Twins prospect slugs second HR, swipes first bag in win
By Do-Hyoung Park
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Twins called up top prospect Max Kepler for his third stint in the Major Leagues, they were determined to use him as a starter this time to make sure he would get enough at-bats to adjust to the pitching at this level. It looks like that plan is starting to pay off.
In the Twins' 7-4 victory over the Yankees at Target Field on Sunday, Kepler hit his second career home run and drove in two runs in his first career three-hit game; he also scored a career-high three runs.
"I think the more at-bats he gets, the more comfortable he's getting, at least with the offensive part of the game," said Twins manager Paul Molitor.
Kepler extended his hitting streak to a season-high six games and has hit safely in nine of his last 10. During that stretch, he has raised his batting average from .167 to .243 as he gets more comfortable in the Majors.
"I'm not hearing the crowd as loud anymore," said the 23-year-old Kepler, ranked as the Twins' No. 2 prospect. "That caught me off-guard a lot, and I was focusing on the wrong things. Now, I'm just playing baseball. That's what you need at this level. Everybody can play up here, but it's just who can zone out, and just zone in on the ball."
He's also been making better contact with the ball, which is something he's emphasized in his approach. After recording 18 strikeouts in 60 at-bats in his first 23 games of 2016, he struck out only once in the four-game series against the Yankees and put together more disciplined at-bats.
A good example was in the second inning Sunday, when he flied out to center in his first at-bat -- but only after an eight-pitch battle with Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi.
"I think it always helps when you see more pitches," Molitor said. "A guy like [Eovaldi], he's got a high-end fastball but he uses his off-speed significantly. I think [Kepler] had a chance to see pretty much everything [Eovaldi] had in that first at-bat, so it prepares you for the rest of your day."
Kepler says he isn't trying to identify pitches or overthink his at-bats, instead choosing to just "see the ball and react," which he considers key to his current and continued success.
"It's been preached a lot -- the dumb baseball players are the best baseball players," he said. "When you have your mind shut off and your thoughts are completely aside the game, you just react to the stuff that you need to, and it's usually a good day."
Do-Hyoung Park is a reporter for MLB.com based in Minneapolis. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.