This isn’t how Twins fans expected to finally get their first glimpse of the new-look offense in 2020 -- not with prominent cracks of the bat reverberating around the cavernous expanse of an empty stadium, and certainly not in Chicago in late July.
The Twins made it worth the wait. They brought plenty of that promised offense to Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday night -- and Max Kepler packed the bombas.
Minnesota’s leadoff hitter wasted no time in announcing the arrival of the Bomba Squad when he lifted the first pitch of the 2020 season into the right-field stands to key a four-run first inning. One inning later, he went yard again to keep the offense rolling, and the deep Twins lineup wore down White Sox pitching for important late insurance runs as they pulled away in a 10-5 victory to open their highly anticipated campaign.
"It was a relief to hit a ball out on the first pitch like that,” Kepler said. “You know, given the two weeks that we got to prepare for this, me being somewhat of a perfectionist and with doubt creeping into my mind at times, you can doubt your swing. ... So, being able to hit that ball out -- I got jammed a little bit, but it still went out -- it was a sigh of relief for me and just showed that we're ready and we did what we had to do in those two weeks to prepare.”
To no surprise, the offense was off to the races from there.
Kepler was all over a first-pitch fastball from White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, and he launched it an estimated 365 feet, making him the fourth hitter since the turn of the century to homer on the first pitch of the season. He pulled another fastball 407 feet into right in the second inning, becoming the second player in MLB history to homer in each of the first two frames of a season. His second blast netted the Twins an early 5-1 lead.
Kepler became the first player in Twins/Senators franchise history to homer in his first two at-bats of a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and he became the first Twins player to homer twice on Opening Day since Jacque Jones in 2002.
“Everyone came together, and we had so much energy to start the game,” Kepler said. “I knew it would fade because that's normal, but off the bat, everyone was rooting for each other, and that's the key. When you hear your buddies rooting for you from the dugout, then everything else comes easy."
Though Kepler’s blasts got the evening started with a bang, the Twins were far from reliant on the long ball, as Minnesota did its most important damage on a two-run, go-ahead single by Jorge Polanco in the fourth inning and a pair of seventh-inning singles that brought home insurance runs: Eddie Rosario’s RBI knock and a two-run, two-out hit by Luis Arraez that broke open the game.
“Them coming out early on and doing what they did, it’s wonderful to see,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It really sets a nice tone when you’re getting out there in a very different kind of situation, a very different Opening Day than we’re used to. But we did, we went out there and put some runs up early. And that puts everyone in a good place. And the confidence level is high because of that.”
It was the kind of redundant production that could give this team plenty of leeway in the face of shaky pitching performances like the one they got from ace José Berríos, who struggled with his fastball command despite a noticeable uptick in velocity and couldn’t hold a four-run lead as he allowed five earned runs and struck out only one batter in a four-inning start.
The baseball world took a long and circuitous road to get back to this point, and elements of American society clearly still haven’t returned to normal. But Friday night’s game served as a welcome reminder that even after all that time away, the Twins’ offense will still pack a powerful punch in 2020.
“I knew the 7:10 [p.m. CT first pitch] was going to come, Max was going to step in and we were going to have baseball,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “I didn't know that three seconds later there was going to be a home run, but I knew that was going to be a moment where it was going to feel really normal and good. And I think that's what it was and from that point forward. It was a good battle.”