Kepler's two-homer night helps Twins extend win streak 

Emerging ace Ryan fires seven scoreless innings

April 28th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Max Kepler stayed locked in, Joe Ryan pitched like an ace, the infield defense was airtight behind him, and Minnesota’s winning streak rolled on to six games on Wednesday night at Target Field.

Kepler crushed a pair of home runs off former teammate Michael Pineda, including a rare showing of opposite-field power, while Ryan allowed one hit and one walk in a dominant effort, becoming the first Twins pitcher to complete seven innings this season. All that led to a 5-0 victory over the Tigers to extend the club’s longest winning streak since 2020 -- a much more comfortable resolution than the chaotic mess of Tuesday’s finish.

“It feels like there's some magic behind it,” Kepler said. “Yesterday was wild. You don't see that happen a lot. But when you are part of a team, or when you're in a year where it goes this way, it goes your way, then it's something special and something you want to capitalize on and take advantage of.”

It’ll be much easier for the Twins to keep capitalizing on that energy if Kepler can keep hitting this way.

Here’s why it’s been a particularly significant stretch for the Twins’ longtime right fielder:

On Tuesday, he keyed the Minnesota offense by driving in the club’s first three runs (before the final two scored on the crazy walk-off error) with an RBI double and a two-run homer, both against Detroit left-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez.

Not only did Kepler enter Wednesday with a career .644 OPS against lefties, compared to .798 for righties, but that also marked his first game since 2018 in which he knocked multiple extra-base hits against a lefty.

“Someone asked me the lefty-righty comparison, and I told him that before I got to the big leagues, it wasn't ever as blown out of proportion as it was before,” Kepler explained. “I always looked at them as the same. It just comes from a different angle. But the lefty-lefty matchup for me is just another pitcher throwing to me.”

And on Wednesday, when he crushed a homer to left-center field in the second inning and another blast to right-center in the fourth, the former marked only the eighth among his 124 career long balls to land to the left of straightaway center.

Ordinarily a pull-oriented line-drive hitter (Statcast has 81.3 percent of his career hits coming to either the “pull” or “straightaway” direction) with pronounced left-right splits, Kepler’s last two games have showed the signs of improvement. That’s been the result of focused work.

“Kep is spending a lot of effort on kind of refining some of his approach-related and intent-related swings,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We’ve faced a fair number of lefties early in the year, too, which probably can help drive some of that stuff home. … So we’ve kind of forced him into some types of swings and kind of seeing the ball a little deeper.”

It’s not necessarily a change in approach, Kepler says. It’s more of what he calls a “controlled aggressiveness” -- swinging with intent and with aggression within the strike zone.

“There's an in-between for me, like a contact and a power swing where you're trying to drive the ball,” Kepler said. “Whether you have runners on or not, you're trying to slug, but I'm not trying to slug and have my head fly out and my shoulder open. I'm trying to slug and make good, solid contact. And also a defensive swing with two strikes, when I'm just trying to put the ball into play, that's my type of controlled aggressiveness.”

It’s worked so far -- and that helped back another stellar outing from Ryan, who allowed only two baserunners through seven innings as he extended his scoreless streak to 17 innings, the longest by a Twins rookie since Andrew Albers began his career with 17 1/3 scoreless in August 2013.

Ryan’s nine strikeouts gave him 55 in his career, breaking Bert Blyleven’s previous franchise record of 50 strikeouts through a Twins/Senators pitcher’s first nine games.

“He’s pitched like an ace to this point,” Baldelli said. “This is the kind of effort you get from a guy that you turn to do those things.”

The Twins’ starting rotation now owns a 2.39 ERA, the second-best mark through 18 games in franchise history, behind only the 2.06 ERA from the 1972 rotation. That’s pushed the Twins to this kind of winning streak even when key contributors like Carlos Correa and Jorge Polanco have been cold at the plate -- and if Kepler’s work continues to pay off, that should help, too.