MIAMI — Brandon Kintzler’s first professional all-star game appearance came in July 2009. He was the North Division’s starting pitcher in the American Association All-Star Game at QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie, Tex., home of the Texas AirHogs. He earned the invitation by compiling a 2.79 ERA in 14 games for the St. Paul Saints. It capped off an unforeseen first half for a 24-year-old right-hander who began the season in the bullpen for the independent league club.
Nearly eight years later, Kintzler pitched in another all-star game. He didn’t start in that exhibition, which was held at Marlins Park, home of the Miami Marlins. He was there a few weeks ago as a Minnesota Twins’ representative on the American League roster because of his exploits as a closer. He logged a spotless 11-pitch inning in the American League’s win.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions when I was warming up in the All-Star Game,” the 33-year-old Kintzler said Wednesday afternoon in the visitors’ dugout at Marlins Park. “All of that was coming out.”
Kintzler was back at Marlins Park on Wednesday wearing a Washington Nationals uniform for the first time two days after the club acquired him. Kintzler knew a trade was likely because the speculation was so rampant. To avoid the deadline anxiety, he and his pregnant wife went to a safari zoo during the Twins’ off day Monday. He was feeding a rhinoceros an apple — he learned rhinos love apples — when he got a call from a Minnesota number a minute after the deadline to inform him of the move. He then spent his 33rd birthday on Tuesday traveling cross-country.
The Nationals wanted him and his nasty sinker to bolster their middling bullpen for October, and being coveted is foreign to Kintzler. Generously listed as 6 feet tall, Kintzler was a 40th-round draft pick — twice. After two years in the San Diego Padres system, the organization dumped him when, in 2005, he tore his labrum, forcing him to sit out the entire 2006 season. Two winters ago, he was coming off an injury-plagued season and wasn’t offered a major league contract before signing a minor league deal with the Twins. He was cast aside over and over again.
“All of a sudden, someone wants to trade for you,” Kintzler said. “I don’t take it for granted.”
Kintzler’s improbable ascent can be traced to his time as a member of the Winnipeg Goldeyes, then in the independent Northern League. He signed with them in 2007 because the club’s manager, Rick Forney, heard about him and gave him a call.
“I looked up his numbers on Baseball Reference just like everyone else and reached out,” said Forney, who frequently had a role in personnel decisions. “You could tell right away he was eager to continue his career. It was a risk, but I’m happy I took it.”
Kintzler wasn’t very good in his two seasons with the Goldeyes. He was throwing 86 mph upon returning from the labrum tear and posted a 4.41 ERA in 49 games. A return to affiliated baseball, let alone a major league career, appeared improbable. But that changed when he joined the Saints for the 2009 season after mastering a two-seam fastball, a pitch he complemented with his arm-side sinker.
“When we had him, he was confident,” Saints Manager George Tsamis said. “He believed he belonged at a higher level, and he sure proved it.”
The American Association All-Star Game was Kintzler’s final appearance as a Saint. Eight days later, he was pitching for the Brewers’ Class AA affiliate in Huntsville, Ala. He made his major league debut with the Brewers the following September, but didn’t establish himself as a core bullpen piece until 2013. Kintzler pitched to a 2.93 ERA in 135 relief appearances between 2013 and 2014. But he was pitching with a torn tendon in his left knee, which affected his ability to land and drive his pitches. He had surgery after the 2014 campaign, but the rehabilitation went poorly and he made just seven appearances in 2015 before the Brewers released him.
“I learned a lot about taking care of my body,” Kintzler said. “I stay on it every day, and I think it’s helped get my legs under me, helped my stuff get a lot better to where I expected it to be. I’m still learning how to pitch with it. I still feel like there’s room to grow, so that’s the exciting part to me.”
Finally healthy, Kintzler assumed the closing duties for the Twins last season and had 28 saves in 32 attempts with a 2.78 ERA when the Nationals traded for him. He’s an unconventional back-end piece, one that doesn’t throw particularly hard or rely on strikeouts to get batters out. Instead, he’s a groundball specialist who compiled a 53.9 percent groundball rate and struck out just 5.4 batters per nine innings for the Twins this season.
“Strikeouts will lead to a lot of pitches, which will lead to walks,” Kintzler said. “I understand everyone loves them, and they’re sexy. Maybe every once in a while, I’ll get one. But it’s something I’m not chasing for. I like to get in and out, and see you tomorrow.”
Of course, Kintzler struck out Ichiro Suzuki and Giancarlo Stanton on Wednesday — two of the four batters he faced in his perfect Nationals debut. He threw 23 pitches, 19 for strikes, his devastating sinker’s late movement baffling hitters. He looked dominant. He looked like an all-star.