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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This Kenta Maeda looked familiar, but the Twins hadn't seen him in a while. And never in those socks.
The Kenta Maeda who allowed only one run during six weeks of spring training, the righthander who finished runner-up in Cy Young voting last season — that Kenta Maeda mowed down the Royals on Sunday, salvaging the finale of a terrible road trip with a 6-2 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
"I felt really strong with my fastball today," Maeda said after pitching six shutout innings, his most dominating start of the season. "It's really been awhile since the last time I felt this way."
Yeah, the Twins noticed. Maeda entered the game with a 5.56 ERA, more than twice what it was a year ago. So there was palpable relief when the Japanese righthander shed more than half a run from that stat, allowing only two harmless singles and retiring the final 13 batters he faced to stop the Twins' five-game losing streak.
"It's a marvelous outing. He got even stronger as the outing went on," said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. "His split and his slider looked great. Physically, he had to have felt excellent coming into this game. I mean, the stuff was really ticking up. He was touching 94 [mph], I believe."
Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Alex Kirilloff all homered for the Twins, Luis Arraez collected three hits and scored three runs, Trevor Larnach contributed a pair of RBI singles, and Jorge Alcala and Taylor Rogers each contributed a scoreless inning of relief before a two-run, ninth-inning Royals rally against Hansel Robles.
But it was Maeda, like many of his teammates scuffling along through a bitterly disappointing season, who made the biggest turnaround on Sunday — all while wearing his socks high and visible for the first time since high school.
"Whenever I pitch in a day game, my body just feels different. It kind of feels heavy and dull at times, so the high socks definitely helped," Maeda explained through interpreter Daichi Sekizaki. "I wore high socks during practice and I looked good. So why not?"
Where were these socks in the season's first three months, right? In his first career start in Kansas City, Maeda recorded 18 swings and misses Sunday, and struck out 10, his first foray into double digits since last August.
And the first batter may have been the most important. Maeda threw five pitches to Whit Merrifield in the first inning, four of them far from the strike zone. As Merrifield took his base, Maeda frowned and shook his head on the mound, and told himself: No more.
Maybe that's all it took.
"When I lose command, that has to do with thinking too much on the mound," Maeda said. "In order to fix that, I made sure I was pitching with good tempo, and it worked out really well."
So did the offense, thanks to unlikely sources. Kepler, his batting average having dipped below .200 again after hitting the ball weakly his first two times up, launched a fastball from Brad Keller into the Royals' bullpen. Polanco, who had connected only twice this season from the right side, pulled a pitch from lefty Richard Lovelady just inside the left field foul pole, a two-run shot.
And Kirilloff crushed a slider from Lovelady to straightaway center, his fifth home run against the Royals this year.
"When you get a pitching performance like that, you just need a few big swings," Baldelli said. "It was just a nice performance all the way around."