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Jim Souhan: Twins pitcher Varland ready to wrestle for roster spot

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The skills of big league pitchers translate well into golf, or basketball. If they played football, they probably became quarterbacks. They excel at long, loose, jangly, coordinated motions, mimicking the deceptively smooth windup that produces a fastball.

When Twins rookie Louie Varland took the mound in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 7, 2022, he looked different from most pitchers facing the pressure of their major league debut in an intimidating setting. Stocky and intense, he looked more bulldog than greyhound, more wrestler than point guard.

“Yeah, I wrestled in high school,” Varland said. “Builds character. And discipline. I cut a lot of weight, too, so it teaches you a lot.”

Such as? “The fighter mentality,” he said. “It’s me versus the hitter, one on one, my best against your best. Which I like.”

Varland is in Twins camp. The first official workout for pitchers and catchers is Thursday, although most of the squad went through an unofficial workout on Wednesday when pitchers and catchers reported.

Varland has won enough of his one-on-one encounters to position himself to become the next prominent ballplayer from St. Paul. He attended North St. Paul and played collegiately at Concordia-St. Paul.

Dave Winfield, Jack Morris, Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer preceded him on the not-necessarily-mean-but-often-crooked streets of Minneapolis’ sister city. He is the second big leaguer from North St. Paul, following Don Arlich, who pitched for the Astros in the ’60s.

Two other North alums found their way to the Twins — former team president Jerry Bell, who led the campaign to get Target Field built, and Twins curator Clyde Doepner.

Doepner saved a ball from Varland’s first start and first victory, and is giving both to North High to be displayed.

Varland remains rooted to St. Paul. He trained there this winter with his older brother, Gus, a pitcher in the Brewers organization. Further success could lead to them relocating to warmer climes next winter. “Training indoors,” he said, “gets old.”

This might be unexpected from a 25-year-old, but spend a few minutes with Varland and you will learn something about Tom Kelly and Ted Williams.

After retiring as Twins manager, Kelly liked working with Concordia. Varland remembers Kelly running a drill in which the pitcher would take the mound and throw a pretend pitch, and Kelly, standing in front of them, would hit them with a baseball. They had to scramble to pick up the carom and throw to first.

“That was wild,” Varland said.

If you want to win a bar bet, Varland can help. His great uncle, Carroll Hardy, is the only player ever to pinch-hit for the great Ted Williams. According to Wikipedia, Hardy also pinch-hit for Carl Yastremski and Roger Maris, and later played for the Twins.

Varland’s father once tried out for the Twins at one of their mass workouts in the Metrodome. His sons took more traditional routes to baseball success, which led to Louie standing on the Yankee Stadium mound, noticing his family members scrambling to get to their seats in time for his first pitch.

“It was unreal,” he said. “People were flying to New York and doing everything they could to get to that game to experience that with me. Everything was a blur. Still is, really. Everything happened so fast, and there was all of this anxiety and adrenaline. But at the end of the day it was an amazing experience.”

He would strike out seven Yankees in 5 ? innings, allowing two earned runs and receiving a no-decision. He would make five starts for the Twins, going 1-2 with a 3.81 ERA with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 26 innings.

In 47 minor-league games, his ERA is 2.61, and he’s probably headed back to the minors to start the 2023 season. The Twins have five veteran starters, plus candidates Bailey Ober, Josh Winder, Simeon Woods Richardson … and more.

Most modern pitchers throw hard. Varland’s fastball has been measured at about 94 mph. To succeed he’ll need that wrestler’s mentality.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “It’s going to be super competitive. I guess I speak on behalf of all the young talent in here in saying that we’re going to try to make the Twins’ decisions as hard as possible.”

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