The rules say Max Kepler had to try to avoid Juan Minaya’s pitch, and Kepler’s instincts, at the prospect of an 88-mile-per-hour slider darting toward his legs, dictated that he jump out of the way, too. Kepler has never been so happy about failure.
“I tried to get out of the way, but I would have regretted it if I actually did,” the Twins right fielder said about getting grazed on the shin with the bases loaded, forcing in Brian Dozier with the winning run in a 5-4 walkoff — hobble off? — victory over the White Sox on Thursday. “Some guys were telling me, ‘Good thing you didn’t get out of the way.’ They would not be happy.”
Instead, everybody was happy in the Twins clubhouse, and more convinced than ever that their four-game winning streak, their seven consecutive victories in Target Field and their 20-win August are signs that this team is maturing into a team worthy of chasing not just the postseason but a championship.
“It’s important to win these kind of games,” said Bartolo Colon, whose experience with winning includes playoff action in seven seasons. “Young players gain confidence in these situations.”
Sure looked like it Thursday, when the Twins produced three two-out runs to tie the score midway through the series finale, then barely flinched when Matt Belisle served up a low fastball in the middle of the plate that Alen Hanson launched into a leadoff home run in the ninth inning, leaving the Twins with only one inning to match it.
“We were like, let’s get ’em,” Kepler said. “It’s not nice to see when [a late-inning deficit] happens, but we’ve turned games around before. Just because it’s the ninth doesn’t make it a different approach.”
The unusual victory kept the Twins within one game of the Yankees, a winner over Boston on Thursday night, for the first AL wild-card spot. It also opened up a 1½-game gap over the idle Angels, their closest pursuers. Baltimore fell 2½ games behind the Twins after Toronto ended the Orioles’ seven game winning streak.
Ehire Adrianza led off the ninth with a pinch-hit single, and the announced crowd of 21,288 could sense the Twins weren’t done. Even when Zack Granite popped up a bunt attempt for the first out, the crowd remained loud, and louder still when Brian Dozier walked. Eddie Rosario, one of a team-record five Twins to collect 20 RBI in August, picked up No. 25 of the month by lacing a first-pitch single to right, scoring Adrianza with the tying run.
Joe Mauer walked to load the bases, but Jorge Polanco, swinging at the first pitch, slapped a soft liner that Minaya snagged for the second out.
That brought up Kepler, who never had a chance to make himself a hero; Minaya, who had been 3-for-3 in save opportunities before Thursday, did it for him with a slider that dived right at his legs. Kepler became the second Twins player ever to win a game with a plunking; his manager, Paul Molitor, was the first, back on May 31, 1996.
“I’ve got three [walkoffs], and the last one I had, against Cleveland, was on an error,” Kepler said. “They come in all shapes and forms, but a walkoff is a walkoff. I’ll take it.”
At 70-63, the Twins are a season-high seven games above .500 for the first time since they were 26-19 on May 27. And at 20-10 in August, they posted the 10th 20-win month in franchise history, and only their second since 1991.
“It’s a good way to finish a good month for us,” Molitor said.