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Twins hit the gong and honk after outright win over Tigers

After the Twins beat Detroit 5-4 Monday night in walk-off mode, the fifth straight win for leaders AL Central, the Target Field clubhouse looked unexpectedly like a college group practice.

The cacophony of thumping music from the stereo combined with the hoots and chatter of the players. And every once in a while a loud honking of a car horn or the resounding reverberations of a gong cut through the din.

“We just added that,” Max Kepler said of the instruments. “Just to celebrate. Because we won so much, so we want to improve the experience a bit.”

Yes, the Twins – who are 26-16, 4½ games clear of the rest of the division – are so used to winning these days that they need a Himalayan gong (per Kepler) and vuvuzelas by the 2010 FIFA World Cup to keep the Ws from becoming rote.

Perhaps the anticipation of the impromptu post-game concert was what propelled the Twins to a somewhat unlikely win. Kepler – who has played in the last nine games, batting .396 – hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Twins a 4-0 lead, the team’s 1,000th homer in the regular season at Target Field. But Detroit steadily eroded that lead, scoring runaway starter Chris Archer, two off reliever Griffin Jax and the first earned run of the season against Joe Smith to even the score. In turn, the Twins offense went cold, with the only two hits in the second through eighth innings coming from a burning Luis Arraez.

Still, much like the opening slam, the Twins put up another show of teamwork to win the game in the ninth. Kepler faced southpaw Andrew Chafin. Left-handed killer Kyle Garlick hit and singled to put the runners up first and third. One out later, Gio Urshela threw a ground ball to Detroit shortstop Javier Baez, who watched the ball flow out of his glove as the game-winning run scored – on the second straight day Urshela drove Kepler with a game-winning single in the ninth inning, after the Twins came back after six runs to win Kansas City 7-6 on Sunday.

Even though Kepler played a key role in Monday’s victory, he wanted to emphasize the Twins as a whole rather than any one soloist. Kepler said the reason he is doing well and why the team is so successful – especially after an abysmal last place finish in 2021 – has to do with the people in the clubhouse and the vibe they generated .

“I just feel like there’s less pressure on every player at the plate,” Kepler said. “It’s just a good group of guys. It’s like we’re fighting for each other.”

It wasn’t just evident at the plate. After Jax and Smith both had unusually tough innings, the last two pitchers out of the bullpen calmed the rowdiness. Caleb Thielbar came in after Smith in the seventh, inheriting a one-out situation with runners on first and third and the score tied at 4-4, and ended the inning quickly.

Emilio Pagan then pitched a clear final two innings, allowing just one hit, and earned his first win in a Twins uniform.

“Really, nothing we did was super easy. They kept nibbling at us, had really good sticks to get back into the game, and that made it even harder,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “So there was a lot of funky on our side. We had to think about a lot of different things.”

Kepler said many of the situations the Twins have found themselves in this year — like Sunday’s late rally and Monday’s close game — are familiar. The difference with 2021, however, comes down to camaraderie.

“People care about each other,” Kepler said. “More than last year. It was more disconnected, an individual thing.”

As Kepler said this post-game in front of his locker, the gong sounded in the background. The tone wasn’t quite right, however, sounding more like a clash of cymbals than a gentle wave. Kepler shouted out some instructions – hit it in the middle, a light touch is best – which helped achieve the perfect hit and a harmonious song.

Kepler said the gong had spiritual tunes at work. Maybe that’s what makes the Twins so in tune.

“I would say we feel very zen,” Kepler said. “I feel very good.”

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