backfield against a handful of Twins minor leaguers .
“I was excited. I couldn’t wait to pitch today at the WBC,” López said. “But whatever happens, I’m glad I was able to do my job today and feel the way I did. I feel like the ball is coming out well. My time, my pace was good with all the terrain. So, it was good to make my way here and still do my job and feel good.”
Venezuela made a 4-0 run through the toughest group, defeating the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in the process, before losing a back-and-forth game to the United States in the quarterfinals. For it to end the way it did, López said, stings a little.
But the holder, who called the WBC “the biggest honour” of his career so far, said he took so many positives from the experience, including the relationships he built during the tournament. That includes outfielder Luis Arraez, who was traded for in the offseason.
“Obviously, I can see why a lot of people enjoy his game. He’s such a great player and an even better guy, a better person,” López said. “Obviously, we had a lot to talk about, the Twins and the Marlins. This was a relationship I was happy to make and form.”
An influx of players walking around the Twins clubhouse Sunday morning with bleached blond hair also meant Puerto Rican players who had competed in the WBC were returning. Catcher Christian Vázquez and pitchers Jorge López, Jovani Mora, Emilio Pagán, Jose De León and Dereck Rodríguez — who are in minor league camp — all played for Puerto Rico, which lost to Mexico in the quarterfinals on Friday.
“A lot of emotions, a lot of energy. I couldn’t even describe how much it meant to play for our country,” said Jorge López. “Just another different environment. You only prepare for what you want. I haven’t played in any postseason and I’ve heard it’s very similar. That’s an expectation to carry with this team now.”
Moran called it “very special” to play in front of a large contingent of Puerto Rican fans in Miami, and while he’s never been to the playoffs, he said the experience was good preparation for when the time comes.
Just as importantly, they all returned healthy from a tournament in which star players Edwin Díaz, Jose Altuve and Freddie Freeman suffered injuries.
“I love watching the WBC. I hold my breath a little bit when our players play, but I also hold my breath when they play here in a few days,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations. “In my mind, that’s just the reality. It’s good to have them back, for sure.”
The Twins cut their roster by two again Sunday morning, optioning starter Louie Varland and reliever Trevor Megill to Triple-A St. Paul.
Varland, who hails from Maplewood, appeared in two Grapefruit League games this spring, giving up five runs in four innings pitched. The right-hander made his major league debut near the end of last season, making five starts for the Twins. Now, he will return to St. Paul, where he spent a month last season, and will be an important rotation depth option for the Twins.
Megill, who had a rough spring, posted a 4.80 ERA in 39 games in relief for the Twins last season.
Byron Buxton was 0 for 2 with two walks in a minor league game on Sunday. … Jhoan Duran was hit in the leg by a batted ball while throwing in the backfield. Manager Rocco Baldelli said he suffered a concussion and was moving well. Duran wasn’t expected to miss much, if any, time. … Max Kepler was ruled out with a left hip condition that Baldelli said was relatively minor. The Twins will reevaluate Kepler and Duran on Tuesday after their off day.