by David Zingler
As a child of the 2000s, Sam Hentges cheered in the stands at Twins games sporting the jerseys of his heroes, Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer. Fast forward to last week. In a tense divisional contest with first place on the line, Hentges takes the mound in the 8th inning at Target Field. For Cleveland. The Twin Cities native shuts the Twins down and eventually picks up the win. Dreams do come true. Sort of.
A star two-way player at Mounds View High School, Hentges led the Mustangs to a state championship in 2013 and picked up the 2014 Pioneer Press High School Baseball Player of the Year award before he was selected in the 4th round of the 2014 draft by the Indians.
Hentges went through some growing pains in the minor leagues (including Tommy John surgery in 2016), winding his way up the Cleveland organization for six seasons. The 6-6 lefthander always had the stuff though. He kept grinding and the organization kept the faith, eventually culminating with Hentges’ major league debut in April 2021.
After taking his rookie lumps (6.68 ERA in 30 appearances), Hentges seems to have found his groove in 2022. In 26 innings over 25 games, the reliever has posted a stellar 2.08 ERA with 29 strikeouts against 7 walks.
I caught up with the lanky hurler in the visitor’s clubhouse at Target Field last week.
DZ: (On June 21 and 22) you got into the game. Wasn’t your first time pitching here, but what’s it like pitching back at home?
HENTGES: I mean, it’s cool every time, man. I don’t think it’ll ever get old and growing up as a Twins fan. It’s always cool. I remember coming to games here when I was younger with my parents and family. So, it is cool, but I mean, it’s just got to go out there and treat it like any other game.
DZ: Do you have a lot of friends, family coming to the game(s) (in Target Field)?
HENTGES: Yeah, definitely. There’s always friends and family that follow and come to the games when in town.
DZ: You mentioned going to games growing up. Did you guys go to a lot of Twins games?
HENTGES: Yeah, I grew up probably 20 minutes from here, I remember the Metrodome and the Target Field opener. Remember coming to a lot of games here.
DZ: Who were your favorite players growing up?
HENTGES: Two favorite players were probably Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer…I just really liked Torii Hunter growing up and then Joe Mauer his legendary career and watching him hit. He was fun.
DZ: So, last year you made your major league debut. How much did that experience help you coming into this season?
HENTGES: I think just going out there last year and getting in and learning a lot outing to outing last year. Learning from other players and the coaching staff has helped me transform and take stuff into the off season to work on and then come up this year.
DZ: Last year you probably didn’t get the results you wanted on the field, but this year things are going a lot better. What’s changed for you?
HENTGES: I think it’s just a mentality thing. It’s more aggressive out there being in that mind set and just trying to fill up the strike zone. I’ve known that I’ve had this stuff to pitch in the big leagues, but it’s just going out there and executing it every outing.
DZ: How much of it is mental? Not being overwhelmed, being confident.
HENTGES: I think a lot of it is just trusting the work that you put in the off season and trusting the stuff you’re working on day to day during the season. And like I said, just going out there and executing as best you can.
DZ: Just one last thing. A lot of you guys in the minor leagues missed all of 2020. What did you do during that time to stay ready?
HENTGES: We had the alternate site, which was at our low A (ball) facility, so we were playing games there, some games, I don’t know how many innings I got in, but we were playing inter-squad games there and just kind of waiting for that call, but yeah we’re just on call then.
DZ: Were you able to be as competitive in those inter-squad games?
HENTGES: A little bit. I mean, they were tough. The environment was tough. I don’t know how many guys were there, like 25. So, we didn’t have a full defense or anything like that. Just going out there and getting reps against professional hitters was huge.
DZ: What about the mental part of that? Every year you guys have a season, since you’ve been a kid probably.
HENTGES: Yeah. It was very different, but I was fortunate enough because there were only 25 guys in the whole organization to go there. So, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to face some of our guys and some of our top hitters there at that time.