Hometown Report

Major-league debut is a relief for Bella Vista grad Justin Haley

Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Justin Haley throws against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game in Detroit on Thursday. Minnesota won 11-5.
Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Justin Haley throws against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game in Detroit on Thursday. Minnesota won 11-5. AP

It’s a long way from Fair Oaks to Minneapolis, but Justin Haley finally feels at home in a new role.

The Bella Vista High School graduate made his major-league debut last Wednesday as a relief pitcher with the Twins. The 25-year-old, 6-foot-5 right-hander tossed a 1-2-3 ninth inning to polish off a 9-1 victory over Tampa Bay in Minneapolis.

On Thursday, Haley was summoned again. He recorded the final 10 outs – striking out six batters – in an 11-5 win at Detroit and was congratulated by teammates for accomplishing a rare statistical feat in an era of three-out saves.

“Everybody was like, ‘First save!’ ” Haley told reporters after the game. “I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ 

But his teammates were correct. It was a save, and it was a long time coming for the franchise.

It had been nine years since a Twins pitcher earned a save by recording the final 10 outs. Brian Bass was the last Twins reliever to so against the Chicago White Sox.

Haley’s father, Rich, was able to soak in two of his son’s first three outings. Rich was a star slugger at Cordova High School in the late 1980s and then for Sacramento City College. He played two minor-league seasons after being selected by the Dodgers in the 77th round of the 1991 June draft – two weeks before the birth of his son.

Last week Rich, who resides in Orangevale, hustled to the airport hoping to catch his son’s debut. But with Justin being a relief pitcher, Rich could only guess when it might have happened.

“He texted me saying, ‘I can’t wait anymore. You better not throw today,’ ” Haley recalled. “As soon as he said that, I knew I was throwing.”

Haley made his debut while his father’s flight was en route to Minnesota.

Haley and his wife, Casey, picked up his father at the airport and shared details amid hugs and high fives. But the game ball went to die-hard loyalist Casey, who endured five minor-league seasons bouncing across the country.

“She was really excited,” Haley said of the game ball. “She was really emotional, more so than even me. She has no control over how it goes (on the mound) and just hopes it goes well. We’ve gone through this journey together, and now it’s ended up here in the big leagues.”

Haley plans to send a package of baseball goods to his father, including unused game tickets to frame and one of the balls he used during his six-strikeout effort against the Tigers.

“Typical baseball stuff,” Haley said.

Drafted in the sixth round out of Fresno State as a starting pitcher by the Red Sox, Haley made just 12 relief appearances in Boston’s minor-league system. After starting a combined 26 games for Boston’s Triple-A and Double-A affiliates last season, Haley was dealt to Minnesota in a three-team trade last December. He is settling into his new role out of the bullpen with his new team.

Said Twins manager Paul Molitor to reporters: “He’s an interesting guy. He doesn’t have a lot of velocity, but guys take funny swings against him because he has that crossfire and hides his delivery pretty well. You also gotta like how he locates his changeup and curveball for strikes early.”

Haley said his role is to plow through batters.

“Really, my job is to eat up innings. Whether we’re up or we’re down, those innings are getting used up and it keeps us moving in the right direction.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD