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Max Kepler’s grand night sends Twins to walk-off victory over Detroit

The right fielder in a grand slam in the first and walked and scored the winning run in the ninth

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins-MaxKepler
Minnesota Twins right fielder Max Kepler (26) rounds the bases after hitting grand slam on Monday, May 23, 2022, during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Target Field.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports
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The 1,000th Twins home run at Target Field was grand, but it was a ninth-inning walk that set Minnesota up for its fifth straight victory.

Both came courtesy of Max Kepler, still only 29 yet having a career renaissance of sorts this season after hitting a career-low of .211 in 2021. Kepler is now hitting .262 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 40 games this season.

Kepler gave the Twins a 4-0 lead with a grand slam in the first inning – the 1,000th Twins home run since the team began playing in Target Field in 2010 – and scored the winning run in the ninth as the Twins walked off Detroit, 5-4, on Monday in front of 16,361.

“In the grand scheme of things, (it’s) just the people around you, and I just feel like there’s less pressure on each player at the plate,” Kepler said.

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That’s a common message from players this season, and after winning for the seventh time in eight games to extend their American League Central lead to 4½ games over idle Chicago, it might be time to believe it.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins right fielder Max Kepler (26) celebrates with second baseman Jorge Polanco (11) after hitting grand slam on Monday, May 23, 2022, during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Target Field.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports

“Someone back there in the training room was just saying, ‘You know, this year, we have the similar situations as we did last year, but last year, we didn’t execute. And we seemed to play with more pressure,’ ” Kepler said. “And yeah, this year, it’s just a good group of guys.”

After scoring six runs in the eighth and ninth innings to rally past the Royals in Kansas City on Sunday, the Twins took a big early lead only to have the Tigers tie the score, 4-4, in the seventh inning on a run-scoring single by Miguel Cabrera off previously untouchable reliever Joe Smith.

It stayed that way into the bottom of the ninth. Left-handed hitting Kepler started the inning with a walk off left-hander Andrew Chafin and went to third on pinch-hitter Kyle Garlick’s single to right field.

After a pop out to short by pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez, Gio Urshela hit a grounder that couldn’t be fielded by drawn-in shortstop Javier Baez to score Kepler with the winning run.

“My approach was to bring in that runner,” said Urshela, acquired with catcher Sanchez in the trade that sent third baseman and former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to the New York Yankees. “Trying to bring that runner, fly ball or line drive.”

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It was neither, but needing a double play to keep the game alive, Javy Baez had little chance. The all-star shortstop dove for the ball but couldn’t field in cleanly and Kepler scored the winning run.

“He’s contributing, just like every other player in here,” Kepler said of Urshela, whose defense at third has been as big a factor as his bat for the Twins this season. “In here, he’s a great guy, easy to talk to like everyone else. And out there, he’s making plays.”

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Jonathan Schoop doubled, homered and drove in two runs for Detroit, which lost for the fourth time in five games.

Another newcomer, right-hander Chris Archer, started and pitched four innings for the Twins, leaving after 72 pitches with a 4-1 lead after four innings. The Tigers plated two off right-hander Griffin Jax, one on a solo home run by Schoop, and tied it on Miguel Cabrera’s single to right off reliever Joe Smith in the seventh inning to score Schoop, who had hit a one-out double.

It was the first earned run Smith had allowed in 17 appearances (14 innings) this season.

“Really, nothing we did came super easy,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “They kept chipping away at us, had some really good at-bats to get back in the game, and that made it even more difficult.”

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Emilio Pagan (12) delivers a pitch on Monday, May 23, 2022 during the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Target Field.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports

Emilio Pagan (1-1) earned the victory with sterling eighth and ninth innings. He allowed one hit and struck out four to set up the Twins’ ninth-inning heroics. With runners at first and third, Sanchez popped out to short before Urshela came to the plate and sent a 1-1 pitch up the middle.

Pagan was the fifth Twins’ pitcher. It was the first time this season he had thrown more than one inning.

“It was a huge outing. He threw the ball great,” Baldelli said. “He really settled in, too, in that second inning; got the job done. We needed him to do that today.”

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