MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Max Kepler smashed a middle-of-the-plate slider toward the seats above right-center field with the bases loaded and two outs for the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning of a one-run game, he turned toward his dugout and smirked at his teammates.
The ball struck the wall a few inches short of the flower boxes, forcing Kepler to recalibrate from a grand slam trot to a race around the bases.
Thanks to a friendly carom, Kepler easily made it to third. That's how well the second half of the season has been going for the right fielder.
“It feels like you’re capable of pretty much anything when the whole lineup is producing and having good at-bats and finding ways to get on base,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Kenta Maeda (4-7) won for the first time in six starts and Willi Castro went 3 for 4 with a home run for the Twins, who moved eight games above .500 for the first time since July 24, 2022.
Minnesota's magic number for clinching the division dropped to 14 with 20 games to go, having begun the day with a 6 1/2-game lead on Cleveland. The Guardians played later at the Los Angeles Angels.
“We bring the same energy every day,” Castro said. “I just think that’s what a winning team does.”
After struggling through the last three years and into the first half of this season, the low-key Kepler has been bringing plenty of that mojo himself. After his big hit off reliever Drew Smith in the seventh and subsequent headfirst dive into third, he pointed at the dugout and gave third base coach Tommy Watkins an exaggerated hand slap.
Kepler, who played through a broken toe for much of last season, is batting .301 with 26 RBIs and a .919 OPS in 49 games after the All-Star break.
“When the body feels good, then my mind feels good,” Kepler said.
Brandon Nimmo hit his fifth leadoff homer of the year and Daniel Vogelbach added an RBI single in the first inning to give the Mets a quick lead, but David Peterson (3-8) didn't hold it despite finishing six innings for the fourth time in 18 starts and posting a season-high eight strikeouts.
All of Minnesota's runs scored with two outs, starting with a two-run single by Donovan Solano in the first. After Jordan Luplow hustled for a double in the third inning, Farmer drove him in with a single.
Pete Alonso hit his 43rd homer and D.J. Stewart also went deep in the eighth inning off rookie Louie Varland, but the Mets fell to 29-44 on the road. New York (64-77) matched its season low of 13 games under. 500.
Minnesota, which won the series opener 5-2, improved to 42-29 at home this year.
The Mets sure did their part on defense.
Omar Narváez threw out two runners trying to steal and another at third base when Luplow tried to retreat on a missed bunt attempt by Ryan Jeffers in the sixth. Shortstop Francisco Lindor made a running stop and leaping throw off a crow hop to get Solano on a fifth-inning groundout. Alonso snagged a second-inning liner by Jorge Polanco with a quick-twitch backhanded reach at first.
“It’s fun to pitch with guys like that behind you where you feel like all the confidence in the world that they’re going to make the plays,” Peterson said.
Nimmo has a career-high 23 home runs, all from the leadoff spot. That's the third-most in Mets history, behind Curtis Granderson (26) in 2015 and Tommie Agee (24) in 1970.
Mets: Stewart (lower back stiffness) returned to action after sitting for the last three games. ... RF Starling Marte (right groin strain) has missed the last five weeks, but even with the Mets out of contention Showalter said there's a possibility he will play again this season.
Twins: Luplow had a scratch on his forehead after his headfirst dive for the double in the third, when his helmet slid forward to cover his face and he hit his former Cleveland teammate Lindor's knee in a minor collision. Lindor put his arm around Luplow as they talked briefly after the play to make sure he was OK.
Mets: RHP Tylor Megill (8-7, 5.28 ERA) takes the mound on Sunday.
Twins: RHP Pablo López (10-7, 3.64 ERA) pitches the final game of the series.
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB
Dave Campbell, The Associated Press