Liam Hendriks is just another pitcher (although he’s an old friend), Oakland is just another team and Sunday was just one game in a long season. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is Max Kepler’s horizontal view of baseball. Everyone is the same. No one stands out. Once he worries that Hendriks is an All-Star or the Athletics are on a roll or that the Yankees are coming to town, it threatens to ruin his approach.
“I try to simplify things,” he said.
Is it working? Well, the Twins have two walkoff wins this season, and Kepler has delivered the winning hit both times. Sunday, he calmly stroked a two-out single to left off a first-pitch Hendriks fastball, scoring Ehire Adrianza and capping a two-run rally in the ninth inning.
The 7-6 victory enabled his team and its beleaguered bullpen to split the four-game series. The Twins entered Sunday 15-31 vs. Oakland since 2013, their second-worst winning percentage (.326) against any opponent. Their worst: the Yankees at .302. So to manage a split against the A’s was a relief for them as the Yankees arrive at Target Field on Monday.
Kepler wouldn’t say it, but Jorge Polanco did. “It was very important,” the All-Star shortstop said. “We have been playing good games but have been losing a couple of them. Teams have been coming back on us.”
Boos were heard and a few fans left during the late innings as the Twins, who got 5⅓ innings out of starter Michael Pineda, blew an early four-run lead.
Trevor May, who lost his previous two outings by giving up home runs on 0-2 pitches, threw a seventh-inning wild pitch that enabled Marcus Semien to score, pulling Oakland within 5-4. May came back out for the eighth, but a pinch RBI double by Chris Herrmann and sacrifice fly by Josh Phegley gave the A’s the lead.
The Twins bullpen has given up 15 earned runs over the past five games. The offense was 4-for-18 with runners in scoring position to that point Sunday and is hitting .208 this year with the bases loaded. The Twins were on their way to their sixth loss in seven games, their AL Central lead about to shrink to two games.
But with Hendriks trying to earn a save for the third day in a row, Luis Arraez delivered his third hit of the game, a one-out single to left. Adrianza then charged up the announced crowd of 34,070 when he hammered a 2-2 slider off the right-field wall. The ball deflected by right fielder Mark Canha, enabling Arraez to tie the score and Adrianza to pull into third.
Jason Castro struck out, but Kepler stepped to the plate.
“I heard the crowd behind me,” Kepler said. “It kind of gave me goose bumps for a second, and I could feel the emotions get a hold of me. And then I just took a deep breath and zoned in on the pitcher.”
Hendriks threw a fastball, and Kepler stroked it into left field. He rounded first before turning around and getting mobbed by teammates. Oakland was 50-0 when leading after eight innings before the calm, cool and collected Kepler did his thing Sunday. His other walkoff hit ended the 17-inning marathon vs. Boston on June 18.
“We’ve been battling these last couple of weeks,” said Adrianza, who went 3-for-5. “The good thing about this team is that we never give up. We keep on fighting. This is not going to be easy. There’s a lot of games left.”
Kepler led off the game with a double to right clocked at 106.5 miles per hour, then scored on Polanco’s double. The next inning, Kepler drilled a three-run homer measured at 105.2 mph. The walkoff hit capped a signature performance for Kepler, who leads the team with 24 home runs and is tied with Eddie Rosario with a team-best 64 RBI.
His approach is working.
“Compared to my first couple games up, my first year up, my legs would shake, I would have the jitters,” Kepler said. “And now it’s ... I’m thankful to get to go through these situations more, because it calms you down with each challenge.”