MINNEAPOLIS — As they await the next step for Byron Buxton, another big bat returned to the Minnesota Twins lineup Friday night. Following 34 missed games and an encouraging rehab, Alex Kirilloff rejoined the team.
Encouraged by the progress he’s seen, especially during an eight-day rehab assignment, Kirilloff said before the game that he expects to play without limitation. He batted sixth in a 5-2 win over the New York Mets at Target Field and went 1-for-4 for the Twins, who reduced their magic number to 15 with the victory.
Kirilloff’s return is the latest positive injury news for a Twins team hoping to bring back several prominent players before the playoffs begin next month. Though Buxton’s next step remains unclear, reliever Brock Stewart threw 97-99 mph fastballs to a healing Michael A. Taylor during a 20-pitch live batting practice session Friday.
“That was part of feeling things out,” Kirilloff said. “Just making sure I can play as normal and play aggressively and swing free. I’m definitely happy with how it’s feeling right now.”
What the Twins want is more of the Kirilloff they saw in the first 10 games out of the All-Star break. During that stretch, Kirilloff hit to all fields with power and patience. He produced a 1.126 OPS in 46 plate appearances and helped the offense break out of its season-long slumber, a hot streak they’ve painted into early September even without Kirilloff.
Kirilloff injured his shoulder diving in June but stayed on the field thanks to constant treatment. After a second dive aggravated the injury, Kirilloff fell off a cliff, striking out eight times in 13 at-bats. He was placed on the IL on July 30 and remained there until beginning a rehab assignment Aug. 30.
Without much pressure being applied by the second-place Cleveland Guardians, the Twins took their time with Kirilloff. They wanted to know with certainty his shoulder could hold up at the plate and in the field. The club wanted a minimum of 25 plate appearances from Kirilloff, and that’s what it got as he went 12-for-27 with two doubles and two homers for Triple-A St. Paul.
“We wanted to make sure … that he was truly feeling good and feeling good the following day,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Because it’s not just about whether his shoulder is good for one day. It’s can he play the rest of the season and be productive and feel good. I think the answer to that question is yes, from everything we’ve seen. He was very productive, he put a lot of good swings on balls, he hit a variety of different types of pitches. We deemed him ready to play, and it’s nice to have him back.”
Adding Kirilloff to the middle of the order behind Jorge Polanco and Carlos Correa extends the Twins lineup and lowers rookie Matt Wallner, whose game includes more swing-and-miss. Friday, Wallner batted eighth and drew a critical leadoff walk to jump-start a seventh-inning rally.
With Kirilloff back, the Twins placed veteran infielder/outfielder Joey Gallo on the IL with a left foot contusion. Kirilloff started at first base Friday but expects he’ll soon see time in the outfield.
“As far as I know, I’m full go to do whatever they need me to do,” Kirilloff said. “If that dictates me going to the outfield, I’m comfortable doing that.”
Paused but improved: No next step yet for Buxton
A week after Buxton exited a rehab contest early, the Twins still haven’t announced the next step for him. Buxton left the previous Friday’s game with right patellar soreness. Baldelli described him as being sore and said that his experiencing soreness wasn’t unexpected, especially as the outfielder/designated hitter tries to ramp up to play center field.
For now, the Twins will continue to treat Buxton.
“We’re just going to keep getting him going physically until he’s ready to play and get at-bats again, and when he is, then we’ll get him out there,” Baldelli said. “I think he’s getting closer. I think he’s moving around better than he was a few days ago, even. But, I can’t give any kind of decisive answer on that until he’s healthy and basically ready to go play. … It’s more of a volume issue, and the pressure and just being on his feet and running around for two hours was not something that he was probably able to handle at that point. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to play for us. We’re anticipating him working his way back and taking the field for us.”
Stewart feels good during live BP
During a 20-pitch live bullpen in which he faced Taylor and Nick Gordon, Stewart took another step forward. Stewart was able to throw all of his pitches and touched at least 99 mph on the radar gun, a good indicator for the Twins. The true test will come when Stewart reports how he feels Saturday.
If he maintains this course, the Twins will get back a pitcher who was critical to their early success.
“That’s a great thing for us,” Baldelli said. “For a period of time this year, he was one of our best pitchers, period, at all. He had a dominant run out of the bullpen. I see no reason why he can’t get back to that spot.”
Stewart wants to get back to that spot. Sidelined since June 27 with right elbow soreness, Stewart said he’s felt disconnected from a team he starred for early. During the first half of the season, Stewart developed into a setup man, posting a 0.70 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings.
“I’ve been itching to get back,” Stewart said. “This has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing this game. It’s a great group of guys. … Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. But I’m happy with how I feel now. Look forward and not back.”
Keuchel strikes out six in Twins victory
When he signed a minor-league deal with the Twins in June, Dallas Keuchel merely hoped to be a part of something. Six appearances in, the veteran pitcher is impacting a team leading the division. Not only is Keuchel helping the Twins conserve Bailey Ober by pitching 26 1/3 innings since he arrived last month, he’s pitched competitively.
Though he had a rough fourth inning Friday, Keuchel escaped with a double play. He limited the Mets to two earned runs while striking out six in five innings and exited with the score tied at 2.
The Twins rallied to score three runs in the seventh inning, including an RBI double by Royce Lewis and an RBI single by Max Kepler. The late rally helped them improve to 5-1 in games in which Keuchel has pitched this season.
“I still enjoy wins as a starting pitcher,” Keuchel said. “I think that stat will never get old, and somebody who tells you any different is not a pitcher. But team wins are the best. That means you’re keeping your guys in the game and making quality pitches, especially when you need to. I take as much joy in that as hitting a grand slam or something.”
Taylor was brushed back during his live BP against Stewart, which upped the intensity a bit. “That kind of changed the feeling of it,” Taylor said. “But it’s always good to get at-bats and see live pitching, especially velo.” After hitting, Taylor, who is on the IL with a right hamstring strain, ran on the field for the first time. … Baldelli and a trainer came to the mound in the ninth inning after closer Jhoan Duran yanked a 103 mph fastball to the backstop and appeared to grimace. But Baldelli was satisfied when Duran said he was upset with himself for missing that badly. Duran issued a walk to start the inning but bounced back with strikeouts of Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil to earn his 25th save in 30 tries. … Gordon homered off Stewart during Friday’s live BP. … Correa, who was named the team’s Roberto Clemente Award winner, blasted a tying solo homer off New York starting pitcher Kodai Senga, a 114.1 mph liner. It was the hardest-hit homer of Correa’s career. “That’s just the Carlos I know,” Keuchel said. “So it was kind of boring, to be honest with you. I was expecting like a 120 off the bat. It was only like a 112 or something like that.”
(Photo of Carlos Correa throwing to first base after the ninth-inning forceout of the Mets’ Pete Alonso while Jorge Polanco looks on Friday at Target Field: David Berding / Getty Images)