MINNEAPOLIS — Max Kepler sprawled out across the third-base bag as he leaned over so he could point at his teammates in the first-base dugout, with the hint of a smile on his face.
He’d just put the dagger into another Twins win with a two-out, pinch-hit, three-run triple in the seventh inning, another one of those late, big frames that have carved out — or put an exclamation mark on — Minnesota’s wins of late.
And as the Twins claimed another series with an 8-4 victory over the Mets, that big blow added to the cascade of hard-hit drives, opposite-field batted balls, excellent defensive plays and smiles that have characterized the rejuvenation of the Minnesota right fielder following several seasons of struggles and disappointment.
“There’s a lot of things that were happening that have an effect on a player,” hitting coach David Popkins said. “I think he found a way to control what he’s allowing into his environment and control his zone, and you see it in how much fun he has — the smiling, the celebration. … This is the first time I’ve seen him have real fun when he’s playing, which is awesome to see.”
- Games remaining: vs. NYM (1), vs. TB (3), at CWS (4), at CIN (3), vs. LAA (3), vs. OAK (3), at COL (3)
- Standings update: The Twins (75-67) hold a 7.5-game lead on the Guardians (68-75) for the AL Central title. Cleveland clinched the tiebreaker by winning the season series, 7-6. Minnesota is currently the third-best division leader, meaning it would host a best-of-three Wild Card Series vs. the final Wild Card entrant starting on Oct. 3.
- Magic number: 14 (for AL Central)
The Twins are having that kind of fun as a team, too.
Their third straight series victory once again expanded their lead to seven games in the American League Central, matching a season high, with 20 more to play. They have no head-to-head matchups remaining against the second-place Guardians, who were scheduled for a West Coast game against the Angels later Saturday night.
The Twins took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh, when they loaded the bases with two outs on two walks and a single. Kepler hadn’t started the game against southpaw David Peterson, but he was summoned to pinch-hit against right-handed reliever Drew Smith and crushed a 2-2 pitch off the top of the big wall in right-center.
He admitted he thought it was gone for a grand slam — and celebrated toward his dugout accordingly. Instead, it took a big bounce off the wall, allowing Kepler to coast into third with a smooth headfirst slide and a roar of triumph at third-base coach Tommy Watkins.
“I pimped it a little too early,” Kepler said with a smile. “Luckily, it took a bounce where I could advance to third, but I’m not that guy, usually. I try and play the game hard. Hopefully, the baseball gods won’t be too mad at me for that one.”
As he says, Kepler hasn’t often been that guy. But it’s hard to blame him considering, after three years of stagnation and offensive regression following his breakout 2019 and questions of his viability for the roster, Kepler is hitting .250/.318/.476 for his highest OPS since ‘19, with 21 homers to match a team high.
“I’ve seen him play for a long time now,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s playing as good as he’s ever played, right at this moment.”
Long a Statcast darling who couldn’t translate his superb expected metrics to on-field offensive production, Kepler entered a potential walk year in ‘23 with Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Joey Gallo and Matt Wallner all threatening his playing time — especially after he again struggled mightily to a .692 OPS at the end of June.
But the Twins stuck with him — and he rewarded their faith.
Since the start of July, he’s hitting .291/.357/.528 (an .885 OPS) with his customarily stellar defense in right field and has been as responsible as anyone for the club’s second-half turnaround.
Kepler has never been one to talk about the behind-the-scenes of his game, always simply saying that he chooses to “see ball, hit ball.” But Popkins noted that, in addition to other work, Kepler has adjusted his leg kick and found new elements for his staunch routine — and Kepler attributes his turnaround to health.
“I’ve got healthy toes and a healthy mind,” Kepler said. “When you’re not playing with the pressure of playing catch-up coming off an injury, there’s a lot of things that come into play that factor into playing the game freely — with a free mind.”
It also helps that the rookies have brought more energy and togetherness, as Kepler describes it, to the clubhouse and the field — and Kepler is having fun performing and enjoying with them.
“He’s found himself,” said Jorge Polanco, who was Kepler’s first roommate in the Minors and has known him longer than anyone else in the clubhouse. “That makes you have fun.”