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Kepler takes break with bruised left hand

Former two-way player Buxton impressed by Ohtani
MLB.com @RhettBollinger

ANAHEIM -- Twins right fielder Max Kepler was held out of the starting lineup Friday for precautionary reasons after being hit on his left hand by a pitch in Thursday's 7-4 loss to the Angels.

Kepler was hit by a 92.4 mph fastball from Jose Alvarez on a pitch that was ruled a foul ball in the sixth inning Thursday. Kepler remained in the game and homered to right on the next pitch. But his left hand remains bruised and a bit swollen, so he wasn't in Friday's lineup with Robbie Grossman getting the start in right field against Angels lefty Tyler Skaggs. Kepler pinch-hit during Minnesota's ninth-inning rally and was intentionally walked, then scored the go-ahead run in a 5-4 Twins victory.

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ANAHEIM -- Twins right fielder Max Kepler was held out of the starting lineup Friday for precautionary reasons after being hit on his left hand by a pitch in Thursday's 7-4 loss to the Angels.

Kepler was hit by a 92.4 mph fastball from Jose Alvarez on a pitch that was ruled a foul ball in the sixth inning Thursday. Kepler remained in the game and homered to right on the next pitch. But his left hand remains bruised and a bit swollen, so he wasn't in Friday's lineup with Robbie Grossman getting the start in right field against Angels lefty Tyler Skaggs. Kepler pinch-hit during Minnesota's ninth-inning rally and was intentionally walked, then scored the go-ahead run in a 5-4 Twins victory.

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"He took a pretty good shot last night," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "He's played a lot and he's earned it, including the at-bats against left-handed pitching. But he's got a little bit of swelling and bruising in that hand today."

Kepler, 25, is off to an impressive start this season, hitting .275/.356/.508 with five homers, 11 doubles and 14 RBIs in 33 games. And notably, he's improved greatly against lefties, as he hit .152/.213/.240 with two homers and 40 strikeouts in 125 at-bats versus lefties last year, but is hitting .357/.419/.714 with two homers and four doubles and four strikeouts in 28 at-bats against southpaws this season.

"Just getting my pitch to hit," Kepler said. "Last year, I was swinging at waste pitches. I was being too aggressive in certain count situations. I think patience has helped me a lot this year. Doesn't matter, righty or lefty."

Kepler has cut down on his chase percentage each year he's been in the big leagues, as he swung at 38.9 percent of pitches outside the zone in his first taste of the Majors in '15, but it's down to 27.9 percent this year. He's also become more aggressive swinging at strikes, as he swung at 60.7 percent of pitches in the zone last year, but it's up to 71.8 percent this season.

"I'm up there looking for my pitch instead of hitting their pitch," Kepler said. "It's just going in there knowing what zone you want to hit and laying off the rest."

Kepler added he believes his struggles against lefties last year was an aberration, as he never had that issue in the Minors, including hitting .319/.390/.473 against left-handers in 2015, when he won the Southern League MVP with Double-A Chattanooga.

"I think it was blown out of proportion," Kepler said. "I think it was just mental, from the people who were talking about it and then it got to me mentally. Not that I want to bring up my career in the past, but I've hit lefties fine. It's all mental at this level. Once you let a little mental thing get to you, it makes it harder for yourself."

Buxton impressed by Ohtani

Twins center fielder Byron Buxton was a star pitcher and center fielder at Appling County High School in Georgia but said he couldn't imagine being a two-way player like the Angels' Shohei Ohtani, who homered and hit a double against the Twins on Thursday and will start Sunday.

Buxton said he hit 99 mph off the mound twice -- saying he must've been really mad when he threw those pitches -- but admitted he never liked pitching. When Molitor was informed Buxton hit 99 in high school, he jokingly asked if Buxton hit 99 batters. But jokes aside, Buxton said he believes Ohtani is good for baseball and is hopeful more two-way players emerge in the Majors.

"It's a very unique thing," Buxton said. "To me, it's pretty cool. To have somebody who can go both ways and finally break through. It's incredible. It's like the NFL with offense and defense. Why can't anyone play both? And now in baseball, we finally have someone break through who can hit and pitch."

Worth noting

• Twins third baseman Miguel Sano hit on the field, took grounders and ran the bases for the second straight day at Angel Stadium as he continues to make progress with his strained left hamstring. But he's still not expected to be activated from the disabled list this weekend and the club will decide by Sunday whether he'll need a rehab assignment before returning.

• The Twins released lefty reliever Mason Melotakis on Friday. Melotakis, a second-round pick in 2012, has a career 3.04 ERA in the Minors and had a 3.07 ERA in eight appearances at Triple-A Rochester this year. But the 26-year-old has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and Facebook.

Minnesota Twins, Max Kepler