SEATTLE – Miguel Sano swung the bat and began the slow, disappointing trot toward first base. “Right as I hit it, I say, ‘It’s a popup.’ ”
He was right. The gravity-defying blow rose toward the Safeco Field roof, then dropped to the earth — about 2 feet behind the left-field wall. “Strength pays off,” deadpanned manager Paul Molitor.
It was home run No. 11 for the second-year slugger, and his fourth straight game with one, leaving him just one short of the franchise record. Harmon Killebrew homered in five consecutive games on three different occasions, and Marty Cordova equaled the Hall of Famer in 1995.
“I’m working really hard with Bruno [hitting coach Tom Brunansky] and Rudy Hernandez [assistant hitting coach] every morning. They show me a lot of things about my swing,” Sano said. “I hit early [batting practice] the first day here, I like this field.”
Yeah, hitting a home run in every game will make you fond of it. Molitor said Sano has adjusted his posture at the plate and worked on getting his hands in better position. It paid off Sunday, because Sano was jammed by the pitch, yet drove the ball up, up — and out.
Kevin Jepsen saved two games over the weekend, giving him six for the season, but he may have raised more questions than he settled with his performance Sunday. The Twins’ interim closer gave up three hits in the ninth inning, including a tremendous two-run home run to straightaway center by Franklin Gutierrez.
Jepsen still earned his sixth save in nine opportunities, but he’s also allowed at least one run in 11 of his 22 appearances this year, owns a 5.91 ERA and has given up five home runs already.
“I don’t think we’ve seen consistent performance from him, what we came to expect last year,” Molitor said of his 10-for-10 saves record in 2015. “He just doesn’t seem to have the feel of his off-speed pitches. … If he’s just throwing that fastball in there, guys are getting good swings on it.”
Still, with the crowd of 33,748 roaring, Jepsen preserved the win by striking out pinch-hitter Dae-Ho Lee on five curveballs, the last an 82-miles-per-hour pitch that dived under Lee’s bat. “He fell behind some hitters and had to scramble,” Molitor said, “but he made a big pitch.”
Nolasco bounces back
Ricky Nolasco made Molitor’s job even tougher on Sunday. Not by pitching poorly — but by pitching well.
Nolasco, rebounding from a rough month of May to give up just three hits on Sunday, is once again involved in a six-men-for-five-spots quandary, and Molitor sounds as though he genuinely doesn’t know how to cut the rotation down to size.
Kyle Gibson is ready to return from the disabled list, but there’s going to be a delay while the Twins sort out whose spot he takes. Asked who will pitch against the Rays when the Twins return home next weekend, the manager demurred. “I’m not going to make any announcements on that yet,” he said.
Tyler Duffey, Pat Dean and Nolasco have all been impressive, to varying degrees, in winning their latest starts. Phil Hughes has been gradually getting better, and Ervin Santana is the most consistent. So the solution may involve Gibson pitching a third rehab start to get his pitch count even higher, while hoping the situation resolves itself. Gibson was scheduled to pitch a bullpen session Sunday to prepare for his next start, but that was postponed by a day since there’s no need to keep getting him ready for a midweek start.
“You like it when it’s about people who are performing well,” Molitor said. “It makes it tougher, but it’s a good problem to have.”