DETROIT – Earlier in the week, Kenta Maeda made it clear he thought the next step in his return from Tommy John surgery was to lock up his first major league win in nearly two years. When that possibility was in jeopardy on Friday night despite a strong outing, Maeda gave up on his claim.
Needing one to secure a potential win, Maeda convinced Twins bench coach Jayce Tingler that he was the man for the job with the game on the line. Maeda needed just four more pitches to end his first start in nearly two months with a strikeout and the bullpen did the rest. Maeda and three relievers combined for a six-hitter and the Twins topped the Detroit Tigers 4-1 at Comerica Park for their third straight win.
Maeda struck out eight in five scoreless innings to earn his first major-league win since August 14, 2021.
“I’m really happy to get that first W,” Maeda said through a translator. “It has an important meaning. If anything, like thinking, I think I’m back as the Kenta Maeda that everyone knows. I think I can do better from here.”
While it was a small matchup, Maeda excelled in the count on Friday, something he struggled with in a few early starts before he was placed on the injured list on April 27 with a right triceps strain.
With his strong fastball after a good first outing in Miami, Maeda looks to hit the ground running in April with starts against the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. He looked anything but hittable on Friday, retiring 12 of 13 batters starting in the middle of the first inning.
But Maeda gave up a single and with two outs walked Detroit’s No. 9 hitter in the fifth inning, prompting a visit from Tingler, who took over managerial duties after Rocco Baldelli was ejected for the second time in three games. With lefty Jovani Moran hot and left-handed hitting Zach McKinstry due, Tingler should be convinced Maeda has enough left.
Maeda didn’t hesitate to let Tingler know he wanted the opportunity to preserve the Twins’ 3-0 lead and qualify for the win.
“He said, ‘I got him. I got him. I got him,’” Tingler said. “I kind of turned around and you couldn’t really use the language that I used, and was like, ‘You got him?’ He said, ‘I got him.’ Gave him a breather, backed off and I think he unloaded a bit there.
Maeda started McKinstry with his best fastball of the night, a 91.2-mph corner heater for a called strike. McKinstry then fouled off another 91-mph fastball and a split-fingered fastball before swinging another splitter.
After he released the pitch and saw the result, Maeda screamed and pumped his fist. Not that he had to, but Maeda approached Tingler in the dugout to make sure he didn’t ruffle the feathers of the bench coach.
“Usually I don’t talk back on the mound,” Maeda said. “In extraordinary situations like today. So I made sure – I spoke English there, so I made sure I spoke in a respectful manner. If I said something wrong, I made it clear to myself that I was very polite there and I really wanted that guy.
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Maeda doesn’t have pinpoint command, but he brings a lot of swing-and-miss. He also carries a livelier fastball than he did when he started on the injured list at the end of April.
The topics surrounding Maeda’s time in IL have been him rediscovering command of all his pitches and improving his fastball power. Maeda has never been a flame thrower on the mound, his fastball hovering between 91-92 mph at his peak.
But Maeda struggled to pick up velocity during a tough April, averaging 89.5 mph in his four-seamer while racking up a 9.00 ERA. Throughout his rehab stint, Maeda’s velocity has remained consistently in the 90 mph range, which he has been able to match with his other weapons.
While he topped out at 91.2 mph on Friday, Maeda kept his fastball out of the middle of the zone. He also got four swings and misses on the pitch.
The combination of a decent fastball and swing-and-miss secondary pitches allowed Maeda to find success against Detroit. With his slider whiffing and calling strikes, Maeda retired the side in order in the second and fourth innings.
He also ended a relatively painless third inning with a strikeout of Spencer Torkelson. But what’s most impressive is how Maeda handles his few trouble spots.
Maeda opened the game with a five-pitch walk off Zach McKinstry and Torkelson followed with a single. While in the early part of this season those situations led to difficulties for Maeda, Friday he fought through them. Maeda struck out Kerry Carpenter in the first inning and got out of the jam when Javy Báez grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.
While this was only his first outing back, Maeda showed enough promise to receive loud praise from Baldelli.
“Kenta is what I think will be an important member of our team going forward,” Baldelli said. “We are expecting his return. He looks great. The start of the rehab looks good, he brought it to the game today I would say almost smoothly, and now we build it. Now we move forward. We are waiting for this time.”
Kepler’s big homer provided the spark
For the third time in four games, Max Kepler homered. His second-inning blast Friday against Tigers southpaw Casey Wentz extended the Twins’ lead to 3-0 and represented his second homer from the left-hander in two days.
Recently given a reduction in playing time, Kepler has responded well according to Baldelli. In the last four games, Kepler is 6-for-15 as he later singles off another Detroit lefty, Tyler Alexander.
“He reacted well,” Baldelli said. “He stays on the ball, I think, really well. That’s a big swing. When we put the line together and we’re facing a guy like Wentz or a lot of lefties, we only have room for one or two lefties in the lineup on any given day. You’re kind of choosing to decide what to do. … More often than not he mixes in some of these hard swings in these at-bats. I’m happy with that. That was an important part. in this game today. He’s big.”
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Royce Lewis gave the Twins the first run with a solo homer, his fourth.
Stewart’s double play saved the day
Detroit gained momentum when Moran struggled in the sixth inning and the entry of Brock Stewart didn’t immediately calm the waters either. Stewart delivered two consecutive one-out singles, including a bases-loaded hit by Matt Vierling to pull the Tigers within 4-1.
But a quick visit from pitching coach Pete Maki and a good pitching did the trick. While former all-world hitter Miguel Cabrera was hitting, Stewart knew his sinker matched up well against the slower slugger. Maki did the same and Stewart suggested throwing it to Cabrera.
Two pitches later, Stewart induced an inning-ending double play.
“I don’t think (Cabrera) likes sinkers and I trust my sinker,” Stewart said. “Pete Maki came out and said ‘See you in the dugout in 30 seconds, you’re going to throw a sinker here and get a double play.’ I think it was more than 30 seconds, but it did.
Stewart’s comeback in the seventh inning was even better. He struck out the side on 15 pitches and passed the baton to Griffin Jax, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning. Jhoan Duran scored three in the ninth to convert the save.
Three were ejected in the win
Two days after getting the heave-ho protecting Joey Gallo after a strikeout, Baldelli was bounced again. For the fourth time this season, Baldelli found himself watching the game from the clubhouse after an argument with plate umpire Lance Barrett about whether Wentz should reach with runners on base.
Four innings later, Michael A. Taylor was ejected by Barrett when he argued a full-count pitch was incorrectly called a strike. Assistant hitting coach Derek Shoman expressed his anger at the call from the dugout and was also ejected.
“It was a rapid eruption,” Baldelli said. “I’d rather talk to the umpire about it than talk about it in public, to be honest with you. We did not agree. Obviously their entire umpiring crew disagreed with everyone on our staff and everyone in our dugout. There was a disagreement about when their man would actually arrive or the question of whether he would arrive at all. It’s not even worth going into. I don’t want to get ejected for a balk or for a guy not coming on set, but our baserunners also have to know when the guy is coming.
(Photo by Kenta Maeda: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)