Twins right fielder Max Kepler improved his hitting streak to seven games Wednesday when he connected for an RBI double in the second inning, driving in Miguel Sano with the winning run in the Twins’ 4-3 victory over the Orioles to complete a three-game sweep in Baltimore.
Kepler is hitting .359 over his past 10 games with three home runs, five doubles, nine RBI, seven runs scored and six walks. During that stretch, his batting average has jumped from .235 to .270.
The Twins are 25-18, the third-best record in the American League, trailing only Houston (31-16) and the New York Yankees (27-17).
It has been an incredible turnaround for the Twins. Through 43 games last year they were 11-32 and 14 ½ games out of first place. They wouldn’t win their 25th game until June 28, when they defeated the White Sox 4-0 to move to 25-51.
Kepler was asked on Sunday, before leaving for Baltimore, about what has turned around the Twins.
“It’s early. I wouldn’t compare any teams,” he said. “I don’t really compare in general. The team is gelling nicely and everyone is coming together as a group and everyone has each others’ back, which makes the ballgame fun when you see your teammates fighting for you. It’s always nice to see.”
Does Kepler see any big changes in his own performance?
“It’s probably the same,” he said. “I try and approach and attack every game with the same confidence and energy, so nothing really changes in that aspect.”
So far this season, Kepler has crushed the ball against righthanders and struggled against lefthanders. He’s hitting .305 in 105 at-bats with all five of his homers against righties and .167 in 36 at-bats with three RBI against lefties.
“It’s just a hot and cold thing for me,” he said. “I think when I get hot I can hit anything — lefties, righties, it doesn’t matter. When I’m cold, the ball looks like a seed and it’s tough to hit. It all comes with reps and just seeing the ball.”
Hits, plays anywhere
Kepler has batted primarily fourth or fifth during his recent hot streak, but manager Paul Molitor has had him hit in every spot except leadoff this season. He was asked if moving around in the batting order is hard on his approach.
“You know when you come to the ballpark, you have to be ready for anything,” Kepler said. “Baseball is unpredictable. You have to come to the field ready to be hitting whatever position, playing whatever position, which I am, and it doesn’t really affect me.”
Kepler has played 32 games in right field and six in center and doesn’t mind when he’s switched. Playing right field, he said, creates some challenges.
“You have the three [outfield wall materials at Target Field] you have to deal with — limestone, wood and the padding up on the wall — that you have to take into consideration and deal with that,” Kepler said. “I’m getting used to it and it’s fun out there every day to get a chance to show what you’ve got. In center field you have to cover a little more range, but it’s a lot easier without those tall walls behind you.”
Familiar with Buxton
Kepler typically plays next to fleet center fielder Byron Buxton. Kepler talked about how he and Buxton have played together for so long — sharing time at rookie-level Elizabethton in 2012, Class A Cedar Rapids in 2013, Class A Fort Myers in 2014, making their debut with the Twins during the 2015 season and spending time with Class AAA Rochester and the big-league club in 2016.
“I’ve grown up in the game of baseball with him,” Kepler said. “It’s pretty much normal to me, but it’s still always [thrilling to see Buxton use his speed in the outfield]. We had a play [Saturday] against the Royals where it was pretty much a routine bloop into right and Bux is right beside me diving out of nowhere and I was kind of surprised at how fast he got there.
“It just shows you how much ground he can cover. Luckily, we have good communication and avoided that collision.”
• The Gophers football team is in one of their dead periods after the end of spring recruiting and practice, and coach P.J. Fleck talks about what happens next: “We set everybody up to come visit us in the summertime here for June … plus we have the next round in terms of the types of talent we want to bring in here to Gopher football. We have that next step ready to go for camp, and we’re really excited about it and can’t wait for them to get here.”
• The Twins traded shortstop J.J. Hardy with Brendan Harris to the Orioles in 2010 for minor league pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, and it still looks like one of the poorer trades in team history. Hoey made only 26 appearances for the Twins and Jacobson never made it to the big leagues. Meanwhile, Hardy has won three gold gloves with Baltimore and was named to the American League All-Star team in 2013. He has hit .252 with 105 home runs and 376 RBI in seven seasons with the Orioles. This week against the Twins, Hardy went 3-for-10 with one home run, one double, two RBI and three runs scored.
• Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, says the team and scouting director Sean Johnson are deep into their evaluations for the June 12 MLB draft and are taking a long look at California high school pitcher/shortstop Hunter Greene as a possible No. 1 overall pick. “We’re scouting a number of players for that first pick, as well as the number of picks that come after that,” Falvey said. “I realize there’s attention paid to No. 1, but Sean and his staff are working across the country every day, all the way up until draft day, to find players for us that will fit in this organization long-term. Hunter is someone we have seen, and we’ve seen a number of others, and we’ll continue to scout them and make our decision as we come close to draft day. We want to make sure we have as many options as possible when it comes to that No. 1 pick.”
• Brannon McManus, a Gophers hockey recruit from Newport Beach, Calif., was among USHL playoff scoring leaders with six goals and four assists in 14 games, including three game-winning goals for the Chicago Steel, which won the USHL’s Clark Cup with a 2-1 victory over Sioux City on Tuesday.
• Mahtomedi graduate Sean Hjelle recently was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year. The 6-11 sophomore righthander was 9-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 14 starts for Kentucky. Last year, Hjelle was 4-1 with eight saves as Wildcats closer and was named to the freshman All-SEC and freshman All-America teams. The Wildcats were 38-18 going into their SEC tournament opener Wednesday.