SEATTLE — Only four batters after manager Rocco Baldelli made a calculated decision to improve his defense and the team’s chances of winning Wednesday night was the Twins’ lead gone.
Baldelli swapped out baseball’s hottest hitter, Edouard Julien, for pinch runner/defensive dynamo Michael A. Taylor to increase the team’s chances of holding on to a two-run lead. Not only did the Twins not take advantage of Taylor’s speed at first, but trusted setup man Griffin Jax entered the contest shortly thereafter and coughed up the lead.
As Eugenio Suárez’s two-run homer soared over the left-field fence, gone was the Twins’ advantage and with it a brilliant start by Kenta Maeda. But unlike previous versions of the same script this season where the Twins fall apart spectacularly, this time they pulled it together.
Max Kepler’s heads-up base running led to a quick run in the eighth, Alex Kirilloff later padded the lead with a homer and Emilio Pagán and Jhoan Duran protected the lead by blowing away Seattle’s offense. The 6-3 victory over the Seattle Mariners not only secured an outstanding road trip, it allowed the Twins to move three games back above .500 for the first time since June 3.
On Thursday afternoon, the Twins will send Pablo López to the hill to try and earn a second straight road series victory after wrapping up their fifth win in six tries.
“Tough moment,” Baldelli said. “To have those really good at-bats, to force another run through by making them make pitches, keep having good at-bats, we did that to get the lead back — that was really big. … There was a lot of good that went on. I’m glad we fought back the way we did. That’s what you need to do in a game like this.”
Throughout this first road trip after the All-Star break, the Twins are consistently finding themselves in trouble spots only to escape them with a win.
There were Joey Gallo’s ninth-inning heroics Friday, winning after blowing a six-run lead Saturday and Bailey Ober overcoming a difficult first inning Tuesday and thriving.
Yet the degree of difficulty reached its peak when Suárez launched a tying homer off Jax’s hanging 1-2 slider to knot the score at three in the seventh inning.
The first home run Jax has surrendered all season left Maeda, who was brilliant, with a no-decision. It also woke up a hungry Seattle crowd that had been silenced not only by an impressive showing from the Twins against Luis Castillo, but also by Maeda’s dominance.
Whereas the Twins consistently wilted in similar spots during a 12-15 June and early July (see: once versus Cleveland, twice at Tampa Bay, once at Toronto, once at Atlanta and both at home and away versus Baltimore), this time they did not.
Look no further than an offense in the midst of its second-best stretch of the season as the reason why — along with a ton of fastball velocity from Pagán and Duran.
After homering earlier off Castillo to give the Twins a 3-0 lead in the fifth, Kepler stayed in a post-All-Star groove. He pulled a 2-2 slider from Seattle reliever Andés Muñoz into right field for a leadoff single in the eighth inning, his ninth hit since Friday.
— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) July 20, 2023
But Kepler, who’s hitting .375/.440/.708 on the trip, saved his most important contribution of the inning for one out later when Willi Castro’s seeing-eye single scooted under the glove of Kolten Wong and into right. After waiting for the ball to pass, Kepler took a quick, aggressive turn at second and raced to third ahead of the throw of Teoscar Hernández.
“Off the bat I knew I needed to get to the closest spot to scoring position as possible,” Kepler said. “I thought I (had it). It felt good.”
The moment stood out to Baldelli because it’s one Kepler didn’t make six weeks earlier at Tropicana Field. Kepler cost his team an important run in a one-run loss June 7 to Tampa Bay when he failed to complete a double steal as the trail runner. Then Tuesday, Kepler missed a sign from third-base coach Tommy Watkins on what should have been a two-run single by Castro. But Kepler’s effort Wednesday paid off when a run-scoring passed ball by Seattle catcher Tom Murphy made it 4-3.
“He doesn’t have to be a conservative base runner,” Baldelli said. “He can be an aggressive base runner at times. Pushing him to do that is a good thing, and he’s taken to it. It was a big play,”
Pagán delivered the next series of big plays when he took over in the eighth inning with the Twins in front by a run. Almost exclusively used in low- to middle-leverage situations this season, Pagán was tasked with protecting the lead.
Featuring a fastball that touched 97.9 mph, Pagán cruised through Seattle’s 7-8-9 hitters, striking out two. It was the second straight successful high-leverage spot for Pagán on the trip and his second hold of the season (the first occurred Sunday).
After blowing leads on May 17 at Dodger Stadium and June 11 in Toronto, Pagán relished the opportunity.
“I love those situations,” Pagán said. “I know I can fill those roles for any club in the league, I know I can do that. It hasn’t been what Rocco has asked me to do so far this year. We’ve got a really, really good bullpen. I think it’s top three or four in the game, numbers-wise. Stuff-wise, I don’t know if there’s anybody better than us. … My job is to get the ball to those guys with the lead and we’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Twins followed with a rare ninth-inning outburst. Too often this season the Twins’ bats have gone silent late. Only 27 of the team’s 422 runs (6.3 percent) have been scored in the ninth.
But Taylor took consecutive two-strike changeups from rookie Devin Sweet for balls to draw a leadoff walk. Kirilloff followed by belting a 2-1 changeup the opposite way for his third round-tripper of the week, effectively erasing a four-strikeout performance prior to it.
The Twins have scored 42 runs during the trip, their second-best six-game output of the season behind a 47-run stretch from May 13-19.
“The whole team’s looking good right now,” said Julien, who reached base four times. “I feel like everybody has an approach at the plate. It feels like we’re not chasing as much. We’re taking our walks. We’re battling with two strikes. We’re putting the ball in play. We’re hitting the ball hard.”
Leave it to Duran to one-up everyone else, including himself.
The Twins closer created his own adversity in the ninth inning. First there was J.P. Crawford’s infield hit. Then Duran hit Julio Rodríguez on the forearm with an 0-2 fastball.
Yet Duran turned it on.
He featured a 104 mph fastball during a nine-pitch strikeout of Jarred Kelenic. Suárez followed by grounding out on a 104.8 mph fastball, as Duran bested his previous effort for the fastest pitch in baseball this season. Duran then closed out his fourth save of the road trip in style, striking out Mike Ford on three pitches.
“For me, it’s more energy because I’ve got more pressure situations,” Duran said. “I feel better when I have that situation. … When I got that situation, that’s more energy for me.”
Baldelli loved his team’s liveliness from the outset.
The Twins featured a patient approach against Castillo, drawing walks in each of the first two innings.
The Twins made rookie Matt Wallner’s second-inning walk count as Kyle Farmer and Ryan Jeffers each singled, the latter driving in the game’s first run. Combined with a 29-pitch second inning, Castillo’s count soared to 85 after four innings.
Patience paid off in the fifth when Julien —— who has reached base in 18 of his last 26 trips to the plate — blasted a 415-foot homer to right. Later in the inning, Kepler hit a 411-foot homer to center to make it 3-0.
Unlike Castillo, Maeda was efficient and plain nasty.
— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) July 20, 2023
Working with his best fastball velocity of the season, Maeda showed his doubters he’s anything but cooked after coming off Tommy John surgery. Maeda’s fastball touched 93.1 mph and averaged 91.8 mph, approaching his 2020 season levels. He paired it was a slider he spotted for strikes and a splitter that generated 12 swings-and-misses.
Maeda, who struck out nine over 6 1/3 innings, allowed only a single and faced 15 batters through five innings before Murphy blasted a one-out solo homer in the sixth to end his shutout. Though his pitch count was low, Baldelli opted to turn to Jax, who hadn’t allowed a homer to any of the first 154 batters he faced, after Maeda made a two-strike mistake and Kelenic singled with one out in the seventh.
“The team won, and that’s what’s important,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “I just do my best to pitch deep into games. … It would have been nice to hang on to the lead, but it is what it is. This is baseball, and things like this do happen. … We won, so that’s nice.”
(Photo of Alex Kirilloff celebrating his two-run home run with Max Kepler during the ninth inning Wednesday in Seattle: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)