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Max Kepler continues his sizzling July as Twins stop Orioles

July 29, 2016 GMT

Max Kepler, it appears, will have plenty of Julys in his major league career. It just might be difficult for him to top his first one.

Kepler stroked his eighth home run of the month, and 11th of the season, to tie the score in the sixth inning Thursday, then put himself in the middle of the game-winning, four-run rally an inning later, helping the Twins finally beat the Baltimore Orioles with a 6-2 victory at Target Field.

The victory, in a makeup of a May 9 rainout, completes the season series with a 1-5 record for the Twins against the AL East leaders, but that record might have looked different if the rookie right fielder had been around for all of it. Kepler has made a habit of big hits, and the one he greeted Baltimore reliever Odrisamer Despaigne with in the sixth inning was particularly memorable.

With the Twins trailing 2-1, having stranded three runners on third base in the first five innings, Kepler lifted a 2-2 changeup into the seats in right field. In the Target Field era, only Josh Willingham, with 11 in 2012, has had more home runs in July than Kepler.

“I like how he’s making adjustments to how he’s being pitched. People try to tie him up inside,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He got a cutter in there pretty good, but he pulled his hands through and was able to hit the ball out of the park.”

The Twins broke the tie an inning later, and Kepler was in the middle of it. Robbie Grossman lined a one-out double, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter ordered Despaigne to walk Joe Mauer intentionally. Brian Dozier followed with an RBI single to left field and Grossman slid home just ahead of catcher Caleb Joseph’s tag, his left arm sweeping the plate as Joseph lunged at him.

Kepler then grounded a pitch from Chaz Roe into right field, and this time it was Mauer sliding home just ahead of the tag, making it 4-2. Then Eddie Rosario crushed a pitch over center fielder Adam Jones’ head, a triple that scored two more runs and helped the Twins improve to 7-4 against first-place teams this month.

Kyle Gibson pitched six strong innings for the Twins, even after allowing a home run to Jones with the first pitch of the game. Gibson didn’t walk a batter and struck out six, allowing two runs, and three Twins relievers pitched a scoreless inning apiece to snap the Twins’ three-game losing streak.

Push, but not rush

Trevor Plouffe took batting practice before Thursday’s game, moving up an already accelerated rehab plan by another couple of days. Molitor said he’s happy Plouffe is feeling better — but he’s wary of rushing the veteran third baseman back.

“He’s pushing to try to get out [on a rehab assignment] a little sooner,” Molitor said. “We’ll see how he responds [Thursday] to moving around.”

Plouffe has been out since July 2 because of a fractured left rib, but has been adding more and more baseball activities every day. Molitor, however, recalled that when Plouffe returned from an intercostal strain in early May, he batted only .215 with one homer in the entire month.

“There have been times where he’s given us a green light to go, and we found out when he returned he wasn’t as good as we had thought it was,” Molitor said. “So that’s why you have to be a little cautious. I’m glad he’s feeling well, glad he’s able to do pretty much everything. There’s just got to be a little bit of recovery time along the way. Players always think they need less.”