MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins' health woes in the outfield continued on Sunday, when Max Kepler was removed from Minnesota's series finale against Cleveland after his first at-bat with upper chest discomfort.
That proved particularly costly for the Twins several innings later, when they didn’t have their leading home run hitter batting in his customary leadoff spot in two big moments in the seventh and ninth innings as they mounted their best offensive threats of the afternoon, which led to five stranded runners that made the difference in a 5-2 loss that secured a series defeat.
“It is [tough] any time you lose one of your core guys that plays regularly,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Kep's one of the couple of guys who have been healthy the entire year, who has showed up every day and played, and played well. … Hopefully, Kep will be back soon."
The last time the Twins dropped a series at home to the Indians was nearly a month ago, when Cleveland took three of four to leave the Twin Cities with a share of first place in the American League Central. Considering the circumstances at the time, Twins starter Jake Odorizzi issued a public plea to fans not to panic -- Minnesota would ultimately find its groove again.
That has proven true. Even though the Twins dropped two of three at home to Cleveland this weekend, their strong play since that previous series in mid-August helped mitigate the effects of this series in the standings. Thanks to Mitch Garver’s clutch three-run homer that powered a win on Saturday night, the Twins emerged from the weekend with a 5 1/2-game lead in the division, with only three head-to-head contests remaining with the Indians.
“It’s a pretty good lead,” said Ehire Adrianza. “We are the ones who are in first place. We know that those guys won’t give up. We’ve got to keep fighting for these last 20 games. But we should be good. We just need to win series, and we’re OK. Five and a half, to me, is a pretty good lead.”
“We’re very happy to be sitting where we’re sitting,” said Baldelli. “But we have to get ready for Tuesday. We just have to get ready to go out there and play and win. That takes care of everything else.”
But for the time being, the Twins’ compounding injury issues appear to be a greater concern than the jostling in the standings.
The injury to Kepler marked a recurrence of the discomfort in his left shoulder and scapula area that the outfielder experienced earlier in the week during Wednesday's game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, when he was removed during the seventh inning of a 6-2 defeat.
He revealed after Sunday’s game that he had been playing through the issue for several months and thinks he aggravated the shoulder while throwing over the last few games. He felt that the area was locking up during his swing, preventing him from properly extending or following through.
Kepler appeared to swing awkwardly throughout his first-inning at-bat against Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger and popped out weakly to the pitcher after fouling off a pair of pitches. He was removed from the game before the Twins took the field in the second inning.
Kepler said that strength, flexibility and mobility tests on the shoulder appeared normal, but he will learn more when he receives imaging on the area during Monday’s off-day in Minneapolis.
"It's concerning,” Kepler said. “But tomorrow, we're going to do some scans, and we'll see from there."
Kepler, who is considered day-to-day, joined fellow outfielders Byron Buxton (left shoulder subluxation), Marwin Gonzalez (right abdominal/oblique strain) and Jake Cave (pulled left groin) on the bench, compounding the Twins’ depth woes. That’s not to mention Sam Dyson’s recurring biceps pain, Nelson Cruz’s continued issues with a sore left wrist and back soreness for Miguel Sano, which impacted Sunday’s game as well.
Even so, the Twins still mounted a rally against Clevinger and reliever Nick Wittgren in the seventh, when Luis Arraez’s one-out single was followed by a double off the wall by Ehire Adrianza and a run-scoring infield hit by LaMonte Wade Jr., the first knock of his career. A one-out walk loaded the bases before the Twins sent Cron to hit in Kepler’s original spot.
But Cron swung through a slider above the zone after working a 2-2 count against Wittgren, and Mitch Garver, who homered in the fourth inning, couldn’t make contact on a 2-2 fastball down the middle to end the threat.
In the ninth inning, the Twins brought the tying run to the plate against Cleveland closer Brad Hand after Wade Jr. was hit by a pitch and Jonathan Schoop walked with two outs, but with Sano and Cruz unavailable off the bench, Ryan LaMarre had to hit for himself and struck out to end the game.
“We’ve been a little bit banged up,” Baldelli said. “You look around and we have a handful of guys who are not available. But we’ve had a lot of guys step up over the course of the year, and step in and play anywhere, hit anywhere in the lineup, and find ways to get it done. So we’re going to continue to go with that plan, and I see no reason why these guys won’t continue to get the job done.”