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Meet 5 Twins relievers who took a long, twisting road to the majors

When the Twins assembled their bullpen during the offseason, they wanted it to feature a group of experienced relievers who could handle pitching in a variety of roles.

The early results have been promising — the Twins bullpen has given up three earned runs in 24⅔ innings (1.07 ERA) through their first six games with 29 strikeouts — and it's largely a mix of relievers who clawed their way up with unconventional paths to the big leagues.

There might be times when half the bullpen is filled with relievers who pitched outside of the minor leagues. Jay Jackson spent four seasons pitching in Japan. Caleb Thielbar and Justin Topa, both on the 15-day injured list, revived their careers pitching for an independent league team. Daniel Duarte pitched in Mexico after he was released, and Brock Stewart found innings in an independent league when the minor league season was canceled in 2020.

"More now than in any other time, it really doesn't matter what a guy did sometimes for the first year or five or 10 years in professional baseball, especially some of these pitchers," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "All that matters is how they throw the ball now. What have you done for me recently, that's what it is."

Topa, the 33-year-old righty acquired from Seattle in the Jorge Polanco trade, went the independent league route after he was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. He underwent Tommy John elbow ligament surgery twice and ran out of time to prove himself as a prospect.

Offered a spot on the Rockland Boulders in Pomona, N.Y., he accepted because it was only a few hours from his home.

"I was planning that to be my last season playing, so it was like let's just have fun with it and go out on a high note," said Topa, who is sidelined because of left patellar tendinitis. "I got caught up being injured for the year or so prior. You lose that desire a little bit going through the rehab process. You feel away from everybody. You have your rehab group and that's about it."

From the start of the independent league season, things went well for Topa. He pitched well as a starter, posting a 3.50 ERA in 110⅔ innings with Richard Salazar as his pitching coach — Salazar now coaches the Twins' Class A affiliate in Fort Myers — and earning a spot in the league's all-star game.

Topa tried returning to the minor leagues following the season, even participating in a few tryouts, but nothing materialized. He decided to keep pitching for Rockland because of how much he enjoyed his first year, and he eventually landed more minor league contracts that led to his MLB debut in 2020.

Jackson, then 28 years old, opted to pursue an opportunity pitching in Japan after making six appearances for the San Diego Padres in 2015. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp told him he would have a chance to be used as their setup man while the Padres told him he would be an up-and-down reliever between their big-league club and Class AAA.

"I was like, 'Let me go over here, pitch and play for a team and have an opportunity to be an impactful member of a team,'" Jackson said. "It was the opportunity more than anything, and then the money wasn't bad."

Jackson learned to pitch in the strike zone more often in Japan because hitters generally were more selective, and he refined his offspeed pitches. The results in his first year were terrific. He had a 1.71 ERA in 68⅓ innings with 89 strikeouts.

To Jackson's surprise, no MLB teams came calling. He spent three seasons pitching for Hiroshima, yielding a combined 2.10 ERA, and it led to only a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers ahead of the 2019 season.

"You see a lot of guys come back now," said Jackson, who signed his first guaranteed major league contract in February at 36 years old. "It's upsetting and frustrating a little bit because of the numbers I put up over there and how well my team did over there, and I didn't have the same amount of interest any of the years I was over there."

Stewart and Duarte were released in 2020 as teams downsized their minor league rosters during the pandemic. Duarte began the 2021 season in Mexico where he was teammates with several former major leaguers — including Bartolo Colon, who taught Duarte the grip for his sinker during one of their bullpen sessions together.

The environment, Duarte said, helped him thrive. The minor leagues emphasize player development. The top focus for independent league teams is winning.

"There are a lot of veteran players and in Mexico, you have to do well to keep your spot on the team," Duarte said. "If you're no good, you're gone. If you do good for a month, and then go bad for two weeks, you're gone. You have to prove yourself, keep working and keep doing your job to maintain a spot in the bullpen."

Relievers, more than any other position, can be volatile and Twins relievers don't need a reminder about performing to save their careers.

"Sometimes you fit what a team needs, sometimes you don't," Jackson said. "Sometimes a bad year gets you taken out of an equation for some reason, even though it might be a year you might have been nicked up or something. You just try to do the best you can. Hopefully, the cards fall in the right places for you, you get an opportunity and you take advantage of it."