CLEVELAND – Once Max Kepler reached historic territory, once he had smacked three home runs and inserted his name alongside Twins immortals such as Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew, that’s when the pressure began to mount in the dugout. Get him another at-bat, the Twins told each other. Give him a chance to reach the baseball pinnacle occupied by Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Lou Gehrig.
“We talked in the eighth inning about, ‘Let’s get a couple hits here,’ ” so Kepler could bat again in the ninth inning, manager Paul Molitor said. “Guys were pulling for him.”
They accomplished it with a four-hit eighth, but Kepler managed “only” a single in the ninth inning to wrap up a memorable night for not just one rookie, not just two rookies, but three Twins rookies in a 12-5 rout of AL Central-leading Cleveland.
How’s this for rookie hazing: On a night when Jose Berrios returned to the major leagues by retiring 16 of the final 18 hitters he faced; a night when Jorge Polanco became just the 25th Twins player, and only the fourth Twins rookie, to triple twice in the same game; Kepler one-upped — three-upped, actually — them all by becoming the first rookie in Twins history to put on such a display of power.
“It’s a cool feeling, ecstatic. Real excited,” Kepler said. “I wasn’t trying at all for home runs. I never do.”
That might be his secret, Molitor said: His smooth, level, controlled swing.
“It’s fun to watch. He does a really nice job as far as his swing being a downward plane, and that’s why he gets that backspin,” Molitor said. “Those balls are basically line drives that went really far. They weren’t lifted. They were just hit the way you want to hit a baseball.”
Yep — up the middle and hit really hard. Kepler twice ripped fastballs from Danny Salazar toward the center field picnic area at Progressive Field, once in the first inning and once in the third, then launched a Cody Anderson fastball onto the stairs in the right-center stands in the sixth. Three fastballs, three majestic line drives, six RBI — and a pretty hallowed spot in Twins history.
Kepler is the fifth Twins player to collect three homers in a game, and the other four are (or will someday be) in the Twins Hall of Fame: Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva already are, and Justin Morneau, the last to do it back on July 6, 2007, against the White Sox in Chicago, figures to be elected a few years after he retires.
“I’m honored. It’s definitely an honor to be added to that list,” Kepler said. “All those guys have almost legend status.”
Maybe Kepler will be, too, because in only three months, he has proved to be more than ready for the big leagues. His big night gives him 14 home runs on the season; only teammate Miguel Sano, with 17 last year, has had more for the Twins in his first 65 career games.
But Kepler couldn’t join Gehrig, Mays, Schmidt and the 11 other big-leaguers who have four homers in a game, a feat last achieved by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton on May 8, 2012.
The rookies’ attention-grabbing performances powered the Twins to their seventh double-digit offensive output — all of them coming since July 2. Eddie Rosario and Joe Mauer also homered, the latter off newly acquired Indians reliever Andrew Miller, giving Mauer his first four-hit night since July 4, 2015. The Twins tied their season high with 19 hits.
And, oh yes: Berrios, his second chance at starting his MLB career long-awaited by Twins fans, lived up to his billing. After two quick outs in the first inning, the righthander allowed four consecutive Indians to reach base and three runs to score, but then he suddenly settled in. Berrios retired the next 15 batters he faced before a Rosario error and a Jose Ramirez single broke the streak, but he simply induced a pop-up from Lonnie Chisenhall to finish his night at 99 pitches and earn his second career victory.
“Be consistent with my stuff, and be aggressive all the time — that’s what I did, and what I’ll do now for the rest of the year,” said Berrios, whom Molitor judged as significantly improved from his earlier stint with the Twins. “Get ahead with my first strike. That’s what I did after the first inning.”
Berrios said he greatly appreciated the offense behind him, particularly by his fellow rookies. “Hopefully he’ll keep doing that,” the pitcher said of Kepler, “and he’ll be Rookie of the Year.”