Kepler’s Homer Late Ends Twins’ Home Drought Versus Tribe; Twins 4, Indians 2

A battle of minor league starters went in favor of the Twins on Thursday night, as Minnesota and rookie Aaron Slegers avoided a sweep with a 4-2 win in game two of the day’s doubleheader.

The 6’10” right-hander Slegers got the call for the Twins as the club’s 26th man for the second game of the day’s double dip and stood tall, both in effort and in stature, in his Major League debut at Target Field. He carried a one-hitter into the seventh inning and after Max Kepler‘s lost footing cost the Twins the lead, the outfielder put Minnesota back on top for good with an eighth inning blast off of Mike Clevinger.

It was a unique opportunity to go from goat to hero for Kepler, who had not started the game for the Twins but instead entered in the third inning after right fielder Robbie Grossman broke his thumb in a collision with center fielder Byron Buxton in the top of the second inning.

The Twins’ win ended the club’s ten-game losing streak against the Indians at Target Field, dating back to the final game there in 2016. It earned the Twins a split in the doubleheader and prevented what would have been a devastating three-game sweep that could have spelled the end of any AL Central title hopes for the Twins, who entered the day seven games in back of Cleveland and in third place in the division.

Ryan Merritt was added to the Indians roster as the 26th man and drew the starting assignment for the Tribe against Slegers, who joined the Twins from their Triple-A Rochester affiliate. Merritt worked out of trouble after loading the bases on three straight one-out singles in the second, but he would not escape the third inning unharmed as he once again stared at a bases loaded situation.

The lineup flipped over to start the third and both Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer singled. A walk to Miguel Sano loaded the bases with nobody out and Eduardo Escobar delivered the game’s first run with a single to right, moving all runners up 90 feet. Eddie Rosario grounded into a tough double play to first, with Carlos Santana stepping on the bag before throwing to the plate in a close play on Mauer that withstood review. Kepler flied out in his first at bat of the day to end the inning with the Twins up, 1-0.

Slegers was dealing in his debut, retiring the first seven in order before a one-out walk in the third, but that runner was erased on an inning-ending double play. He would put down the first two in the fourth before Jay Bruce took him deep to right with the game-tying solo shot, his first as an Indian and an American Leaguer and his 30th of the year.

The Indians would give the lead right back in the next half inning. Buxton reached on an error by Giovanny Urshela. After stealing his 21st base of the season, Buxton moved to third on a grounder from Chris Gimenez for the first out. A sacrifice fly to left by Ehire Adrianza put the Twins back on top, 2-1, and ended the night for Merritt at three and two-thirds innings. Dan Otero came on in relief and gave up back-to-back singles, but struck out Sano swinging in a key moment in the game.

Minnesota made waves again in the bottom of the sixth, but could not score against Clevinger, on in relief instead of his usual spot in the rotation. After the long-haired righty retired the first two, the next two reached on singles and Sano walked on four pitches to load the bases. Escobar popped to short to end the rally attempt.

Slegers had retired seven straight heading into the seventh inning with a one-hitter in tow, but after retiring Bruce to start the inning, Edwin Encarnacion singled to left. Manager Paul Molitor went to his bullpen to preserve the lead, bringing in Trevor Hildenberger, but he was greeted by a big swing from Santana, who sent a shot towards the right field corner. Kepler slipped at the edge of the warning track near the foul line, allowing Encarnacion to score from first to tie the game at two. With the go-ahead run just 90 feet away, Hildenberger retired Austin Jackson and Abraham Almonte to keep the game tied.

Kepler was the second man up in the home half of the seventh and made up for his slip in the outfield with a solo shot off of Clevinger to give the Twins the lead, 3-2. Minnesota added another run in the eighth off of Trevor Bauer, who was essentially getting in his side session during live action to spare the bullpen more work after a long day. Clevinger started the eighth, allowing a leadoff double to Adrianza and a walk to Dozier before striking out Mauer for the first out. Bauer entered but, after retiring Sano on a fly to right, gave up a double to right by Escobar to extend the Twins lead to two.

Taylor Rodgers started the ninth, exiting after a one-out walk to Bruce. Matt Belisle recorded the final two outs, striking out his former Cincinnati teammate Encarnacion and Santana to earn his third save of the season.

The Indians dropped to 66-53 with the loss and saw their lead over the Royals shrink back to five and a half games. The Twins gained back the game that they lost earlier in the day to the Indians and moved back above the .500 mark at 60-59. The loss for the Tribe ended their six-game winning streak during their current eleven-game road trip and ended their reign of dominance at Target Field.

Merritt took the no-decision for the Tribe, allowing two runs (one earned) on six hits with a walk and a strikeout. Clevinger, who was originally scheduled to start Thursday before Wednesday’s rainout, lasted two and two-thirds innings, giving up two runs on three hits with three walks and five strikeouts on 60 pitches in taking the loss.

Slegers’ debut was a strong one, despite the no-decision. He allowed just one hit through the first six innings and ended his day with two runs allowed on two hits with two walks and three strikeouts. Hildenberger vultured his second win of the season, despite his first blown save of the year.

The Indians will immediately hit the road for Kansas City, where they will open a three-game series with those Royals on Friday night. The Twins will remain at home, where they will host the Arizona Diamondbacks over the weekend.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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