Jason Kubel has been one of the Twins' best hitters so far this year in his first season back with the club.
Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Every time Jason Kubel steps into the batter’s box at Target Field, a familiar sound echoes through the ballpark.
"Kuuuuubes!" the Twins fans bellow as the left-handed outfielder takes his cuts. It’s something Minnesotans have done dating back to the Metrodome days, and ever since Kubel became an everyday player for the Twins back in 2007.
So even after returning to Minnesota following a two-year stint with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians, Twins fans have embraced Kubel just the same.
"It feels like I haven’t left," Kubel said.
The Twins are glad it feels that way, because they could have gotten one of two players when they signed Kubel to a minor league deal this offseason. The hope was that Minnesota was signing the Kubel capable of driving in runs and hitting homers while still hitting for a high average. That was the Kubel the Twins fans grew accustomed to during his first seven years with the club when he batted a combined .271 with 104 home runs and 429 RBI.
Yet there was also the chance that Kubel, now 31, wouldn’t be the same player that he was in his first time around with Minnesota. Due to injuries that cut his 2013 season to just 97 games, Kubel hit a career-low .216 with just five homers, nine doubles and 32 RBI with the Diamondbacks and Indians. That was not the Kubel the Twins hoped they’d acquired.
Signing Kubel to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training was a low-risk deal for Minnesota. And even though Kubel hit just .196 with three RBI in spring, he proved he was healthy and landed a spot on the Twins’ 25 man roster.
"Spring training stats don’t mean anything," Kubel said. "I know I wasn’t concerned about it."
The 2014 season is still young, but it appears the old Kubel is back for Minnesota.
Entering Friday’s game against Kansas City, Kubel is third on the team with 10 RBI in 14 games. His .340 batting average is second on the team and seventh-best in the American League; teammate Chris Colabello ranks ahead of him with a .357 average. Meanwhile, Kubel’s on-base percentage of .421 is tops on the Twins and seventh in the AL.
Kubel has also played in all but one of Minnesota’s 15 games so far this year, including 12 starts in either left or right field. The injuries that bothered him a year ago are no longer a problem, and Kubel is producing again as a result.
"He’s happy. I’ve always said he can hit," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "You just put him in the right circumstance, right situation, he’s off to a good start. He can hit. The guy knows how to swing the bat."
With right fielder Oswaldo Arcia and left fielder Josh Willingham both on the 15-day disabled list, Kubel has spent plenty of time in the outfield already this season and has yet to be in the lineup as a designated hitter. While not the most mobile of outfielders, Kubel has shown once again that he can handle either corner outfield spot despite a lack of blazing speed.
"He’s playing good in the outfield. I don’t think that gets enough credit," Gardenhire said. "He’s played well for us out there."
One thing that has changed for Kubel in his second stint with the Twins is his jersey number. He previously wore No. 16 with Minnesota, a jersey that could often be found at the ballpark along with Joe Mauer’s popular No. 7. But Willingham had a claim on No. 16, so Kubel switched to No. 13 — the same number he wore in Arizona. It’s a number that certainly worked for him in 2012 when he hit a career-high 30 homers and drove in 90 runs.
As Kubel showed in the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader against Toronto, he can still come up with big hits in key situations. Such was the case in the wild eighth inning as Minnesota scored six runs while drawing an impressive eight walks in the inning. The Twins had just one hit in that crazy inning, and that was a two-run single by Kubel, which helped break the game open and gave Minnesota a 9-5 lead.
Few people expected this Twins team to score many runs this season, as the lineup was filled with a bunch of question marks. Kubel was one of them. Now he’s a big reason why Minnesota the second-most runs in all of baseball.
"A lot of opportunities to score some runs, so that helps when a lot of guys are getting on," Kubel said. "I feel fine. I feel good. I’m just hoping it keeps going as long as it can."