Caleb Thielbar was sitting on a bus. It was the middle of the night and his team had just finished its ballgame. He did not know where he was going at the time.
He was a member of the St. Paul Saints, wearing the uniform that an indignant J.D. Drew and a rehabilitating Darryl Strawberry once wore.
Tyler Walker sat down next to him that night. Walker had played eight years in the big leagues from 2002-10 and was giving it one last go with the Saints at age 35.
He had thrown nearly 300 major league innings and had a career WAR of 2.2, meaning he was an above-average pitcher.
Walker looked at Thielbar and said, “Hey, you’ve got the stuff to play in the big leagues.”
It came out of the blue. Thielbar was flabbergasted.
“That was kind of a boost of confidence,” he says, cracking a smile. “Just to have somebody there with that kind of experience tell me that was reassuring.”
Within a week, he signed a major league contract with the Minnesota Twins.
Up to that point, Thielbar had no reason to believe he belonged in the Show. He threw 77 MPH as a senior at Randolph High School in Southern Minnesota and did not even receive a scholarship to the South Dakota State University, a newly minted Division I program.
Former SDSU coach Reggie Christiansen said he saw something in Thielbar and gave him a roster spot during his freshman year of college. One of Christensen’s assistants, Pat Holmes, noted the way Thielbar threw the ball in outfield drills and thought he could be a pitcher at the collegiate level.
Thielbar is a great athlete. Although he is a stocky 6’0”, 195-pound man, he can do a 360-degree dunk on a basketball court. Had he been able to hit Division I pitching, he may have been an outfielder.
“He had the highest vertical leap of any player in the program,” says Christensen.
SDSU athletic trainer Nate Moe put him on a regimen that enhanced his athleticism. It was less cleans and benching, more free weights and balance.
“It wasn’t the football-style lifting,” says Christensen, “he wanted to bring out the athleticism. That only enhanced Caleb’s strength and it transferred over to the mound.”
Within a year, Thielbar was throwing over 90 MPH.
During Thielbar’s junior year, Christensen’s last year in Brookings (he went home to California to coach at Sacramento State), he pulled one of his coaches aside and told him that he thought Thielbar, a man that once threw a 77 MPH fastball, could make it to the major leagues.
“He’s left-handed, can throw three pitches for strikes, and he does have that edge to him,” says Christensen of Thielbar. “He had an opportunity to make it as far as anybody.”
It’s a unique edge, to say the least. Thielbar is reserved and gives off no sign of being insulted that he was not considered a bigger prospect at a young age. His edge is something that can only be seen on the diamond when he is firing pitches at opposing hitters.
“He’s quiet, you hardly know the guy’s around,” says his current manager, Ron Gardenhire.
“He goes about his business pretty good.”
Thielbar has only positive things to say about the Brewers organization, going as far as to say that he “was terrible” in A-ball, where he gave up 33 runs and six home runs in 53.0 innings as a relief pitcher.
He also is still very connected with the South Dakota State community. After a 3-1 win over the Kansas City Royals on June 27, he sat at his locker room, glaring at his iPad. It was the day of the NBA draft and he was waiting for a team to take Nate Wolters, a SDSU point guard that had played well in the NCAA tournament the previous two seasons.
When Wolters went the Washington Wizards at No. 38, Thielbar was ecstatic.
He feels that Wolters succeeded in Brookings for the same reason he did: He got playing time. Wolters was a lightly recruited out of St. Cloud Tech, choosing SDSU over North Dakota State and Colorado State, but improved enough in his four years that he became a bona fide NBA prospect.
Wolters was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks on draft day, ironically, so his career will begin with a team in the same city where Thielbar started.
Thielbar said that he did not feel all was lost during his time in the Brewers organization.
He met Jake Odorizzi, Milwaukee’s first-round selection in 2008, who taught him how to throw a slider—a pitch he frequently uses now.
“I used to throw one, but it wasn’t real hard and wasn’t real sharp,” says Thielbar. “He taught me how he threw his and he had a really good one.”
Odorizzi is currently in the Tampa Bay Rays system and has thrown 18 strikeouts in 25.1 major league innings. All he did was show Thielbar how he held the ball and told him where he released it.
“That was a big turning point too,” says Thielbar, chuckling. “That’s been one of my best pitches ever since.”
Thielbar returned home and signed with the St. Paul Saints. Playing in Midway Stadium, located off of Energy Park Drive near the State Fairgrounds, he was only 45 minutes away from his hometown of Randolph and saw family and friends in the stands on a regular basis.
He says that getting another shot at the big leagues was in the back of his mind, but knew it was a long road from there. He never felt he came close with the Brewers and mostly returned home to hit the reset button while continuing to play the game he loved.
“I think pitching in St. Paul gave him a chance,” says Christensen. “He had that chance to move up, and it seemed like an easier route to the big leagues for him.”
“It helps, especially after the game,” says Thielbar on being home. “You can get away from it and not have to live with other guys that are going through it; not consistently have to talk about the team and everything.”
Chad Cordero, a former All-Star closer with the Washington Nationals, played with Thielbar for two weeks in St. Paul. He had just been released by the Toronto Blue Jays after spending the year in Triple-A and eventually left the Saints to be with his family.
He remembers Thielbar from his time in St. Paul, however, and says he feels that in addition to being home, Thielbar succeeded because he did not have the pressures of associated baseball.
He did not have to worry that he was 24 and some people his age were already in the big leagues.
He did not have to worry about all the young players coming in from high school and college.
He did not have to worry about being promoted or demoted.
He could just play.
Cordero saw Thielbar attacking hitters every time he went out, something he was told Thielbar did not do in the Brewers system. Thielbar dismisses it, saying that he was just more confident in his stuff, but Cordero felt there was something to the freedom of playing independent ball.
In St. Paul he may have had to fight for playing time, but he couldn’t get demoted.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan said he had his eye on Thielbar once he joined the Saints and Minnesota signed him after 43 games in St. Paul.
He played three games with High-A Fort Meyers in 2011, but the next year he had a rapid ascent through the minor leagues. He played seven games in High-A, 16 games in Double-A and 25 in Triple-A.
That’s right: A player that never got higher than A-ball with the Brewers went from High-A to Triple-A in a year.
On May 20, 2013, Thielbar became the first South Dakota State player to reach the major leagues. Christensen tuned into the game on MLB.com and liked what he saw.
“When I watched his big league debut on the Internet,” he says, “it was the same guy I saw when he was a sophomore in college the way he attacks hitters.”
A few weeks later, Cordero, who is currently with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization, was looking up scores and saw Thielbar’s name.
No way it’s the same one, he said to himself before doing a quick search.
“It’s rare,” he says, “but it happens.”
“I think the stars kind of aligned for him,” echoes Christensen, “hopefully he has a chance to stay.”
Right now, it would be really hard for the Twins to send him down.
Originally he thought it was going to be a quick trip, but Thielbar threw 19.2 innings of scoreless relief before giving up a two-run home run to Ben Zobrist on Monday, July 8. He made Twins history by not allowing a run in his first 17 games and is just one of seven players to do so since 1921.
“Another really good story, but he’s been really good up here,” says Gardenhire.
“He hasn’t just been marginal; he’s been throwing the ball really well. He’s at that point where I’m not afraid to bring him in against the big boys in any time during the game.”
Walker was right. Thielbar has the stuff to be a major leaguer.
All quotes were obtained first-hand, unless otherwise indicated.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.