How Giants minor leaguers received dream opportunity with Team USA


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When St. Louis Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas reached his pitch count with two outs in the third inning Wednesday night, the bullpen door swung open and five All-Stars gathered on the mound to wait for the new pitcher. The man who jogged in was a teammate for one night only, and he certainly soaked up every second of it. 

Giants minor league reliever Evan Gates was one of seven young players loaned to Team USA to help fill in the gaps and soak up innings during an exhibition at Scottsdale Stadium. Five of them got into the game, which the Giants won 5-1, including Gates, who certainly made a quick impression on his All-Star teammates.

Gates entered and joined an infield of Paul Goldschmidt, Jeff McNeil, Trea Turner, Nolan Arenado and J.T. Realmuto. Before any of them had a chance to give advice to the 25-year-old making the most high-profile outing of his career, Gates broke the ice. 

"I actually said something to them. I was like, 'Well, the unlocked character is in now.' They all started laughing," he said after the game. "It was weird when Realmuto was like, 'Hey, you know yourself, shake me off.' In the back of my mind I'm like, 'You're the best catcher in the game, I'm not trying to shake you off.'"

Gates gave up a double and two singles to the Giants before striking out Brandon Crawford to get out of the inning. Later, Team USA used Shane Matheny, Mike Gigliotti, Carter Aldrete and Hayden Cantrelle off the bench to keep from having to send some members of the stacked WBC roster into the exhibition. 

The Giants minor leaguers got to keep their Team USA hats as a keepsake, but not their jerseys. They didn't have to worry about what to do with their pants.

"They were on our side in our cafeteria eating with USA jerseys on and Giants pants on," manager Gabe Kapler said, smiling. "It was kind of a strange day but a fun one."

For Gates, the only Giants prospect to take the mound, it was an unforgettable one. He was starstruck as he watched Team USA work out at the Giants' Papago Park minor league facility on Tuesday and then he found out he would be used as a potential backup a day later. Gates said his hands were shaking after farm director Kyle Haines gave him the news. 

A day later, the Giants prospects found themselves in a clubhouse with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Ken Griffey Jr. and plenty of other superstars. Gates, a Michigan native, saw Adam Wainwright and remembered how the longtime St. Louis Cardinals ace broke his heart by beating the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series. He discovered that his bullpen coach for the night was av familiar face: Former Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who still works with the organization's minor leaguers.

Last year, Gates and Righetti met in San Jose. The right-hander's attire caught Righetti's eye. 

"I had a 'Barry Bonds is a Hall of Famer shirt on,'" Gates explained. 

RELATED: Giants stymie Trout, Team USA with pitching in exhibition

Gates made 16 relief appearances for San Jose in 2022, allowing just five hits and two earned runs over 23 2/3 innings. He was promoted to High-A Eugene, and then again to Double-A Richmond, where he struck out 14 in nine innings. Overall, Gates had a 1.95 ERA in 42 appearances last year,

"I'm trying to carry that into this year now and see where it will take me," he said. 

Because minor league camp is just getting into gear, Gates hasn't pitched much in 2023. Wednesday's appearance was just his third time facing hitters, but it's an experience he and the other Giants minor leaguers will never forget. Long after the game had ended, they stood behind the plate, catching up with each other and minor league teammates who had entered for the Giants in the late innings. 

"It definitely felt like I was playing a video game," Gates said. "And then it was real life."

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