ST. PETERSBURG — If you need any indication that this isn’t the version of Chris Archer who last took the mound at this ballpark, consider one pitch to Mike Zunino in the second inning — 95.6 mph at the knees for a called strike three.
That’s the hardest pitch Archer has thrown since 2019, the last time he says he felt fully healthy before a growing list of maladies threatened to throw his career off course. When he made his return to the Rays last season, he appeared to be a shadow of the ace he’d been as a youngster in his first go-around with Tampa Bay, when he consistently sat among the American League leaders in strikeouts.
On Saturday, as Archer made his first career start as a visitor at Tropicana Field, he looked — and felt — far more healthy and comfortable as he continued his hopeful resurgence with four strong innings in the Twins’ 9-1 victory, Minnesota’s eighth in its past nine games.
“It felt pretty comfortable for me,” Archer said. “The only thing that was weird was going right [to the visitors’ dugout] to end the innings instead of going left. Even watching the game in the dugout last night was a little weird. I’ve just never watched from that vantage point. … The fans pregame were showing me a lot of love.”
The 33-year-old didn’t look as dominant as he did in his Twins debut against the Dodgers on April 12, but he’s still exactly what Minnesota has hoped he’d be when the club took a chance on him at the end of Spring Training to fill its then-unoccupied fifth rotation spot.
Following his four innings of two-hit ball on Saturday, in which he issued three walks but only took damage on a solo homer by Taylor Walls, he has yet to allow more than four hits or two runs in a start and owns a 2.93 ERA — in addition to the veteran assistance he has provided his young rotation mates.
The Twins took a chance on Archer despite his injury uncertainty. But the right-hander really created that opportunity for himself by taking the initiative this offseason.
Since 2019, Archer has undergone surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome — which often spells the end for careers — and had hip surgery in August 2020 during his recovery. Even after signing with the Rays in February ’21, he missed a large chunk of the season with forearm tightness and hip soreness that flared up in combination.
“Last year, once I got to a certain spot, my body couldn’t handle the volume,” Archer said. “With the full offseason just to get right, get healthy, it’s a lot better.”
Archer said his offseason looked totally different from any in his past. The first six weeks were mostly rehab. After that, he went back to the basics, working on core strength and mobility for two months before finally ramping up into baseball activity in January and February. He worked with Nikki Huffman, the former head athletic trainer for the Blue Jays, whose baseball experience and programming he credits for his recovery.
“Getting this part of your body, from, like, your rib cage to your glutes, strong and sturdy,” Archer said. “Not, like, 400 pounds you can squat strong, but, like, how long can you stand here holding a band so your core is engaged and you’re on one leg? Because that’s what you do. Kind of like a blend of Pilates, Yoga and traditional strength training.”
He remained unsigned late into Spring Training and ultimately inked an incentive-laden deal with the Twins on March 29. That was made possible by how he and his agency hired Driveline Baseball to set up a TrackMan system during Archer’s bullpen and live batting practice sessions to make sure they had the most up-to-date knowledge of his progress and his recovery.
“During the whole lockout, I was recording everything and just had a ton of data,” Archer said. “Because we knew when it ended, teams were going to be, like, ‘Well, where’s he at?’ And we were like, ‘Here’s 10 bullpens’ worth of data. He’s faced hitters twice. Make your decision based off that.'”
All that work has paid off so far — and he was able to show that to both his new team and his old team, skipping off the mound following a fist bump after his final strikeout of Walls in the fourth.
“It feels good to feel good, that’s for sure,” Archer said.