Byron Buxton might be 10 months younger than Max Kepler, but he knows how to be a good teammate. So when Kepler allowed Andres Blanco’s line drive to clank off his glove and roll to the wall in the fifth inning Wednesday — an embarrassing mistake that gave the Phillies the lead — Buxton knew what to say.
“Max was very upset, and you just have to calm him down and tell him it’s all right,” Buxton said. “I told him he was going to come up in a big situation, and he did. And he came through.”
More than once, actually. Kepler delivered a clutch single in the bottom of the inning to tie the score again, then lofted a sacrifice fly two innings later to bring home the game-winner, helping the Twins stretch their winning streak to three games with a 6-5 victory over Philadelphia at Target Field.
“We’re seeing better play. His at-bats, he’s got an idea,” manager Paul Molitor said of Kepler. “He’s taking a plan up there, and he’s been executing better. He’s a young player [so] the game kind of gets big at times, but we’re seeing improvement and we’re seeing confidence grow.”
So much so, in fact, that as the Twins wrestle, debate and deliberate over where Miguel Sano will play when he returns in a week or so, Sano’s understudy in right field is making a pretty solid case for “somewhere else.” Kepler has had a hit in eight consecutive games, is batting .326 since June 10, and has six RBI on this homestand — or half his career total. And after the last of those put the Twins in front for good, Kepler even raced in to make a diving catch of a Cameron Rupp sinking liner and help make sure the lead stood up.
“That’s baseball. You have to let mistakes go and keep going,” said Buxton, who one-upped his young teammate with a sensational leaping catch at the center-field fence to rob Tyler Goeddel of extra bases to end the eighth inning. “Me and Kep are pretty close. If I make a mistake, he’ll do the same for me.”
Kepler was hardly the only contributor, of course. The Twins didn’t come close to replicating their 14-run output from a day earlier, but they still pounded out 13 hits against Phillies starter Adam Morgan and a trio of relievers. When Philadelphia seemed to take control of the game with an oddly fluky three-run fifth, Robbie Grossman, Trevor Plouffe, Eduardo Escobar and Kepler helped the Twins answer right away with three of their own.
Kyle Gibson pitched six innings, and while eight hits and five runs (four earned) isn’t quite the turnaround performance for which the Twins had hoped — his ERA declined only from 6.06 to 6.05 — it was not entirely his fault. Gibson allowed a pair of solo home runs to Rupp and Blanco, both immediately following a run-scoring inning by the Twins, a habit that surely irritated Molitor.
But Gibson struck out a season-high five Phillies, walked only one batter unintentionally and had plenty of reason to believe Philadelphia’s three-run inning was mostly bad luck. Peter Bourjos singled, a ball that scooted under Eduardo Escobar’s glove. Odubel Herrera laid down a perfect bunt single that died on the dirt while Gibson and Eduardo Nunez tried to get out of each other’s way. Dozier nearly speared Blanco’s ball, then Kepler misplayed it.
“Just a weird inning,” Gibson said after falling short once more of earning his first victory of the season. “But you’ve got to make pitches after all that, and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t do it.”