The story of the night was Minnesota’s Max Kepler, as the Cleveland Indians’ late attempt to rewrite that version ran out of ink as the Twins were victorious in their series finale at Progressive Field by a 5-4 count on Thursday night.
Indians starter Trevor Bauer had no answers for the slumping German Kepler, who blasted three home runs on the night for his second career three-homer game (both against Cleveland) to end an 0-for-21 drought at the plate and a 1-for-19 effort against the Indians thus far this season. A pair of solo shots and a two-run job provided the bulk of the offense for the Twins, who saw a suspect bullpen give up a pair of runs late to allow the Indians to make it a ball game.
The Twins were in an interesting position after losing the first two games of their series in Cleveland. It marked just the fourth time this year that the club had lost two straight and Minnesota was staring down the potential of its first series defeat and first three-game losing skid if unable to come away with a victory in Cleveland on Thursday. Kepler backed a strong outing again from Jose Berrios, who allowed just two runs (one earned) over six-plus innings of work, as the homer-happy Twins came away with the W.
Minnesota jumped out in front early against Bauer as Kepler led off the game with a deep drive to right to give the Twins a 1-0 lead. Kepler was back at it in the third, stepping to the plate after a second-pitch single to center by Willians Astudillo. Kepler battled for six pitches, hitting the 1-2 slider to right field for his second shot of the day, giving the Twins a 3-0 lead.
The Twins tacked on with another run off of Bauer in the fifth to expand their lead. Kepler was involved again, drawing a five-pitch walk to start the inning. He was forced on a fielder’s choice at second on a nice play by Lindor for the first out, but Mitch Garver made it a moot point as he doubled into the left field corner to score Polanco with the fourth run of the game.
Berrios allowed just a first inning double to Carlos Santana and a leadoff walk to Roberto Perez in the third his first time through the order and struck out five in his first four innings of work. In the bottom of the fifth, Perez got the better of him, driving a first pitch two-seamer the opposite way to right for his tenth homer of the season and third in as many days to put Cleveland on the board, 4-1.
Bauer retired the side in order in the sixth before the pesky Kepler was back leading off an inning for the third time on the night. As he did to start the game, he slugged his third homer of the game over the wall in right-center to give the Twins a 5-1 lead and a run which would prove to be the difference in the ball game.
An error at second by Jonathan Schoop was the last play behind Berrios, who left after facing Jose Ramirez to start the bottom of the seventh. Matt Magill came on and promptly walked Jordan Luplow on four straight before Tyler Naquin slapped a single to right to score Ramirez. Trevor May was quickly summoned from the Minnesota bullpen by Rocco Baldelli and he let the Indians get another run closer as Perez lofted a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Luplow with his second RBI of the night to make it 5-3. With a runner at first and still only one out, Leonys Martin popped to short before Lindor grounded into a force at second.
Bauer saved his bullpen one night after seven men pitched by coming back out for the eighth and retiring the side in order to end his outing. The Indians, however, were unable to do anything against left-hander Taylor Rogers in the bottom of the frame.
Jon Edwards and Josh Smith handled the ninth inning for manager Terry Francona, with Smith allowing back-to-back two-out singles to Kepler and Polanco before striking out Garver looking for the final out of the inning.
Down to their final three outs, the Indians got a second inning of looks against Rogers, who got Ramirez to fly to center before striking out Luplow swinging for the second out. Oscar Mercado grabbed a bat for Naquin and worked the count to 3-1 before getting the fastball that he was looking for. He drove his second career homer and first in a pinch-hitting role over the wall in left to cut the deficit to 5-4. Perez, a late inning hero Wednesday and the provider of half of the Indians’ runs Thursday, grounded softly to short for the final out, giving Rogers his sixth save of the season.
The Twins moved to 41-20 on the season while avoiding their first series sweep and a three-game losing streak. The Indians dropped back to even at 31-31 and picked up just one game in the three-game set with the Twins, although the series may have given the club some confidence against the current division leader.
Berrios handled the Indians well again in his second start of the season against them (and his first since his season-opening victory). He faced one batter into the seventh inning, allowing two runs (one earned) on just two hits with a walk and six strikeouts. He made a season-high 107 pitches on the night and moved to 8-2 with a 3.14 ERA.
Bauer kept eight members of the Twins’ lineup card contained, but a one-man wrecking crew in Kepler proved to be his Achilles heel. Bauer scattered five hits, three walks, and seven strikeouts over eight innings of work and spared his bullpen mates from extended work, but it was the three home runs surrendered to Kepler that changed the outcome of the night. For much of the game, Bauer kept the ball on the ground and had effective swing-and-miss stuff, but Kepler found a way to get underneath his offerings to deal him a fifth straight losing decision.
“Besides Kepler, he was really good,” said Francona of his right-hander Bauer. “Kepler had one of those career nights that was our own undoing. He hit a fastball, changeup, slider, all for home runs. Other than that, [Trevor] didn’t give up a whole lot of hits. You’re facing Berrios. That’s a tough guy to be down early, because his stuff is so good. It’s electric.”
Bauer has not won a start since April 30.
Kepler, who entered in an 0-for-21 slump at the plate, busted it wide open by accounting for half of the Twins total base runners on the night. He went 4-for-4 with a single and three homers and he drew a walk to reach safely all five trips to the box. He scored three times and drove in four and now has 15 homers and 40 RBI on the season.
“When guys like that, good players, when they’ve been scuffling and they, even if it’s a [expletive] little hit, I get nervous,” said Francona. “You’ve heard me say it all the time, good players, as cold as they got, they can get just as hot. I’m not smart enough to know the formula, but it happened.”
Kepler became the only player in Jacobs/Progressive Field history to have a pair of three-homer games at the 26-year-old park. He is just the second Twins player ever to record two three-homer performances, joining his teammate Rosario. Kepler has more homers against the Indians than any other team that he has faced.
The Indians mustered just four hits off of Twins pitching on Thursday. Three of the four landed for extra bases, as Santana doubled in the first, Perez homered in the fifth, and Mercado homered in the ninth. Naquin’s RBI-single in the seventh was the only base hit for the Tribe in the contest and one of just two ABs by the team with runners in scoring position.
There were a pair of Golden Sombreros in Thursday’s finale from Progressive. Garver, who doubled home a run, struck out in his other four trips to the plate. Jake Bauers struck out in all four of his plate appearances for the Tribe.
The Twins will get out of town and head to Detroit to take on the Tigers for three this weekend. The Indians will continue their eight-game homestand with a three-game weekend set with the New York Yankees. Rookie right-hander Zach Plesac (0-1, 1.46 ERA) is expected to draw the starting nod Friday evening at 7:10 PM ET against tough Yankees righty Domingo German (9-1, 3.66).
Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire (via Getty Images)