MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins have found ways to overcome the loss of players to various injuries throughout this season, be it a short-term or long-term absence, as they did this past week when Jason Kubel was sidelined for four games with a bruised left wrist. But Kubel's return to the lineup was certainly a boost to the Twins' offense. And he showed that in his second game back from the injury, delivering the first of two key home runs in the fifth inning that sparked the Twins to a 5-4 victory over the Royals on Monday afternoon at Target Field. Thanks to the pair of homers from Kubel and Jim Thome in that inning, the Twins kept their lead at 3 1/2 games over the White Sox in the American League Central race.
The Twins and Royals were knotted at two in the fifth when Kubel blasted a two-run shot off Kansas City starter Sean O'Sullivan into the bullpen in left-center field. "Biggest hit of the ballgame right there," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Kubel's opposite-field home run. "That really got us going and gave us a lift." But for as big as Kubel's home run was at the time, Thome's moonshot one batter later will likely be the homer that fans remember. Thome's 585th career homer was a solo shot deep to right field off O'Sullivan that hit the top of the flag pole just behind the overhang seats, bouncing off the blue and white stars of the American flag. A fitting feat it seemed as fans gathered at the ballpark on Labor Day afternoon. "He threw a changeup and I was fortunate to square it up," Thome said, as he cracked a slight grin. "It feels very good when you square one up like that and it does that." The Twins' baseball communications staff first estimated the home run at 464 feet, but after watching replays it was eventually announced at 480 feet. That is the longest homer in Target Field history, as Thome broke his own record of 449 feet, which he set on Saturday. "It was down," O'Sullivan said of the changeup he threw. "He took his driver out and tried to give somebody a souvenir downtown." Thome now sits one home run shy of tying Frank Robinson (586) for eighth place on the all-time list. The home runs gave Minnesota a 5-2 lead and helped boost the club after starter Kevin Slowey lasted just four innings in his return to the rotation following a stint on the disabled list with a strained right triceps muscle. The right-hander threw 77 pitches, giving up two runs on seven hits while working his way in and out of jams. It may not have been the easiest of outings for the starter, but the positive news for the Twins was that he's healthy and his arm felt good during his start. Now it will be about working to get back to the form he had before the injury. "There were times when I felt like I was convicted, and I made some good pitches and executed pitches well," Slowey said. "There were other times that I didn't. But we made some great plays behind me, and to put up a couple runs when I came out was big." In recent years, the Royals have given their fair share of trouble to the Twins, and so it was no surprise that after the Twins took a 5-2 lead, Kansas City made it a tight contest once again. After the Twins went ahead in the fifth, the Royals scored two runs off reliever Jeff Manship in the sixth. Back-to-back doubles by Alex Gordon and Brayan Pena led to one run, and another scored on Yuniesky Betancourt's groundout. But the rest of the bullpen held the slim lead, with Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain each pitching a scoreless inning and Matt Capps needing just eight pitches in the ninth to pick up his 10th save in 12 opportunities with the Twins. It marked the eighth time in the past nine games that the Twins have found themselves in a one-run game. They are 6-2 over that span, but that doesn't mean this has been an easy stretch. "We feel all of them, every one," Gardenhire said of the close contests. "We don't get much sleep at night. [Pitching coach Rick Anderson] and I are constantly going, trying to figure out the bullpen. So we know that we're playing a lot of one-run games, and we know it's September. We would like a little breather, telling our hitters to give us a breather. But it's all about winning, that's what we're trying to do." Winning has been critical for the Twins just in order to maintain their lead over the White Sox. While the club has won nine of its past 11 games, the Twins have not really picked up any ground. That's because as they've been streaking, so have the White Sox. Chicago picked up its seventh straight win on Monday, defeating the Tigers, 5-4, in 10 innings. It's a 7-0 start to a 10-game roadtrip for the White Sox. "You try not to think about them," Gardenhire said. "Everybody is watching on the scoreboard out there and they are on TV every game. ... But we're just trying to take care of our business. If we win, they can't catch us. We do know that." Winning is certainly made easier when the club gets home runs like the ones that Kubel and Thome hit. And it seems like the one that Thome slugged certainly seemed to have left his teammates entertained as well, since they hadn't seen many home runs hit quite that far. "Not many, no," Kubel said. "It doesn't really surprise us. It's pretty cool to see it, and he keeps breaking his own distance record here. So, hopefully he does it again tomorrow."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.