SEATTLE — Three extras from the fastest major-league game of the season thus far:
The opportunity hadn’t come up in the season’s first eight weeks, but Max Kepler was ready when it was. When Ryan Healy rounded second base and headed for third in the fifth inning Friday, Kepler sprung into action.
He turned Ben Gamel’s rally-igniting single into an inning-deflating out at third.
“It was a very slow-developing play. The ball wasn’t hit particularly crisply, off the end of the bat on a changeup,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “The speed of it fooled Max at first, because he wasn’t super aggressive to it. But he got on it, saw he had a chance and made a very accurate throw.”
Kepler scooped up the ball, and lasered a perfect one-hop throw to Eduardo Escobar, who caught the ball and put his glove on Healy’s chest in one motion. It was Kepler’s first assist of the season, after recording nine in 2016 and seven last year.
“You look for those to be momentum-changers at times, especially making the first out at third base,” Molitor said, and this one was. The next batter, Mike Zunino, hit into a double play, abruptly ending what otherwise would have been a promising inning for the Mariners.
It was a nice night for Kepler, who had homered just moments earlier, providing the Twins with their only run.
With the Twins trailing by a run in the ninth inning, Molitor took a calculated risk with Eddie Rosario. Facing Edwin Diaz, the Mariners’ flame-throwing closer, Rosario took three straight fastballs, all of them high and well outside the strike zone. Normally, he would be given the take sign in that situation, in hopes of drawing a walk and putting the tying run on base with no outs.
But Molitor had a hunch, and he decided to gamble.
“I went ahead and turned him loose there,” the manager said. “I thought our best chance was to put our hottest hitter in position to take a good hack at a fastball he knew was coming.”
He was right about the pitch. Diaz threw a 96-mph fastball, belt-high on the outside corner. Rosario swung — and lifted the ball into medium right field, where Mitch Haniger made a routine catch.
“He caught it a little off the end of the bat,” Molitor said.
Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano went a combined 0-for-7 on the night, and each struck out twice. It was the 20th game of the 21 that Sano has played this year in which he struck out at least once. But Sano also hit a long fly ball in the seventh inning that Haniger caught up against the fence.
“I thought his hands were fresh, and he had some good swings. Fouled a couple pitches off — at 97 [mph], that’s not so easy,” Molitor said. “But kind of what we’ve seen in the past — good at-bats, struck out a few times on nasty pitches, and just missed that ball to right.”
For Buxton, the strikeouts continued a confounding trend, almost mathematically impossible: They both came on 1-2 counts, meaning that Buxton is now 0-for-29, with 19 strikeouts, on at-bats in which the count at some point reaches 1-2.