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As extension kicks in, Twins ace Pablo López out to prove he’s one of baseball’s best pitchers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Twins and Pablo López were in the infancy stages of their relationship when the two sides decided to commit to each other long term.

López had spent months learning about his new organization. He saw how many staff members were from Minnesota, how long they had been a part of the organization. He noticed all the Twins legends — like Bert Blyleven, Joe Mauer and his childhood hero, Johan Santana — who still hung around, long after their playing careers had ended. He felt, very quickly, that the entire organization was built on family values.

The Twins had spent those same months learning about López, whom they acquired in a trade in January 2023. They noted his work ethic, how he was the first one in the building. His makeup was off the charts. His ability was, too.

On April 21, the Twins officially announced they had signed López to a four-year contract extension worth $73.5 million. They had never given a pitcher that much money in franchise history.

But this, they believed, was the right pitcher — and person — to invest in.

The extension kicks in this year, and López, who will take the ball on Thursday afternoon for Opening Day against the Kansas City Royals and lead the Twins into the 2024 season, is out to prove he’s worth every penny.

“It meant a lot to me,” López said. “Every time teams are willing to make investments in players … there’s responsibility that comes with it, but there’s the aspect like it’s a mutual decision to have a relationship, a long-lasting one that hopefully we can turn into something special and we’re able to then accomplish a lot of things on the field.”

López already knew what the Twins thought of him. When they traded Luis Arraez, the reigning American League batting champion, to the Miami Marlins to get him, it told him how highly they valued him and instilled some confidence in him, as well.

“That already made me aware of, ‘OK, these people must see something in me. They have to be mindful of something that maybe I’m not mindful of right now,’ ” López said.

The Twins believed that they had acquired one of the best pitchers in baseball.

They worked with him to introduce a sweeper, an offering that quickly became one of his most effective pitches (opponents hit just .173 against it last year). They showed their faith in him once more by naming him the 2023 Opening Day starter for the first time in his career. He responded with 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Royals, striking out eight.

Just a few weeks into the regular season, the two sides came to their agreement.

“You’re not going to make that kind of investment in someone, especially before you have to, unless you feel very highly about their ability. But when you combine the ability with really very much absolute, top-of-the-scale character and makeup and work ethic and desire and all of these other factors, then it actually became a pretty easy decision on our end,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

All of these “other factors” quickly became apparent once coaches and teammates started spending time around him. They saw how he meticulously planned, how he set his schedule and the executed it to a T. Everything he did was intentional and aimed at improvement.

“He works harder than anybody. This guy is the first one to show up to the clubhouse every day and the last one to leave, and I really mean that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “A lot of people say that just to say it, but it’s true. I show up early, and when I think I’m too early, he’s already sweating.”

That work ethic might have even kicked into overdrive after signing the extension. Lopez couldn’t help but put some extra pressure on himself. He felt the need to justify the team’s investment in him.

As a self-proclaimed overthinker, the Twins’ ace said he “went down that hole” and had to remind himself that the job hadn’t changed and neither should he.

The only thing that changed was that he and his wife, Kaylee, had the certainty of knowing where they would be living, a luxury in an industry in which players are constantly on the move.

“I really had to understand, take a step back and realize it’s just a very beautiful opportunity to come to the field with a little less pressure on things that take a lot of toll on our minds sometimes and then obviously come to the field and just play the game a little more freely,” López said. “Now I get to focus more attention to my craft, to what I do on the mound.”

And what that is, is being one of the best pitchers in baseball.

In his first year in Minnesota, López posted a 3.66 earned-run average in 194 innings. He finished the year tied for third in the majors with 234 strikeouts, and helped lead the Twins in the postseason, giving up one run across 12 2/3 innings in the two games he started.

Last year, he finished the season seventh in American League Cy Young voting. This year, he’s among the favorites to win the award, which would further cement him as one the sport’s elite.

“Most decisions that are going to cost you a lot of money are difficult decisions,” Baldelli said of Lopez’s extension. “I think that was probably one of the easiest decisions that we made to invest in a person like Pablo López, who also happens to be one of the best pitchers anywhere.”

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