Kirilloff's 2 HRs a first for Twins since '94

No. 2 prospect 'all smiles' after several bad-luck moments at the plate

May 1st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- has had some rotten luck with batted balls to start his career -- so he decided to take luck out of the equation by just smashing the ball out of the park.

Kirilloff, ranked as the Twins’ No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, loudly broke out of his bad-luck slump with his first two home runs as a Major Leaguer and four RBIs, while a healthy and locked-in Byron Buxton capped off his MVP-caliber month of April with a pair of sensational plays in the outfield in a 9-1 victory over the Royals on Friday night at Target Field.

With his three-run, opposite-field blast in the third inning and smash to straightaway center in the fifth, Kirilloff became the first Twins player to hit his first two career home runs in the same game since Pat Meares on June 19, 1994.

“It was really nice,” Kirilloff said. “It was definitely relieving. It’s just baseball sometimes. You hope they even out over the course of a long season, but it’s definitely relieving to see some go over the fence.”

And still, not even the joys of a first big league homer -- or two -- could get the notoriously stoic Kirilloff to so much as crack a smile until Nelson Cruz pointed him toward the camera and forced one out of him in the dugout.

“Nellie made him smile just to see his smile on the face,” Buxton said.

Just how unlucky had Kirilloff been entering the series opener? He came in with a batting average of .115 -- when Statcast predicted that his expected batting average based on his quality of contact should have been .299. His slugging percentage stood at .154, a far cry from his expected batting average of .611.

His luck actually started out poorly in the first inning, when the Twins put runners on first and second for Kirilloff, who crushed a fly ball a projected 404 feet to center field -- only to have it caught at the warning track by Royals center fielder Michael A. Taylor. That ball carried an expected batting average of .970.

“We told [Kirilloff] it had to be at some point in time, because he's been smashing balls lately,” Buxton said. “When he hit the first ball to the wall, it's like, 'Well, we don't know [how] much more you can do.'”

Then, Kirilloff’s luck began to turn.

After Royals starter Brady Singer exited after two innings with a left heel contusion, reliever Tyler Zuber walked a pair before Kirilloff got a belt-high fastball and crushed it a projected 394 feet over the left-field fence for his first career long ball, showing off the hard contact and power ability to all fields that made him one of the more anticipated pure hitting prospects in the Minors for the past several seasons.

Two innings later, he got a changeup on the outer half from Ervin Santana, got his arms extended, and lifted another blast a projected 416 feet to center -- this time, just out of reach of Taylor, who made a leaping attempt at the wall.

Take that, bad luck.

“You just keep hitting balls hard, stick with a good approach, and wherever that leads me, I think I’ll be happy with that,” said Kirilloff, who started the season 0-for-15.

Kirilloff’s surge is coming at a good time. With Miguel Sanó expected to come off the IL in the coming days, the Twins face an outfield crunch involving Kirilloff, Jake Cave, Max Kepler, Kyle Garlick, Buxton and Luis Arraez. The quality of Kirilloff’s contact might already have made it tough to option him off the roster -- and now, the results are following.

Minnesota could use his left-handed bat. Kepler’s power stroke has been slow to get going in 2021, and Kirilloff’s two homers on Friday matched the club’s left-handed output through the club’s first 23 games.

Considering Kirilloff’s elite hitting tools, the Twins expect plenty more of these games in the years to come. In the meantime, the infield is busy trying to figure out how to actually get him to show some emotion in these moments.

“Andrelton [Simmons] suggested tickling,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

The team would feed off that, too.

“It was definitely a pick-me-up, just to see him smile, see how happy his progression is, because he put in a lot of hard work in the cage each and every day to go out there and play the game each night,” Buxton said.