Kepler ditches 'cursed chain,' HRs follow

Twins showing superstitious side of late; Pineda to start on Wednesday

July 6th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- doesn't know if he's superstitious, but maybe he's a little stitious.

The right fielder's track record doesn't lie: In 2019, he was the player who began bringing a stuffed squirrel named Hebert into the clubhouse to pay homage to the so-called "Rally Squirrel" that ran around Target Field during a game. And now, well, he attributes his recent success to banishing a chain that, in his words, had "bad juju."

"I haven't been wearing it the last two days, and I believe there's bad juju in it, so I need to get rid of whatever cursed that chain," Kepler said on Monday night.

Apparently, banishing a curse looks a little something like three homers in two games for Kepler -- meaning that chain has likely seen its last of the light of day. Following a solo blast on Sunday in Kansas City, Kepler crushed two more homers in Monday's 8-5 win over the White Sox, raising his season OPS to a more robust .745 amid a largely tough campaign.

That performance marked the 10th multi-homer game of Kepler's career, making him the 12th player with double-digit games of multiple homers with the Twins.

With Minnesota reeling and likely to sell ahead of the upcoming Trade Deadline on July 30, Kepler isn't the only one who has shaken things up in an effort to turn his fortunes. Kenta Maeda also wore high socks for the first time in his career on Sunday -- and turned in his best outing of the season, with 10 strikeouts in six shutout frames.

"I think there are some guys that are really, really superstitious," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I think everyone, at one point of the way, is kind of functioning like that. ... Kenta with the socks, that’s probably a good example. You’re not going to get a better example of something, or a more visible example of something, as that."

Of course, that's not the only reason Kepler has started to turn his season around. He's been working to get on top of the pitches at the top of the zone he's seen through this recent stretch, which involved a .147/.275/.265 line in nine June games, dropping his season OPS to .688.

Having spent two stints on the injured list this season with COVID-19 and a left hamstring strain, Kepler has also had to remind himself that he doesn't need to try too hard to make up for lost time.

"I went through a rough patch where I probably struck out the most I ever have," Kepler said. "All that aside, I just went back and told myself, 'You can put a lot of pressure on yourself when you're going through a patch like that, and stuff can come at you quickly.' But I sat down and reminded myself where I'm at and just appreciate the little things and try to play small ball."

But -- with apologies to the jeweler friend who sells to Kepler and some of his teammates -- it's impossible to completely rule out the cursed chain as a contributing factor. Kepler sure seems to believe that, anyway.

Pineda to return Wednesday

Michael Pineda will be activated from the 10-day injured list to start Wednesday's series finale against the White Sox, Baldelli announced. The right-hander has been sidelined for three weeks with right elbow inflammation and he made a rehab start for Triple-A St. Paul on Thursday.

Though Pineda allowed five runs (four earned) in four frames for the Saints while issuing an uncharacteristic three walks, Baldelli and the Twins still didn't feel the need to give Pineda another rehab start to get up to speed.

"Not every rehab start are you going to have a guy go out there and deal," Baldelli said. "Yeah, you want to see a guy be able to go out there and have success. There's a lot of guys that go out there in rehab starts and give up a lot of hits and a lot of runs and they rejoin the team, and they're absolutely fine going forward. So I'm not really concerned with his box score."

If Pineda rebounds to form quickly, he could be one of the Twins' most significant trade chips at the Deadline, considering his 3.86 ERA in 42 starts across three seasons with Minnesota.