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McFeely: Garver makes biggest mark at Twins home opener

Minnesota Twins catcher Mitch Garver (23) is congratulated by left fielder Ryan LaMarre (right) after the game against the Seattle Mariners at Target Field on Thursday, April 5. (Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports)1 / 2
Minnesota Twins catcher Mitch Garver (23) touches home plate after a home run during the seventh inning as Seattle Mariners catcher David Freitas (36) look on at Target Field on Thursday, April 5. (Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports)2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS — The most talked-about moment of the Minnesota Twins home opener at Target Field happened before the game. As part of the special ceremony to kick off the Twins' 58th season, a bald eagle named Challenger was supposed to swoop into the stadium during the national anthem and land on its trainer's gloved hand.

The plan went awry. The bird flew above the green grass of the ballpark toward its handler before getting confused and spotting Seattle starting pitcher James Paxton standing in left field. Challenger made an aerial pass past Paxton's face, circled once more and tried to land on the pitcher's right shoulder before hopping to the ground. The trainer ran to retrieve the bird.

Paxton was remarkably composed during the sequence, barely flinching as the huge bird, its six-foot wingspan and its sharp talons loitered near his head and neck.

"I'm running," Twins outfielder Byron Buxton answered when asked how he would've reacted. "When he flew by me the first time I would've ran. He wouldn't have had a chance to land on my shoulder."

Mitch Garver, the Twins catcher, was concerned about what happened—but mostly impressed by Paxton.

"I was worried for Paxton. Honestly, if an eagle came to me like that in a pregame ceremony I wouldn't be as cool, calm and collected as he was," Garver said. "Oh my goodness, that was terrifying."

Garver made his comments in the home clubhouse, surrounded by a couple of dozen reporters who waited for him to emerge from the training room. It was the 27-year-old's first experience in such a situation—and he handled it better than he would've handled an eagle flying hear his head.

The backup catcher was the man of the game because of the solo home run he bashed 411 feet into the left field seats in the seventh inning to give the Twins a 3-2 lead. Left fielder Eddie Rosario smacked another solo shot in the eighth inning for the final 4-2 score. Minnesota won its home opener on a 38-degree day that would've qualified for a fine January afternoon, if it wasn't actually April.

The game-winner was Garver's first big-league homer, coming in his 48th career at-bat, and showed why the Twins chose to keep him as the backup catcher over veteran Chris Gimenez over the offseason. Gimenez was a solid veteran backup and an outstanding clubhouse presence who wanted to come back to the Twins after last year's success.

But the Twins like the potential of Garver's bat and believe that in addition to spelling starting catcher Jason Castro, can also fill in the outfield, at first base or at designated hitter. He's still learning behind the plate ... but, man, that bat.

The homer came on an 0-2 slider off Mariners' reliever Dan Altavilla. It was a no-doubter and came one inning after Miguel Sano pounded a two-run shot over the left-field wall off Paxton that tied the game 2-2.

"In a spot like that, it's something I'll never forget. Just getting the ball in the air and being able to get our team over the top in the late innings and give the ball to our bullpen to shut it down is something special," Garver said. "The ball wasn't traveling as well as it usually does in the park in the summer, but I got it good enough."

That's a concession to the frigid air in downtown Minneapolis. A few snowflakes were flying by the eighth inning.

Garver had shown few signs of a lively bat through spring training in Florida, striking out eight times in 40 plate appearances and batting just .171. The only action he saw in the regular season before Thursday was one game in Baltimore, where he went 0 for 4. He said he wasn't feeling particularly good at the plate as spring training ended.

"No, I was still making some adjustments at that point. I'm still working every day to find something that'll get me in that groove and help me find the position to be in to be successful," he said. "We're getting close."

Garver struck out in his at-bat prior to hitting the home run, when he faced Paxton in the fifth. Even though it ended with a swing and miss, Garver battled through 10 pitches and fouled off a couple of tough Paxton sliders that dived in toward his ankles.

Sano's homer in the sixth chased Paxton and allowed Garver to face Altavilla, whom he'd seen in the minor leagues.

"You can't write it up any better than that, unless it's a walk-off," Garver said. "I'm just really excited to find some barrel right there in a big situation and help our team win."

If it wasn't for an unruly eagle, it might've been the most talked-about moment of the Twins' home opener.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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