FORT MYERS, Fla. – Paul Molitor enjoys Kennys Vargas’ home runs as much as anybody. As long as they come during the game.
Vargas smashed a tremendous blast 50 feet beyond the left-field fence Wednesday, his team-leading fourth home run of the spring, but that was the extent of the Twins’ offense in a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Hammond Stadium. Kyle Gibson pitched six innings and allowed only one run, a 400-foot homer to former Twin Rene Rivera, while striking out seven and lowering his spring ERA to 2.75.
Vargas’ cannon shot off a cut fastball from Rays lefthanded reliever Jeff Beliveau landed barely in fair territory on the sidewalk above the outfield berm. “We need a higher foul pole,” Molitor deadpanned. “We all know he can hit them extremely far, but to keep it fair, that’s part of the swing-path things we’re working on with him, so he doesn’t come around the ball too much.”
Successfully practicing his mechanics is what the Twins manager expects from his cleanup slugger, but Vargas has a tendency, Molitor said, to get caught up in the oohs and ahs that his moon shots produce.
“We try to keep him from playing Home Run Derby in batting practice,” Molitor said. “I was trying to remind him every round — if you hit a home run, I want it to be a line drive. That’s a constant message we have with him and [outfielder] Oswaldo Arcia — they want to have that home run competition in BP, which doesn’t mean anything. It’s fun once in a while at the end of your round … but in general, it isn’t how you want to go about getting better as a hitter.”
That’s why Molitor pays attention to batting-practice groupings, watching for combinations that will bring out the gregarious, competitive side to his Puerto Rican rookie. “We think about those things,” he said. “Yesterday, when you’ve got [Eduardo] Escobar and [Eduardo] Nunez and Vargas in a group, I thought it would be prudent to go in there and stand around the cage. Let them know that people are watching how they go about their practice habits.”
The practice is paying off. Vargas homered from the right side and singled from the left, raising his average to .233. But Tampa Bay pitcher Matt Andriese and three relievers held Minnesota without another run. And when the Rays pounced on Twins reliever Caleb Thielbar for a walk and three hits — the latter a run-scoring single by Leonardo Reginatto that was bobbled by Twins Class A shortstop Niko Goodrum — in the ninth inning, the Twins lost for the eighth time in 10 games.
Gibson was pleased with his outing, though. He is among the Grapefruit League leaders with 17 strikeouts in 19⅔ innings. The reason? A changeup that he’s becoming comfortable with. “When I’m executing, I can go to it on 2-1, 2-2, 3-2 counts. I think that’s going to help me out a lot,” Gibson said.