Twins take finale against Rays
Minnesota trails Chicago by 2 1/2 games in AL Central
ST. PETERSBURG -- At the end of Sunday's series finale with the Rays, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire tried to get the attention of the skipper in the other dugout, Joe Maddon.Gardenhire held up his cap and tipped it, congratulating Maddon once again on the Rays' clinching of a postseason spot on Saturday. But Gardenhire had another message for Maddon as well: "Hope to see you in a week." If the Rays can hold on to their slim lead over the Red Sox and clinch the American League East, they will face the winner of the AL Central in the first round of the playoffs. And on Sunday, the Twins kept alive their hopes of being that club by picking up a 4-1 win over the Rays. It was a contest that the Twins looked at as a must-win, considering that a loss could potentially put them at 3 1/2 games behind Chicago with only six games remaining for Minnesota in the regular season. "We all knew the magnitude of this game -- we needed to win this game," Mike Redmond said. "We've been getting break after break after break with the White Sox to keep us in [the division race]. But we had to go out there and win this game." The Twins had somehow managed to keep their playoff hopes alive with a fainting heartbeat during this difficult road trip, thanks in large part to Chicago's opponents. But now, Minnesota holds its own fate, trailing the White Sox by 2 1/2 games.
Sunday's victory ensured that the Twins will have a chance to take a half-game lead in the division if they can sweep the White Sox in a three-game series at the Metrodome, which begins on Tuesday."It's the last week of the season and we're trying to catch the division leaders," Gardenhire said. "If you had told us at the start of the season that we were going to be there, every one of us would have said we'll take our shot there. So we'll take our shot." They got that shot thanks to the performance of Francisco Liriano on Sunday. After getting less than five innings from their starting pitcher in seven of their last nine contests, the Twins turned to Liriano to help give them a lift. Besides his last rough start in Cleveland, Liriano had been the hottest pitcher for the Twins since being called up on Aug. 1. And on Sunday, Liriano recaptured that form that the Twins had seen in his previous outings. He pitched seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits. It was the longest start for the Twins since Liriano threw eight innings in a start on Sept. 11 against the Royals. Liriano is now 6-0 with a 2.05 ERA in his 10 starts since returning to the Majors. "It was all on Liriano's shoulders to get us deep into the ballgame, and he did that," Gardenhire said. "He gave us a great opportunity." The Twins found themselves in a 1-0 hole in the third when Liriano gave up his only run on a Carlos Pena sacrifice fly to left. But in the fourth, Minnesota staged one of its classic rallies off Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine with a four-run inning. The big inning began when Joe Mauer drew a leadoff walk and Justin Morneau reached on a fielder's choice. Looking like the Rays were suffering from a bit of post-celebration fatigue, the Twins took advantage. Redmond's one-out bloop single to shallow center field knotted up the game when Mauer scored from second base. Center fielder B.J. Upton threw a pellet to home plate, but Mauer had gotten a good enough jump to score and tie the game at 1. That's when things got really entertaining for Minnesota. With two outs in the fourth, Adam Everett reached on an infield single that was hit hard toward third baseman Evan Longoria. A throwing error by Longoria then sent the Twins running all over the basepaths. Two runs would score on the play, with Everett advancing to third base. Carlos Gomez then added one more run to the rally, reaching on a bunt single that scored Everett and put Minnesota up, 4-1. "We bunted, blooped and did stuff we always seem to do to win ballgames," Redmond said. "I'm sure they are scratching their heads, but we love it." It looked like the Twins might give at least one run back in the fifth when Liriano walked No. 9 hitter Fernando Perez with one out. Upton then reached on a bunt single to put runners on first and second. That's when Redmond walked out to the mound to chat with Liriano. The calming session seemed to have an effect. Liriano got Ben Zobrist to ground into a double play, ending the threat. "That was huge," Gardenhire said. "You never know where it's going to go. The pitch count starts going up there [if he misses that] and we're watching it closely. So it was huge." Liriano was able to ease through the next two innings before the Twins turned to rookie left-hander Jose Mijares in the eighth inning. He got them a 1-2-3 inning, which meant handing the ball to closer Joe Nathan with a three-run lead in the ninth. In just his second appearance of the road trip, Nathan was able to match Mijares with a perfect inning to pick up his 38th save of the season. And the Twins were headed back to Minnesota with a bit of momentum heading into their series with the White Sox. There is an off-day on Monday before the series begins on Tuesday, but that didn't seem to damper the feelings coming out of Sunday's win. "It was an important game, for sure," Nathan said. "We couldn't go back 3 1/2 down. So at least now it's in our sights. We've got to play it one day at a time now. It's not a spot we wanted to be in, but there is still a chance for us. That's all we can ask going into the last week of the season."
Considering the way that Liriano has been pitching since he was recalled, the Twins had tried to find a way to adjust the rotation to pitch him during the White Sox series. But the club was hesitant to pitch the left-hander on short rest, so it will turn to three other arms to defeat the White Sox -- Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey.But after his performance in Sunday's victory, does Liriano wish he could take the mound during the important series? "Yeah, I wish I was," Liriano said. "But Scott, Blackburn and Slowey have been doing pretty good so it will be OK." That's all the Twins can hope for.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.