It was Eduardo Escobar, as is so often the case in the boisterous Twins clubhouse, who inspired this particular bit of goofiness. The superstitious shortstop had begun working a mini-basketball into his pregame appease-the-baseball-gods routine, and it gave Eddie Rosario — who claims he played, perhaps preferred, basketball over baseball as a child in Puerto Rico — an idea.
“I just say, let’s not be the same as everybody,” Rosario said. “We want to make it different than everybody else.”
The “it” he’s referring to is the deadly serious business of how outfielders gather behind second base to briefly celebrate a victory before joining the traditional handshake line. For several seasons, but particularly once Torii Hunter rejoined the team in 2015, Twins outfielders had done a three-way, back-turned jump into each other as a postgame way-to-go, following the lead of several other teams. But Rosario wanted something distinctive, and basketball was it.
Which is how Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler began shooting imaginary step-back three-pointers, holding their pose in the air, whenever the Twins claim another win.
“Mine never goes,” Kepler joked. “I’m a terrible shooter.”
Maybe he can change that, because the Twins are hoping he will get hundreds more chances. Those three outfielders, projected for half a decade as the cornerstones of the next generation of Twins, have jelled as a unit like never before in the summer sunshine of 2017.
“I kind of think that we feed off each other out there,” Buxton said. “We’ve got a lot of chemistry. We know each other really well in the outfield, know what we can do together.”
The rest of baseball is finding out, too, because August has been revelation for the young trio. Buxton, 23, was named AL player of the week Monday, only two weeks after Rosario took home the same award. Kepler, 24, has lagged a bit, batting only .205 in August, but he has hit seven home runs and saved his best for the biggest moments, with a .318 average and 1.044 on-base-plus-slugging percentage when runners are in scoring position. Rosario, 25, has a .300 average and .906 OPS for the month, also with seven homers.
And Buxton has emerged as the force the Twins reckoned the overall No. 2 pick would someday be, with his three-homer game Sunday — a feat that Rosario accomplished in May, and Kepler last August — a real attention-getter. Buxton has batted .330 this month with a 1.011 OPS, to go with eight home runs and eight stolen bases. Plus the best outfield defense in baseball.
“He’s got a lot of ways he can help you win games. Legs, bunting, home runs, defense, arm. It’s fun to watch some of that talent start to flourish,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He’s shown ability to put a lot of pressure on the pitcher.”
They all do at the moment. Twins outfielders have combined to hit 23 home runs this month (including one from the injured Robbie Grossman), the seventh time in their history that the Twins have gotten more than 20 homers at those position over a calendar month. The amazing part: All six of the previous months came from 1962 to ’64, when Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew patrolled the outfield.
“Hitting is contagious, we’ve all heard that, and that’s true for the three of us,” Kepler said. “When someone is hitting, on a really good streak, it gives you confidence — hey, he’s hittable, I can do that, too.”
They all still have their weaknesses — Rosario is working on plate discipline, Kepler on hitting lefthanders, Buxton on just hitting consistently — but they complement each other, too. Even in their basketball ritual, come to think of it: Rosario describes himself as their point guard, Kepler said he is the defensive specialist, and Buxton? “I like to go down in the paint,” he said.
It’s not the individual success that matters, though. Every Twins minor league affiliate that has had at least two of the three in the outfield, from Elizabethton to Beloit, Fort Myers to Chattanooga, has won a championship or finished with one of the two best records in the league.
“What people should know about these guys is how used to winning they are, and how important it is to them. They won a lot in the minor leagues,” said Jeff Pickler, who coaches outfield defense for the Twins. “I was having a conversation with Kep, and I said, ‘Are you having fun?’ He said, “Winning is fun.’ That’s their intrinsic motivation.”
The trio first came together on the Glendale Desert Dogs, but Rosario was playing second base and Kepler first for the Arizona Fall League team. A year later, though, they formed the outfield for the AFL’s Salt River Rafters, and knew that a German, a Georgian and a Puerto Rican could excel together.
“It’s cool, it’s fun, We’ve always won a lot so we want to do that here,” Rosario said. “We like each other a lot. We want to be around each other all the time. We know each other so well, we talk about the same things.”
Could those conversations go on for, say, a decade?
“It would be awesome if that happened,” Kepler said. “I don’t want to jinx anything. We just have to stay in the present, keep working on stuff. But we’ve been close for a long time.”
“Those three guys potentially are your everyday outfield for a long time,” he said. “That’s a really nice part of your defense and offense to build around.”