MINNEAPOLIS -- Max Kepler thought he was fortunate to catch the swirling winds at Wrigley Field when he smashed two homers against the Cubs on Wednesday night -- but it certainly does help when he's lifting the ball with authority like that, too.
Kepler's second multi-homer game of the season -- and first since July 5 -- pushed the Twins to a 5-4 win on the North Side of Chicago, the kind of sight that the Twins saw far more often in 2019 with Kepler's career-high 36 homers but has been much more difficult for the 28-year-old to find this season.
A pair of consecutive three-hit games in Chicago brought Kepler's OPS to .951 over his last 11 games, since Sept. 10, but as his .213/.312/.428 season line shows, he still has work to do.
"There are some reasons why he probably hasn’t found the holes that we feel like he should, because he does so many things well," manager Rocco Baldelli said on Wednesday. "Sometimes, it’s just a minimal adjustment. ... Believe me, I know he spent a lot of time on it, and I think we’re seeing some of the fruits in his last couple of games."
A perusal of the batted-ball numbers actually shows that the outfielder, who had 36 homers in 2019, is making better contact than ever before, with his 89.9 mph average exit velocity, 42.9 percent hard-hit rate and 11.2 percent barrel rate all marking career bests this season.
What gives, then?
Due to his batted-ball profile, Kepler's batting average on balls in play -- his percentage of batted balls that land for hits -- has always been considerably below league average, and this year, it's at an all-time low of .225, compared to the .297 MLB average.
He says that's been brought to his attention by his hitting coaches, and though it's a career-long hitting profile at this point, there's also something to be said for Kepler's career-low rate of pulling the ball and his sharply diminished launch angle from a year ago (21.9 percent to 15.9 percent). He hopes to use his offseason work to address that.
"I kind of know what I want to work on this offseason," Kepler said Wednesday. "It might have to do with lifting the ball more again, and driving the ball and pulling the ball with authority. This year, I feel like I've been playing a little more to the pitcher's flute."
Berríos ready to enjoy Minnesota return
The weirdness is already out of the way for José Berríos, now that he's already faced his old team once -- even giving up a screaming line-drive double to friend Miguel Sanó that had him asking the slugger not to kill him on Sunday at Rogers Centre.
Berríos walked Thursday morning from the Blue Jays' hotel to Target Field for the first time as a visiting player -- but with Toronto in a tight American League Wild Card chase, he knows he'll have to go out and still be at his best in his Friday start against the Twins.
"Every game counts to try to get that postseason spot," Berríos said. "But it doesn't matter. This is going to be special for me to come back here to Minnesota and face them again. It's emotional, but it's my work, so I have to go out and do my work."
That didn't prove an issue on Sunday, when he allowed three runs in 6 2/3 innings to pitch his new team to victory, but he and his family are still making the adjustment off the field.
"It was a really tough one, mostly for my kids," Berríos said. "They're already getting bigger. They know more of the people. Those interactions with kids and people. They miss a lot of the people we lived around in our house that we rented here. They made nine or 10 friends, also, here in the ballpark. That's why it hit me hard, for myself."
Berríos received a nice ovation from the Target Field fans when the Twins played a tribute video for him before Thursday's series opener -- and after Twins fans gave Nelson Cruz applause for homering against Minnesota in an opposing uniform earlier this season, he's waiting to see what things will be like during his Friday start.
"I want them to bring their respect for these guys in Minnesota," Berríos said. "But obviously, if they cheer for me, I'm going to take it."
Twins, Best Buy launch new XR experience
After the Twins' first extended reality (XR) experience in collaboration with local REM5 Studios offered fans a glimpse of a digital version of a virtual club Hall of Fame in February, their next foray into the venture saw the launch Thursday morning of a digital art space and a sneak preview of the Twins' first ever non-fungible token (NFT).
The experience runs in collaboration with Best Buy and can be viewed free of charge at twinsbaseball.com/xr. The first 1,000 fans will have the opportunity to claim a free pair of tickets to one of the Twins' final three 2021 home games.
The NFT will be officially released for auction on Monday by Candy Digital as part of its MLB Stadium Series. The "gold edition" for the highest bidder will include the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a 2022 home game, four tickets and a VIP tour for a '22 game at Target Field, an exclusive meet-and-greet with a Twins player, coach or alumnus, and a limited-edition Target Field print.