Sid Hartman
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When the Twins traded pitcher Francisco Liriano to the White Sox in 2012, it landed them one of the best utility players in franchise history in Eduardo Escobar.

Escobar went 0-for-4 at the plate in the Twins’ 7-4 loss to the Angels in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday night, but there is no doubting he has been vital to keeping the Twins hovering near .500 early in an up-and-down season.

He has been the Twins’ best player early this season, not only because he leads the team in batting average (.303) and is tied with Eddie Rosario for the team lead in runs scored (23) and home runs (seven), but also because he first stepped in for suspended Jorge Polanco at shortstop and then moved over and replaced injured Miguel Sano at third base.

Escobar said he was excited to play every day at shortstop but also was ready to change positions as needed.

“Third base and second base are important, but shortstop is my favorite position,” he said. “I played a lot last year at third base, but I’ve been ready every time I’ve gotten an opportunity to play short, third or second base. I’m ready because I’m working every day, hard.”

After appearing in only 66 games during his first full season with the Twins, Escobar has often been in the lineup. From 2014 to 2017 he has averaged 124 games per season while hitting .257 and averaging 11 homers, 24 doubles, 51 RBI and 48 runs scored per year.

Last season was easily his best, with career highs in on-base plus slugging percentage (.758), homers (21), RBI (73) and runs (62). He credits his improvement to playing regularly.

“I’m working hard, you know, but the thing is when it comes to hitting really good, playing every day is the most important,” Escobar said. “You know, I waited for my opportunity every time. I’m getting the chance to play every day and play 100 percent.”

He added that playing in an infield with players such as Sano, second baseman Brian Dozier and first baseman Joe Mauer has helped his game.

“Dozier, Mauer, they are the guys I talk to the most,” Escobar said. “[Mauer] is the most patient hitter. But a lot of guys around here have helped me. It’s everybody helping together, that’s the most important quality. Mauer, Dozier, they help me a lot.

“Sano at third base, me or [Ehire] Adrianza at short right now, Dozier, Mauer. … It’s really good in the infield when you have Mauer and Dozier, All-Star players, Sano, too. It’s good.”

Escobar won’t turn 30 until January, when he will become an unrestricted free agent after earning $4.85 million this season.

“I want to stay all of my life here. I want to retire here,” he said.

One thing working in the Twins’ favor in keeping Escobar is the bond he has built working with manager Paul Molitor, who clearly values Escobar’s versatility.

“I love him. I love playing for Molitor,” Escobar said. “He gave me an opportunity. I told him every time I’d be ready.”

Kepler breakthrough

During the offseason, Twins outfielder Max Kepler said his main goal was to improve his hitting against lefthanders, which plummeted drastically in 2017, when he hit only .152 in 125 at-bats against lefties.

Kepler has done that and then some at the start of this season. Not only is he hitting .333 against lefties in 27 at-bats, but he’s actually hitting them better than righthanders (.256 in 90 at-bats). On Thursday night he hit his second homer of the season off a lefty, a solo shot off Jose Alvarez that briefly tied the score at 4-4 in the sixth inning.

Odds are that the lefthanded-hitting Kepler will eventually see those numbers level off or reverse, but his ability to handle lefties so well this year bodes well for him.

“I have hit them before,” Kepler said before the team left for its road trip. “It was just last year I had some mental issues, a mental block that got blown out of proportion. I have hit them all of my minor league career, so [I’m focusing on] just seeing the ball and getting my pitch.”

When asked how he got over the mental block, Kepler said working on his eyesight helped.

“There’s things I work on mechanically in the offseason,” he said. “I wouldn’t say necessarily just for lefthanded hitting, but I work on a lot of stuff. My vision, strengthening my mental game — which allows me to see the ball better and choose my pitches. That’s what works best for me — just seeing the ball the best I can, lefty or righty.”

On defense, Kepler had been spending more time in center field because of the toe injury to Byron Buxton. And while he said he enjoyed the challenge of moving to center, he was looking forward to the return of Buxton, which happened Thursday.

“Yeah, he’s my guy on this team,” Kepler said. “He’s the guy I like to play next to and watch him play.”

Jottings

• Kirk Cousins’ status as the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, after he signed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Vikings, didn’t last long. Cousins signed in mid-March; the Falcons’ Matt Ryan surpassed it on May 3 by agreeing to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $150 million.

• Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen was ranked as the NFL’s fourth-best pass rusher by former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest in an article for nfl.com, behind only Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Rams defensive end Aaron Donald and Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack. McGinest pointed out how Griffen was slowed at the end of last year by plantar fasciitis and said, “I expect Griffen to hit his stride in 2018 and once again lead the best defense in the league.”

• Pro Football Focus remains high on the Vikings’ first-round pick, Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes. They labeled him a draft favorite and wrote this about his rookie minicamp performance: “Hughes flashed his positional versatility early in rookie minicamp. The former UCF standout took snaps at outside cornerback and slot cornerback on defense in addition to covering and returning punts on special teams.”

• PFF also lauded the Vikings’ decision to trade up 10 spots in the fifth round to draft Central Michigan tight end Tyler Conklin: “The 6-3, 254-pounder has the ideal size-to-athleticism ratio to be a matchup nightmare at the next level, and he proved just that in his most recent year with the Chippewas,” it wrote. “In addition to 140-plus offensive snaps at tight end, he played 60-plus snaps at slot receiver and another 241 along the boundary at outside wide receiver.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com