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Old friends helped lure top reliever to Twins

Washington Nationals pitcher Matt Belisle against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field last summer. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

FORT MYERS, Fla. — LaTroy Hawkins didn't want to force the issue. Neither did Michael Cuddyer.

In their own ways, however, they made sure Matt Belisle knew how much they hoped the veteran reliever would join them in their new venture with the Twins.

"Love him, man," Hawkins, now a Twins special assistant, said Thursday morning. "I only texted him about two or three times because I know how he thinks. He was leaning this way, anyway. He was making sure it was the right decision for him. He's so cerebral like that. You'll see."

Cuddyer, who also returned to his original organization as a special assistant this winter, made sure to let Belisle, 36, know he was available to answer any questions he might have. Belisle, who closed out a six-year run with the Colorado Rockies in 2014, was humbled to receive such treatment from two of his favorite former Rockies teammates.

"After things got serious with the talks, there was a period where I was weighing options," Belisle said. "Hawk and Cuddy reached out in a supportive way. They're so closely removed from the game, it's almost like they're my teammates still."

An Austin, Texas, native who likes to spend his winter weekends "off the grid" as he tends to his ranching and hunting, Belisle appreciated the soft-sell approach.

"That was really an interesting and fun thing to experience," he said. "They messaged me, but they know I'm a little hard to get in that time period. They knew me well enough to say, 'Hey, reach out to us if you have any questions at all. We know you're doing your thing.' "

Coming off a season in which he posted a 1.76 earned-run average in 40 outings for the division-winning Washington Nationals, Belisle had multiple suitors on the free-agent market. He signed with the Twins on a one-year, $2.05 million deal.

Hearing the right things from chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine was vital. Just as important, however, was the trust he had in two of his former teammates.

"If Cuddy and LaTroy believed in it, I know I would too," Belisle said. "I still look up to those guys. I'm honored to have been their teammates. I think our ideals and values and visions probably paralleled each other. I didn't have to ask any questions. I just needed to make sure this was right for me."

Able to handle a variety of roles and challenges, Belisle is looking forward to getting to know his new teammates and ease his way into an expected mentoring role. He showed those qualities again last season with the Nationals, for whom he continued to travel during a seven-week rehab after suffering a calf injury during the first half.

"It was a good thing for me to gain perspective and stay mentally strong and stay ready," he said, "and help with my mind in the clubhouse if I couldn't help with the physical."

Hearing that story relayed, Hawkins grinned.

"Who does that?" he said. "That's Matt Belisle. You want him around the young guys. What he has rubs off on guys."

A calming influence with a slight drawl and a firm gaze, Belisle impressed Hawkins while serving as his setup man in 2014. It wasn't just the way he handled matters on the mound; it was everything else the failed former starter brought to a role he mastered in mid-career.

Preparation is vital to Belisle, who has never had overpowering stuff or glitzy strikeout rates but always seems to find a way to miss the barrel when it matters most.

"He knows where he's going, and he always has a plan how he's going to get there," Hawkins said. "You'll never catch Matt Belisle not being prepared. He's a pro's pro, the ultimate professional. He just does everything the right way."

Chalk one up for Hawkins and Cuddyer in their first round of free-agent recruiting.

"I just told him it would be great to have him over here," Hawkins said. "I told him what we were looking for and what we needed. He said, 'I'll let you know, Hawk.' Now he's sitting over there in the corner with a Twins uniform on."

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